While I love streaming services, there is a severe lack of diverse foreign films, especially if the film is older. Are the films on this list ancient? Not really. However, they came out at a time when Asian horror was gaining in popularity—and then, thanks to some drab American remakes, the craze for Asian horror died down. Too many just gave up instead of going to the source of the nightmares they wished to experience.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the films released at that time, but just a list of favorites from what I’ve seen. Many of these lack a happy ending, and they will leave you feeling as bad as you are scared.
Cinema Service / B.O.M. Film / Tornado Films
Before 2003’s One Missed Call and the 2008 American remake of the same name, there was Phone. A reporter writes pieces about a pedophilia scandal and becomes the target of one of the men named. She changes her phone number, but soon learns that every person who has had that number has died mysteriously. As the danger dials up, she tries to uncover what happened to the other victims before she becomes one.
This film has great use of darkness and shadows. Also, the little girl does an extremely great job at being both creepy and scary. The twist is surprising and the end will give you nightmares. Check it out and you’ll never listen to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” again without chills.
This is the first film in a Korean high school horror trilogy; each film features an all girls school, but has a different story. In Whispering Corridors, Eun-yung receives a call from a fellow teacher, Mrs. Park, telling her that her deceased friend Jin-jiu is back. The next morning Mrs. Park is found dead and Eun-yung investigates whether her friend has really returned.
This story is scary and sad, given how many schools and teachers not only write off students for various reasons, but also force friends apart. Still, as part of a set, this is a great introduction for what’s to come. It’s not only about the supernatural, but the brutal treatment students experience; trauma so bad it can create the supernatural.
The second film in the Korean high school horror trilogy, a student finds a diary—shared by two seniors at her school (one of which committed suicide)—that not only contains unknown drugs, but creates a psychic connection between her and the other senior. As she and her friends try to uncover what happened, the paranormal activity rises.
This film is scary in parts, but its biggest strength is highlighting the way students are treated when they don’t fit traditional roles of gender or sexuality. These films are arguably an indictment on how competitive and formulaic traditional educations are, and what they expect students to adhere to.
The favorite out of the trilogy, this film follows best friends who are both dancers. One is considered the best while the other is often seen as the worst in this competitive arts school. However, there are a set of stairs that, if the extra step appears, grants the climber a wish.
This film is atmospheric with chillingly creepy music. It demonstrates how toxic competitiveness and the push for greatness can be. Furthermore, it showcases the traditional “be careful what you wish for” theme as well as the “devil’s in the details.” Still scary with a twist I did not see coming.
Sun Jae leaves her husband after discovering his infidelity and lives in an eerie apartment with her young daughter. On the subway, she discovers a pair of gorgeous red shoes that are a perfect fit and brings them home. But those shoes are tied to a curse she has to solve before she becomes the next victim.
This film is gritty, with most of the colors leached away, except for those shoes. The obsession over the shoes and the curse are not the only scares this film has to offer. There are issues regarding how we classify age, style, and dress, often labeling certain attire for the “young crowd” and others for the “old crowd.” The film is more than a pair of cursed shoes, and I am grateful for it!
A suburb is tormented by a vengeful spirit who murders people, primarily children.
This film was based on the urban legend of the slit-mouth woman. The legend goes that a woman wearing a surgical mask approaches someone and asks “am I pretty?” If you respond yes, she removes the mask, showing her sliced ear-to-ear grin and asks, “am I pretty now?” If you respond “no,” she kills you. Respond “yes” and she will cut your mouth, giving you the same smile. Honestly, a terrifying story, particularly if you don’t know the trick to escaping her, which I won’t share here. The movie does a wonderful job of giving the vengeful spirit a more unique backstory as opposed to the traditional one attached to the tale. Watch, but be warned: her appearance is the stuff of nightmares.
A couple who had a difficult time conceiving adopt a six-year old boy who spends most of his time underneath their acacia tree. When the mother becomes pregnant, phenomena begins to occur.
A well-crafted story but, like a few on this list, you may end up feeling bad by the end. You are wondering what is going on, what has happened, and what is going on with that creepy tree. Don’t want to spoil it, but this film definitely deserves to be a part of the explosion of Asian horror that came out in the 2000s.
A detective, Min, along with a forensic partner, Lee, investigate a murder that seems to tie into a salt storehouse, a murder, and a missing girl from ten years ago. As more people connected to that history die, it’s up to them to solve the crime and stop the murders.
One thing is clear: Asian horror loves its vengeful spirits. Yet, you can’t help but applaud the uniquely terrifying stories around the spirit. At times both scary and sad, this story will leave you angry at the injustices and abuse women often suffer, but you’ll be rooting for vengeance.
A widower, at the urging of his friends, decides to hold a fake audition to find a love interest.
