One salient feature over the past decade has been the increasing success of Korean films on the screens, where they have proved capable of attracting new spectators – a phenomenon similar to that witnessed in some European countries, according to what emerged during MEDIA Salles’ Focus on Europe event at Cinema Expo International 2002, in Amsterdam.

Considering all these points, the following two reflections on the Korean film industry, especially from the 90s up to the present, may be offered to European movie concerns.

Increasing market share of Korean movies

From 15.9% to 45.2% within 9 years, the Korean film market share increased..Until 1993, the Korean movie had a very small market share, because of its low quality, due to the limited budget for production and the lack of a well-developed system compared to the mighty Hollywood majors, which had been present on the Korean market since 1988. Accordingly, the market share of Korean movies had been steadily decreasing for the above mentioned period, finally dropping to 15% and threatening its very existence.

However, in 1999 the film Shiri brought a positive turning. It was the first Korean blockbuster movie, recording around 5 million spectators: it catapulted to the top of the South Korean box office and ended up toppling the record previously held by Titanic. This exceptional event was enough to initiate large-scale fund-raising and the creation of a production system by SEG (Samsung Entertainment Group). Shiri’s success, representing the opportunity for the market share to soar to 39.7%, inspired many Korean film-makers and convinced them that Korean productions could be successful if they were based on a good financial support and a selected, quality background.

Subsequently other Korean movies, like Joint Security Area and Friend were of great impact in the Korean film market, so that in 2002 the market share settled at 45.2% in terms of admissions and at a higher 46.7% in terms of box office. It should be remembered that, at the end of the nineties, the number of foreign movies released in Korea was six times higher than for domestic movies.

Apart from the development of the Korean movie in itself, the spread of multiplexes, mainly belonging to the Orion Group and CJ, and the legislation on the “five-day working week” have tempted the Korean people to visit theatres more during their longer weekends. As a result the Korean film market has continued to expand by 17% to 18% each year and total audiences in 2002 amounted to over 100 million.

In addition, major distributors of Hollywood movies, such as Warner Brothers, MGM, and Dreamworks began to obtain the copyright for remakes of several movies that had been big hits on the Korean market. Fox, Walt Disney and other direct-distribution companies also started to take Korean movies on board their global distribution runs. Most recently, Columbia signed a contract on world distribution and investment with a local production company.

Large Korean enterprises join the race for film business

In the turmoil of the national crisis and IMF aid, most of the funding for the film industry seemed to come to a halt as the major sponsoring companies became involved in corporate restructuring and attempted to do away with unnecessary expenses and investments. Nevertheless, not only small and medium funding but also financial capital were able to replace the void thanks to a series of Korean movie successes and the theatre franchising system for securing stable profits.

As the film industry recovered from the monetary crisis thanks to this massive funding and to the constant production of quality movies, the situation was reversed. Competition on this market is becoming fiercer day by day and the major Korean enterprises with nationwide multiplex chains, represented by the Orion Group, CJ and Lotte, strive to strengthen their market leadership in terms of production and distribution, as well as exhibition. Another dark horse on the market, Cinema Service, has made the production and distribution of Korean movies its top priority and is now starting to open its own theatres. Significantly, it is already known that this company has concluded a merger deal with its foremost competitor, CJ, and the Orion Group and Lotte are expected to launch survival strategies that will lead the market into the second round.

TOP 10 BEST KOREAN FILMS

MUSA

Musa (Musa), released as The Warrior in English-speaking countries, is a 2001 South Korean epic film directed by Kim Seong-soo, starring Jung Woo-sung, Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi.

The setting is China, 1375. After ousting the Mongols, the Ming now face a rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Korean nation. When a diplomatic envoy from Korea arrives in China, the Ming troops arrest the innocent visitors as spies, exiling them to a remote desert. As fate would have it, the Koryo warriors escape their captors, but soon learn that freedom is not without its problems. Having failed in their mission, the Koreans find themselves at a crossroads. To return home to Korea as failures would be a shame none of them could bear, yet to stay in China would be a move that would effectively sign their own death warrants.

However, fortune smiles upon the disaffected heroes in the form of a captured Ming princess, the stunningly attractive Buyong (Zhang Ziyi). The Koryo troops realize that freeing the lovely maiden from the Mongols would not only reconcile them in the eyes of the Ming, but it could be their only ticket home. So the small band of soldiers embark on a daring raid to save the haughty princess and return her safely to Nanjing.They have to face numerous problems on the way.

All in all Musa is an enrapturing movie from start to last and thus is a must watch.

Old Boy

Imagine being imprisoned for 15 years; no, not in a real prison, but in a hotel room, held there by someone you don’t know, and for something you can’t remember. This is the situation Oh Dae-Su finds himself in, going slowly mad for a decade and a half until he is suddenly and inexplicably released. Director Park Chan-Wook based this movie on a Japanese manga, but took it totally in a new direction. The movie succeeds in being thrilling, entertaining and unexpected, and most of that is due to the intensity with which actor Choi Min-Sik tackles the role of Dae-su. The twists and turns are seemingly endless; and often shocking; yet Choi holds it all together. You just can’t take your eyes off him.

