Don’t know where to start with K-Horror? I’m here to help.
Parallel to the J-horror wave, Korea had its own horror boom in the early 2000s. There are obvious similarities, such as the focus on psychological aspects, and the presence of long-haired vengeful female spirits. Although K-horror wave might not have produced as many classics, it likely beats Japan in quantity. Riding the wave of success of works such as “Whispering Corridors” and “A Tale of Two Sisters”, every summer would bring us a couple new entries. And every now and then, we’d get to see a gem amidst the piles of junk and cheap imitations. Around 2005 the K-horror wave slowly started to subside, perhaps due to a drop in quality and resulting loss of audience. K-horror is slowly coming back from the grave though, as there has been an increase in releases the last two years. Check out my info on that here.
Please note that I’m only focusing on paranormal horror here, though Korean crime thrillers are among the best the genre has to offer. Anyway, here is my list of the Korean horror classics.
A Tale of Two Sisters (“Janghwa, Hongryeon”)
2003, Dir. Kim Jee-Woon
Sisters Su-Mi and Su-Yeon move back to their countryside home after a hospital stay, where both their mean stepmother and the ghost of their late mother await. Some kind of secret seems to be in the air that no one wants to talk about.
Talking about the plot too much would probably do you a disservice. The Korean horror classic by director Kim Jee-Woon, who went on to conquer just about every genre imaginable (“A Bittersweet Life”, “The Good the Bad the Weird”, “I saw the Devil” etc.). Loosely based on the Korean fairy tale “Janghwa, Hongryeon” (also the movie’s Korean title), it both set the bar for Korean horror and is still the highest grossing Korean horror film ever. In my own words, I would describe “A Tale of Two Sisters” as a genuine masterpiece. The story, the setting, the characters, the scarce music, everything is completely original and quite unlike any other film I’ve seen. Not to mention the production design, from the old western-style mansion and the furniture, to the clothing, everything adds to the fairy-tale like atmosphere. Scares are far and few in between at first, but when they do happen, they’ll throw you totally off guard for sure. You’ll definitely get you money’s worth. What, “ghost under the sink” doesn’t sound scary to you? Think again. That aside, the plot will have you guessing until the end, with a big reveal you won’t see coming. The acting, especially Lim Soo-Jeong (Su-Mi) and Yeom Jeong-Ah (Stepmother), is the icing on the cake. If you haven’t seen “A Tale of Two Sisters”, stop reading and put it on right now. If you have seen it, watch it again, because there are new things to discover every time. There is also an U.S. remake called “The Uninvited”, which I haven’t seen, but why bother with a copy if you can have the original. In any case, if there is one Korean horror movie you absolutely have to see, this is it.
Gidam / Epitaph (lit. “Strange Story”)
2007, “Jung Brothers” Jung Bum-Shik & Jung Sik
After a brief segment set in 1979, the story flashes back to 1942, when Korea was under Japanese rule. We get to see three different ghost stories set at the same hospital: One story about an intern (played by Jin Goo) falling in love with a young woman’s corpse; the second features a young girl haunted by the ghost of her mother who died in a car crash; and the last one about a serial killer hunting down Japanese soldiers. The stories are all connected and sort of tied together at the end.
A rare example of period horror set in mid-20th century, “Epitaph” is a completely unique work of art. The directors’ vision is visible throughout, and the old Japanese-style hospital makes for an interesting setting. The production design, and especially the stunning camera work add to the curious atmosphere. Literally every shot has meaning, not unlike another entry on this list, “A Tale of Two Sisters”, and there are lots of symbols and little details to catch. The understated sound score also deserves special mention, adding to the meditative feel of it all. Another thing that made “Epitaph” an interesting watch are the references to Korean history and mythology. One not too minor complaint: The movie consists of three loosely related segments, but unfortunately the third and longest one (which takes up roughly 50% of the running time) is far less interesting than the other two and drags on way too long. You could practically only watch the first two and get the same out of the movie. Nevertheless, I consider “Epitaph” a Korean horror classic that deserves to be mentioned in one breath with Kim Jee-Woon’s masterpiece.
