Oldboy, Remakes, and Korean Psychological Horror/Thriller

Cover of Oldboy (2003) movie

Have you ever watched a movie and only realized about 3/4 of the way through that… it feels awfully like I’ve watched this before? This was what happened not too long ago when I watched Oldboy (2013). Except I hadn’t watched this version of the movie, so I hadn’t watched it before, exactly. But I had watched the original Korean Oldboy (2003), and while there were some differences and to be quite honest I didn’t remember that much about the premise of it (or at least I didn’t remember enough to read the synopsis for the American remake of the movie and go “hey, I think I’ve seen this before”), by the time the big plot twist/reveal happened, I realized I’d seen some version of it, because I knew exactly what was happening – unfortunately not early enough to not have watched most of the movie, but it dawned on me that yes, I had watched the original, and that yes, even though I didn’t remember much of the original, it felt like the original was better*.

If you haven’t watched Oldboy, I won’t spoil it for you – it’s a bit of a doozy – but I’d recommend watching the original Korean one, if you’re interested in it. I feel as though we must’ve talked about Korean psychological horrors & thrillers before on this blog**, but there’s something about the art of psychological thriller, whether it’s going way beyond anything you might’ve considered in the realm of possibility for the film or in the subtle horror of seemingly nothing really happening in particular, that I find Korean cinema has perfected to a T, and with both TIFF and October coming up, this feels like a good time to share some unsettling recommendations.

*Are remakes ever better? I feel like Alyssia touches on this a bit as well, though a bit different in that she’s talking about adaptations, which are well and good (or not), but why remake something that already did what it set out to do so well?

**Um actually maybe not? I’m not seeing anything in a quick search for Korean movies in the history! How have none of us contributed a post on the topic?

Cover of The Wailing (2016) film

I think these are some of the classics that, if you’ve gotten into Korean horror, you’ve probably watched at some point:

I Saw the Devil (2011) is available on Hoopla Digital, and I’m actually quite sad that we no longer have a physical copy: I feel like it (in addition to the rest of the titles on the list here) pretty perfectly encapsulates what I think of when I think of Korean psychological thriller/horror going beyond what you thought it was going to go. Wherever you thought the twists and turns were going to end, it goes one step further, much the same way that jump scares always keep you on your toes just long enough to work as a jump scare (or at least they work on me – I never keep my guard up long enough, no matter how long is needed. There are also times I keep my guard up though because I think a jump scare is coming and then it just never does and I just end up feeling silly. But Korean psychological thrillers don’t rely on jump scares. They don’t tend to need it.)

It’s been a few years since I watched The Wailing (2016), and now that I’m making this list, I feel like it’s time for a rewatch. I remember it also having as many twists and turns as you could possibly imagine, and the ending was both confusing in the sense of “WTF?” and also deeply satisfying despite the lack of complete closure or answers to what in the absolute world is happening. “Deliciously entertaining” is right. And of course, The Handmaiden (2017) (Park Chan-wook, same director as for Oldboy) is another incredible storyline, going from one character’s perspective to the other’s, each one one-upping the other and never quite going the way you think it’s going to. Now that I’m typing this up, the complete difference in how the plot was going depending on which character’s eyes we’re seeing it through reminds me of The Last Duel (2021), though that one’s not as twisted as The Handmaiden – or not in the same way.

Cover of Burning (2019) movie

And for anyone who’s watched Parasite (2019) – at this point, it kind of feels like most people probably have since it hit Netflix, though that could just be my crowd – you can follow that up with Mother (2010) available on DVD, also directed by Bong Joon-ho. I watched Mother with a friend who didn’t know what he was getting into (as in hadn’t read the synopsis and had never watched a Korean psychological thriller before) and I think he came out a different person. As does anyone after their first time watching one of these, I think.

And now I’m going to be throwing in a wildcard, because it’s not quite the same type of dark horror so much as quietly contemplative, but The Third Murder (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda is one I’d recommend in the same breath as well, and now to continue along the quieter side of things, you’ll definitely feel unsettled despite how quiet Burning (2019) is throughout. Burning actually reminded me in a way of The Lobster (2015) & Killing of a Sacred Deer (2018), both directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

I haven’t had the chance to take a look through the TIFF lineup yet (though I did see Mother is playing tonight!), but drop your recommendations for October & TIFF season below!

About Karen

Karen (she/hers) is a Culinary Literacies Specialist at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre library. When not in the kitchen, she can be found knitting, reading, and repeating.  |  Meet the team