Jason Bechervaise, founder of koreanfilm.org.uk, gives his perspective on the ups and downs of the Korean film industry in 2007
By all accounts 2007 was a year that has been difficult one for the Korean film industry where it seems that the golden years of the Korean film industry has passed. Rising costs have meant it is more challenging to make a profit. A recent study by KOFIC (Korean Film Council) estimated that while in 2006 the average film earned 77% of its budget, in 2007 this dropped significantly to 39%. To make things look little better, only 10 films broke even with 2 million admissions or more. However, although 2007 saw a drop in theatrical admissions — the first in 11 years — it is still the second highest on record at 157 million. After all, you can’t keep on bettering last year — the stock markets of late are clear proof that there will be a point where things slow down. But, the market share of local films dropped to 50.8% – a 27.5% drop from last year and there has been an increase from 58 million admissions for non-Korean films in 2006 to 77 million in 2007.
There is a variety of reasons for this. Some argue the lack of originality in the Korean film industry at present — there are too many commercial films that are hitting the screens. The rising fees demanded by stars are seen as another problem with them earning $600,000 a film for men and $400,000 for women. This may not be Hollywood where they demand millions, but Hollywood films do of course have much bigger budgets — the average Korean film has a budget of $6.5 million, but this has increased from $5.4 million in 2006. Indeed stars are not necessarily bringing in the cash, which is proved by looking at the failure of Restless (중천 – above left – dir Jo Dong-oh) starring Jung Woo-sung (정우성) and Kim Tae-hee (김태희), or look at Hwangjini (황진이, dir Jang Yoon-hyeon) starring Song Hye-Kyo (송혜교). And finally, investors such as KT Telecom and SK telecom have seemed to throw money at the industry expecting big returns.
Whilst I do agree with this — it is difficult not to — I don’t think it warrants a doom and gloom outlook. But there is no doubt that Korea is turning into the classical Hollywood era with its fully integrated conglomerates such as Lotte and CJ, rising star fees and large quantity of films that were released in 2007. But it is only a matter of time before this collapses with a more refined and successful industry. These factors will need to change and this only has to be a positive thing. Although I do believe there have been too many Korean films that have been released and some have been very disappointing, I don’t agree that the quality has completely dissipated. Even Hollywood style films such as The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계 – above right) by Han Jae-lim (한재림) show quite the opposite and indeed 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워), which broke into the 10 most successful films of all time. However, that said, it is clear that some films have had too much focus on commercialism rather than quality. Lets have a closer look at 2007 to expand on this. Where have the successes been and where has it failed?
The year started off well with the success of 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워 – left) (it was released in December, but its release carried on into the new year), which explores the highly popular but controversial subject of plastic surgery. Directed by Kim Yong-hwa (김용화), it sees this emergence of young directors that have been influenced by Hollywood. The film’s comparison with Hollywood hit Shallow Hal is inevitable, but whilst it has some similarities, it does seem to tackle the often not talked about subject of plastic surgery. In Busan, Kim Yong-hwa (김용화) told me “whilst you can always change the outside, you can never change the inside.” He also cited his influence from Hollywood directors such as the Coen brothers; and Han Jae-lim (한재림) (director of The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계)) told me the inspiration for that film lies with The Godfather.
The Restless (중천 (中天)) was a big disappointment in January (also released in December and its release took it into January) not even breaking $10 million despite its high profile cast and aggressive marketing from CJ Entertainment, but even the soundtrack sounded awful.
February saw another hit — Voice of Murderer (그놈 목소리 – right). But its success it largely down to its surprise opening of 972,620 ($6.1 million) admissions on 472 screens. It then began to cool down, which suggests the film, directed by Park Jin-pyo (박진표), and starring Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구), wasn’t the film people were expecting, but it did go on to make 3 million admissions ($18.7m), which isn’t half bad.
February was a strong month for Korean films — in addition to Voice of Murderer (그놈 목소리), three stood out: Miracle on 1st Street (1번가의 기적 – below left) directed by Yoon Je-kyoon (윤제균 aka JK Youn) and starring Im Chang-jeong (임창정) & Ha Ji-won (하지원), Highway Star (복면 달호 – below centre) directed by Kim Hyun-soo (김현수) & Kim Sang-chan (김상찬) and A Good Day for an Affair (바람 피기 좋은 날 – below right) directed by Jang Moon-il (장문일). The former went on to be the 6th most successful Korean film making 2.6 million ($16.4) admissions.
