5 Reasons Why South Korean Horror Movies Absolutely Rule
Korean Horror — or K-Horror as the cool kids call it — has been having quite a moment since the turn of the century for good and also multiple reasons. A decent chunk of South Korea's horror films are rated among the top Horrors of the 21st century, and horror fans might just choke on a Ceiling Ghost's dandruff if you claim to be a fan of the genre, but you still haven't seen classics like The Host, I Saw The Devil, or A Tale of Two Sisters.
K-Horror is pretty unique in the horror genre. It's also distinct from other Asian horrors, because while Japan is more into those Ceiling Ghosts, Korean Ghosts are sad and ruthless and almost always stem from some South Korean folklore. K-Horror knows how to pack a punch no matter what story is being told because it's rooted in a psychological and more emotional reality.
And that's just the start of it, because …
They’re Not Afraid To Explore And Push Genre Conventions
Let's kick it off with Train to Busan, a well-known and extremely popular South Korean horror — so of course, it's getting an American remake — and one of the best zombie horror movies to date. It's zombies on a train. Best four-word pitch ever.
But it's not just a zombie horror movie. It's a full-on action zombie horror peppered with social commentary that even has the audacity to make us emotional.
K-Horror movies love bringing the action, and why not? James Wan's 2021 horror Malignant showed how effective action-horror can be — a thing K-Horror already knew back in 2003 when Oldboy was released.
Of course, Oldboy is mainly billed as a revenge thriller, but thanks to that very real octopus scene and that very gross finale, cinephiles have claimed it as belonging to both — making it an action horror revenge thriller film. This might sound strange to many people who struggle to accept that The Silence of the Lambs can both be a thriller and a horror, but Korean filmmakers totally get it. They have no problem blurring the lines of where one genre ends and another begins. Korean cinema thrives on thrillers in general, and they don't give a cannibal whether a movie fits neatly into one specific genre and its formulaic storytelling rules or tropes or ghosts that always look like they've been crying in the shower.
Thirst, the 2009 horror about a priest becoming a vampire from acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker, Snowpiercer) is a drama thriller romance horror.
Bedevilled, a tale about gender-based violence, goes from thriller to domestic drama to full-on horror by the end of its second act.
The Host (2006) is a brilliant sci-fi creature feature family drama satire comedy action horror movie from the wonderful Bong Joon-ho who went on to make Parasite and win all the awards.
And so on and so forth. Sure, South Korea isn't the only country mixing genres and styles and whatnot, but the seamless way in which they pull it off is what's so admirable. It never feels too much or even a bit messy, and that is quite the feat because …
They’re Not Afraid To Layer Their Movies
Train to Busan is a movie about a capitalist businessman whose work seems more important than his daughter until a zombie invasion hits, and he needs to protect her, learn to survive with the help of others, and get to the only safe haven in South Korea — the city of Busan. But if you know your Korean War history and you know that Busan was the only city along with Daegu that wasn't invaded by North Korea during the first three months of that war, then the film starts to look a tad bit different.
Of course, it's also about the clash of individualism and collectivism. Oh, and also class wars, because when we say K-Horrors are layered, we're not talking about ghosts that are also walking STDs or grief monsters sporting top hats. We're talking 'Three Traumas In A Trench Coat' layering. Many of their films use their conflict-ridden past with either Japan or North Korea as a background tool to unspool many a fear (see The Wailing, The Piper, and their take on the found footage genre, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum). Almost all of their top films deal with some kind of abuse, and the majority of K-Horrors like to explore their own superstitious and/or spiritual customs — there's a lot of shamanism in their culture — and the hysteria or the concept of evil that often go with it.
And that's a big reason why the world is so fascinated with K-Horror, because through these films we get to experience many interesting facets of not only their history but also their culture and, ultimately, their fears. Korea is a big fan of adapting its own folktales to highlight these horrors and fears. A Tale of Two Sisters, The Mimic, and The Closet are just three examples of Korean folktale adaptations.
And they don't just stick to their own folktales. See what they did with the story of the Pied Piper.
They Tend To Stay Away From Hollywood Tropes
Slow zombies? Not in K-Horror. Besides Train to Busan's fast and voracious cannibal corpses, #Alive also features quick as lightning undead, and the upcoming Netflix series All of Us Are Dead will clearly be following the entertaining Korean trend:
Happy and victorious endings? Not in K-Horror. In keeping with the more realistic and emotional approach to horror, you won't often see a South Korean horror film where the "Final Girl" triumphantly makes it, or the monster/bad guy is defeated. And even if they are — think the absolutely brutal action-horror revenge thriller I Saw The Devil — it doesn't leave you feeling good because the supposed victory came at too high a price. Or, as is the case of The Mimic, The Closet, or K-Horror's take on the mystery slasher genre, Bloody Reunion — someone gets left behind.
