Korean cinema undergoes diversification
In the first half of this year Korean cinemas attracted over 56.9 million moviegoers, according to the Korean Film Council. The total number of movie tickets sold in the first half was 193 million, which is a record for the period, an increase of 14.9 million from last year.
Watching movies has become one of the most popular leisure activities among Koreans. With their growing popularity, the genres that draw moviegoers have diversified. Amid Hollywood films and big-budget blockbusters, Korean films have shown more diverse offerings that can compete at the local box office.
Entering the 21st century, Korean cinema began an era of big-budget local blockbusters. Two multi-billion won budget films “Silmido” (2003) and “Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War” saw record-breaking ticket sales of 10 million each, signifying the expansion of the market.
Since then, the success of a film appears to have been determined by the amount invested in its production.
Star-studded blockbusters became the norm, but soon fatigue came in. Growing tired of the same old stories with similar plots, moviegoers were looking for alternatives. Their needs for new cinema resulted in a rare boom in refreshing films.
Starting in late 2018, Korean cinema showed signs of going down, as numerous big-budget, highly anticipated films performed poorly.
The crime drama “The Drug King”, musical “Swing Kids” and action thriller “Take Point” failed, all reaching only about half of the break-even point in ticket sales, despite their attractive lead roles taken by well-known celebrities.
Amid such disappointing performances, comedy film “Extreme Job” stormed into the local box office, not only bringing the success of this year but also setting the second-highest ticket sales for all films.
The 6.5 billion won ($5.6 million) budget film surpassed 10 million ticket sales in just three weeks after its release, Jan. 23, grossing 139 billion won ($120 million) from the 16 million tickets sold. Its success came as a surprise.
“Extreme Job” broke the traditional success formula for movies. A-listers and big budgets were no longer the determining factors for box office hits.
“Audiences, nowadays, have become more selective when choosing films,” said Kim Seong-hee, a film critic who also researches at the Korean Film Council.
“As many Korean films became conventional, a lot of movies continued to come out with similar settings, storylines, and genres….. So audiences were attracted to films that told different and more refreshing stories.”
Rise of independent films
Some independent films, including “House of Hummingbird,” “The House of Us” and “Maggie,” were very successful.
Coming-of-age film “House of Hummingbird” was a particular success among the year’s independent films, with the story of 14-year-old Eun-hee in the 1990s struggling to find her identity in a male-dominated, highly-competitive society.
Such an articulated story, directed by Kim Bo-ra, won 34 awards at international and domestic film festivals and saw over 133,000 ticket sales in Korea — a great success for a low-budget independent film.
Along with “House of Hummingbird,” “The House of Us” and “Maggie” were two other successes for Korean independent cinema, spreading through word-of-mouth.
“The House of Us” unfolds a family-story from the perspective of a child, who tries to keep her family together and her parents from separating.
The film “Maggie” zooms in on young people’s trust issues and forming a bond with each other as they try to restore their trust in one another.
Along with their unique and lyrical storytelling, the visually warm and artistic cinematography was one of the reasons behind the films’ success. “Most people have rough and dark images when they think of an independent film, previously, but these films stood out as they had a more soft and heartfelt tone,” the film critic said.
Feminism gains upper hand
What the three successful independent films have in common is that they were directed by female directors and led by female characters.
As the roles of female characters started to expand in Hollywood and other countries’ films, Korea also has been seeing an increased emphasis on women in leading and production roles in the industry.
“We are following the steps of such a process (of female-oriented films). I feel that the scene is brightening up as more films directed and led by women came out in Korea this year,” said Kim Bo-ra in an interview with The Korea Times last month.
“I hope these films will come out much more in the future. (We are at the stage where) the wave is just starting to crash in so it’s a tough time right now, but I think it will come around easier for the next generation (of female directors).”
As she said, Korean cinema is slowly seeing an increase in films directed and led by women, with this year especially marking significance with several hit films.
The action-packed blockbusters were considered to be a male genre, as noir and crime action films were usually led by males.
But the mystery action film “The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion” (2018) stepped out of such stereotypes with a female character taking the lead in action scenes. Although the lead role of a supernatural girl was taken by rookie actress Jung Da-mi, the film saw moderate success, drawing three million ticket sales, and its sequel is expected to be made.
A female duo comedy action film “Miss & Mrs. Cops” has also proven that the female-led flick could bring success at the box office.
Since it was released on May 9, the film competed for the top three spots in the local box office along with “The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil” and “Avengers: Endgame” in its opening week. The film, about two female cops teaming up to solve a sex crime targeting women, drew a total of 1.6 million ticket sales.
Another female-helmed film, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,” has been dominating the local box office since it premiered on Oct. 23. Despite the criticism it received from some people of being biased for presenting a feminist perspective, the film surpassed one million ticket sales on its opening weekend and has drawn nearly 2.6 million as of Monday.
Kim Seong-hee explained that such a pattern started with foreign films that revolved around female characters. As those films drew moviegoers’ attention, more distributors and producers in Korea started to put more focus on female-centered films as they have seen these successes.
“Crime action films and big-budget blockbusters usually take males as lead characters because they have ticket power. So as people began to look for something new, they expressed an interest in female-centered stories,” he said, adding that films of a distinctive genre with a good story will win people’s attention.
This is the fifth and last article highlighting the centennial of Korean cinema — ED.
Crime drama film “The Drug King” (2018), starring veteran actor Song Kang-ho, failed to bring anticipated success, grossing only half of its 16.5 billion won ($14 million) budget.
A poster for “Maggie,” left, a scene from “House of Hummingbird,” top, and “The House of Us.” These three films brought rare success in the independent film industry.
Comedy film “Extreme Job” (2019) was an unexpected hit at the local box office amid big-budget blockbusters, amassing the second-highest ticket sales of all films since 2004.
A poster for the female-led action film “The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion,” left, and drama film “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.“