Korean cinema un­der­goes di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion

The Korea Times - - CINEMA - By Lee Gyu-lee [email protected]­re­atimes.co.kr

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.

Un­ex­pected hits

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.

Ko­rea Times file

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.

Ko­rea Times file

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.

Ko­rea Times file

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.

Ko­rea Times files

A poster for the fe­male-led ac­tion film “The Witch: Part 1 - The Sub­ver­sion,” left, and drama film “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.“

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