Whispering Corridors 1
(“Yeogo Goedam” / lit. “Girls’ High School Ghost Story”)
1998, Park Ki-Hyung
Set at an all-girls high school, a teacher is killed by what appears to be a supernatural force, after discovering some kind of secret in a school yearbook. More mysterious deaths occur, all seemingly related to a student’s apparent suicide that occurred some years earlier. Did she return as a ghost to get her vengeance? The story focuses on outsider and aspiring painter Ji-Oh (Kim Gyu-Ri), her timid friend Jae-Yi (Choi Kang-Hee), model student So-Young (Park Jin-Hee), as well as newbie teacher and former alumni Hur Eun-Young (Lee Mi-Yeon), as they try to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile each of them are also dealing with their own problems, such as abuse from teachers (most of all the sadistic Mr. Oh aka Mad Dog).
Another Korean horror classic. And also the movie that started the K-horror trend, spawning 5 sequels (most of them inferior) up until as recently as 2021. I’m going to treat the “Whispering Corridors” installments as separate movies here, since there is no connection between them. The Whispering Corridors series is mostly the brainchild of producer Lee Choon-Yeon, and at least partly inspired by the Japanese “Gakko no Kaidan” series. Each installment is directed by a different director, and generally stars new actresses in the lead. If you have been following Korean movies and drama for a while, you might spot some familiar faces here. On a side note, I didn’t enjoy no. 2 (“Memento Mori”) and 3 (“Wishing Stairs”) all that much, but those are generally considered fan favorites. Whispering Corridors 1 came out in 1998, around the same time as “Ringu” in Japan. However, the movie was actually banned in Korea at the time, for its too realistic portrayal of the (at the time) brutal school system. Those scenes were actually more disturbing than the supernatural occurrences. Other issues such as suicide or sexual harassment are also touched upon. While corporal punishment is now a thing of the past, the Korean school system is still considered incredibly harsh and competitive, resulting in an extremely student suicide rate. In that regard the story is still very much relevant. Now, as for the movie itself, despite being the grandaddy of modern K-horror, it still ranks among the best the genre has to offer. While it’s more of a slow burn, the story had me hooked for the duration of the movie as the mystery is slowly unraveled. What’s most interesting are the character dynamics, owing to the actresses’ believable performances. Perhaps I should also mention that the movie doesn’t shy away from showing blood, dead bodies, and other disturbing imagery. Ghost appearances are kept to a minimum and are mostly well done, though the final showdown is a bit of a letdown and fails to induce any dread at all. I guess as a movie released in 1998, you’d expect it to look dated in some areas. Nonetheless, “Whispering Corridors” is still more than worth watching, both as a piece of Korean film history or as a good ol’ school ghost story.
Whispering Corridors 4: Voice (“Yeogo Goedam 4: Voice”)
2005, Choi Ik-Hwan
Staying at school late, music high school student Yeong-Eon (Kim Ok-Vin, in her debut role) is killed mysteriously, ending up as a ghost unable to leave the school grounds. Invisible to everyone, only her voice can be heard by her best friend Seon-Min (Seo Ji-Hye). As more mysterious deaths occur, psychic student Cho-Ah (Cha Ye-Ryun) starts suspecting Yeong-Eon. Meanwhile, Yeong-Eon tries to solve the mystery of her death, before she becomes forgotten completely.
While not the most successful or popular in the series, I personally consider no. 4 the best of the bunch. To put it short, this movie is beautiful. The setting, camera work, and overall visuals all come together in an incredibly stylish work of art. Music being the movie’s main motif, the score is absolutely stunning (especially for a horror film) and complements the melancholic atmosphere perfectly. To see the story from the ghost’s perspective was an interesting spin, and gives some interesting insight into the, er… life of ghosts. The rules regarding their spectral existence and behavior are interesting and also an important part of the story. While the film’s artistic value and unique story are indisputable, one thing it is not is scary. The ghost appearances work fine in the context of the movie, but they are not of the scary sort. The grisly death scenes will probably disturb you more than the ghosts. One might call “Voice” a supernatural mystery rather than all-out horror. The movie’s lack of scares might be disappointing to some, but I would argue that its unique idea and style more than make up for it. That said, the movie is not without its flaws. The second half definitely drags on a bit too long, and the story gets so confusing it’s hard to keep track of happenings. As a result, I felt that the ending didn’t have the impact it should when it finally came around. Regardless, I absolutely recommend checking out “Whispering Corridors 4” if you like a pinch of art with your horror.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (“Gonjiam”)
2018, Jung Bum-Shik
A group of urban explorers go and explore a famous haunted location, the Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital, for a live stream. Their goal is to enter a locked room on the top floor which no one has ever entered. And to make lots of money from streaming. Not surprisingly, things soon start going south when they find out that the hauntings might be more than just rumors. Are they going to make it out alive?
