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Ko - production in Busan
  • Fandom Culture in the Korean Film Industry
  • by SONG Soon-jin /  Aug 28, 2018
  • Korean Fandom, the Force of a New Audience Movement

    One of the most enthusiastically embraced films during the 22nd Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) was The Merciless (2017), directed by BYUN Sung-hyun. The film was released in theaters in May 2017 but attracted 93,000 spectators, which basically makes the film a box office flop. Then how could the film resurge as one of the most talked-about films at the festival? This year’s edition of BIFAN held a panel discussion named ‘Megatalk - Grassroots Level Does Work: The Merciless and Its Hard-core Fans’ which drew attention to the fandom culture that keeps discussing and supporting certain films long after their release, regardless of their box office performances. The purpose of this particular event was to “rethink the current state and the future of the constantly changing audience through these self-proclaimed ‘Members of The Merciless Party’. This unprecedented fandom, which marked the emergence of a new type of audience, revitalized and prolonged the life of the film with repeated viewing and the organization of group screenings in theaters rented for the occasion”, stated the festival. BIFAN programmer MO Eunyoung, who organized the event, explained that she “wanted to focus on an audience that is creating a new viewership culture”. Furthermore, a large portion of the press is now paying more attention to Korea’s film fandom, and the new viewership culture that has been developing in parallel. Let’s take a look at the Korean audience’s active fandom culture, whose hands-on approach includes the rental of theaters for group screenings, as well as its influence on a film’s marketing and promotion. 

    A Film Fandom That Involves Repeated Viewings

    Korean film fandom has a long and deep history. Memento Mori (1999), Duelist (2005), King And The Clown (2005), No Regret (2006) and The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (2008) are some of the films that have amassed the largest fandoms. The fandoms that appeared during the mid-2000s drew a lot of attention from the film press. These repeated viewings helped King And The Clown reach the 10 million admission threshold, while low-budget independent queer film No Regret also benefited from it to sell nearly 40,000 tickets, making it a mega-hit for an independent film. Such films have kept these strongly tied communities as proven by a series of special screenings for their tenth anniversaries, and it is these same fandoms that played a major role in propelling actors like LEE Joon-gi of King And The Clown, and KIM Nam-gil of No Regret to stardom. 

    Subsequently, with social networks becoming such an important part in the life of Koreans, film fandoms also branched out into a derivative and ludic culture. The fans of the 2013’s thriller New World, directed by PARK Hoon-jung, interpreted the friendship between the characters LEE Ja-sung played by LEE Jung-jae and JUNG Chung played by HWANG Jung-min as a ‘bromance’, and with the multi-casting of male actors becoming a major trend in Korean films, such characteristic subsequently formed some kind of ongoing game on internet. Film fandoms became more visible with Asura : The City of Madness (2016), directed by KIM Sung-soo, when its fans self-proclaimed themselves as the citizens of the fictional city of ‘Annam’ where the film is set, and organized various screening events under their identity as ‘Asurians’. 

    From Fandom to an Audience Movement

    Audience movements are probably the most significant expression of the recent activities of Korean fandoms. It all began with The Merciless. This film, financed and distributed by CJ ENM starring SUL Kyung-gu and IM Si-wan, was bombarded with negative reviews from the viewers despite a Cannes Film Festival invite, and failed to secure a fair number of screenings as Hollywood blockbusters Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Wonder Woman were dominating theaters. After just 8 days since its theatrical release, its number of screens dropped 50%, and during its second week of release, the film was subject to the kind of irregular screening schedules usually applied to films that struggle at the box office. Fans came together, rallied to the defense of the film, and used Twitter to request more screens from the distributor. They didn’t stop there, though, and took a more aggressive approach by renting theaters for group screenings and also getting involved in the promotion. The director and the actors participated in more than 20 group screenings organized by ‘Members of The Merciless Party’ around the country, and when the investment and distribution company eventually replied to their support, The Merciless acquired its reputation as a film ‘completed by its fandom’. Programmer MO Eunyoung said of The Merciless fandom that it marked “the emergence of a new kind of audience’”. KIM Yong-eon, the Editor of ‘Mysteria’ magazine who was on the panel of the discussion about the film, added: “The Merciless fandom carries a different meaning that sets itself apart from other existing male-oriented noir films. The audiences refuse to accept that a good film must be quickly pushed out of theaters due to external factors such as screen monopoly, and take action by renting theaters for group screenings”. 

    Another film that is making Korean film fandom’s history, Herstory is showing a pattern similar to The Merciless. Based on the ‘Shimonoseki Trial’, which was the first partial victory for victims of forced sex slavery under Japanese imperialism rule after they filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government for an official apology and compensation, Herstory only attracted 330,000 viewers since its release on June 27th. It would be fair to claim that the film lost its chance to get more screens from the moment its release coincided with the release of several Hollywood blockbusters, including Ant-Man and the Wasp. Herstory opened with a few screens and lost half of them after only a week, but the film’s fandom brought it back into the race. What is interesting, though, is that this fandom didn’t stop at demanding more screens or renting theaters to hold group screenings but pushed its influence even further. Herstory fans, who are known as ‘Herstorians’, demanded NEW, the distributor, that it re-release the film as well as organize a fundraising campaign. The latter was launched under the name ‘Women and War Busan’ and is headed by KIM Mun-suk, the real character who was the driving force behind the trial ( In addition, the fandom encouraged the renting of theaters in Japan, where the film has not been sold and is now preparing for its first screening in Tokyo on September 2nd. 

    However, a film industry professional points out, “There is a tendency to overestimate the voice of fans. They carry almost no weight in the film industry”. The reason that fandoms contributed to remarkable box office figures of films such as King And The Clown and No Regret is because their theatrical runs were long enough to attract more spectators through fandoms. But lately, theatrical runs have become shorter, with the number of screens already dropping within the first four days of release, while the effect of fandoms has also become weaker. The total number of tickets sold for The Merciless has been established at 930,000 (among which 100,000 are imputable to the fandom), and Herstory recorded 330,000 admissions. A film producer said, “The renting of theaters doesn’t really have much impact on the score. In fact, screening a film on every screen across the country for just one day would be much more effective”. However, from the viewpoint of a cultural movement driven by the contemporary young audience, fandom’s significance cannot be taken lightly. MIN Jin-soo, head of SOO FILM which produced Herstory, claims: “What is important is the fact that they discovered the significance and value of a meaningful film pushed out of the race under the logic of an industrial system and brought it back” and added that “This should be seen as a cultural movement initiated by the public”. KIM Yong-eon also stated, “The fandom of The Merciless and Herstory is a declaration from the audience that they will not simply take whatever is spoon-fed to them anymore. In this light, I believe this phenomenon might have shaken up a little the local film industry”. For now, no one can predict how the fandom culture will pan out. But what is clear is that it is a meaningful movement initiated by the audiences who no longer want to put up with an unreasonable distribution and screening system.
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