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From ‘Shiri’ to ‘Parasite,’ Korean films came a long way

Lee Jung-jae stars in “Hunt” (Megabox Plus M)
Lee Jung-jae stars in “Hunt” (Megabox Plus M)
“Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae said he could not enjoy drinks with fellow actors and directors after the VIP screening event of his directorial debut film“Hunt” held on Aug. 2.

He explained that it was because he had a Zoom meeting to promote the film to foreign fans the next morning.

Lee’s film has been sold to 144 countries including France, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia and Brazil, even before its local release on Aug. 11.

“Tomorrow morning, I also have a meeting at 2 a.m.,” Lee said during an interview with a group of local reporters.

Similar to Lee’s case, many Korean actors and filmmakers recently started promoting their works more actively to overseas moviegoers, as the global demand for Korean movies is rising.
Scene from
Scene from "Parasite" (CJ ENM)
Change did not happen overnight

After director Bong Joon-ho won the Oscar for “Parasite” at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2019, South Korean cinema also brought home two trophies from this year’s Cannes Film Festival -- best director for Park Chan-wook of “Decision to Leave” and best actor for Song Kang-ho of “Broker.”

These award-winning films and actors did not appear out of thin air.

Korean film’s history of overseas expansion began around the early 2000s, when “Shiri”(1999) directed by Kang Je-kyu became a box office hit in Japan. Around that time, director Im Kwon-taek’s “ChunHyang” (2000) became the first South Korean film to be selected to compete for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Around 2010, major Korean directors who gained global recognition expanded their global fanbase further by doing projects in the US with Hollywood star actors.

Park Chan-wook who won the Grand Prix for “Oldboy” (2003) at the 2004 Cannes and the Jury Prize for “Thirst” (2009) at the 2009 Cannes, presented his English-language debut film “Stoker” starring actors Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman in 2013.

Star director Kim Jee-woon also made his US debut with the action thriller “The Last Stand” featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead in 2013. Before creating this film, Kim gained worldwide recognition through the horror film “A Tale of Two Sisters”(2003), the actioner “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008) and the thriller “I Saw the Devil” (2010).

“Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho created his Hollywood debut feature “Snowpiercer” in 2013 as well. The film featured top Hollywood stars Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell, along with Song Kang-ho, who also performed in Bong’s “Parasite.”

Bae Doo-na plays Sonmi-451 in “Cloud Atlas,” her 2012 Hollywood debut. (Cloud Atlas Productions)
Bae Doo-na plays Sonmi-451 in “Cloud Atlas,” her 2012 Hollywood debut. (Cloud Atlas Productions)
Many Korean actors started joining Hollywood projects around 2010.

Veteran Korean actor Lee Byung-hun performed Storm Shadow character in the 2009 picture “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” He also played the same character in its sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” in 2013

In 2015, actor Lee continued his strides in Hollywood by starring in “Terminator: Genesis” as the new villain T-1000.

Actor Bae Doo-na’s Hollywood career began with Lana and Andy Wachowski’s “Cloud Atlas” (2012). After the first project, Bae also worked with Wachowski siblings for the film “Jupiter Ascending” (2015) and the Netflix series “Sense 8.” 

Oscar-winning actor Youn Yuh-jung (Hook Entertainment)
Oscar-winning actor Youn Yuh-jung (Hook Entertainment)
Still a long way to go?

Although many Korean films and actors started getting global recognition, the amount that most Korean films earn from the overseas market is still insignificant.

During Lee Jung-jae’s interview, he noted that although his film “Hunt” has been sold to 144 countries, the total earnings from foreign sales of the film are very small, without giving a specific figure.

According to KOFIC’s data, the total amount for exports of movies was $43,033,018 last year, a decrease of 20.5 percent from the previous year.

The export amount in 2021, which includes both movie-related technology and movie export amount, only accounts for 5.5 percent of the total film industry sales amount, according to the same data.

Film critic Jung Ji-wook said this is why some Korean filmmakers are more eager to create a movie that can appeal to mainly local audiences.

“If you look at recently released movies like ‘Hansan.’ Its poor Japanese lines clearly show that it is targeted for only Korean audiences,” he said.

Jung believes that when filmmakers become too dependent on domestic ticket sales, it can easily lead them to make cliche content.

“It can hinder diverse stories from being created, and filmmakers will keep working with the same actors,” he said.

However, film industry critic Yoo Tae-hee, also known as YouTuber Tuna, thinks simply trying to increase foreign sales can not be a solution.

While increasing the portion of foreign sales can work as a safety net for some movies, it can not improve the quality of Korean movies for the future of our film industry, he said.

Yoo added that there are also risks as foreign countries can decide to change import policies.

“In particular, in the case of China, the future looks even more uncertain as it can move toward closing its doors ,” he told The Korea Herald.

In commemoration of The Korea Herald’s 69th anniversary on Aug. 15, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of features delving into the phenomenon of Korean-made content influencing global contemporary culture and trends. Is it a one-off occurrence or is it here to stay? Can South Korea claim pride in the works of its creative minds as a nation? The Korea Herald expounds on the past and present of the Korean Wave and its prospects for the future. – Ed.


By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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