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New Talent, Feature Animation Offer Recovery Hope During South Korea’s Movie Malaise

Feb 19, 2024
  • Source by Variety
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New Talent, Feature Animation Offer Recovery Hope During South Korea’s Movie Malaise



Exhuma (Courtesy of Showbox/Pinetown Production)

A three-year run of poor box office performances is sure to hurt the South Korean sales companies touting their new titles at the European Film Market — but not by that much.

Certainly, the box office malaise undermines the ability to market some titles on the strength of their theatrical earnings back home. But the Korean film industry still has numerous other calling cards.

And the country has a familiar presence this year at both the Berlin festival and in the European Film Market.

Screening in the fest lineup and the EFM is The Traveler’s Needs, the fourth minimalist pearl from indie auteur Hong Sang-soo to appear in competition since 2020.

At the other end of the budget scale, Berlin has caught on to the trend of playing a mainstream Korean pic in either a midnight screening slot or as a gala. The Roundup: Punishment, part four of an action franchise starring Don Lee, is a likely crowdpleaser — the series is already an established overseas sales success. (Lee’s The Roundup: No Way Out earned $78 million in South Korean theaters last year.)

What is harder is finding the middle ground between those extremes.

South Korea’s box office honor in 2023 was only saved by a December surge largely powered by 12.12: The Day, which collected $86 million.

For most of 2023, box office in Korea tracked far behind 2019’s record-breaking $1.46 billion total and barely on a par with 2022. Full year box office of $964 million was only up 9% year-on-year and was 45% below pre-COVID levels, according to data from the Korean Film Council’s Kobis tracking service. Notable big budget flops of 2023 included Kang Je-gyu’s sports drama Road to Boston ($7.1 million) and sci-fi actioner The Moon ($3.89 million).

Explanations for the malaise are multiple: A succession of old titles and tired concepts being dribbled onto screens; the loss of key theatrical movies that opted for an outright sale to a streamer; competition for eyeballs from elsewhere in the country’s ferocious video market; and filmmaking talent that has been attracted to the series format by better opportunities and bigger paydays.

While some of those issues may have been passing, COVID-era problems, the coffers of Korean film producers have been depleted. And they are not being replenished rapidly, as entertainment finance has followed audiences and flowed into other sectors.

That means Korean film budgets are less ambitious than in previous years and sales slates smaller.

Still, the South Korean film industry continues to draw benefit from the country’s ability to hatch new stars, especially from K-pop and TV series, and call on world-class established acting talent.

Lotte has Lee Byung-hun (Squid Game) in Korea’s well-regarded Oscar contender Concrete Utopia, while Oldboy star Choi Min-sik returns to the big screen in mystery-horror feature Exhuma. The title, which appears in Berlin’s Forum section, also stars Kim Go-eun, one of the biggest stars to emerge from recent Korean series.

Other South Korean films are able to lean on the instant fanbase that comes with the casting of a K-pop star. Girls Generation member Seohyun co-stars in another Don Lee vehicle Holy Night: Demon Hunter, launching at the EFM. And the crossover of IP to films and series from webtoons, the cartoon format that emerged in Korea with the advent of the smartphone, is now well-entrenched.

Similarly, South Korea’s cartoon sector may be picking up the baton that live action theatrical movies had dropped. Finecut (which handles the Hong Sang-soo oeuvre) recently picked up Exorcism Chronicles, an adult-skewing horror thriller, while Barunson E&A is launching sales on Yumi’s Cells, a YA-sci-fi fantasy. Both films have taken the webtoon-to-feature route and both hail from the Locus Animation Studio (formerly Sidus Animation), which previously produced top-selling Red Shoes and Seven Dwarfs.
By Patrick Frater
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