Soul Searching: Korean Films In 2011

South Korean industry figures and journalists are famous for drawing bad conclusions in the face of good statistics. In 2006, when local films captured 64 per cent of the box office and The Host was setting new box office records, commentators could speak of nothing but impending doom. This may strike observers from other countries as odd, but you could view such behavior as one of the Korean film industry's strengths. Complacency is rare, and there is always much discussion about what is wrong -- even if there is not always consensus about how to fix it. At any rate, the pessimists proved to be correct in 2006, as the following year Korean cinema entered a profound slump.

There has been a similar dynamic at work in 2011, which on paper has been the best year since 2006. The numbers are rosy: according to the Korean Film Council, 150 Korean films were released in theaters, and they managed to capture 52 per cent of the overall box office. Total admissions for both local and imported films combined was the highest in the modern era, with 159.8 million tickets sold, the equivalent of US$1.12 billion. Although no film managed to sell more than 10 million tickets -- the level of a mega-blockbuster -- two Korean films (Sunny and War of the Arrows) passed the 7 million admissions mark, one (Punch) passed the 5 million admissions mark, and two more (Silenced and Detective K) broke through the 4 million admissions mark. A total of 24 Korean films managed to sell at least 1 million tickets.

Nonetheless, there has been plenty of hand wringing in the past year, with several issues weighing heavy on the minds of producers and investors -- not to mention critics. Most prominently, this year has seen the spectacular failure of some supremely expensive would-be blockbusters. In fact, despite the commercial successes listed above, 2011 will probably be best remembered as the year of the failed blockbuster. It began in the summer season, with four big-budget Korean genre films lined up to take advantage of the lucrative summer vacation period which lasts from mid-July to the end of August.

July 20 saw the release of the motorcycle action film Quick and Korean War movie The Front Line. Quick, which devoted much of its hefty budget to creating spectacular car chases and outlandish pyrotechnics. The latter undershot expectations but was not a total failure with 3.13 million admissions recorded. As a commercial product it was highly uneven, but some memorable scenes and well-placed humor helped to generate decent word-of-mouth. Meanwhile the ambitious war movie The Front Line, by up-and-coming director Jang Hun (Secret Reunion), grossed a similar amount with 2.95 million admissions. Investors in the big-budget film must have been somewhat disappointed, but reviews were positive, viewer ratings were decent and the film ended up carrying home some high-profile prizes at various end of the year awards ceremonies. It was also chosen by a committee to be Korea's submission for the best foreign language film category of the 2012 Oscars, but it did not make the Oscar shortlist. The film is technically quite accomplished, and it also features strong acting from its ensemble cast. In particular, newcomer Lee Je-hoon, who dazzled critics in his debut work Bleak Night (2010), picked up numerous awards for his portrayal of a drug-addicted young soldier.

More spectacularly, the most highly anticipated and expensive film of the summer, the 3-D monster movie Sector 7, proved to be a box office disaster. The story of workers on a deep sea oil rig who come into contact with a hostile sea creature, Sector 7 had been expected to earn massive returns. It came from the same production company that had been so successful with the effects-heavy disaster movie Haeundae in 2009. Sector 7 did open at number 1 on August 4, but scathing reviews from critics and widespread ridicule from general audiences sunk its long-term chances at the box office. Despite the best efforts of Korea's leading distributor CJ E&M, the film starring Ha Ji-won and Ahn Sung-ki ultimately sold only 2.24 million tickets.

Only one blockbuster-sized production ended up truly connecting with audiences over the summer months. The War of Arrows, directed by Kim Han-min and starring Park Hae-il, is an ambitiously conceived period action film about a skilled archer trying to save his sister and her fiance from an invading Manchu army. Praised by viewers for its fast pacing and combat sequences, the film sold 7.46 million tickets to become the highest grossing Korean film of 2011, trailing behind only Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which took 7.79 million admissions. In particular, the way the film highlighted the bow and arrow as a lethal and precise weapon struck viewers as refreshingly new.

Commentators were confident that the one massive genre project lined up for the winter season would restore faith in the Korean blockbuster. My Way was directed by Kang Je-gyu, whose unblemished box office record to date included the groundbreaking Gingko Bed in 1996, and the legendary smash hit Shiri (which easily surpassed all previous box office records with 6 million+ admissions in 1999), and the 2004 Korean War film Tae Guk Gi, which broke records again with more than 11 million admissions. My Way was loosely based on the true story of a Korean man who, during World War II, was enlisted into the Japanese army. He was subsequently captured by the Soviets, the Nazis, and finally by the Allied soldiers on Normandy beach. Heartthrob Jang Dong-gun played the lead role, together with Japanese actor Odagiri Joe, who portrayed a Japanese soldier who undertook the same journey. On paper, all the elements for a box office hit seemed to be in place, and Kang upped the ante with a massive US$30 million budget that dwarfed that of any other previous Korean film except for D-War. But when it finally opened in late December, viewers found the long journey tedious rather than thrilling, and poor word-of-mouth quickly killed the film’s box office chances. Ultimately it sold only 2.14 million tickets, even less than Sector 7.