The Chaser

Joong-Ho used to be on the right side of the law as a detective. Now he is a pimp, facing financial ruin because his girls are disappearing mysteriously, and he isn’t making any money. The police don’t seem to care, so Joong-Ho calls on his own former skills to find out what has happened to the girls. What he finds is horrifying in the extreme, and it takes a strong stomach to sit through all of it, but those who have to; namely, critics; have acclaimed the movie. It is a stunning movie, taking the audience in unexpected directions as Joong-Ho desperately tries to track down one of the girls, called Mi-Jin, before the worst happens. Directed by Ha Hong-Jin, The Chaser doesn’t let up until you fall off the edge of your chair.

Brotherhood of War

Western movie goers rarely get to see the Korean War from the Korean side, although M*A*S*H gave us brief glimpses during its long run on TV. This South Korean epic follows the lives of two brothers roughly conscripted into the conflict. The older brother, Lee Jin-Tae, tries to secure the freedom of the younger brother, Lee-Jeon, by performing brave acts, but all he does is incur the boy’s anger and jealousy. This intensely moving drama doesn’t care which side is right or wrong, it shows the horrible consequences of war on families and ordinary people. It is harrowing to watch, but director Kang Je-Gyu gets his message across; war is hell, for all of us.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Manchuria in the 1940s; full of desperate characters and wild rumors of secret treasures; makes a great substitute for the wild west, in this South Korean re-imagining of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (but then so did Spain in the original movie). Into this eye scorching landscape come three men in pursuit of a map that leads to a buried treasure. The men are bounty hunter Park do-Won (the Good) played by Woo-Sung Jung from A Moment to Remember; bandit Park Chang-Yi (The Bad) played by Lee Byun-Hun; and thief Yoon Tae-Goo (The Weird) played by Song Kang-Ho from Memories of Murder. The action is unrelenting as they pursue each other, and are pursued by Japanese soldiers, other thieves and bandits, and anyone who happens to like a good chase. The stunts are intense; Lee broke his leg, and Jung his arm, falling off horses. Director Kin Je-Woon calls his movie a kimchi western. Everyone else calls it one hell of a ride.

A Tale of Two Sisters

South Korean cinema is not all about murder mysteries and love stories. When it comes to psychological horror, this 2003 movie is guaranteed to creep out even the most hardened fan. Two sisters, Soo-Mi and Soo-Yeon, return to their home after a stay in hospital. What follows, when the elder sister believes her step-mother is abusing the younger sister, mounts in spine chilling horror and tension until the shocking truth is revealed. Director Kim Ji-Woon extracted consummate performances from his young stars, Lim Su-Jeong and Moon Gyung-Young, using a well known folk tale as the basis for this movie. A remake called The Uninvited in 2009 simply failed to catch the atmospheric essence of the original.

My Sassy Girl

Run, don’t walk, away from the American remake of 2008 and watch the 2001 South Korean original instead. It is based on the real-life blog of Kim Ho-Sik, writing about his relationship with an unnamed girl. She’s a terror, abusing him, testing him, embarrassing him in public, and generally making his life hell. Why does he put up with it? Because she is suffering and he believes he can help her. On one level, this is one of the funniest movies ever made; Char tae-Hyun plays the hapless hero, rescuer and victim, while Jun Ji-Hyun (now known as Gianna Jun from Blood: The Last Vampire) plays the girl. From their first meeting, when the drunk girl vomits on the bald head of an elderly train passenger, to the meeting with another old man that awakens her to the realisation that she knew real love, this movie couple will steal your heart.

A Moment to Remember

No one can do romance like the Koreans. If you want to be swept up in a love story that leaves you breathless, don’t watch Love Story again, watch this. Starring current South Korean box office magnet Woo-Sung Jung as Cheol-Su, and the lovely Ye-Jin Son as Su-Jin, the movie is about two people whose love survives even the tragedy of Su-Jin developing Alzheimer’s disease at a young age. Together they are building beautiful memories as they meet, and marry, but all those memories are soon to be lost to Su-Jin’s rare illness. Woo-Sung gives a mesmerising performance as the man who goes from a loner with a chip on his shoulder to a loving husband who has to face the fact that his wife doesn’t recognise him any more. Have the tissues ready, because director John H. Lee and his hand picked cast sure know how to get those tears flowing.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring

This haunting movie will linger long in the memory after the closing credits. The setting is exquisitely beautiful, a temple floating on a lake surrounded by hills and trees. It is home to an old monk and the young boy he is training. This is spring, in the boy’s innocent youth. In summer, when the boy is in his teens, he gets his first taste of desire when he meets a young girl and her mother, who is seeking help for the girl’s illness. When the old monk sends the girl away, the boy also leaves, and the seasons turn to autumn and winter, as the world outside intrudes. This lyrical poem of a movie was directed by Kim Ki-Duk.

Memories of Murder

Starring one of South Korea’s most popular actors, Song Kang-Ho (from The Good, The Bad, The Weird and The Host), and Kim Sang-Kyeong, this movie is an all-time hit with fans of Korean cinema. Directed in 2003 by Bong Joon-Ho, Memories of Murder is based on the true story of the investigation into South Korea’s first serial killings, in the 1980s. The impact of the grisly murders on a police force not trained or equipped to deal with them, and the efforts of unsophisticated country cops to track down the murderer, make for an engrossing movie. Song plays Detective Park Doo-Man, a simple soul, who is overwhelmed by the case, and is assisted by city cop Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyeong). The two do not form an easy partnership, as Seo tries to impress upon Park the need for proper investigation methods. The setting, a small town outside Seoul, is beautifully realised and takes you right into the story.