One of the most successful Korean horror movies to date, directed by Jung Bum-Shik, one half of the Jung Brothers (“Epitaph”). Although found footage horror in abandoned asylums has been done before, “Grave Encounters” being one successful example, it was pretty new and groundbreaking in Korea. I’ve you’ve seen “Grave Encounters” or anything like that, you know what to expect. The abandoned Gonjiam asylum was an actual alleged haunted location and popular ghost hunting spot, even making it onto CNN’s list of the most haunted places in the world, until it was demolished in 2018. The movie, however, was filmed on a set and not the actual location, except for the exterior. In any case, it’s pretty well made for found footage horror, as you might expect from the director. Creepiness slowly builds up, before the asylum goes all out on the intruders. The story has a few surprising twists, and some genuinely scary and original scenes. The acting and dialogue are believable, with a like you’re watching an actual documentary. One thing I wanna complain about are the characters themselves, who I found neither very likable nor memorable, but that might be just me. Anyway, it’s definitely one of the scarier entries on this list, and you might wanna check it out even if you’re not a fan of found footage films.
Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait (“Muoi”)
2007, Kim Tae-Kyung
Aspiring writer Yoon-Hee (Jo An, “Whispering Corridors 3”) travels to Vietnam to research the local legend of Muoi, and to catch up with her high school friend Seo-Yeon (Cha Ye-Ryun, “Whispering Corridors 4”). According to the legend, Muoi (played by Vietnamese model Anh Thu) had her painting painted, shortly before she was murdered out of jealousy. Now anyone who lays eyes on her painting shall die at her ghostly hands. Yoon-Hee soon finds out that Muoi is more than just a legend. And also the real reason why Seo-Yeon invited her.
Director Kim Tae-Kyung’s follow-up to 2004’s “Dead Friend”, not a bad piece of horror itself, was supposedly both the first Vietnamese horror film, as well as the first Korean-Vietnamese cinematic co-production. One could argue that Vietnam is little more than beautiful exotic backdrop here, but it’s certainly something new for a change. The way Muoi’s threatening presence is established throughout the story slightly reminded me of “Ring”. Although there are few jump scares here and there, but we don’t get to see the ghost in full until the end. Clearly a lot of effort was put into Muoi’s final appearance, a scene that IMHO rivals the terror of Sadako’s TV scene. It definitely ranks among my favorite ghost scenes in all of K-horror. The rest of the movie isn’t too shabby either, with high production value throughout. Definitely worth checking out for the unusual setting and the ghost.
The Sleepless / Two Moons (“Doo-Gae-Ui-Dal”)
2012, Kim Dong-Bin
Horror writer So-Hee (Park Han-Byul), college student Seok-Ho (Kim Ji-Seok) and high school girl In-Jeong (Park Jin-Ju) wake up in the basement of a country house with no memory of how they got there. Soon they not only discover that they are unable to leave the premises, but also that they are not alone. Realizing that they might be in danger, getting back their memories seems to be the only way out.
Director Kim Dong-Bin previously directed the Korean remake “Ring Virus”, as well as another horror called “Redeye”, though “The Sleepless” is his best work to date by far. This is just my subjective opinion and the movie is not generally considered a classic, but it turned out to be a positive surprise back when it came out. Although not super scary, an aura of mystery hangs in the air. Especially the second half has pretty interesting developments, involving Korean shamanist mythology. While the story and everything is great, the same can’t be said for the acting. While Park Han-Byul makes for a likeable lead, the rest of the cast goes a little too over the top for my taste. Two of the cast members look especially out of place, like they jumped out of a comedy show, which does slightly degrade the movie’s quality. The casting is from a deal breaker though, as the story has more than enough merit on its own. I recommend checking this out if you want to see something different.
R-Point (2004, Dir. Kong Su-Chang)
White – Melody of the Curse
Horror Stories 1&2
Into the Mirror