The staggering losses incurred by Korean blockbusters in 2011 were a problem in itself. But this also led to a round of soul-searching in terms of Korea's system for developing and producing mainstream films. One side effect of the bubble of 2005-2006 and the industry-wide slump of 2007-2008 was that many independent producers lost a great deal of their power and influence. At the same time, major conglomerates such as CJ, which operated powerful distribution arms and their own theater chains, began to account for a greater and greater percentage of the industry's overall production. Soon, most films were being conceived and developed not in separate production companies, but inside the major conglomerates.

As such, the degree of corporate decision making in the filmmaking process continued to expand, particularly for big-budget, high-profile productions. Whereas in the late 1990s, influential producers often took decisions based on their instincts, in the present day most decisions have to be backed up by some model of past success. When details about some conglomerates’ methods of evaluating screenplays were leaked to the broader public, many in the film industry reacted angrily to the implied notion that screenplay development was more science than art. One example included having each individual scene of a screenplay rated on a point system, with the lower scoring scenes designated for removal.

The box office results of 2011 sent a mixed message about the effectiveness of the corporate approach. The failure of the conglomerates’ highest profile releases would seem to argue for a broad rethink. Nonetheless, the best grossing films of 2011 -- mostly mid-sized productions -- were also the product of the big distributors. Some have conjectured that producers on these lower profile films were given a somewhat freer rein, resulting in films that felt fresher in a dramatic sense. At the same time, these releases were able to benefit from the significant distribution power of the parent company.

At any rate, it was mid-sized dramas and comedies that saved the Korean box office in 2011. Foremost among these was Sunny, the second film by talented up-and-coming director Kang Hyung-cheol. In the wake of his hugely successful debut film Scandal Makers from 2008 (8.3 million admissions), Kang took on a story that might seem at first glance to have limited box office appeal. A middle-aged woman feeling estranged from her husband and teenage daughter runs into her old high school friend in the hospital. After their happy reunion, they set out to reconnect with the other five members of their high school group which they called "Sunny". The film then provides an extended flashback into the 1980s. Character-centered dramas based on female friendship have found a limited degree of success in Korean film history, but such a film has never reached the blockbuster proportions of Sunny’s run at the box office. The film's final tally of 7.4 million admissions was far beyond anyone's predictions, and it confirmed Kang's status as a gifted director and screenwriter who can get remarkable results out of seemingly ordinary material.

Another box office surprise was the success of Punch, the fourth film by director Lee Han who is best known for his 2002 debut work Lovers Concerto. Based on a popular novel, the film tells the story of the uneasy friendship that develops between a high school boy (Yu Ah-in) and his teacher (Kim Yun-seok), who also happens to be his next door neighbor. Initially the boy, named Wan-deuk, is bothered to distraction by the teacher, who keeps intruding into his personal life. But one day the teacher tells him that he has located the boy's mother, who ran away when he was just a baby. Wan-deuk, surprised by the news, is further shocked when he learns that his mother is from the Philippines. Viewers seemed to be particularly taken in by the acting performances in Punch, with the chemistry between rising star Yu and veteran actor Kim working particularly well. But a strong supporting cast, particularly a blustering neighbor played by Kim Sang-ho, also added much to the enjoyment of the film.

The two hit films mentioned above succeeded primarily by creating interesting, nuanced characters who could capture audiences’ sympathies. But the box office performance of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Silenced tapped into broader social forces. The well-directed film is based on a shocking and heartbreaking real incident from the early 2000s in which pre-teens at a school for the deaf were sexually assaulted by school officials. The film was not the first to expose the incident -- in fact, it is based on a book written by one of Korea's best-known novelists. A controversial trial of the perpetrators received much press coverage at the time it took place. However something about the highly emotional medium of cinema, and the collective way in which the film was viewed, resulted in widespread popular outrage over the incident. Thanks in large part to the film, new laws were passed in late 2011 to provide additional protection for the disabled against sexual abuse. In this sense, the film's box office performance (4.7 million admissions) may be seen as something of a bonus, because the work's social aims were realised in such a spectacular way.