March was a month, which was dominated by Hollywood film 300 — apparently a hit with Korean older men. Although only released on 380 screens, it took the box office by storm with 748,203 admissions ($5m) in its first week. Although Miracle on 1st street was still going strong in March, Hollywood and other non-Korean films dominated it. The other Korean films on show, such as Big Bang (쏜다) written and directed by Park Jeong-woo (박정우) and Soo (수) directed by Choi Yang-il (최양일) failed to ignite and thus flopped. Small Town Rivals (이장과 군수) written and directed by Jang Gyoo-seong (장규성) brought some needed light at the end of the month, which went on to be relatively successful in April.
April was a brighter month with the successful Paradise Murdered (극락도 살인사건 – left) written and directed by Kim Han-min (김한민), which went on to make 2.1 million admissions ($5.6 million) and the release of The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계) helped things, though it did slip down the box office a little too quickly for my liking. Not quite sure why, given the presence of Song Kang-ho (송강호) on very fine form and to be honest, it is a great film.
But April was also marked with the failure of Beyond The Years (천년학 – right) directed by the one and only Im Kwon-taek (임권택). It remained in the top 10 for 1 week making merely 51,917 admissions ($342,000), though it was only released on 186 screens. This is quite a contrast to the success of Sopyonje, which became the most successful film of all time when it was released in 1992. In an interview I had with him at Busan he told me:
“One of the reasons Beyond The Years wasn’t so successful at the Korean box office was because the film contains a lot of meanings and the characters didn’t have a description. People should really think about what was going on. But the Korean audiences don’t really like it now – that was one of the reasons it failed.”
He seemed to dwell on this and it would be interesting to see if he can make another film. It was a real shame the film wasn’t successful, since it has to be one of the finest films of the year.
Other Korean films that were released include Meet Mr Daddy aka Shiny Day (눈부신 날에) directed by Park Kwang-soo (박광수) starring Park Shin-yang (박신양) , which failed to go anywhere other than down the chart quite quickly. However, there was better news for My Tutor Friend Lesson 2 (동갑내기 과외하기 레슨 II – left) directed by Ji Kil-woong (지길웅) & Kim Ho-jung (김호정), which made $3 million in 2 weeks.
May saw the launch of the Spring / Summer Hollywood blockbusters, with Spiderman 3 dominating the charts for the most part, at least until Pirates of The Caribbean: At Worlds End was released at the end of the month. However, as ever Korean films were out in force, two of which stand out. The first being the commercial Unstoppable Marriage (못말리는 결혼 – right) directed by Kim Seong-wook (김성욱) and starring Ha Seok-jin and Yoo-jin (Eugene), which went on to make over 1 million admissions ($8.1m). The second is of course Lee Chang-dong’s (이창동) Secret Sunshine (밀양 – below left). Although not commercial in nature — quite the opposite — Jeon Do-yeon’s (전도연) win at Cannes evidently made an impact since it went on to make over 1.5 million admissions ($10.5m).
The Hollywood films such as Shrek The Third and Transformers again dominated June and July, but there was some relief from Hwangjini (황진이 – below left) and Black House (검은 집 – below middle) directed by Sin Tae-ra (신태라) and starring Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) , but neither of which performed extremely well — particularly the former. June also saw the release of Never Forever (두 번째 사랑 – below right) written and directed by Gina Kim (김진아), which was the first Korean-American film to hit the screens, which opened on 77 screens and faired relatively well on its opening week with a screen average of $2,958.
The close of July saw the release of May 18 (화려한 휴가 – right) directed by Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) and starring countless names including Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경) Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) and Lee Joon-ki (안성기), which made over 1 million admissions ($9.7m) in its first week, and as we have seen, it became the second hit of the year, even though it seems to be somewhat overlooked.
