Sending a Message: Korean Cinema in 2018

There are times in the history of any film industry when the audience makes its feelings known. The past 12 months have been such a time. A string of big-budget, high profile releases that were expected to do well were rejected by the audience with a vehemence that was a startling. Online discourse about film, which has always been polarised, displayed a sustained level of anger and frustration that was noticeable. On the other hand, films that offered something new, or were made in a style or genre that had been overlooked in recent years, often outperformed expectations. Looking at the year as a whole, there was a noticeable gap between the kind of films that audiences wanted to see, and the kind of films that Korea’s big studios were releasing in theaters. After losing an astonishing amount of money, the film companies now seem to have got the message.

Consider as an example The Drug King, a big-budget production released in December 2018. On paper this project must have seemed too good to fail. Woo Min-ho, the director, was coming off a massive, well-received hit film Inside Men (2015). Leading man Song Kang-ho had a long, reliable track record of success, most recently in the massive 2017 hit A Taxi Driver, and he can be relied upon to give a dynamic, eye-opening performance. He was surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Bae Doona and Jo Jeong-seok. The story is based on real events and references the major social transformations of the late 20th century – an approach that has worked well in the past. Finally, it was released by major distributor, Showbox, during the peak winter box-office season, when students finish their exams and head to the movie theaters in droves.

Yet The Drug King performed at only a fraction of its high expectations (1.8 million admissions, which was well below its break-even point). Online comments were merciless, condemning the predictable rise-and-fall plot and the film’s reliance on provocative content to attract attention. Within no time it was being held up as an example of all that is wrong with contemporary Korean cinema. Although it’s true that The Drug King compares poorly to Inside Men in terms of storytelling and execution, it seems likely that if it had been released five years earlier, it wouldn’t have received anywhere near the same level of criticism. In other words, much of the anger directed towards The Drug King may have reflected accumulated frustration about Korean films in general.

In contrast, consider the case of the mid-budget comedy Extreme Job. Made by up-and-coming director Lee Byoung-heon, one of the few directors working in the film industry to specialise in comedy, the film is about a group of detectives who are struggling to keep a low profile while on an extended stakeout of a criminal organization. They decide to buy out a failing fried chicken restaurant across the street from the criminal’s hideout to give them a base, secure in the knowledge that hardly any customers will show up. But when a lone customer starts raving online about a bizarre fusion fried chicken dish cooked-up by one of the cops, the restaurant becomes a viral sensation and they are soon overwhelmed with business.

In this case, a very different dynamic was at work. The film is undeniably funny and effectively paced. Given the audience’s positive response, it’s no surprise that it turned into a hit. But the scale of its success went far beyond even the rosiest projections. Released in late January 2019, Extreme Job spent a month at number one and recorded an astonishing 16.3 million admissions, making it Korea’s second most popular film of all time after 2014 historical epic Roaring Currents’ total of 17.6 million admissions. In terms of revenue, Extreme Job is at the top with US$123 million. Director Lee surely deserves all the credit for his success, but it’s also true that the film seemed to tap into long-term, pent-up demand for a decent comedy.

Why have so few Korean comedies been made in recent years? For the most part, it’s because of conventional wisdom among investors and the big film studios. Comedies have been considered an “old” genre, that worked well in the early 2000s but were not well suited to the contemporary audience. Now, of course, that conventional wisdom has been shattered, and film companies are rushing to add comedies to their slate.

But it goes beyond a simple question of genre. There is a sort of money-making template, based on star power, high production values and serious, weighty themes, that has been adopted widely by investors. The idea that the middle is falling out of the industry, leaving only low budget films and blockbuster-scale works that can secure a wide release, has been repeated like a mantra, even in the face of contradictory evidence. As a result of these beliefs (and rising production costs, particularly due to new labour rules), 2018 saw a massive increase in the number of big-budget films (defined as 10 billion won or US$9 million and up), and comparatively low levels of mid-budgeted films in the US$3 million to US$7 million range.

In the end, the big-budget films suffered in a bloodbath, and the mid-budget films did rather well. Many of the blockbuster flops were from directors who have solid track records of box-office success: Kim Jee-woon (Illang: The Wolf Brigade), Kang Hyeong-cheol (Swing Kids), Kim Byung-woo (Take Point), Choo Chang-min (Seven Years of Night), Yeon Sang-ho (Psychokinesis), Woo Min-ho (The Drug King), and Lee Jeong-beom (Jo Pil-ho: The Burning Rage).

Each of these films had a defensible strategy for finding box-office success, but part of the problem was that they all had pretty much the same strategy. There is clearly a level of audience fatigue setting in for the sort of dark, heavy drama that characterises much recent big-budget filmmaking. One recent blockbuster-scale release (which I won’t identify for the sake of spoilers) ends with the film’s charismatic leads being gunned down by machine-gun fire. This was meant to reference Korea’s tragic modern history and provoke an upsurge of nationalist feeling, but after years of watching such films, viewers no longer seem to be in the mood. The idea that blockbuster films should be fun to watch is something that has been overlooked in recent times.

