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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jopok Week: Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)

For the second part of my analysis of gangster films at the Korean box office I'm going to be a little more thorough and look past the top 10 since figures become more readily available.


Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)


2004


Mob films failed to crack the top 10 in 2004 but a number performed strongly nonetheless.  However, the two most successful only featured gang tropes within a myriad of generes.  To Catch a Virgin Ghost (No. 12, 1,987,380) featured hoodlums but was mainly a comedy-horror premise while A Family (No. 14, 1,932,304) starring Soo-ae was a family melodrama above all else.  Mokpo, Gangter's Paradise (No. 15, 1,795,700) is another standard Korean gangster comedy, just like the sequel Hi Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul (No. 20, 1,272,000).  The most interesting gang film of the year was probably Im Kwon-taek's 99th film Low Life (550,000) but it failed to make much of an impression at the box office, it was a period set film that shared more with his previous The General's Son trilogy than contemporaneous gangster films.  Last was another gang comedy A Wacky Switch, which despite starring Jeong Joon-ho (previously in My Boss, My Hero and Marrying the Mafia) was a flop.

While those films that you would more readily categorize in the gangster genre did not make big impressions, a trend was beginning to emerge where films featured gangster characters or youth violence themes within more elaborate hybrids.  Ghost HouseOnce Upon a Time in High SchoolFighter in the Wind, and Arahan all made it into the top 11.


2005


Two gangster comedies made it into the top 10 in 2005, further proof of the enduring popularity of the formula.  The second entry in the enormously successful Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 3, 5,635,266) improved on the showing of the first and Mapado (No. 8, 3,090,467) transported a gangster and a crooked cop to an island and pits them against a band of old ladies, it would later spawn a sequel.

Further down the chart, Kim Jee-woon's immersive gangster film noir A Bittersweet Life (1,271,595) was a modest hit but became a more successful player on the international scene and still one of the most popular Koran exports.  Mr. Socrates (1,261,965) and Never to Lose (989,573) also worked their way to mid-level showings.  Jang Jin's Murder, Take One and Ryoo Seung-wan's Crying Fist, which featured gangster elements, were also solid hits.


2006


2006 was the biggest year for Korean films at the box office, led but the extraordinary success of Bong Jon-ho's The Host and a remarkably strong slate of films.  Gangster films also performed strongly and there were many of them compared to previous years.

Top of the pile was the follow-up to My Boss, My Hero (2001).  My Boss, My Teacher (No. 4, 6,105,431) nearly doubled the performance of its already very successful predecessor with Jeong Joon-ho's gang captain this time returning to school as a teacher instead of a student.  Next was the third entry in the Marrying the Mafia (No. 6, 3,464,516) franchise, which came very soon after the previous installment (1 year) which had been made three years after the first.  Though it was again very successul it would be a long wait for the next sequel.

Outside of the top 10 there was a number of very strong performers.  The Busan-set Bloody Tie (2,104,716), starring Hwang Jeong-min and Ryoo Seung-beom, played well in the spring.  Ha Yu's exemplary gang tale A Dirty Carnival (2,047,808) played to solid numbers.  Jang Jin's deligthful gang-prison comedy-drama hybrid Righteous Ties (1,744,677) successfully paired Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeong Joon-ho with a clever script.  Meanwhile the third and seemingly final entry in the My Wife Is a Gangster (1,690,465) franchise, which featured a new protagonist, performed well but fell far below the original's benchmark.

Other midlevel successes included Running Wild (1,016,152), The City of Violence (1,196,520), and No Mercy For the Rude (904,802).  However Cruel Winter Blues (570,059) and Les Formidables (361,155) failed to set the box office alight.

Special mention goes to the enormously successful Tazza: The High Rollers (No. 2, 6,847,777) which I would classify as a con artist/professional thieves film which is a bit different but it's a fine line!  All in all 2006 demonstrated that Korean audiences still had a huge thirst for gangster films, be they comedy, drama, or action.


2007


For the third year running two gangster flicks made it into the top 10, both of which incorporated heavy romantic elements into the mix but on opposite ends of the spectrum. Miracle on 1st Street (No. 5, 2,750,457) reteams the Sex Is Zero (2002) leads Ha Ji-won and Lim Chang-jung in a romantic comedy setting with Lim as a hapless hoodlum.  Kwak Kyung-taek delivered the intense and fatalistic romantic opus A Love (No. 8, 2,123,815), which takes place within a gangster setting.

