Korea Grapples With Films Set in Japanese Colonial Era

Nation Tries to Come to Terms With Its Painful Past

Korean Films Set in Japanese Colonial
Courtesy of Well Go USA

Korean commercial films set in the Japanese colonial era have a checkered history at the box office.

Most films taking pace in that epoch, including “The Anarchists” (2000), “Blue Swallow” (2005), “Epitaph” (2007), “Radio Days” (2008) and “Modern Boy” (2008) scored fewer than 1 million admissions.

Kim Jee-woon’s big-budget, genre-bending “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” which earned $38.3 million from 6.69 million admissions in 2008, was one of the rare successful examples.

This general lack of box office appeal has discouraged studios from returning to the period — until now.

Last year, several colonial-era films achieved exceptional success, including Choi Dong-hoon’s big-budget actioner “Assassination,” which became 2015’s second-biggest film; Lee Joon-ik’s low-budget black-and-white biopic “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet”; and crowdfunded comfort-women drama “Spirits’ Homecoming.”

The latter two were both considered sleeper hits, as they competed against blockbustr Hollywood releases “Deadpool” and “Zootopia.”

“The colonial era is full of figures and events suitable for film adaptations, but filmmakers in the past were not willing to tap into that particular era because of the national sentiment about the painful history,” says “Dongju” writer and producer Shin Yeon-shick. “However, as the truth about past incidents is being revealed and vindicated, Korean society has recently started to recover from the trauma and found it less difficult to watch such films.”

Another reason for filmmakers’ reluctance was production costs. As audience demand for colonial films was low, companies had been hesitant to bear the enormous expense to build proper sets and props to re-enact the era.

Shin says that this may change. “The success of ‘Assassination’ has proven the commercial potential of films set in that era. There may be even more such films in the future.”

Indeed, more big-budget films set in that era are on deck for theatrical release this year. They include Park Chan-wook’s Cannes competition entry “The Handmaiden,” Kim Jee-woon’s spy drama “Age of Shadows” and Hur Jin-ho’s romance drama “The Last Princess.”