Between Two Earthquakes: Korean Cinema in 2019/20

Two earthquakes have shaken the South Korean film industry since the last edition of the FEFF. The first was Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which ranks as the most successful Korean film in history on multiple levels. Its fairytale trajectory, which began with a Palme d’Or in May 2019 and ended with a Best Picture win at the Oscars in February 2020, was so unprecedented that the industry was pushed to rethink some of the most basic assumptions about what Korean films can achieve in the global market. With an estimated US$257 million worldwide box-office total, including US$53 million in U.S. theatres, it is not only the most acclaimed and awarded Korean film of all time, but also the highest grossing.  

The second earthquake, of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit South Korea’s film industry just as hard as everywhere else. The fact that the country had previously had such a vibrant theatrical market – with Koreans watching more films in theatres per capita than in any other country in the world – meant that the whiplash from postponed releases and closed theatres was especially severe. At this point the long-term impact of the pandemic is still impossible to calculate, but it seems likely that the economics of filmmaking in Korea are going to change in fundamental ways. 
In the future, when people look back on the years 2019 and 2020, their memories will be dominated by these two seismic events. But other films emerged in the past 12 months that are still worth seeking out. This year’s online edition of the FEFF will serve as an opportunity to highlight some of those works.

Let’s start by going back to the summer of 2019. The year to date had produced two huge hits of over 10 million admissions (the comedy Extreme Job, released in January and invited to the 21st FEFF in April, and Parasite), but no other commercial standouts. As usual, Korea’s major distributors had lined up several ambitious releases for the peak summer season, but given the weak performance of big-budget films in the previous year, their success was far from certain. 
Sure enough, of the four major releases, two were major commercial disappointments, one just barely broke even, and one was a strong success. The disappointments included The King’s Letters, a period drama about Korea’s most famous monarch King Sejong, which was hampered by an SNS-fueled controversy over the supposed liberties the film took with the historical record; and director Kim Joo-hwan’s (Midnight Runners) big-budget exorcist thriller The Divine Fury, which failed to generate positive word-of-mouth despite the casting of popular star Park Seo-joon. Nationalist-tinged The Great Battle: Roar to Victory, about a successful ambush of Japanese colonial forces by Korean independence fighters in June 1920, fared better with 4.7 million admissions. But it was the disaster movie Exit that ultimately prevailed, with 9.4 million admissions.

Exit, by debut director Lee Sang-geun, imagines a terrorist incident in which poison gas spreads across downtown Daegu, forcing citizens to flee to the top of buildings for safety. The film’s effective mixture of likable characters, humour and suspenseful climbing sequences provided the kind of breezy fun many viewers were looking for in the summer months. Produced by Ryoo Seung-wan and his wife Kang Hye-jeong, the film succeeded not with the familiar formula of top-level star power and expensive special effects (one of the benefits of having poison gas as the main antagonist is that it’s fairly simple to render visually), but with good storytelling and suspense.

As is often the case, the autumn season provided an opening for a mixture of lower-budget genre films and dramas that touched on various aspects of contemporary Korean society. One noteworthy release that outperformed expectations was the hard-edged romantic comedy Crazy Romance, by first-time director Kim Han-kyul. Starring Kim Rae-won (The Prison) and the always-delightful Gong Hyo-jin (Door Lock), the film centres around two co-workers, each with a bit of a drinking problem, who enter into a sometimes-friendship, sometimes-flirtation that is never really sure where it is going. Director Kim’s sardonic take on Korea’s work and social scene, and her refusal to idealise romance, made for a wholly unique film that is difficult to characterize. 

The most discussed release of the autumn was the story of an ordinary housewife, Kim Ji-young: Born 1982. The film is based on a 2016 novel by Cho Nam-joo that was a bestseller in South Korea, Japan, and China (it was released in an English translation in early 2020). The ordinariness of the protagonist is part of the author’s point – she chose the name Kim Ji-young because it is the most common female name of her generation, and the characterisation is left deliberately abstract. In this way, her struggles to get by in a male-dominated society take on a wider resonance. Though not an easy novel to adapt into a film, director Kim Do-young’s casting of Jung Yoo-mi in the lead role was inspired, and its release sparked a nationwide discussion about (or in some quarters, an angry backlash against) feminism in contemporary Korea. The film ended up with a solid 3.7 million admissions. 

The second half of 2019 was also a comparatively fertile period for Korean independent films. Whereas in recent times it has been mostly politically-oriented documentaries that captured mainstream attention among the 100+ independent films released in theatres each year, it was female-centered dramas that received the spotlight in 2019. The coming-of-age story House of Hummingbird, set in Seoul in 1994, was by far the most acclaimed, selling over 130,000 tickets and winning upwards of 50 awards from festivals and awards ceremonies in Korea and abroad. But there were other success stories as well. 

Director Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us, a heartfelt companion piece to her acclaimed 2017 feature The World of Us, focuses on a middle-school student trying to save her parents’ marriage, and two younger girls she meets who are trying to save their home. Moonlit Winter, the second feature by director Lim Dae-hyung (Merry Christmas Mr. Mo), takes place mostly in Japan and depicts a long-lost romance between two women. Strong word-of-mouth led the film to over 100,000 admissions. Even the coolly experimental Maggie, which premiered at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival, and which departs from many storytelling conventions, managed to attract 40,000 admissions, a strong score for an independent release. It does seem that within the realm of independent cinema, one film’s success often paves the way for increased audience interest in subsequent releases as well. 

