Maybe you haven’t been to South Korea yet. But you’ve no doubt seen at least one of its celebrated movies and TV series. After Bong Joon-ho’s feature film “Parasite” (2019) won four Oscars nominations in 2020, becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Awards’ top prize, hallyu (meaning “Korean Wave”) content is increasingly respected and watched all over the world.
If you have a Netflix subscription, the following are some essential suggestions for the most successful, creative, and binge-worthy South Korean shows you can stream from home as you prepare for your trip.
A total success for both the Korean film industry and Netflix, it’s impossible not to start by mentioning Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game. This survival drama TV series revolves around a secret contest where 456 players, who all suffer from financial hardships, and risk their lives to play a series of children’s games and win a ₩45.6 billion (US$35 million) prize. The problem is, well… who loses dies.
Squid Game powerfully lays bare the class problems and disparity found in contemporary South Korean society, reflecting on capitalism and on the role that the media play in our lives.
Written in 2009, the bold script took ten years to find a production company on Netflix, which certainly does not regret its commissioning choice. Released in September 2021 at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, the show became the streaming platform’s most-watched series, amassing 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first four weeks from launch.
A second series is in the works, with an expected release date of the fall of 2024.
From the director of the seminal live-action zombie drama Train to Busan (2016) comes this nasty piece of work which, released on Netflix on 19 November 2021, became the world’s most-watched Netflix series the next day, surpassing even Squid Game’s enormous success.
Hellbound blends Doomsday-type horror elements into dark fantasy and social satire. The people of Seoul discover that an otherworldly face called an “angel” starts manifesting and delivering decrees that condemn certain people to Hell at a specific time. That’s when three hulking monsters appear to chase and incinerate that person in a grim show called a “demonstration”. When the religious-like New Truth Society and the Arrowhead organized crime group step in, the world takes a grim turn.
Set in the 16th century, three years after the Imjin War, Kingdom is a period horror created by screenwriter Kim Eun-hee and directed by Kim Seong-hun.
Kingdom spins a fictional tale set in medieval-like Joseon-era Korea (its last dynastic kingdom who ruled between 1392 and 1897) and blends political thriller elements and an unlikely zombie twist.
Lee Chang, the crown prince of Joseon, investigates a mysterious illness affecting the King, only to find out that it’s the start of a deadly epidemic that can resurrect the dead — a perfect time for political foes to step in and try to seize the throne.
Released at the end of 2022, The Glory, directed by Ahn Gil-ho, is one of Netflix’s latest Korean drama hits and addresses school bullying, one of the country’s long-standing problems.
In March 2023, The Glory ranked No. 1 in 38 countries, including Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and more, and No. 3 in the United States and the United Kingdom, becoming Netflix’s overall No. 1 show globally in the first part of 2023.
The series is the typically brutal, female-led South Korean drama centered on an abused woman, Moon Dong-eun, who seeks revenge against the bullies who mistreated her as a teenager.
Years later, Dong-eun takes up a homeroom teacher position in an elaborate revenge scheme to punish those who made her high school years a nightmare.
All of Us Are Dead
Being in high school is horrible enough, thanks to bullying, bad romance, and annoying teachers. If one throws a zombie pandemic into the mix, and the school becomes its ground zero, the recipe for All of Us Are Dead can be explosive.
Fighting tooth and nail for their lives against flesh-hungry zombies and among themselves, All of Us Are Dead’s cast of trapped teenagers will soon learn what “coming of age” truly means.
Released on 28 January 2022 on Netflix, the series was another South Korean success, totaling a staggering 474.26 million hours in its first 30 days.
Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area
The second instalment in the Money Heist franchise is Korean and based on the famous Spanish series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist). Directed by Kim Hong-sun and Ryu Yong-jae, the Korean show plays with local geopolitics and sci-fi to create a ruthless world populated by a cast of desperate characters.
Money Heist Korea is set in 2025 when hypothetically unified North and South Korean governments cooperate for economic growth and allow transportation through the “Joint Economic Area” between the two parts of the peninsula, where migrants from the North can work freely.
The series follows the storyline and characters of the Spanish original with “The Professor”, a strategist criminal mastermind trying to pull off a 4 trillion Korean won heist in the money mint of the new unified Korea. He’ll rely on the help of various characters with unique abilities, all named after the city they’ll move to after completing the heist.
Forget about Robert De Niro’s classic film and expect the unexpected as Kim Do-gi (interpreted by Lee Je-hoon), a graduate of Korea Military Academy, navigates life as a Seoul taxi driver after someone murdered his mother when he was young.
Obsessed with revenging her death, Do-gi now works for Rainbow Taxi, a company offering a unique “revenge-call” service to customers who have been wronged and demand revenge. They arrest the culprits and take them to a prison run by a ruthless female warden.
Started in 2021 and inspired by real-life heinous events committed in South Korea, a third instalment of Taxi Driver should come out in 2024.
The Silent Sea
One of Netflix’s prominent South Korean sci-fi series, The Silent Sea debuted in 2021, adapted from a 2014 short film, The Sea of Tranquillty, by director Choi Hang-yong.
The eight-episode series follows the adventures of a crewed mission to the moon, tasked with retrieving a mysterious and sensitive sample from an abandoned lunar research base. The finding may help avoid humanity’s demise soon when extreme desertification has eaten up planet Earth, and draconian measures for water rationing are testing the world order.