Maturing Korean Film Industry Seduces Global Markets
Film lovers from around the world often look to Korea for the next new thing. But after two decades of tailoring genres to their unique specifications, Korean filmmakers have slowly begun to move away from outright experimentation as the industry settles into a new era marked by confidence and sophistication. With studios also looking to profit from beyond Korea’s borders, more gambles have been taken on big-budget productions capable of competing on the world stage.
Beyond committed fans, global markets seem to be responding well, as Korean blockbusters have become an increasingly regular presence in the world’s multiplexes, not to mention widely available online. Korea’s rich arthouse scene also continues to excel on the festival circuit and through specialist distribution channels.
Train to Busan
Most remarkable in recent memory was Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie blockbuster Train to Busan, which blazed a circuit around the world after its Cannes Film Festival bow in May last year. This included over 11 million viewers at home, and broke several records across Asia, such as highest grossing Asian film of all time in Hong Kong. The UK also got in on the action, giving the film a robust £100,000 theatrical run.
A few other films found their way into UK theaters over the past year, including Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows and Kim Seong-hun’s The Tunnel. The first of these proved an enormous success, grossing in excess of £1 million.
Outside of theaters but no less visible was Bong Joon-ho, who debuted his sixth film Okja on Netflix. Few people were afforded a chance to see the big-budget global fantasy on the silver screen, but director Bong made sure that the UK, which notoriously missed out on his sci-fi opus Snowpiercer a few years ago, was one of only three markets to give the film a day-and-date theatrical release (the others were Korea and the United States). Speaking of Netflix, the online distributor also landed its first Netflix Originals from Korea last year, when it picked up both the nuclear disaster drama Pandora and the sci-fi thriller Lucid Dream.
Looking at the films themselves we see how Korean production companies are still experimenting with genres, but the tonal swings have become more subtle and the fragmentary plots have become seamlessly blended into popular narratives capable of wooing vast swaths of the viewing public.
A case in point is Cho Ui-seok’s Master, the slick new financial action-thriller that dominated the end of year period as it put the brakes on the new Star Wars entry Rogue One. In it we find three of today’s biggest stars (Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin) in a tale of high finance crime. Familiar elements of the heist, investigative and action thriller serve to elevate the tale above a cops-and-robbers story while colourful global locations enhance the film’s visual sheen.
Meanwhile, the popular Joseon era drama was given a spring in its step with Chung Yoon-chul’s Warriors of the Dawn. Filmed almost entirely in outdoor locations, this guerrilla skirmish road movie moved with purpose and solemnity as it followed the shifting dynamics of characters braving the elements, enemies and each other.
This summer, K-horror also came screaming back with The Mimic, from Hide and Seek director Huh Jung. Combining a slick and scary haunted house tale with a strong dramatic backbone and the unfathomable mystery of shamanism, the chills played on the familiar to unnerving effect.
One of the titles released during this year’s Chuseok holiday, Crime City is a new
Korean thriller exploring a section of Korean society that is often hidden from
view – Chinese-Korean immigrants, namely within the Daerim neighbourhood
of central Seoul. From debut director Kang Yun-sung, the film combines the grit
of a low-rent nook of Korea’s capital with the colourful decors of its denizens.
Known as the Joseonjok, these immigrants may be half-Korean, but they are
often held at arm’s length from the country’s mainstream and Kang’s lens pores
through this little seen facet of society in a violent yet at times comic tale of local
detectives and foreign hoods.
In Between Seasons
On the indie end of the spectrum, we’re also seeing a sophistication not just in the themes tackled by arthouse filmmakers but also the approach used to highlight what they see as the ills of society. For his drama In Between Seasons, one of the standouts from last year’s Busan International Film Festival, director Lee Dong-eun provided a subtle take on the prejudices experienced by the queer community in modern Korean society, even allowing a note of hope to enter his realistic narrative. Veteran social realist Shin Dong-il returned with Come, Together, exploring Seoul’s pressure cooker environment from three different perspectives.
UK viewers can look forward to more Korean films this year, including Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, LKFF 2017’s final teaser screening, which was given a glossy blu-ray treatment by Arrow Films. With several ambitious blockbusters on the way, each with their own impressive visual effects and streamlined genre elements, UK distributors may be spoilt for choice to thrill audiences in the future as Korea’s film industry continues to mature.
by Pierce Conran,
Film Critic, Journalist and Producer