The Best Korean Action Movies

A heist film, obviously, it stars Hong Kong legend Simon Yam, who is often dubbed as China’s Michael Caine, but that’s totally unfair to both actors. Like Caine, Yam has taken on a wide variety of roles from A-list to C-grade and delivered so many richly defined characters, all with that cool suave style that is uniquely his own. But Yam and Caine are both distinctive actors with a repertoire that demands their individuality. 

Yam fronts an ensemble Korean cast, who quickly rise up to his performance bar to become thoroughly engaging characters. It’s a tale all about double-crossing and back histories, and in the end, despite some nasty betrayals, there is still some honor among thieves. With a complicated intertwined tangle of story arcs, there’s some great rappelling fights, impressive stunts, and fire fights. Ocean’s Eleven ain’t got nothing on this film.

Cast of The Admiral: Roaring Currents

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents currently holds the honor of being the most watched and highest-grossing film of all time in South Korea. It’s loosely based upon the historical naval Battle of Myeongnyang (1597 C.E.) when about a dozen Korean boats fought off some 300 Japanese invading ships. It’s glorious and extremely violent, soaked in sea water and blood.  

A broken admiral named Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-sik) must rally some beaten ships to fight against boatloads of samurai, ninjas, and pirates. He’s backed by doubtful captains, fearful sailors, weak villagers, and some kickass Buddhist monks. After nearly an hour of setup, the rest of the film is a deluge of colossal sea battles. It’s spectacular violence too, with plenty of decapitations, cannon fire, archers, ship ramming, explosions, sword fights, and many satisfying ship deck melees.

A prequel came out last July, Hansan: Dragon Rising, and it has already become Korea’s second highest grossing film of 2022. A three-quel called Noryang: The Sea of Death is set to begin production soon. 

Son Ye-jin in The Pirates (2014)

The Pirates (2014)

This delightful Korean film is a great romp and a fine example of entertaining K-flicks. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean meets Moby Dick and Whale Rider. A whale swallows an imperial seal, gifted to Korea by the Chinese emperor, and the film follows the quest to recover it. Some mountain bandits take on the roles of pirates only to discover that they aren’t the least bit seaworthy. There’s some cheesy CGI, some totally comic book characters (stand out is the always hilarious Yoo Hae-jin as Chul Bong), a gorgeous sword hottie pirate captain (Son Ye-jin as Yeo-wol), lots of eye patches and scars, battles at sea, and a ton of fun sword fights. It’s two hours of constant entertainment: an action adventure, a comedy, and a romance. It’s a little bloody but family-friendly for the most part, and like good K-flicks, it makes some sharp surprising turns that keep the plot moving along nicely. 

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