While this could be written off as a horrible date gone wrong, it is so much more than that. This film is creepy, at times disturbing, and touches on issues of abuse. The girl and her shy innocent nature is reminiscent of the hair-raising anime girls from “Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni” (“When They Cry”) that look like they would lovingly dismember you. If you can handle some violent and gross moments, this film is for you.
Min Ji-won is a student with amnesia. As she tries to remember her past, old friends of her are mysteriously drowning. As bits start to come back, Min tries to unravel her past to prevent more people from dying.
I didn’t see the twist for this one coming, mostly because it is rarely employed. Not only was the twist and story done well, but the plot keeps you invested, trying to solve the nightmare before the protagonist. Watch and see if you can solve it.
Ton is sent to boarding school by his father and is told scary ghost stories by his classmates about a boy who drowned and a girl who committed suicide. As he struggles to adapt to his new surroundings, he finds a friend in Vichien, but soon realizes that Vichien is the boy who drowned.
This is not so much horror as a sad and haunting coming-of-age story. It will have you smiling at the connection between Ton and Vichien and hurting for the fact that only one will get to go on. There are scares in the film but the story is about friendship and growth. Recommended—but maybe keep a box of tissues handy.
Lee Hyun-min, who reconstructs faces from skulls to solve crimes, retires. But after he’s haunted by a woman’s spirit, he aids police in the search for a serial killer while trying to protect his daughter, who is also having disturbing visions.
For a lot of the Asian horror films that came out in the 2000s, there seems to be two default moods: scared and sad (sometimes both), and this film doesn’t disappoint in either category. The story keeps you invested as you watch, fearing not only for the daughter but the father as well. A welcome addition to any Asian horror collection, particularly if you love Tartan Asia Extreme.
Rosa accepts a job as a maid in Singapore to help the Teo family care for their mentally disabled son. But, during the seventh month, there are rules to follow to ensure spirits don’t follow you home. When Rosa breaks these, she finds herself in a nightmare. As she tries to stay safe, she needs to figure out what happened to the previous maid.
Both scary and also a conversation-starter regarding mental disability and accountability.
Set during the Vietnam War, a South Korean base receives a radio transmission from a missing platoon. Choi Tae-in is chosen to lead a squad of eight soldiers, to a location known as R-point to find proof the missing platoon is alive or dead.
“This is R-point…nothing survives here.” This land has a bloody history that does not allow anyone to escape. The scenes in the jungle make you fearful, as this group is basically cut off from civilization. Imagine being stuck somewhere and you can’t trust what you see. One of my favorites from this list, I’d call R-Point essential viewing.
Hansel & Gretel
A man crashes his car and meets a young girl who invites him to a house. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to leave.
To say more about this movie will give it away. It is beautiful, poignant with scary sequences, but mostly you will be barraged with “wtf” moments as you try to figure out what’s going on. This movie is often compared with A Tale of Two Sisters because it’s that damn good, though this one, befittingly, has a more dreamlike quality to it. It’s often included on “Best Asian Horror” lists.
Pim moves with her partner from Thailand to Korea for a fresh start and to escape the grief she feels, having lost her conjoined twin. Her deceased twin has other ideas.
One of the more terrifying films on this list, with a few twists you won’t fully see coming until they’re in your face, no collection is complete without it. Dreary weather and atmosphere set in a house that makes you ask, “You thought this would help?!” That’s like me saying I want to escape from meat eaters only to get an apartment above a butcher’s shop.
When a group of former students visit a dying teacher, death and mayhem occurs.
Sounds so simplistic doesn’t it? Yet, the story is what pulls you in. You know you’re in for violence and horror, but why? That’s the beauty and driving question of a lot of horror films. We watch to get to the why—who is at fault? Will the people we are rooting for make it? When these students visit their old teacher they get more than a lovely trip down memory lane. Not all memories are beautiful, and some easily forget what they have wrought.
A high schooler named Hyun-su lives with her plastic surgeon mother, Yoon-hee, and life seems wonderful. Until her friends, who had plastic surgery from her mom, begin cutting themselves up and it’s up to Hyun-su to find out what the connection is between the surgery and her mom.
Remember when I mentioned creepily smiling girls. Yeah, this has that in spades. The horror is there, along with the twist. Like many of the films on this list, it has an “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” feel that makes for the most memorable horror films. Another high recommendation from this list!
A Tale of Two Sisters
Returning from a mental hospital, Sun-mi goes to live with her sister, Su-yeon, father, and stepmother in their country home. As conflicts arise between the sisters and the stepmother and father, strange things occur and dark revelations are coming.
Had to leave my best for last! The only film I intentionally put on here with an American remake, this is the pinnacle of it all. From the cinematography, colors, and musical score, this film knocks it out the park. Combine all this with a story that hits on horror—mental and psychological—seamlessly weaving them all together with a twist that is mind-blowing, and I’ll say you can’t call yourself a horror fan until you have at least seen this movie!
Featured Image: Cinema Service / B.O.M. Film / Tornado Films