June 25, 2024

Lightning struck twice in February, when the normally arthouse-focused Berlin festival played world premieres of the two biggest recent commercial movies from South Korea — occult drama “Exhuma” and “The Roundup: Punishment.” 

Cannes may get lucky if Ryoo Seung-wan’s “I, the Executioner” (aka “Veteran 2”) turns out to be as strong as its 2015 predecessor, “Veteran,” a crime thriller that Michael Mann is planning to remake. But Ryoo’s Midnight Screening slot thriller is the only Korean film tapped in Cannes’ official selection — way lower than in previous years, which saw high-profile triumphs such as “Parasite.”

Normally a filmmaking powerhouse across multiple genres, registers and scales, Korean film continues to struggle its way out of a pit, whose origins remain debated. The finger of blame is usually pointed at the impact of COVID on production, high cinema ticket prices and competition from streaming, which has eroded audiences’ in-person attendance and siphoned off production crews, production finance and key talent. 

The reality is likely to be a combination of all three factors, making pre-existing structural problems, including increasing production budgets and still under-developed ancillary markets, worse. 

Korean producers and distributors responded to the pandemic, first, by selling a few films to streaming, then by holding on to other completed titles in the hope that the theatrical market would snap back to pre-COVID levels once social distancing and other health measures were removed.

It didn’t happen that way. 

Until 2019, South Korea had punched far above of its weight and registered as the world’s fourth-largest theatrical market. This in turn was built on world-leading per-capita cinema attendance and a strong and popular local film industry that regularly accounted for 50% of ticket sales in its
home market.

In 2022 and 2023, while Hollywood opened its releasing pipeline to nearly pre-COVID levels, Korean rights holders played more cautiously. They spaced out their releases, often announcing and then delaying distribution dates as they sought optimal opportunities. 

The result was a marketplace that swung toward Hollywood, with the public increasingly perceiving Korean films to be old or out of touch, and where cinema operators began to close theaters. 

South Korea’s box office in 2022 was KRW1.16 billion ($884 million at January 2024 rates of exchange), and in 2023 grew only 9% to KRW1.261 billion ($964 million). The gross revenue was some 44% behind 2019’s peak of $1.46 billion. For Korean producers, the numbers were even worse, as their share of their home market fell to 48%. That was a respectable end-of-year figure, but honor was largely saved by an unexpected November-December hit, “12:12: The Day.” 

Korea’s theatrical market has clearly become more uneven. Where Korea had previously enjoyed several hundred film releases per year, and a relatively level playing field, it has become increasingly polarized or hit-driven. 

Last year yielded a handful of positive surprises. The strength of “The Roundup: No Way Out,” the third in the Don Lee-headed comedy action franchise, was far stronger than anticipated and it grossed $75.5 million. It was followed by “Concrete Utopia,” a brainy past-apocalyptic action drama, which earned an OK $27 million and was selected as Korea’s international Oscar contender. Ryoo’s female-led crime drama “Smugglers,” which brought in $35.8 million, was good, but not as high-grossing as the director’s previous efforts.

Political thriller “12.12: The Day,” a fictionalized reconstruction of South Korea’s 1979 military coup was, however, an unqualified success. Despite digging up a difficult phase in Korean history, it earned critical and public acclaim, played on screens for months and notched $83.1 million at the box office.

The early months of the current year have seen the unlikely Berlin pair of “Exhuma” and “The Roundup: Punishment” not only do strong business and propel March to a record, but also increase the polarization between success and failure.

The last year had too many of those: “The Moon,” a big-budget space epic, earned barely $3.75 million, while overseas kidnapping drama “Ransomed” earned about $7.35 million. “Road to Boston,” which veteran director Kang Je-gyu completed in early 2020 but held onto, waiting for the Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving holidays, earned only $6.82 million. 

The resulting, diminished financial condition of the Korean film sector could clearly be seen at Berlin’s European Film Market. Korea’s sales companies had smaller slates than in previous years, film budgets were lower than before and some sellers even skipped the EFM in favor of FilMart or MIPCOM.

It is not yet clear whether the current year will be able to sustain the momentum that “Exhuma” and “Punishment” have provided. 

“After the pandemic, the Korean market suffered from a crisis. Now it is recovering. But investors and distributors have spent their capital on other content. That makes it difficult if you are trying to make a new film,” says Kim Won-kuk, head of Hive Media and producer of “12.12: The Day” and another quality hit, “The Man Standing Next.”

Kim says that reduced numbers of new release titles entering the marketplace meant that “12.12: The Day” could be held on screens for longer than in the pre-crisis era. That’s a phenomenon that may similarly have helped “Exhuma.”

But he is also arguing for more government intervention. “Cinema is not protected from Netflix and other streaming platforms. If audiences think that they can see the film a few weeks later on Netflix, they won’t watch our films in theaters,” he says. 

That is a measure that the national government appears to be taking seriously. After an experiment started in November, it was announced at the end of January that films accepting state funding will have to agree to a streaming window of perhaps four months — though there may be exceptions for smaller films, defined as those with budgets under KRW3 billion ($2.25 million).

Industry reactions to the proposals have split along predictable lines, with producers, distributors and exhibitors mostly in favor, and streamers against, arguing that it restricts choice and diminishes the incentive for them to invest in theatrical movies. A conglomerate like CJ Group finds itself on both sides of that debate — it produces films, distributes them and operates cinemas (through its CJ-CGV subsidiary), while on the other side its also Korea’s largest TV content producer (via Studio Dragon) and the controlling shareholder in the Tving streaming platform. 

But the government’s policy towards the film industry is not wholly consistent. In early April, it announced that it was abolishing a 3% tax that had been levied on every cinema ticket sold. This move was made, the government said, to help reduce ticket prices and ease wider inflationary pressure on consumers. However, the tax revenue collected had been recirculated for the past 17 years into the cinema development fund operated by the Korean Film Council and had been a crucial source of support for independent and artistic film projects.

The film industry’s veterans have witnessed multiple cycles of crisis and recovery and the bigger appear to be sticking to their guns. Kim Won-kuk is readying a “Harbin,” a big-budget war actioner set in China (but filmed in Latvia), which he is positioning as one of the summer’s or early autumn’s tentpole highlights. 

Kim Young-min, producer of “Exhuma,” says: “If you believe in what you are making, audiences will see, understand and acknowledge your confidence. So, while I did not expect quite this much success, I anticipated a good outcome.” 


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