Contemporary Korean Films

in 21st Busan International Film Festival

by Seok Yong Changpau

By October 18 th of this year, 248 new movies had been released to South Korean cinemas. Judging from box office, Korean moviegoers are mostly interested in actioners, thrillers, and horror movies, much more so than art films. The domestic audience share for Korean movies amounts to 53.9%, well above the 41.7% market share for the 257 American films released here this year. The distributors in Korea who have led the charge are CJ E&M (40.5%), Showbox (31.3%), and NEW (15.0%).

In 2015, South Koreans’ average number of films watched in cinemas, per capita, was the world’s highest, at 4.22. South Korea has 2,424 screens in 388 cinemas. Our overall audience capacity is 398,702 seats. Last year, the total domestic audience for Korean film was 112,930,000 (52.0% audience share). By contrast, the total number of ticket sales for foreign films was 104,360,000 people (48.0% audience share). The digital online market, including VOD, is only expanding this already substantial audience..

In 2015, some of the biggest hits at the Korean box office included: Veteran (Be-te- rang, Dir: RYOO Seung-wan); Assassination (Am-sal, Dir: CHOI Dong-hoon); Ode to My Father (Guk-je- shi-jang, Dir: JKYOUN); Inside Men (Nae-bu- ja-deul, Dir: WOO Min-ho); The Throne (Sa-do, Dir: LEE Joon-ik); Northern Limit Line (Yeon-pyeong- hae-jeon, Dir: KIM Hak-soon); The Priests (Geom-eun Sa-je- deul, Dir: JANG Jae- hyun); The Himalayas (Hi-mal- la-ya, Dir: LEE Seok-hoon); Detective K : Secret of the Lost Island (Jo-seon- myeong-tamjeong: Nob-ui Ddal, Dir: KIM Sok-yun); and Twenty (Seu-mul, Dir: LEE Byoung-heon).

South Korea’s three major cinema chains CGV, Lotte Cinema, and Mega Box, comprised most of the nation’s film admissions. Among national totals, moviegoers in Seoul accounted for 26.8% of all audiences. Gyeonggi Province was next with 22.9%, and 7.6% of Koreans saw films in Busan, home of the Pusan International Film Festival. In terms of film ratings: 40.8% of tickets sold were for films carrying the over 15-year- old rating, 37.4% with the over 12-year- old admission limit, and 12.8% rated for general audiences. 9.1% of admissions were for films rated adults only.

A number of Korean films have been both commercial and critical successes so far in 2016. They include: Train to Busan (Bu-san- haeng, Dir:YEON Sang-ho); A Violent Prosecutor (Geom-sa- oe-jeon, Dir: LEE Il-hyung); The Age of Shadows (Mil-jeong, Dir: KIM Jee-woon); Tunnel (Teo-neol, Dir: KIM Seong-hun); Operation Chromite (In- cheon-sang- nyuk-jak- jeon, Dir: John H. LEE); The Wailing (Gok-seong, Dir: NA Hong- jin); The Last Princess (Deok-hye- ong-ju, Dir: HUR Jin-ho); The Handmaiden (A-ga- ssi, Dir: Park Chan-wook); Spirits’ Homecoming (Gwi-hyang, Dir: Cho Jeung Rae); Asura:The City of Madness (A-su- ra, Dir: KIM Sung-soo); and Luck-Key (Leok-ki, Dir: LEE Gae-byok), among others.

Other Korean films of 2016, less successful but nonetheless worthy of note, include:

Familyhood, Seondal: The Man who Sells the River, The Phantom Detective (Bong-I Kim-seon- dal) Proof of Innocence (Teuk-byeol- su-sa: Sa-hyeong- su-ui Pyeon-ji), Time Renegades (Si-gan- i-tal- ja), Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (Dong-ju), A Melody to Remember (O-bba- saeng-gak), Insane, The Map Against the World, Like for Likes (Jo- a-hae- jwo), etc.

According to figures from the Korean Film Council, which monitors domestic ticket sales via an integrated computer network, Luck-Key, the charming light comedy featuring Yoo Hae-jin as a charismatic assassin, had the biggest one-day opening of 2016. Cumulative attendance was 3,176,702 people. As for the story, it takes place after Yoo’s character steps on the soap in the bathroom, falls and loses his memory. Luck- Key is one of the few recent cases of a top-grossing domestic comedy in South Korea.

Now, a closer look at a few of the key Korean films of 2016, mentioned above:

Train to Busan (Release Date: Jul 20). A mysterious viral outbreak pushes Korea into a state of emergency. As the unidentified virus sweeps the country, the Korean government declares martial law. So far, the city of Busan has successfully fended off the viral outbreak. Passengers on an express train heading for safety must defend themselves against zombies across the 453 km trip from Seoul to Busan.

A Violent Prosecutor (RD: Feb 03). Prosecutor Jae-wook specializes in handling violent criminals, and doesn’t give a damn about their rights. While interrogating a suspect, he is charged with murder and arrested. He becomes a scapegoat, receiving a 10 year prison sentence. While in lockup, Jae-wook meets Chi-won, a handsome petty criminal, and uncovers the scheme that put him behind bars. Jae-wook asks Chi-won to join forces with him and begins training him to reveal the scheme and get his revenge.

The Age of Shadows (RD: Sep 07). Screened out of competition at the Venice International Film Festival. It’s the end of the 1920s, a period marred by the Japanese occupation of Korea. The Age of Shadows was inspired by true events – the Korean independence movement’s attempt to transport explosives into Seoul to blow up the General Government Building, and the infiltration of the group by spies. Director Kim Jee-woon depicts the pressures of this era and the lengths that people were driven to.