In the following week, the record breaking of D-War (디 워) written and directed by Shim Hyung-rae (디 워) of almost 2 million admissions ($18.8m) in its opening weekend beat this. These films seemed to bring some confidence back to the industry that had been battered by the Hollywood competition over the last 3 months and then began releasing Korean films like there was no tomorrow in August, which included The Worst Man of My Life (내 생애 최악의 남자) directed by Son Hyeon-hee (손현희), Changing Partners (지금 사랑하는 사람과 살고 있습니까?) directed by Jeong Yoon-soo (정윤수), Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장) directed by Kim Jong-jin (김종진) and unsuccessful remake Swindlers in My Mothers House. Whilst Changing Partners and Underground Rendezvous broke a million admissions ($8m) (this still means they make a loss though), the remaining two failed to even hit this mark.
September was a mixture of failures and successes for Korean film. My Father (마이 파더) directed by Hwang Dong-hyeok (황동혁) and starring Daniel Henney, The Two Faces of My Girlfriend (두 얼굴의 여친) directed by Lee Seok-hoon (두 얼굴의 여친), The Mafia and The Salesman (상사부일체 – 두사부일체 3) written and directed by Shim Seung-bo (심승보) were all failures, particularly the latter. It would seem films of this calibre are losing their touch, though Kidnapping Granny (권순분 여사 납치사건) directed by Kim Sang-jin (김상진) on the other hand, which has similar commercial character fared much better generating 1.5 million admissions ($10.3m), though you have one of Korea’s funniest actresses playing the central role as granny, Nah Moon-he (나문희). The biggest success of September was A Love (사랑 – above left) directed by Kwak Gyoung-taek (곽경택), which did very well generating 2 million admissions ($14.4m), but you could argue it only broke even — at least it didn’t make a loss.
Happiness (행복) directed by Heo Jin-ho (허진호) soon followed starring Lim Soo-Jung and Hwang-Jeong min, but failed to generate the success one would like with two big names — it made almost 1.2 million admissions ($8.4m). The same thing happened for M (엠 – right), only even worse. On 449 screens on its opening weekend, it didn’t even reach 250,000 admissions ($1.6m) despite the star presence of Kang Dong-won and Kong Hyo-jin and of course director Lee Myeong-see (이명세) at the driving seat. It exited the box office after two weeks on barely 400,000 admissions ($2.8m) — oh dear! Perhaps it will have more appeal on the International Market, as did his other films such as Duellist (형사) (2005) and Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) (1999).
Other films that hit the cinemas in October were Shadows in the Palace (궁녀) written and directed by Kim Mi-jeong (김미정) and Going by the Book (바르게 살자)) directed by Ra Hee-chan (라희찬), which both did fairly well generating 1,250,000 ($9.7m) and 2.1 million admissions ($14.9m) respectively. It is important to note that Punch Lady (펀치 레이디) written and directed by Kang Hyo-jin (강효진) opened on 240 screens, yet it opened in 10th place at just under 22,000 admissions ($158,250) for the weekend (October 26 -28). On this note, it is also worth mentioning that whilst it is often to see high profile films to take all the screens, October saw a remarkable share for each film in the top 10.
November saw the release of Le Grand Chef (식객 – left) written and directed by Jeon Yoon-soo (전윤수), which went on to make 2.9 million admissions ($20.2.m) and therefore became the 5th most successful film of the year and Seven Days (세븐 데이즈 – below right) directed by Won Sin-yeon (원신연) and starring Lost star Kim Yoon-jin (김윤진) , which was also released in November made 2 million admissions ($14.4m). It was also a month, which seemed to be an international month where the success of Lust, Caution was making the headlines and films from all over the world seemed to be hitting the charts, from as far as Israel (Butterfly On A Wheel), Ireland (Once), France (La Vie En Rose) UK (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Germany (The Black Dahlia), Japan (Hero) and not to mention Hollywood (Beowulf), but Le Grand Chef and Seven Days kept their heads up high despite the international competition on show. But there is always going to be some kind of flop somewhere along the lines, and Scout (Dir Kim Hyun-seok) seemed to fail miserably leaving the charts after two weeks on only 270,000 admissions ($1.8 million) even though it stars Im Chang-jeong, which goes on to prove that stars don’t necessarily guarantee cash. Bank Attack (마을금고연쇄습격사건) directed by Park Sang-joon (박상준) also didn’t do very well – perhaps this is a little un-original. The synopsis goes like this: Someone who has never done anything wrong in his life decides to rob a bank to save his sick daughter.