A look at the blockbusters that did achieve some blockbuster success is illuminating. 2018’s most successful film by far was Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days which tallied 12.3 million admissions in early August. This sequel to the even more successful Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds from late 2017 is based on a popular web comic, and features a mix of spectacle and melodrama set in the realm of the afterlife. Despite a weak critical reception, the film appealed to all age groups and set itself up for more lucrative sequels in the future.

Another commercial success, if not on the same level, was director Kim Kwang-sik’s first big budget production The Great Battle. Budgeted at US$20 million and based on a 7th century skirmish between Tang Dynasty forces and the residents of the small Ansi Fortress, the film is rich in spectacle and features a charismatic performance by popular star Jo In-sung. Although not groundbreaking, it benefits from effective pacing and an emotionally involving buildup to the final confrontation. It was, in other words, fun – and audiences lined up to make it the second-highest grossing Korean film of the year, with a total of 5.4 million admissions.

Two other big-budget films managed to do respectable business, earning positive word of mouth through effective characterisation and storytelling, as well as highly memorable settings and content. The Spy Gone North premiered at Cannes in May 2018, and went on to earn a respectable 4.9 million admissions during its summer release. Set in the 1990s, and based on the dramatic real-life experiences of an undercover spy, the US$20 million film presented a new perspective on North-South relations as well as some beautifully rendered shots of Pyongyang.

Meanwhile Lee Hae-young’s Believer, a loose remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War, was the one big-budget release of 2018 that seemed to pick up real momentum from positive word of mouth.
With a supremely talented ensemble cast giving highly memorable performances, the film demonstrated that not all dark-themed films were doomed to fail – they could succeed with tight storytelling if they offered something unique. Despite being released “off season” in May, Believer accumulated over 5 million admissions.

The picture was much brighter for the mid-budget films of 2018, which appealed to viewers mostly on the strength of their storytelling. At the head of the pack was Intimate Strangers, the Korean remake of the famously successful 2016 Italian feature Perfect Strangers which has spawned numerous remakes across the world. Sticking fairly close to the original, the film benefitted from good casting and enthusiastic word of mouth to rack up a highly impressive 5.3 million admissions. Considering its modest budget, it stands as one of the year’s most profitable releases.

Also drawing attention was Default, the second film by director Choi Kook-hee (Split), which examines South Korea’s questionable handling of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and its closed-door dealings with the International Monetary Fund over a record bailout package. Sharing some things in common with the Hollywood film The Big Short, but also portraying the lasting effects of the crisis on South Korea’s middle class, the film is powered by a standout performance by actress Kim Hye-soo.

In terms of genre cinema, director Lee Kwon’s well-received thriller Door Lock was also built around the acting skills of an acclaimed performer. Kong Hyo-jin plays an employee at a bank who suspects that someone is trying to get into her apartment. A remake of the 2011 Spanish thriller Sleep Tight by Jaume Balagueró, the film’s expert handling of suspense was well received by audiences. Meanwhile the popular Ma Dong-seok of Train to Busan fame also found a suitable vehicle for his star persona in Unstoppable, a hugely likeable and entertaining action film that recalls the Taken franchise.

Although the early part of 2019 has been dominated by Extreme Job’s extreme success, a few other works have garnered attention from audiences. Innocent Witness is a courtroom drama about an autistic girl (Kim Hyang-gi) who is the only witness of a mysterious crime. When the defendant’s lawyer (Jung Woo-sung, in a charismatic performance) comes looking for a way to discredit her testimony, he finds himself becoming more sympathetic to her point of view.

Finally, the drama Birthday holds a special place among recent films. It’s hard to overestimate the effect of the tragic 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry on contemporary Korean society.

Although the politics surrounding the event are complicated, Birthday avoids politics and depicts a family torn apart by the loss of their teenage son. Centered around the heartbreaking performances of award-winning actors Sol Kyung-gu and Jeon Do-yeon, the film has proven to be both meaningful and extremely well made. It also marks the emergence of an exciting new talent in debut director Lee Jong-eon, a longtime assistant to director Lee Chang-dong.

So where does Korean cinema stand now? Although the overall statistics for 2018 indicate only a modest decline, the large number of dramatic box office failures suggest that producers and investors have some soul-searching to do. The last decade has seen the increasing systemization of the film industry, as its biggest companies have grown ever more powerful. In some respects, this has made the industry stronger, but it has also left it vulnerable in a creative sense. The more formulas and templates adopted by the big studios, the more likely it is that audiences will grow tired of seeing the same types of movies over and over again.

It may be that someday we can look back on 2018 as a key moment, when the audience spoke up and expressed its dissatisfaction with the state of Korean filmmaking. At first glance it looks like the studios are getting the message, but whether they are truly flexible enough to respond to audiences’ evolving tastes is yet to be seen.
Darcy Paquet