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UNDERDOG Continues the Varied Tradition of Korean Animation

Feb 07, 2019
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
  • View1250
Tracing Two Decades of Local Animations

While not as famous as its Eastern neighbor Japan for animated content, the Korean film industry has steadily been releasing notable animations since the turn of the millennium and joining their ranks last month was the new offering Underdog, from co-directors OH Sung-yoon and LEE Choon-baek, who previously worked on Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (2011), the most successful Korean animated film of all time.

Korean animators have found fame the world over, whether as key designers in top Hollywood animation studios such as Walt Disney or for local companies that have been doing the grunt work of animating classic shows such as The Simpsons under outsourcing deals, frame by frame, among many other popular shows. Yet, while the Korean industry doesn’t have enough of a domestic output to have achieved a distinctive national animation style on the screen, such as Japan has with its world-famous anime series and films, a hugely successful industry for comic books, graphic novels and webtoons attests to the country’s love of animated and illustrated content.

If anything makes the Korean film animation sector stand out, it’s that each film that comes out tends to be designed in its own style and rarely bears significant resemblance to anything that has come before it. Therefore, though the filmic output may be limited to only a few titles a year, Korean animations are incredibly varied and can suit many tastes. Korea’s popular animated characters such as Pororo the Penguin have spawned regular film franchises for younger viewers, while on the other side of the spectrum, the animator YEON Sang-ho delivers acclaimed dark, low-budget animated social dramas such as The King of Pigs (2011), before jumping into the mainstream with the live action blockbuster TRAIN TO BUSAN, which became the most successful Korean film overseas following its release in 2016.

The following is a quick snapshot of the varied colors of Korean animations that have emerged in the last 18 years.

My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2001)

Featuring the voice of LEE Byung-hun, this charming fable follows the story of a young boy who lives with his mother and grandmother in a small seaside village. One day he is drawn to a marble in a store but is disappointed to find it has disappeared when he returns. However, when he follows his cat to the local lighthouse he spots the mysterious pearl once more and before long is transported into a fantastical world. Like many of the best animated films, My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002) uses imaginative imagery to heighten relatable themes of grief and separation to memorable effect. Director LEE Sung-gang would later go on to make the family-oriented animation Yobi, The Five-Tailed Fox in 2007.

Wonderful Days (2003)

The most ambitious film on this list, Wonderful Days (aka Sky Blue), was an SF-themed animation directed by KIM Moon-saeng. Released in 2003, the film was notable for employing photo-realistic computer-generated imagery for its backdrops and for its extremely high budget. The film debuted at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival and went on to screen at other festivals and received theatrical releases in several western markets under the title Sky Blue, though its performance at the domestic box office was disappointing. Set in 2142, the film takes places on an earth on the brink of extinction. A new city called Ecoban is created, which grows on its own, feeding on the world’s pollution, but only a select few people are allowed to enter within its walls.

Oseam (2003)

Firmly rooted in the tradition of Korean melodrama, Oseam (2003) is based on a novel by JEONG Chae-bong and has been described as a fairy tale for adults. The story focuses on two orphaned siblings who seek refuge in a Buddhist temple. The older brother struggles to protect his younger sister, who was blinded in the fire that killed their mother, but he has kept this information from her. Released in 2003, Oseam was the only feature film made by SUNG Baek-yeop and screened at several festivals around the world, including the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, where it earned the Grand Prix.

Green Days (2010)

One of the most active animators in the Korean film scene today, AHN Jae-huun debuted with short films in the late 1990s and graduated to feature animations when he co-directed Green Days (2011) with HAN Hye-jin, which debuted at the Busan International Film Festival in 2010. The film is a coming-of-age story that follows a young girl as she tries to regain her confidence and eventually falls in love. The film is notable for having taken 11 years to reach the screen, the result of 14 animators hand-drawing over 100,000 frames of animation. 

AHN and HAN would go on to co-direct the animated omnibus The Road Called Life (2014), the opening film of the Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Film Festival in 2014, while AHN, through his production company Meditation With a Pencil, has continued to make featured animate works derived from local stories and fairy tales, including The Shower (2017) and The Shaman Sorceress (2018), which both debuted at BIFF last October.

Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (2011)

The debut film of Underdog director OH Sung-yoon, Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (2011) remains the most successful Korean animation of all time, after welcoming 2.2 million viewers in the summer of 2011. The film also features an impressive voice cast, which includes MOON So-ri and CHOI Min-shik, as well as PARK Cheol-min, who would work with Director OH again on Underdog. Leafie is a chicken with greater aspirations who dreams of escaping her chicken farm. She realizes her dream of escape, only to find herself being hunted down by a vicious weasel, until she is saved by a brave duck but the danger is still not far behind them.

The King of Pigs (2011)

The sensational debut film of YEON Sang-ho, The King of Pigs (2011), a gritty tale of school bullying, got its start at Busan before being invited to the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. With adult themes and its uncompromising social focus, YEON’s film was a turning point for Korean animation, showing that it could have broader appeal beyond fare aimed primarily at younger viewers. Following a slew of awards, YEON returned with The Fake (2013), another dark and acclaimed work that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. He next made the animated zombie title Seoul Station (2016), although its live action sequel TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) wound up being released first, in the midnight section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.

Underdog (2019)

And finally this brings us to Underdog, the latest major animation to hit screens in Korea. The film, which features DOH Kyung-soo and PARK So-dam in its voice cast, was released in Korea on January and has welcomed about 185,000 viewers following its premiere as the closing film of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) last July. Echoing the classic British adventure story ‘Watership Down’, the film follows two packs of dogs, one of abandoned strays, the other wild, as they are forced to venture out into the unknown in search of a new home when human civilization begins to encroach on their homes. Underdog is the second film by OH Sung-yoon, this time co-directing with LEE Choon-baek, who was the lead animator on his debut Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (2011).
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