With some 164 million tickets sold between January and September, the Korean box office looks to stay on course for another strong year, coming off of 2015’s record-breaking entry. Homegrown titles accounted for 88 million tickets sold, which is almost 55% of the total B.O. revenue.
The country’s top four distributors — CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment, Showbox and Next Entertainment World — all had hits: “Operation Chromite” (CJ), “The Last Princess” (Lotte), “Violent Prosecutor” and “Tunnel” (Showbox), and “Train to Busan” (NEW).
NEW, which hadn’t seen success since 2015 comedy “Twenty,” bulleted to the top of charts on “Train.” Animation maverick Yeon Sang-ho’s live-action debut “Train” opened in July in South Korea — after a midnight screening berth in Cannes that drew praise for the zombie pic — and became the only 2016 film that has crossed the 10 million admissions mark. It has accumulated $84.4 million revenue since its July 20 release.
“The success of ‘Train’ means a lot, especially to the Korean film industry,” says June Park, director of NEW’s film business. “‘Train’ became a hit without sticking to the so-called ‘formula for 10 million admissions’ movies — star director, star cast, and a megabudget of at least $9 million. Instead, the film’s strengths were the director’s bold imagination, the type of drama that can widely appeal to all age groups, and cutting-edge technology. I believe ‘Train’ has broadened the spectrum of hit films in Korea.”
NEW has Kim Ki-duk’s “The Net” on deck for an Oct. 6 release; crime thrillers with star casts, “The King” and “One Line [Korean Title],” are also set for late 2016 releases, though exact dates are yet to be confirmed.
Though NEW’s “Train” is on top of the box office, Showbox has two of films in top three B.O. winner slots. Starring top actors Hwang Jung-min and Kang Dong-won, “Prosecutor” earned $70.1 million from 9.7 million admissions during its theatrical run and stayed on top of the Korean box office until “Train” barreled over it.
Showbox kept up the pace with disaster movie “The Tunnel,” a summer blockbuster starring Ha Jung-woo and Bae Doo-na. Opening on the same day as Lotte’s “Princess” and Megabox’s “Run Off,” “Tunnel” took the lead with audiences and earned $52.1 million from 7.1 million admissions.
Asked what he sees behind the film’s hit, director Kim Seong-hun says it is a story that today’s Korean society can relate to.
“I think the audience liked that it makes them laugh, even though it delivers a heavy message [about the sanctity of human life],” he says.
On tap from Showbox are “Luck-key,” the Korean-language remake of Japan’s “Key of Life,” in October, and “Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned,” set for November.
When the two disaster films, “Train” and “Tunnel,” opened, they were understood as metaphors for 2013’s Sewol ferry disaster in which more than 300 died off the coast of South Korea, and many in the country see the government as having botched the rescue operations. Both films told the story of individuals locked up in enclosed spaces and the irresponsible reactions of the government system. Although both directors deny that they had meant to allude to the tragedy, they explained why they think the Korean audiences tend to see their movies as Sewol metaphors.
“Mistrust towards the social system is prevalent in Korea,” says Yeon. “And it was the Sewol ferry disaster that served as the momentum for people to grow that mistrust to an extreme. When people notice a trace of the corrupted system in a movie, they naturally connect it with what they saw in the government’s incompetent reaction when the ferry sank.”
“None of the Korean people have gotten out of the trauma of the disaster yet,” Kim says. “Because we still feel guilty about our own incapability to fix anything, we tend to react sensitively whenever see something reminiscent of the disaster, no matter how trivial.”
For CJ and Lotte, historical movies were what disaster pics were for NEW and Showbox.
Made with a huge budget of $12.88 million, CJ’s “Chromite” is a Korean War thriller focusing on a 24-hour, life-or-death mission led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and eight Korean operatives. Packaged with top actors including Liam Neeson and Lee Jung-jae, the John Lee-directed pic was panned by critics, but the response from the public was totally different. The war movie earned $49.92 million from 7 million admissions over two months.
For the rest of 2016, CJ has crime action thriller “Master” in December. “Master” features some of South Korea’s biggest screen stars including Lee Byung-hun, Kang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin.
Hur Jin-ho’s “Princess” was one of the few commercial hits that Lotte has distributed since 2014’s summer adventure movie, “The Pirates.” “Princess” grossed $40.2 million from 5.6 million admissions this year, comfortably landing in the top 10 chart at local box office. Lotte’s upcoming releases include screen adaptation of French novelist Guillaume Musso’s bestseller “Will You Be There?”
Another theme that succeeded at the Korean box office was historical films with a touch of patriotism, including “Chromite” and “Princess,” wartime sex slave drama “Spirits’ Homecoming,” veteran director Lee Joon-ik’s black-and-white biopic “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet,” and Kim Jee-woon’s spy drama “Age of Shadows.” Depicting the Korean characters struggle to achieve the country’s independence (“Shadows”), or escape from the nightmarish Japanese rule (“Spirits,” “Dongju,” and “Princess”), or fight against communist North Korea (“Chromite”), the films were not without critics who blasted the films for distorting the historical facts or idealizing characters based on real people.
Despite such controversy, most patriotic films had successful theatrical runs.
“Until recently, the Korean people were not ready to watch films set in that particular era because of the national trauma about the history of colonialism remained painful,” says “Dongju” writer and producer Shin Yeon-shik.
“However, as the truth about past incidents is being revealed and vindicated, people have recently started to recover from the trauma and found it less difficult to watch.”