It’s not uncommon for films to end up competing with real world events. A day of exceptionally good weather may make people less likely to go to the movie theatre. If a national team has a particularly strong run in the World Cup, box office returns inevitably drop during their winning streak. In the case of South Korea, recent months have seen the film industry coping with a different sort of outside distraction: millions of people massing in the streets, demanding the removal of the president.
Korean politics has always been entertaining, but 2016 reached a level of scandal that rivalled the most inventive of political thrillers. It was inevitable that the presidency of the highly conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, would be controversial. The policies she instigated were deeply divisive. For instance, she ordered government-written history textbooks, and secretly compiled a blacklist of thousands of cultural figures to be denied government support. This included well-known names like director Park Chan-wook and actor Song Kang-ho.
But revelations about Choi Soon-sil, a shadowy Rasputin-like figure who controlled her political career behind the scenes, managed to startle even the most jaded of observers. Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult-like religious leader, held no official position in government, but was often the ultimate decision maker on issues including policy, personnel appointments, the president’s speeches, and even her wardrobe. In the meantime, Choi used her connection with the president to pressure business groups like Samsung to pay her and her daughter millions of dollars of bribes. It was not so much the corruption that shocked the populace, but the realisation that the president was almost helpless on her own; she could not function without the guidance of a woman who freely took advantage of her.
It was late autumn in 2016 when the full force of the scandal hit, and citizens responded by pouring into the streets for repeated demonstrations that numbered up to 2 million in central Seoul alone. Politicians in the National Assembly passed a motion of impeachment, temporarily barring Park from office, as the Constitutional Court opened a case on whether her actions justified permanent dismissal. For the next three months the nation held its breath, until finally the court announced its decision on March 10 in an inspiring and carefully-judged ruling that upheld the impeachment. An election for the next president will be held in early May.
For members of the film industry, the past few years have been dark times politically. The Busan International Film Festival has been hurt badly by political reprisals after it screened a documentary in 2014 that was highly critical of the government. Government funding for independent and specialty cinema has been slashed, putting small distributors and arthouse theaters out of business. At the other end of the spectrum, the CJ group also faced pressure and direct threats from the Park Geun-hye administration, causing distributor CJ Entertainment to avoid financing films that conflicted too strongly with the president’s priorities.
More generally, politics have been a huge distraction for the film industry at the end of 2016 and early 2017. Films unlucky enough to have been released in late autumn surely suffered a box-office hit from the massive weekly Saturday protests. Meanwhile, policy decisions at the Korean Film Council and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (a ministry which was particularly implicated in the president’s scandal) have ground to a virtual halt over the past six months.
Given its traditionally high levels of government support for the film industry, South Korea is a country where politics really do have a big effect on cinema. In that sense, the upcoming presidential election has injected a long-overdue note of optimism into the film community. If, as expected, the opposition wins the election for the next president, it could prove to be the most positive news the film industry has heard in a long time.
Turning to the films themselves, the past 12 months were characterised by an unusual concentration of releases by big-name Korean directors, including Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, which premiered at Cannes), Na Hong-jin (The Wailing, Cannes), Kim Jee-woon (The Age of Shadows, Venice), Kim Ki-duk (The Net, Venice), and Hong Sangsoo (On the Beach at Night Alone, which won a Best Actress award for Kim Min-hee at Berlin). It’s an unusually strong collection of films, all of which earned highly positive reviews.
Also standing out was the Cannes premiere Train to Busan, the first live-action film by independent animator Yeon Sang-ho. Released in Korea last July, the film about a zombie outbreak on a high-speed train topped the yearly box office (11.6 million admissions), and made a particular impression abroad. It set new box-office records for Korean films in Singapore (US$4 million), Malaysia (US$5.2 million), the Philippines (US$6 million), and Taiwan (US$10 million), and a jaw-dropping US$9.3 million it in Hong Kong.
The movies mentioned above screened widely on the festival circuit, and have already been released in many territories, including Italy. But the works that comprise this year’s FEFF selection may provide a more representative sampling of the current state of filmmaking in Korea.
For example, Bluebeard, by director Lee Soo-yeon, represents an innovative new entry into Korean cinema’s long tradition of thriller films. Cho Jin-woong (The Handmaiden) plays a soft-spoken colonoscopy specialist who moves to the countryside and develops an awkward relationship with his creepy neighbor. Director Lee’s smooth handling of mood and tension recalls her previous feature The Uninvited (2003), which is now remembered as a modern-day classic.
Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned marks the commercial debut of director Um Tae-hwa, whose low-budget independent feature Ingtoogi turned heads in 2013. A moody fantasy about a young boy and girl affected by a strange time warp, the movie features striking special effects and a standout performance from debut actress Sin Eun-su. The work is pervaded by a melancholic tone that later reveals itself as an homage to the students who passed away in the Sewol Ferry sinking of 2014.
Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess is the latest entry in one of the strongest current trends in Korean cinema: films dealing with the era of Japanese colonisation (1910-1945). Based on a novel about one of the last descendants of the Korean royal line, the film takes considerable liberties with history, but provides actress Son Ye-jin with a platform for a show-stopping performance. It also represents a newly evolved style for Korean melodrama, which is something closer to classic Hollywood cinema in its tone and presentation. Released in August 2016, it surpassed expectations at the box office with a strong 5.6 million admissions.