There were several other genre films in 2011 that, thanks to good execution and creative touches, well exceeded expectations at the box office. One example is Spellbound from debut director Hwang In-ho, a romantic comedy that incorporates some of the conventions of the horror genre. Popular star Son Ye-jin takes the lead role as a young woman who, after a near death experience, is tormented by visions of dead people. What's worse, people who become close to her also become susceptible to her visions, so she leads a solitary life until one day she crosses the path of a stage magician, played by Lee Min-gi. Benefiting from positive word-of-mouth on the internet, the film ultimately sold a highly impressive 3 million tickets.

Blind from Ahn Sang-hoon (Arang) is a thriller about a blind woman who is being pursued by a serial killer. Although not particularly original in its conception, the film succeeded thanks to an engaging performance from its lead actress Kim Ha-neul, and its ability to generate a surprising degree of suspense. The film sold 2.4 million tickets in total. Turning in an almost identical performance was The Client, a courtroom thriller centered around a murder case in which large amounts of blood -- but no body -- were found at the crime scene. The prosecution feels confident about the case, but a hot young defense attorney played by Ha Jung-woo gives his client a rousing defense. The film marked a successful transition to commercial filmmaking by director Son Young-seong, whose independent feature The Pit and the Pendulum screened at the Busan International Film Festival in 2009.

If mainstream audiences seemed broadly satisfied with the film selections of 2011, local film critics reserved stronger words of praise for the low-budget independent sector. Despite the struggles faced by film crews working on shoestring budgets, the number of independent films continues to increase year after year. In 2011, there were numerous films that attracted considerable attention without the benefit of a wide release. These included such works as The King of Pigs, a hard-hitting animated feature about school violence that was popular with younger viewers; The Journals of Musan, an impressive debut work about a North Korean defector that won more than 15 awards at international film festivals; and most of all Bleak Night, a student film that launched the career of young actor Lee Jae-hoon. While the bar for independent features is set much lower (10,000 admissions is considered the threshold for a strong commercial success), independent cinema nonetheless has been the recipient of an impressive amount of press coverage and mainstream interest in recent years.

As for the first few months of 2012, local cinema has turned in an exceptionally strong performance. Two films released in advance of the Lunar New Year racked up highly impressive returns. Dancing Queen, a comic drama by director Lee Seok-hoon (See You after School) charmed audiences with an unusual story about a struggling human rights lawyer who is picked by a major political party to run for Seoul mayor. Meanwhile his wife, who has dreamed all her life of becoming a singer, is suddenly given the opportunity -- but given conservative attitudes about the role of politicians’ wives, her husband's political career puts her dream in jeopardy. The film marked yet another success for leading distributor CJ E&M, selling upwards of 4 million tickets.

Meanwhile the success of Unbowed, based on a real-life court case, played off of a similar dynamic as the release of Silenced a few months earlier. It concerns a professor who confronted a judge with a crossbow after receiving what he felt to be a biased judgment. The film focuses on the efforts of a lawyer to defend his professor client, who appears to be the victim of further biased judgments by the court. Directed by Chung Ji-young, a major figure of 1990s Korean cinema who hadn't directed a film in over a decade, Unbowed was well received during its premiere at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival. However the low-budget work was not expected to make much of an impact at the box office. Nonetheless, the dramatic story and the timeliness of its themes turned the film's release into a social phenomenon, and it ultimately sold 3.4 million tickets.

The biggest film of all however, was Nameless Gangster, a 1980s-set drama about a corrupt customs officer (Choi Min-sik) who discovers that he is related by blood to a powerful local gangster (Ha Jung-woo). The film then follows his rise to power as he utilizes a wide web of personal connections to further his own cause. With enthusiastic acting from the leads and an impressively authentic recreation of 1980s Busan, the film appeared likely to pass the 5 million admissions mark within a month and a half of its release. Nameless Gangster is the first commercial hit for director Yoon Jong-bin, who won awards in 2005 for his independent debut The Unforgiven (a film which helped launch the career of actor Ha Jung-woo).

The year ahead looks certain to be interesting, with a wide spectrum of high-profile films scheduled for release. Most industry commentators expect Korean cinema to continue doing well at the box office, although a couple more big-budget genre films on the horizon (Soar into the Sun, a sort of Korean Top Gun; and Tower, a sort of Korean Towering Inferno) will further test the mettle of the Korean blockbuster. Meanwhile debate continues about mainstream Korean cinema, and whether it displays enough creativity to remain successful in the long term. Regardless of how high Korean cinema's market share may rise in 2012, we can be reasonably sure that the industry's soul-searching will continue.

Darcy Paquet