Tunnel (RD: Aug 10). A man struggles to survive during 35 days trapped under the debris of a collapsed tunnel. Jung-soo, an auto dealer, is on his way home with a birthday cake for his daughter. As he drives into a tunnel, the unthinkable: the tunnel collapses on him. Outside, this breaking news creates a media frenzy and a thoughtless reporter even airs a live phone interview with Jung-soo, using up his mobile phone batteries. A series of ridiculous blunders delays the rescue operation and threatens his chances to make it out alive.

Operation Chromite (RD: Jul 27). South Korean Navy Special Forces Capt. Jang Hak- soo and his seven-member crew disguise themselves as a North Korean inspection unit during the Korean War. Their mission directives from Gen. Mac Arthur are: 1. infiltrate the North Korean army command center at Incheon and secure a mine location chart, 2. kidnap Ryu Jang-choon, the second-highest ranking North Korean military officer, and 3. on D-Day, illuminate the Palmido lighthouse as a signal to the main UN forces. Despite growing suspicion from North Korean Commander Lim Gye-jin, Jang and his team successfully carry out their mission with the help of an underground information network. Then one day, their true identity is revealed.

The Wailing (RD: May 12). A highly unusual genre film, The Wailing plays by the rules but applies them in unconventional ways. An old stranger appears in a peaceful rural village, but no one knows when or why. As mysterious rumors begin to spread about this man, the villagers drop dead one by one. They kill each other in highly grotesque ways, for inexplicable reasons. The village is thrown into turmoil and the stranger is subjected to suspicion.

The Last Princess (RD: Aug 03). Under the oppressive colonial rule of the Japanese, the last Princess Deokhye, of the declining Joseon Dynasty, was forcibly sent to Japan. She was doomed to marry a Japanese Count, and was hospitalized due to schizophrenia. She is shown to be a person with a strong belief in the independence of Joseon. Even after liberation she couldn’t return to Korea, as the Lee Seung-man government feared a revival of the dynasty. She returned eventually, in 1962 with the help of her childhood sweetheart Janghan, and died in 1989.

The Handmaiden (RD: Jun 01). This is Park Chan-wook’s third competition entry at Cannes. Inspired by the British novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is a lesbian-themed period picture about a gold-digging count who hires a maid to help him seduce a wealthy heiress. Park’s films are known for breaking conventional cinematic rules, as well as daring to break taboos. In Korea during the Japanese colonial period, a woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her. The Handmaiden has the plot of a heist film, offers the pleasure of a perfect crime and revenge story, and explores the complex sexual fantasies of both men and women.

Spirits’ Homecoming (RD: Feb 24). In 1943, 14-year- old Jungmin’s normal, happy life is shattered when she is abducted by Japanese soldiers and taken to a comfort station located in China. There, she and a group of young girls are forced to serve as “comfort women,” subject to sexual abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Despite her hope for survival, Jungmin, like most of the girls, ends up being killed. Then, in 1991, Eunkyung, who herself bears the scars of sexual violence, discovers that she has the extraordinary power of being able to communicate with the dead. While staying at a shaman’s temple, she meets Youngook, one of the few surviving comfort women, who asks Eunkyung to bring back her lost friend. Together, Jungmin and Eunkyung initiate a Homecoming ritual.

Asura: The City of Madness (RD: Sep 28). Detective Han, who for years has been secretly doing dirty work for corrupt mayor Park Sungbae, is now pressured by a ruthless prosecutor to cooperate in his investigation against the mayor. Feeling trapped, Han persuades his young partner Sunmo to take over his work for the mayor, but things start to get tangled in unpredictable ways. Things go from bad to worse, and only the greatest evil survives in this dog-eat- dog world.

Luck-Key (RD: Oct 13). A hit man wakes up with amnesia and a different life. Hyungwook, an infamous assassin known for his perfectionism, slips on soap at a public sauna and passes out. Jaesung, an unknown actor who’s hit rock bottom, witnesses the accident and switches his locker key with Hyungwook’s. While Hyungwook struggles to remember, he tries to continue his life as an actor. In an ironic twist, he soon becomes TV’s newest action star, thanks to the real-life action moves that to which his body accustomed. In the course of the shooting the action sequences, his memory starts to return.

The Net (RD Oct 6.). A North Korean fisherman drifts down to South Korea when his boat’s engine fails. He becomes a small fish caught in The Net of big ideologies. The National Intelligence Service proceeds to interrogate him on suspicion of being a spy. Two NIS officers with opposing views take on the case. The fisherman, for his part, just wants to go back home to the North. After enduring many brutal investigations, he eventually gets sent back to North Korea. But before leaving South Korea, he observes both its advanced development as well as its darker realities. He realizes that economic development does not spell happiness for the South Koreans. Although he makes it back home, he receives the same interrogation as he did in the south, and feels the great sadness of being a human trapped in the ideology between the two divided countries.

Korean films have the spotlight at the International Film Festival. Among them, new films by Hong Sang Soo, Kim Ki-duk, and Park Chan-wook are remarkable. Korean filmmakers have their specific esthetics. They show their literary sensibility, philosophical reflection and point of historical view through multiple genres.

This year, audiences responded with particular enthusiasm to thrillers, including Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Kim Jee-woon’s double-agent thriller romp The Age of Shadows, a stylish period set in the Japanese Colonial Era, and Kim Sung-soo’s Asura : The City of Madness a stygian crime thriller that casts a jaundiced eye at regional politics. These films drew praise from critics as well. Korean film directors have made many amazing movies this year, overcoming a difficult budgetary environment with their abundant imaginations. Today South Korea produces all kinds of movies, including independent films. There are many other charming films not mentioned above, and each one shines with own unique style and ambiance. This year Lee Joon-ik’s Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet won the Fipresci Award from Korean Film Critics Association, and is regarded as one of the exemplary low-budget films of 2016.

Edited by Michael Sicinski