December was a very busy month which saw six new Korean films released, and two released in the weekend November 30 — December 2, not to mention Le Grand Chef and Seven Days still going fairly strong. With the Hollywood films firmly set in their place for the Christmas season – I am Legend, The Golden Compass and National Treasure: Book of Secrets — it inevitably meant that the box office was a little crammed to say the least. Good news for the public as they were spoilt for choice, but not good news for the distributors who were hoping for some Christmas bonuses. The first Korean victim was My Eleventh Mother (열한번째 엄마) directed by Kim Jin-seong (김진성) – the title says it all really — didn’t even make 350,000 admissions and was resigned to making 333,337 admissions ($2.8m) in its last week in the top 10. Our Town (우리 동네) directed by Jeong Gil-yeong (정길영) followed a similar route despite opening on 284 screens, as did Venus and Mars (싸움) written and directed by Han Ji-seung (한지승), which was a very big disappointment for Cinema Service. Opening on 403 screens, it made 236,328 ($1.2 million) after its first weekend and was out of the charts by the third week. Hansel & Gretel (헨젤과 그레텔) directed by Lim Pil-seong (임필성) unfortunately performed in a similar fashion; only it slipped out of sight by the 2nd week (140,455 admissions/$942,574). Miss Gold Digger (용의주도 미스 신) directed by Park Yong-jib (박용집) went along the same lines (267,065 admissions/$1.8m after its first week — it was not seen again) and Mask aka Rainbow Eyes (가면) directed by Yang Yoon-ho (양윤호) didn’t even make 150,000 admissions in its first week. My Love (내 사랑) directed by Lee Han (이한) performed slightly better — please don’t confuse it with A Love (사랑) by Kwak Gyeong-taek (곽경택) – making 933,603 admissions ($6.4 million). Most notably however, there was some relief in the form of Sex is Zero 2 (색즉시공 시즌 2 – left) directed by Yoon Tae-yoon (윤태윤), which made almost 2 million admissions ($13.7m) as it entered the New Year, so it shows that commercial sequels are still appealing to a certain extent.
To summarize the year of 2007 for Korean film — it is easy to get lost — it started off well with the success of 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워) and continued to a lesser degree with Voice of Murderer (그놈 목소리) and Paradise Murdered (극락도 살인사건), but as the summer was on the horizon Hollywood films dominated the box office and therefore forced Korean films to remain dormant until May 18 and D-War ( – right) arrived. A subsequent wave of Korean films emerged, though these were largely unsuccessful at least until A Love brought some life back. The industry was then plagued by more failures and mediocre successes such as M and Happiness, however Le Grand Chef and Seven Days prevented the industry was looking very bleak even though December was a month associated with Korean flops.
December is a strong example and case study as to why the Korean film industry is facing problems — there is simply too much product. You can see from some of the titles that originality, quite often associated with Korean film, has gone out of the window. But there are many films during the year where this is not the case with hits such as Paradise Murdered and May 18. Alarming however is the rejection of Im Kwon-taek’s 100th film, Beyond The Years — perhaps it has a future on the international market. The success of Secret Sunshine especially given the realistic nature of he film demonstrates how an award can seriously increase sales. Indeed the domestic industry has felt the pressures of the screen-quota reduction, which is clearly evident from the bombardment of Hollywood films. But Korean audiences seem to be enjoying them — most notably Transformers (7.4 million admissions/ $50.5 million). Yet, Korea has had blockbusters of their own, which have been equally successful — D-War (even though it is in the English language for the most part) and May 18 have been extremely successful. But out of the top 10 films released in Korea during 2007, only 4 of them are Korean, compared to 6 last year, though a Korean film remains at the No. 1 spot.
But as I have pointed out, whilst many are taking a pessimistic view and it is easy to do so, these problems the industry face will only lead to a positive outcome. With fewer films on the agenda, there will be more money in the pot and more time spent on films that will work, rather than releasing a lot of rubbish. That said: to say Korea has lost all its originality is wrong, since it is still releasing films that are highly original even if they are films that don’t seem to be a real hit with viewers. But paradoxically, with the success of commercial films such as D-War, A Love, 200 Pounds Beauty, it is going to mean they are going to release more and more commercial films, but it is about finding films that work commercially whilst not losing that Korean touch.
This article first appeared on www.koreanfilm.org.uk, and is reproduced with Jase’s kind permission. Visit his site for the latest in Korean movie news and festival and box office reports.