South Korean movies were largely known for melodrama and romance played out between skilled actors and actresses. But over the past decade or so, Korean movies have evolved into other genres.
One of those genres is disaster movies. Everything ranging from disease outbreaks to horrific monster appearances, from world-ending catastrophes to post-apocalyptic survival, South Korea's movie industry has given us some of the best in the genre.
Between excellent CGI and talented acting and uniquely written scripts, South Korean disaster movies have all the ingredients of a thrilling, dramatic, and emotional cinematic experience.
Here are my picks for the best Korean disaster movies worth watching if you haven't already. Don't miss them!
12. Pandora (2016)
Directed by Park Jung-woo
Starring Kim Nam-gil, Kim Young-ae, Kim Ju-hyeon
Action, Drama, Thriller (2h 16m)
Pandora is about a nuclear power plant, an earthquake, and the resulting disaster that happens when the two collide. The explosion is only the beginning—and when nuclear radiation threatens the country, only the emergency workers can step up to save the day.
This tragic story follows the firefighters and nuclear plant workers who were not prepared for the incoming disaster and how they cope and survive. With citizens in a panic and the government at a loss, all hope rests with these heroes who had no chance to say goodbye.
While the story is comedic at the start—full of happy faces and typical day-to-day lives—the tension grows and the horrors accumulate toward an emotional climax.
11. Train to Busan (2016)
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Starring Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok
Action, Horror, Thriller (1h 58m)
Train to Busan is a zombie apocalypse movie that features a non-stop chase from the moment the undead are introduced. It delivers plenty of thrills without too much dialogue, gripping you to the end—all with a dash of social commentary and exploration of deeper themes.
If you like Train to Busan, you may also want to watch Peninsula, which is something of a sequel that continues on from zombie-struck Busan. While it doesn't have the same level of thrills, Peninsula offers a different take on the zombie invasion.
10. The Tower (2012)
Directed by Kim Ji-hoon
Starring Sol Kyung-gu, Son Ye-jin, Kim Sang-kyung
Action, Drama, Thriller (2h 1m)
The Tower is the story of a luxury tower that was supposed to be well-maintained and utterly safe. But due to a small maintenance error, the grand party that's organized in the building—which takes place on Christmas Eve—becomes a disastrous event.
Now it's up to the rescue team and firefighters to save the holiday that's fraught with unexpected heartbreak and goodbyes. Between emotional scenes and nail-biting action, The Tower is an excellent disaster movie that'll have you on the edge of your seat.
9. Tunnel (2016)
Directed by Kim Seong-hun
Starring Ha Jung-woo, Bae Doona, Oh Dal-su
Drama, Thriller (2h 6m)
Tunnel starts with a man driving through the tunnel—which suddenly collapses. Following that thrilling climax is the even more thrilling story of how this man does everything he can to survive with only a couple bottles of water and the birthday cake meant for his daughter.
Being stranded under a cave-in is one of the worst things that can happen. The man puts all his hope on the rescue team, and all he can do is hold and survive.
8. Tidal Wave (2009)
Directed by Yoon Je-kyoon
Starring Uhm Jung-hwa, Kim Yoo-jeong, Ha Ji-won
Action, Comedy, Drama (2h)
Tidal Wave follows the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami event from 2004, a real-life natural disaster killed almost 200,000 people in 14 countries. This movie is set five years later, with recurring earthquakes that keep starting closer to land.
The film takes a lot of time to build the characters and make us care about them, all before slamming them with a tsunami. Like any good disaster movie, Tidal Wave speaks to deeper themes like hubris, survival, and even governmental failure in protecting the people.
7. The Host (2006)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (2h)
The Host centers on an amphibious monster that preys on humans. It's a fresh and unique take on what would be an otherwise typical plot about chemical waste byproducts dumped into the Han River.
As if chemical waste wasn't dangerous enough, it leads to a mutated frog-like/fish-like creature that's large enough to swallow humans. There's an undercurrent of social commentary that speaks to the reckless behavior of corporations that ought not be tolerated.