Broadly speaking, 2016 was a decent year at the box office, even with the year-end street protests. Although only one release (Train to Busan) passed the 10 million admissions mark, statistics for the year as a whole compare favourably to the record-breaking 2015, with a slight rise in revenues and a slight drop in admissions. The average Korean citizen watched 4.2 films in 2016, which still ranks as the highest rate of attendance in the world.
One of the trends driving strong box office performance is the continued strength of the star system, and the studios’ increased tendency to assemble an Ocean’s Eleven-like cast of three or four major stars, and a host of famous supporting players in its highest-budget productions. The models for this seem to be Choi Dong-hoon’s 2012 heist film The Thieves and the 2015 period extravaganza Assassination, both of which were big successes.
The latest example of such packaging comes in the blockbuster release The Master, which features three white-hot male stars in Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin. Directed by FEFF alumnus Cho Ui-seok (Cold Eyes), the crime drama features various action set pieces and an ambitious finale shot in Manila. Released during the peak season just before Christmas, The Master ultimately grossed 7.2 million admissions.
Concerns about power and corruption (a timely theme, to be sure) lie at the heart of another recent release, New Trial, which is based on a real-life incident. Film and TV star Jung Woo plays a cynical and dejected lawyer who ends up supporting a poor young man’s efforts to clear himself of murder. Director Kim Tae-yun (Another Family) delivers an entertaining film while also managing to inject a measure of idealism and moral outrage into the story. The film proved to be a good match for the public’s mood, and surpassed expectations with 2.4 million tickets sold.
Drawing a similar number of viewers during the same period in early 2017 was the more playful Fabricated City, which is also centered around a young man unfairly accused of murder. Director Park Kwang-hyun’s long-awaited follow up to his 2005 hit Welcome to Dongmakgol (an FEFF Audience Award winner) boasts a colorful array of characters and an anarchic, comic book sensibility that connected well with young viewers. Even though it has an outlandish villain (played with a knowing wink by How to Use Guys with Secret Tips star Oh Jeong-se), this film shows how ordinary citizens can easily fall victim to the rich and powerful.
Other highlights of recent months include the debut film Split by director Choi Kook-hee, set within a bowling and gambling underworld where a totally unexpected friendship develops. It’s an original idea, and it’s surprisingly well acted and executed for a first-time director. Canola, set mostly on the picturesque Jeju Island, is also about two people from different worlds working to establish a relationship. The elderly Gae-chun, played movingly by actress Youn Yuh-jung (The Actresses), has lived the last 12 years in a daze after the sudden disappearance of her granddaughter. Then suddenly one day her granddaughter returns, having grown into a young woman.
Run-Off, meanwhile, presents the struggles of a diverse and inexperienced group of women who are thrown together to represent South Korea in women’s hockey at the Asian Games. A sequel in name to the 2009 hit Take-Off, though the only link between the two films is their basic concept, Run-Off follows a predictable trajectory. But it has become very gripping by the end, thanks in part to a heartfelt performance from Soo Ae as a woman who played hockey in North Korea before defecting.
On a darker note, The Prison features veteran actor Han Seok-kyu (Shiri) as a menacing convict named Ik-ho who, even while in jail, is able to orchestrate daring and elaborate crimes in the outside world. When a new prisoner arrives, Ik-ho sees something unusual in him, and decides to put him in his place. Finally, House of the Disappeared features Han Seok-kyu’s Shiri co-star Kim Yun-jin (who later became famous in the TV series Lost) as a woman accused of murdering her family. Released from prison years later, she hurries back to her dilapidated house, believing it holds the key to finding her long-lost son.
What do all these films tell us about the current state of Korean commercial filmmaking? They paint a picture of an industry that is more closely tied to established genres than it was a decade ago, but one which still makes an effort to do something interesting and new within those boundaries. Less established directors do not enjoy as much creative freedom as Park Chan-wook or Kim Jee-woon, but their creative energy – and their high level of competence – can be felt in works like these.
The above films also contain many outstanding acting performances. This is a reminder that South Korean cinema benefits not only from star power, but also from the high degree of dedication and perfectionism that is now taken for granted among Korean actors. Even child actors have displayed tremendous range and power in their performances in recent years.
And as for the future? The coming months promise a resolution to the turmoil in the president’s office which has so clearly impacted the film industry. But not everything is smooth sailing ahead. A standoff with China over the deployment of the US-provided THAAD anti-ballistic missile system has resulted in China’s retaliatory suspension of cultural exchanges, package tours, and film-related business between the two countries. The two film industries had significantly deepened their ties in recent years, so this sudden reversal is hitting the Korean film industry hard. This is not even to mention the destabilising influence of recent North Korean provocations, and the unpredictable behaviour of the man in charge of the US government.
Still, Korean filmmakers show no signs of slowing down, and we have some tremendously ambitious releases to look forward to in the coming year, including Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix-financed Okja, and Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Battleship Island. Given this, it’s quite possible that before the year is finished, Korean cinema will have taken back the spotlight from politics.