Korean blockbusters reignite film industry

August 25, 2014
"The Admiral: Roaring Currents" has broken Korean box office records.

“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” has broken Korean box office records.

By Jason Bechervaise

Only a few months ago following the tragic Sewol ferry sinking in April, there were concerns that the disaster would affect how local audiences would respond to three domestic maritime blockbusters: “Roaring Currents,” “The Pirates,” and “Sea Fog.” If all three tanked, it could have discouraged local movie publishers from producing big-budget movies in the future given that these films had estimated budgets of up to 15 billion won (about $14.7 million).

Furthermore, Hollywood films, as is often the case, dominated much of the earlier part of the summer season, which has been more protracted than usual following a string of hits featuring Marvel comic characters such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” along with the Tom Cruise film “Edge of Tomorrow” forcing local films to the sidelines. Therefore, to generate interest in this year’s domestic movies there was much riding on the success of these Korean blockbusters, which also included another Joeson period epic: “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” (aka “Kundo”) that was first to hit screens on July 23.

In fact “Kundo”, which is directed by Yoon Jong-bin (“Nameless Gangster”) and starring Ha Jung-woo and Kang Dong-won about a group of outlaws in the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), provided a glimpse of what was to follow, shattering the opening day record by attracting 551,843 people ― a record previously held by “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011). It then continued to perform well over the following weekend (July 25-27) amassing 2.11 million admissions, which was the biggest opening weekend of 2014.

That was, of course, until the epic Yi Soon-shin naval movie, “Roaring Currents” came along on July 30 and smashed the opening day record just one week after “Kundo” did the same, amassing 682,720 ticket sales, which became one of a number of records it went on to break.

Reflective of the film’s unprecedented success at the box office, “Roaring Currents” achieved the extraordinary and sold a whopping 3.3 million tickets on its opening weekend (Aug. 1-3) becoming the first film ever to attract over a million viewers in one day, which it did on four occasions, and also broke the weekday record selling 989,826 tickets on Aug. 4.

The record breaking didn’t stop there either. Along with becoming the film to reach the all-important milestone of 10 million admissions, which it did in 12 days, “Roaring Currents” sailed past “Avatar” to become the nation’s most popular film in history on Aug. 16, with 13.62 million ticket sales. It’s now also the first film to surpass sales of 16 million as well as the first Korean film to generate over 100 billion won at the box office having taken 125 billion won in revenue.

The film directed by Kim Han-min, which stars Choi Min-sik as the legendary admiral Yi Sun-shin who defied all odds by defeating a Japanese armada consisting of some 330 ships with just 12 vessels at the Battle of Myeongryang in 1597, has struck a chord with local audiences still reeling from the Sewol ferry disaster, which caused both widespread sorrow and prompted outrage throughout the country.

Admiral Yi is regarded as a hero amongst the local population and is arguably one of Korea’s most admired leaders; the film has perhaps given an opportunity for viewers to regain some national pride following a particularly troubling year for the nation.

"The Pirates," starring Son Ye-jin and Kim Nam-gil, has found success in the local film industry despite the overwhelming popularity of "Roaring Currents."

“The Pirates,” starring Son Ye-jin and Kim Nam-gil, has found success in the local film industry despite the overwhelming popularity of “Roaring Currents.”

However, like most things, it’s likely that there is a combination of factors. Some may point to the poor diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea, or that the movie was always destined for success given the popularity of Admiral Yi along with such a credible actor playing the role. However, to solely focus on the external circumstances behind the film’s success is perhaps underplaying the achievements within the film itself.

While the film hasn’t received widespread praise from critics, it is an achievement that the film industry can pull of such a film and turn it into a instant blockbuster on a mere 15 billion won budget, especially since much of the movie takes place at sea. While 15 billion won may sound like a lot of money, the total is only a fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood blockbuster.

Arguably, the industry’s vertically integrated system, which allows certain distributors to screen their films on a significantly large amount of screens, has also been a factor in the naval movie’s success, which is to the detriment of smaller films and even other commercial features. But as problematic as this clearly is, rightly or wrongly, tickets were still being sold.

“The Pirates,” starring Kim Nam-gil alongside Son Ye-jin and directed by Lee Seok-hoon (“Dancing Queen”), is also performing well at the box office ― having now bagged close to 6 million admissions ― and still going strong. The industry in some ways has defied the odds returning to the forefront following a particularly strong year for Hollywood films that began with the Disney animation “Frozen” that clocked up over 10 million admissions following its release in January.

Inevitably, not every local film was a hit among the masses. “Sea Fog” released on Aug. 13, produced by Bong Joon-ho and directed by Shim Sung-bo, appears to be struggling at the box office. However, given its restricted rating and dark theme of a fishing crew smuggling illegal Korean-Chinese immigrants that suffocate to death, perhaps it’s to be expected. Nevertheless, given its international premiere at the renowned Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as a Gala Presentation, it demonstrates that the success of Korean films is not restricted to within its borders.

In fact, with “Roaring Currents” currently showing in North American theatres along with North American release date for “The Pirates” (Sept. 12) and a release also planned for “Kundo,” Korean films are continuing to find an audience overseas as well.

Jason Bechervaise is a film columnist for The Korea Times.


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