This year’s Korean box office has once more seen a deluge of dark thrillers spotlighting tortured male characters.
From the Cannes-screened “The Merciless,” starring Sol Kyung-gu and Im Si-wan as gangsters, to “Bluebeard,” in which Cho Jin-woong plays a doctor driven to psychological and financial edge, films this year presented struggling male characters as leads.
“Memoir of a Murderer” saw Sol Kyung-gu as a serial killer with Alzheimer’s disease. The recently opened “The Swindlers” features Yoo Ji-tae as a power-hungry prosecutor and Hyun Bin as a cunning scam artist.
Films such as “A Taxi Driver” and “Battleship Island” tackled momentous historical incidents such as the Gwangju Democratic Uprising of 1980 and Japanese soldiers’ brutal treatment of Koreans on Hashima Island, respectively.
It seems Korean cinema will continue in its streak of male-dominated thrillers, period pieces and crime flicks in 2018, according to next year’s lineup revealed by Korea’s four largest film distributors CJ E&M, Showbox, Next Entertainment World and Lotte Entertainment.
Jung Woo-sung stars in “Steel Rain.” (Next Entertainment World)
Big-budget blockbusters, period pieces
Next year, NEW will release comic action flick “Psychokinesis” by director Yeon Sang-ho, whose 2016 zombie flick “Train to Busan” reaped international success. The 10 billion won ($9 million) film will feature Ryo Seung-ryong as a father with supernatural powers who seeks to save his daughter, played by Shim Eun-kyung.
NEW will also present “Ansisung” by director Kim Gwang-sik, a massive period piece with a 15 billion won budget. The film will star Jo In-sung as Yang Man-chun, the Goguryeo commander from the 640s who defended Korea’s Ansi Fortress against a Chinese invasion.
The poster for Yeon Sang-ho’s upcoming film “Psychokinesis” (Next Entertainment World)
Lotte Entertainment’s “Along with the Gods,” directed by Kim Yong-hwa, boasts a huge budget of 40 billion won, and has been presold to over 100 countries prior to its December release. The film, based on a webtoon series of the same title, follows a traditional Korean folk story of the afterlife.
Next year, the second installation of the film will be released, starring Ma Dong-seok.
Lotte Entertainment will also be releasing Jo Geun-hyun’s “Heungbu,” starring the late actor Kim Joo-hyuk, who died in a car accident in October, next year.
Ha Jung-woo stars in “Along with the Gods.” (Lotte Entertainment)
NEW will be releasing Kim Sung-hoon’s “Changweol (Outbreak),” a zombie flick set in the Joseon era.
Thrillers and crime flicks have been all the rage in recent years, sparked by the popularity of 2015’s films such as “Inside Men” and “Veteran,” which dealt with the dark underworld of Korea’s politicians and the wealthy.
Next year, CJ E&M will be releasing thrillers such as No Dong-seok’s “Golden Slumber,” featuring Gang Dong-won; director Lee Jong-seok’s “Negotiation” featuring Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin in a kidnap thriller; Choo Chang-min’s “A Night of Seven Years,” featuring Jang Dong-gun and based on Korean writer Jeong Yoo-jeong’s novel of the same title; and Jang Jae-hyun’s “Sabaha,” starring Lee Jung-jae as a pastor who becomes embroiled in the supernatural goings on at a cult.
Showbox is also set to showcase crime thrillers such as Woo Min-ho’s “Drug King,” starring Song Kang-ho and Bae Doo-na, based on a true story of a drug case that shook Korea in the 1970s.
A handful of films will be centering on inter-Korean tensions, another staple theme in Korean cinema of late. Last year saw Kim Sung-hoon’s “Confidential Assignment,” about a collaborative project between a South Korean detective and North Korean secret agent, while this year’s “V.I.P.” featured Lee Jong-seok as a cold-blooded serial killer from North Korea’s upper echelons.
Yang Woo-seok’s “Steel Rain,” set to open on Dec. 20, will see Jung Woo-sung as a top North Korean agent who sneaks into South Korea at a precipice of an a regime change in the North.
Next year, CJ E&M will release Yoon Jong-bin’s “Gongjak,” featuring a South Korean secret agent who makes a clandestine deal with the North prior to the 1997 presidential elections.
Kim Byung-woo’s “PMC” will feature Ha Jung-woo and Lee Sun-kyun in a secret mission in an underground bunker.
Kang Byung-cheol’s “Swing Kids” will be set in a prison camp during the Korean War, where South and North Korean soldiers overcome ideological differences in a comedy drama.
On the prevalence of similar genres, experts say that the film industry is inevitably responding to profits.
The 10 most-viewed films in 2017 are all movies that center on male characters, with the exception of “I Can Speak,” a comedy-drama starring Lee Je-hoon and Na Moon-hee.
“A Taxi Driver,” “Confidential Assignment” and crime action flick “The Outlaws” occupied the top three slots as of November.
Next on the list were “Battleship Island,” “Midnight Runners,” a buddy movie featuring two male students at a police academy, and “The King,” about the ruthless world of Korean politics.
“Investors continue to invest in crime action flicks because they’re popular,” said film critic Kang Yoo-jung, who added, “Mid-size films of various genres, including romance, melodrama and horror are necessary for the film market to maintain its diversity.”
Female-centric films peek through
At the same time, 2017 saw a handful of films centering on female characters, though few achieved commercial success.
In the mystery-thriller “House of the Disappeared,” Kim Yun-jin played a mother of two boys navigating time and death in a haunted home. Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” saw the 13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun as its young heroine, while singer-turned-actress Ahn So-hee played a central part in drama “A Single Rider.”
Kim Jong-kwan’s “The Table,” distributed by At Nine Film, saw four actresses -- Jung Yu-mi, Han Ye-ri, Jung Eun-chae and Im Soo-jung -- as its main characters.
Actress Moon So-ri set a new milestone in Korean cinema by directing, scripting and starring in “The Running Actress.” The humorous drama film, which dealt with the behind-the-scenes life of an actress, received critical acclaim. The indie film, however, was distributed by Metaplay only to a select few theaters.
Actress Kim Hye-soo starred in “A Special Lady,” a noir thriller about female gang boss Na Hyun-jung which opened in November. Despite its touting of a strong female character, however, many critics commented on the outdated version of womanhood the film offered.
Kim Hye-soo stars in “A Special Lady.” (Cineguru Kidari Ent.)
In 2018, Min Kyu-dong’s “Herstory” featuring Kim Hee-ae and Kim Hae-sook will deal with the comfort women issue, tracing the legal battle that took place between 1992 and 1998 at Busan and Shimonoseki courtrooms. The film wrapped up shooting on Nov. 6.
Kim Hae-sook (left) stars in “Herstory.” (Next Entertainment World)
A roster of female actresses, including Lee Yu-young, Ye Soo-jung and Moon Sook star in the film.
According to film critic Hwang Jin-mee, the tide is slowly turning and viewers are calling for diversity.
“The market has started to become aware of what viewers want to see and what viewers are sick of. But what we’re seeing right now are films that have already been made in the past, according to old ideas.”
By Rumy Doo