Brutal, not-so-happy endings are also in keeping with the storytelling structures of folktales. It can't be a cautionary tale if everything's just fine and dandy by the time the end credits roll. K-Horrors aren't fairytales or fantasies. They're considered some of the scariest horror movies in the world because they're not afraid to show just how dark human nature can go. They are more concerned with the real-world problems of abuse and neglect of women and children than having some ending that says, "But look how these women and children overcame it, yay!" In the best Korean horrors, the woman doesn't escape her abuse, the mother doesn't recover from her grief, and the absent father doesn't get another sunrise with his daughter.
Because therein lies the horror that needs our attention.
They're Not Afraid To Take Their Time Building The Scares
Also considered a Hollywood trope, K-Horrors largely steer clear from jump scares. And while they can deliver a good twist like any Shyamalan/James Wan movie, they never sacrifice character or story to do so. Well, almost never.
One of the most American K-Horror movies this writer has seen to date is the 2013 Killer Toon, a slasher about a webcomic artist whose stories seem to predict the death of others but is so filled with dream sequences and jump scares that it completely loses its tension and fails to actually deliver a scare. Especially since, by the end of the film, the characters just don't make much sense anymore.
And while the scattered graphics and animation looks pretty rad, the overuse of dramatic music to try and build tension sounds a bit too much like the operatic scoring of Scream. Which, you know, worked for Scream because it was a comedy horror.
But Killer Toon is an outlier here (and let the record reflect: still not the worst movie in the world) because most Korean horrors are just incredibly good at building tension and leaving us horrified. It truly feels like they have mastered the slow burn. K-Horrors will twist your guts until you run out of air and double over, before twisting some more.
Bedevilled, a movie about what happens when sexism and abuse are just left to run riot, doesn't just jump into the main conflict and treat the story like it's a sprint. It gives you a quick glimpse of the troubles, and then it slowly unravels the horrors of the two women at the center of it, letting you endure along with them.
I Saw The Devil is one of the most torturous films you'll ever see as it actually hits you with the horror from the very beginning … and then stays there, taking its sweet time to let the story play out while stringing you along like you're a hostage with Stockholm syndrome.
Of course, the best example of just how good Korea is at building a horror crescendo comes in the form of director Na Hong-jin's masterpiece, The Wailing. At two hours and thirty-six minutes, it's one of the longest but also one of the best horror movies you'll ever experience. Because people, it's a f**king experience.
There's a set-piece around the middle part of the film that escalates the tension, and from there, it wrings you out like a wet sack before tossing you — mercifully — into the sun.
And it doesn't need a myriad of jump scares to do it.
They’re Not Afraid To Be Sincere
When Western cinema addresses real-world issues in their horror movies, oftentimes it's either so subtle that a lot of people might (and will) miss the point altogether, or it's so wild and over-the-top that it loses earnestness because it seems more preoccupied with you just getting how clever they're trying to be. Korean horrors don't do that. They don't throw one giant slow-mo wink your way, and they do not treat their superstitions, fears, and conspiracy theories like it's the most bonkers, out-there phenomena in the history of phenomena.
In fact, Korean horrors treat their fears and flaws in a very normal, very sincere manner. And they're not afraid to make fun of themselves. Both The Host and The Wailing are excellent examples of this because they are wildly different movies, yet they both feature main characters who are bumbling buffoons and just way in over their heads, in a comical way. Even Oldboy starts off with the "bumbling buffoon" trope, with the main character drunk out of his mind making an absolute fool of himself at the police station.
It's a clever way of making us laugh and, in doing so, getting us to let our guards down. That way it hits so much harder when they start throwing all the bad things at us. Yes, we will laugh at the dumb Dad who doesn't know how to be a Dad, but we will also feel it by the time Dad can't save his kid because 1) it will always be a trope that resonates, and 2) K-Horror will be brutal in its depiction of it.
Korean Horror understands that it is as normal to laugh at our own dumb butts as it is to fear cruelty, abandonment, and loss.
And it's not afraid to say so, sincerely.
For more horror opinions, follow Zanandi on Twitter.
Top Image: Next Entertainment World.