Song Kang-ho starred in of the best Korean gangster films ever made but The Show Must Go On (1,025,781), despite Mr. Song's enormous box office clout, barely managed to pass the one million admissions mark.  Slightly lower down the chart was the gangster comedy The Mafia, the Salesman (947,510), the third Boss, My Hero film, and much further down was Hotel M: Gangster's Last Draw (237,183), another gangster comedy which floundered upon release.

The romantic-gangster pairing proved to be a potent match in an otherwise difficult year for Korean film in general.  Notably, gangster comedies were absent from the upper echelons of the chart, save for Miracle of 1st Street, but this in effect signaled the end of an era.


2008


Just a look at the above posters will give you an idea of the kind of gangster films that made their way to theaters in 2008, namely works with dark themes and storylines.  Na Hong-jin's magnificent The Chaser (No. 3, 5,071,619) featured a pimp trying to find one his girls who has been abducted by a serial killer.  While not overly concerned with gang tropes it nonetheless succeeds in both lampooning low-level, unseemly hoodlums involved in the sex trade while also showing a pretty bleak picture of their existence in an interesting spin on the comedic representation of gangsters.  The third installment in Kang Woo-suk's enormously successful Public Enemy franchise (Public Enemy Returns, No. 4, 4,300,670), starring Sol Kyung-gu, featured Jeong Jae-yeong as a vicious, cold-blooded gang boss antagonist.

Outside of the top 10 Open City (1,613,728) performed well and Jang Hoon's exceptional and fascinating Kim Ki-duk-scripted Rough Cut (1,307,688) was also a solid hit.  Further down, Truck (540,485) was a modest performer.

Just like the previous year gangster comedies did not place high on the charts though.  Unlike 2007, none seem to have been made unless you count the underperforming period comedy The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan and Ryoo Seung-wan's odd spy comedy Dachimawa Lee.  Filmmakers seemed to have moved on from the fad.

2009


In 2009 Kim Yun-seok featured in another protagonist-antagonist film with some comic gangster tones in a relatively serious narrative.  Running Turtle (No. 5, 3,025,586) was very successful and no other film in the top 10 featured gangster elements.  Also performing well were gangster comedy City of Damnation (1,545,132) which featured Jeong Joon-ho as well as other stars from the My Boss, My Hero franchise, and the Cha Seung-won starring Secret (1,035,073).  In limited release, Yang Ik-joon's extraordinary indie Breathless (121,670) had a strong run.

Not a big year for gangster films but they would soon come back in stronger numbers.


2010


2010 featured a number of straight gangster films but also a lot of very successful films that blended gangster conventions into larger narratives, in typical multi-genre Korean style.  The Man From Nowhere (No. 1, 6,182,772) starring Won Bin, was a huge success.  Moss (No. 3, 3,353,897) may not seem quite like a gangster film but in many ways I think it qualifies.  Ryoo Seung-wan's phenomenal The Unjust (No. 7, 2,722,403) incorporated gangster elements in a larger thriller centered around the judicial and enforcement sectors and their criminal ties.

Barely outside the top 10 was Shim Hyung-rae's atrocious American-produced The Last Godfather (2,301,293), Na Hong-jin's excellent The Yellow Sea (2,142,742), the Ryoo Seung-wan produced Sol Kyung-gu vehicle Troubleshooter (1,843,510), and Sung Hae-sung's remake of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1,546,420).  The Park Joon-hoon's starring romantic gangster comedy My Dear Desperado (688,832) was surprisingly effective and played better than expected.

Twilight Gangsters, and Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station 2, featuring gangster tropes had solid numbers.  Perhaps my favorite comic gangsters briefly appeared in Jang Jin's uproarious The Quiz Show Scandal.

A big year for gangsters at the Korean box office, proof that the genre is endowed with a lot of staying power.


2011


The year is not over yet, but the latest installment in the long-running Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 10, 2,370,074) continued to pull in strong numbers despite the recent disappearance of gangster comedy films from the box office charts.  No other gangster films performed particularly strongly but a number have appeared, including many star vehicles.  The ApprehendersHindsightPainedMoby DickI Am a Dad, and Countdown were all midlevel performers, some more disappointing than others.


2012

Gangster films seem to be here to stay with a number of high profile films set for release in 2012 including The Thieves and Nameless Gangster and I'm sure we will continure to see them in the future.  More and more though it seems like gangster characters might feature in films but not dominate them, not necessary a bad thing.


Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (1996-2003)


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