Moving towards the lucrative winter vacation season, the big studios lined up three major releases for mid-late December. Forbidden Dream by veteran director Hur Jin-ho (The Last Princess) also centered around the famous King Sejong, this time on his friendship with noted inventor Jang Young-sil. The chemistry between actors Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik drew the praise of critics but only a modest gross of about one million admissions. The comedy Start-Up, based on a famous webtoon, and featuring prolific star Ma Dong-seok, fared somewhat better, with a gross of 3.3 million. Like Exit, this film came from Kang Hye-jeong and Ryoo Seung-wan’s production house, Filmmakers R&K. 

But in terms of scale, budget and ultimate commercial success, the behemoth of the winter was the disaster movie Ashfall. Featuring top stars Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, Ma Dong-seok, Jeon Hye-jin and K-pop singer-turned-actress Bae Suzy, the film posits a multiple-stage violent eruption of the volcano Mt. Baekdu which lies on the border between North Korea and China. With the peninsula threatened by catastrophe, and the North Korean leadership wiped out in an earthquake, it falls to a South Korean special forces operative and a North Korean spy to prevent total devastation. Guided by the principle “more is more,” the film’s ceaseless escalation of spectacle, destruction and sensational plot twists, set it on a higher plane than ordinary Korean blockbusters.     

The first part of 2020 also opened on a commercially strong note. Around the time Parasite was collecting its four Oscar trophies, the 1970s-set political thriller The Man Standing Next was well on its way to amassing a 4.8 million admissions. From the director of Inside Men and The Drug King, Woo Min-ho, the film is based on the real-life assassination of authoritarian president Park Chung-hee in 1979 by the head of his intelligence agency (played by Lee Byung-hun). This is a topic that has been covered multiple times in Korean cinema, such as in Im Sang-soo’s controversial The President’s Last Bang (2005) – which also screens in this year’s FEFF program. The Man Standing Next focuses on the 40 days leading up to the shooting, and the various power struggles and intrigues that caused the protagonist to ultimately pull the trigger. It forms a particularly interesting companion piece to The President’s Last Bang, which takes place over 24 hours, but which nonetheless has a considerable overlap with the new film. The strong box office success of The Man Standing Next suggests that contemporary Korean history, which has formed the basis of many a blockbuster in the past two decades, continues to have commercial appeal if packaged in the right way.

Nonetheless, trouble was brewing for Korean films. South Korea’s first case of Covid-19 was reported on January 20, and anxiety spread quickly among the local populace, who still remembered a poorly handled outbreak of the MERS coronavirus in 2015. Film distributors fell into a quandary about how to respond. One of the first casualties was the critically praised thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws, which had won a Special Jury Award at Rotterdam the previous month, and which was scheduled to open in theaters on February 12. Featuring a complex, well-structured plot and strong performances from Jung Woo-sung and Jeon Do-yeon, the film looked like a release with strong commercial potential. But as frightening headlines about the novel coronavirus began to proliferate, distributor Megabox Plus M decided to move the release back a week, to February 19. In retrospect, this was a fatal mistake, as a major cluster of infections were reported in Daegu on the 19th. The news worsened quickly and within a week, South Korea had one of the highest concentrations of confirmed infections in the world. Beasts Clawing at Straws would end up with only 630,000 admissions, the first of many titles to see their profitability go up in smoke. 

The pandemic also affected films in production. In a case of spectacularly bad timing, a string of big-budget films set in overseas locations were all scheduled to ramp up production in early 2020. Of these, only Ryoo Seung-wan’s Isolated in Mogadishu, which began shooting in Morocco in late 2019, managed to wrap production before international travel restrictions were put in place. Productions that were not so lucky included the crime drama Bogota, which pulled out of Colombia with only a fraction of its shooting complete; Yim Soon-rye’s Afghanistan-set Negotiation, which had to cancel its planned shoot in Jordan; and the Lebanon-set kidnapping drama Pirap, starring Ha Jung-woo, which had to postpone its production to 2021.

South Korea ended up handling its outbreak well, and flattening its curve, so the country never went into full lockdown. But theatres were hit particularly hard, and film attendance slowed to a trickle. Virtually all the major commercial releases were postponed to later in the year, with re-releases like La La Land taking up the slack. Nonetheless, a few low-budget independent films that pushed ahead with their releases, and ended up grossing numbers that – by the standards of independent cinema – were more than decent. One notable example was Lucky Chan-sil, the offbeat story of an out-of-work producer, which was enthusiastically received during its premiere at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival. Opening commercially on March 5, the film managed to pull in 25,000 viewers, a number which would have been considered a success in any year.   
Looking ahead to the future, it’s hard to see what lies in wait. Due to all the struggles that Korean independent cinema has been through in recent years, this sector will likely show resilience in the face of the damage wrought by the pandemic. But it’s an open question when audiences will return to theaters in numbers that will support a big-budget film. New labour regulations in recent years have pushed up the cost of shooting in Korea, so at the very least, it will be a struggle to get back to making movies on the scale of Ashfall. On the other hand, the success of Parasite suggests that if, or when, the world does recover from the pandemic, South Korea may be poised to continue its a role as an influential cultural leader far beyond its own borders. 
Clearly, hard times lie ahead. But all hope is not lost.
Darcy Paquet