The Host is one of the best Korean disaster movies of all time, which makes sense given that it was directed by the great Bong Joon-ho (who went on to direct Snowpiercer, Okja, and Parasite).
6. #Alive (2020)
Directed by Il Cho
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Park Shin-hye, Jeon Bae-soo
Action, Drama, Horror (1h 38m)
The Netflix Original movie #Alive follows a young man who's stranded in his apartment unit during a virus epidemic—a virus that causes humans to become violent and cannibalistic.
#Alive caught a lot of flak when it first came out, not only for its unconventional title, but also because it seemed like it would be a Train to Busan copycat. But unlike Train to Busan, #Alive is more about being a survivor than it is about being chased.
It's a modern look at how one would survive a zombie apocalypse using social media and the internet as one's only tool—with the hashtag #I_will_survive flooding newsfeeds and giving hope to the stranded, encouraging them to hold out until rescue comes.
5. Deranged (2012)
Directed by Park Jung-woo
Starring Kim Myung-min, Moon Jeong-hee, Kim Dong-wan
Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 49m)
Deranged is one of the most stomach-churning Korean disaster movies. It involves parasitic worms that can invade the human body and manipulate the nervous system, forcing the host to seek out water sources—at which point they die instantly.
After a series of mysterious deaths, an investigator is tasked to find out what exactly is happening. There are several twists and turns along the way, and some social commentary underpinning all of it.
4. Flu (2013)
Directed by Kim Sung-su
Starring Jang Hyuk, Soo Ae, Park Min-ah
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 2m)
Flu isn't just one of the best Korean disaster movie ever made. It's a strong contender for one of the best pandemic movies in the world.
The story begins with a human trafficking scene in a cargo van—a scene that goes horribly wrong due to a virus outbreak. The airborne disease threatens to destroy the whole country, leading to all kinds of chaos while a solution is sought out.
What makes Flu so good isn't the virus itself, but the characters (who are complex in their own ways as they fight the deadly virus) and its realistic portrayal of a modern virus outbreak.
3. Ashfall (2019)
Directed by Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, Jeon Hye-jin
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 10m)
In the film Ashfall, an active volcano called Mount Paektu suddenly erupts and causes massive earthquakes across the Korean peninsula. More and more problems arise as the clock ticks down to another eruption.
While the main disaster plot featured in the film is the volcanic eruption, the movie is packed with varied elements, themes, and subplots that make the overall story that much more thrilling.
From stories involving a spy to the involve of other military operations, these aspects lend action-packed scenes—like gunfights and brawls—that add further tension to an already do-or-die situation.
2. Exit (2019)
Directed by Lee Sang-geun
Starring Jo Jung-suk, Im Yoon-ah, Go Doo-shim
Action, Comedy (1h 43m)
One of the most common man-made disasters in cinema is the skyscraper that's on fire, which blocks escape. Exit feels similar in its premise, but with a brand new twist that feels fresh.
In this film, there's a white gaseous substance that fills the streets, killing everyone who's caught in the mist. What are these toxic fumes? How will our protagonists escape and survive?
Exit delivers intensely breathtaking action as the main characters—Lee Yong-nam (played by Jo Jung-suk) and Eui-joo (played by Im Yoon-ah)—showcase their bravery and wall-climbing skills.
1. Emergency Declaration (2021)
Directed by Han Jae-rim
Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Do-yeon
Action, Drama, Thriller (2h 21m)
Where's the worst place for a virus outbreak? If you saw Train to Busan, you might think it'd be a train. But Emergency Declaration gives us an even worse predicament: an outbreak while stuck on a plane.
To be clear, Emergency Declaration is NOT a zombie apocalypse film. However, it does share minor resemblances with Train to Busan as well as some other Korean disaster films like Flu.
Emergency Declaration centers on a biological attack that happens on a South Korean plane as it's headed for Hawaii.
The plane's passengers and crew are caught in various worst-case scenarios, like running out of fuel, all while dealing with the spreading virus that threatens to wipe them out without a cure.
To make matters worse, no country will allow them to land because they want to protect their own citizens from the virus.