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10 South Korean gangster movies you need to watch

Just as Hollywood romanticizes pirates in its Pirates of the Caribbean movies, South Koreans have been doing the same thing to their gangsters.

In these movies, they popularise the idea and image of honourable criminal gang members, thus making them look so ‘cool’.

Not all of them have a happy ending, as some pay the price at the end of the movies.

If you are looking for South Korean gangster movies to binge-watch, here are 10 of KajoMag’s suggestions:
1.A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Lee Byung-hun is perhaps one of the most recognised Korean actors, especially in Hollywood.

He is known for his role as Storm in the G.I. Joe movies and Billy Rocks in The Magnificent Seven alongside Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.

In A Bittersweet Life, Byung-hun plays Kim Sun-woo, a high-ranking enforcer/hotel manager owned by a crime boss.

He is instructed to shadow his boss’ lover Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah). He is also mandated to kill her if he discovers her cheating on him.

Well, things get complicated when Sun-woo decides to spare her life.

The critical reception for the movie was highly positive. British film magazine, Empire named it third in 20 greatest gangster movies you have probably never seen.

Byung-hun even won a handful of Best Actor awards for his performance .

Meanwhile, Hollywood announced in 2017 there will be a remake of it starring the ever-beautiful Michael B. Jordan.

2.The Man From Nowhere (2010)

Speaking of Denzel Washington, this South Korean gangster movie has an almost similar plot with Washington’s Man on Fire (2004).

South Korean heartthrob Won Bin plays Cha Tae-sik who goes on a blood rampage after his neighbour, a little girl, is kidnapped.

(Fans will not forget an iconic scene where Won Bin prepares to take some lives by cutting his hair – shirtless – in front of the mirror.)

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On a serious note, the film showcases the darker side of organised crime such as drugs, organ harvesting and child slaves.

3.A Dirty Carnival (2006)

Maybe the reason why people are attracted to these gangster movies is because of their charismatic lead actors.

Just like A Dirty Carnival (2006) in which starring another South Korean heartthrob, Jo In-sung.

Who else would you need to consult with when making a gangster movie other than a gangster himself?

In-sung plays a small-time gangster who helps his film director friend as a consultant in a gangster movie.

Then, things get complicated when art starts to imitate life, especially in a life of organised crime.

4.Friend (2001)

Friendship is something all humans value, whether you are involved in an organised crime or not. Friend (2001) follows the story of four childhood friends with two of them working in rival gangs in their adult lives.

The leader of the group, Joon-seok (Yu Oh-seong) is a son of a powerful mob boss. During a confrontation with a teacher, the teacher asks the group “What does your father do?” and you can imagine the teacher (played Kim Kwang-kyu)’s face when Joon-seok answers the truth.

Although it was small, it has become one of Kwang-kyu’s most memorable roles. Plus, his line “What does your father do?” is still being parodied over the years.

This film is a semi-autobiography of director Kwak Kyung-taek’s experiences with his friends growing up in Busan.

5.New World (2013)

Speaking of memorable lines, this South Korean gangster movie probably has the most.

Each of the character has his own iconic line such as Hwang Jung-min “Hey brother” and Park Sung-woong’s “This is just the right weather to die.”

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Full of action, the film is a melodrama circling around Lee Jung-jae as an undercover cop who finds it difficult to be both a policeman and a gangster.

Basically, the plot is a South Korean gangster version of Games of Thrones. The conflict starts when the chairman of South Korea’s largest corporate crime syndicate mysteriously dies and his successors subsequently start fighting for the crown.

6.Nameless Gangster: The Rules of Times (2012)

Besides being a gangster movie, what else do Nameless Gangster: The Rules of Time (2012) and New World (2013) have in common?

They both star veteran actor Choi Min-sik. The film is set in the 80s and 90s in Busan when corruption and organised crime were rampant in the country.

Time magazine even called it “the Korean mob film Martin Scorsese (who is known for his modern crime and gang conflict) would be proud of.”

In this movie, Min-sik plays a corrupt customs official who finds a haul of drugs. He then teams up with a notorious gangster to establish one of the most powerful crime organisations.

If you enjoyed John Grisham’s book, you most probably will enjoy this movie.

7.The Outlaws (2017)

Yanbian is an autonomous prefecture located in northeastern Jilin Province, China where a large number of ethnic Koreans call it home.

Unfortunately in Korean dramas and cinemas, Yanbian is always depicted as the place for Korean-Chinese mobsters including The Outlaws (2017).

Based on real events in 2007, the plot follows a turf war between a local gang in Seoul and the Heuksapa gang from Yanbian.

The movie stars Ma Dong-seok from the Train to Busan as a detective who tries to keep the peace in the midst of this gang war.

8.The Villainess (2017)

Finally, a female lead in a Korean gangster movie! Just imagine John Wick as a girl trained in Yanbian to be a highly skilled assassin, and that is pretty much what The Villainess (2017) is all about.

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Watch Kim Ok-bin as the female John Wick, wearing a wedding gown while aiming a rifle and wiping out gang members in this movie.

The movie had its world premiere at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in May 2017. There, it received a four-minute standing ovation.

9.Breathless (2008)

This movie will leave you breathless, mainly because of its main actor Yang Ik-june’s raw performance. He also wrote, directed and edited the movie.

Perhaps the closest to reality in terms of gangster movies on this list, the plot revolves around child abuse and loan sharking.

Ik-june plays a loan shark named Sang-hoon who makes friend with a trouble schoolgirl named Yeon-hee.

While some of these gangster movies showcase established organised crime which usually hide behind big companies and spending money lavishly, this movie portrays the common gangsters that live among us.

Coming from broken homes, they are violent, foul-mouthed, working for Ah Long, far from luxurious lives and struggling to pay rent like the rest of us.

10.Asura: The City of Madness (2016)

One of the favourite themes for any gangster movies, regardless of language, is politics.

Asura: The City of Madness (2016) is a classic tale of corrupt administration and law enforcement in the city.

The story goes that Detective Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been secretly doing dirty work for the corrupt mayor Park Sung-bae (Hwang Jung-min).

Then, a ruthless prosecutor comes in played by Kwak Do-won pressuring Han to cooperate in an investigation against the mayor.

Haven’t these people ever heard the saying, “If you play with fire, you might get burned”?

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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