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Thursday, December 8, 2011

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

As part of Jopok Week, Modern Korean Cinema will be featuring reviews of three 1997 Korean gangster flicks (Beat, No. 3, and Green Fish), all of which ended up in top 10 of that year.  This prompted me to go back over the receipts of Korean gangster films over the last 16 years and see what I could find out.

There is no question that the Korean gangster film is one of the most prevalent and popular film genres in Korea and I would have been inclined to think that it was second only to melodrama but after a little research I find myself wondering whether gangster films are in fact the dominant genre in contemporary Korean cinema.


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


1996


Shortly before the explosion of Korean cinema, gangster films already seemed to have a firm grasp on the box office charts.  In 1996 there were three ranked in the top 10:  Gangster Lessons (aka Hoodlum Lessons; No. 6, 176,757), Born to Kill (No. 8, 132,261), and Boss (No. 10, 101,078).  Born to Kill will be reviewed by Kieran Tully from KOFFIA a little later this week but I am not familiar with the other films, though I noticed that Gangster Lessons starred both Park Joon-hoon and Park Sang-min (Kim Doo-han in The General's Son, 1990).

1997


As already mentioned 1997 was a big year for gangster films in Korea.  Just as in 1996 there were three of them that wound up in the top 10, however they fared a little better and more importantly, played a significant role in the reshaping of Korean cinema.  I will explore what Beat (No. 4, 349,781), No. 3 (No. 6, 297,617), and Green Fish (No. 8, 163,655) brought to the industry in each of their reviews which will appear later this week.

1999


After a brief hiatus from the top 10 in 1998, three gangster films found their way back in in 1999, scaling new heights for the genre.  Kim Sang-jin's second feature (after Two Cops 3, 1998), the anarchic Attack the Gas Station (No. 2, 960,000), depicting a group of violently apathetic youths with a total disregard to authority was a huge success, was a fiercely original and enormously successful film that helped forge a new identity for Korean film abroad.  Similarly, Lee Myung-se's Nowhere to Hide (No. 4, 687,000), starring big names Park Joon-hoon, Anh Sung-ki, and future star Jang Dong-gun heralded a new, stylistically fresh epoch for the industry.  The third was City of the Rising Sun (No. 10, 329,778) starring Jung Woo-sung and Lee Jung-jae, a film I'm eager to discover.

2001


After another absence from the chart in the year 2000, though heist film Jakarta nearly qualifies, Korean gangster films came back with a vengeance the following year.  2001 was the biggest year for gang films at the Korean box office and this will likely never change.  They accounted for six out of the 10, not only that but My Sassy Girl was the only non-gang film in the top seven.  Four of those were released in the last four months in the year, a very mob-heavy season!

Leading the pack was Kwak Kyung-taek's Friend (No. 1, 8,134,500), a nostalgic look at the friendship through  the years of four boys from Busan.  It's tale of conflicting loyalties, and it's settings, from 80s schools to the modern criminal underbelly of Korea's major port city were huge drawing factors for the film, which became, at that point, the highest grossing Korean film of all time.  My Wife Is a Gangster (No. 2, 5,180,900) kicked off the gangster comedy melodrama trend and would spawn two sequels.  Kim Sang-jin's third film was even more successful than his last.  Kick the Moon (No. 4, 4,353,800) was the first of the year's many gangster comedies and was similar to Friend in that in mined school and gang conventions in a regional setting.  Hi Dharma (No. 5, 3,746,000), which features gangsters in hiding at a buddhist monastery, and My Boss, My Hero (No. 6, 3,302,000), in which a gang captain goes back to complete high school, were both high concept gang comedies which would be followed by successful sequels.  Last was Jang Jin's Guns and Talk (No. 7, 2,227,000) which featured a great script and strong performances from Shin Hyeon-Jun, Shin Ha-Kyun, Won Bin, and Jeong Jae-Young.

2001 was also the year that Korean films finally broke past the 50% market share and these six films accounted for 60% of that or 30% of all theater admissions throughout the year.  Making this hoodlum coup all the more impressive, perhaps gangsters are good for the economy?

2002


Gangster films took the top and bottom spot of the chart in 2002.  Marrying the Mafia (No.1, 5,021,001) paired My Boss, My Hero star Jeong Joon-ho with a gangster comedy melodrama concept similar to My Wife Is a Gangster to kick off its own franchise.  Ryoo Seung-beom made a name for himself away from his brother's films by starring in the uproarious, high school-set Conduct Zero (No. 10, 1,683,533), playing off the popular and socially prescient youth violence theme.  Though it only came in at No. 25 on the chart, Ryoo Seung-wan's (the aforementioned brother) No Blood No Tears would be considered by many to be the best gang film of this year.  Another big hit, Public Enemy doesn't quite fit the gangster mold but subsequent in the franchise would.

2003


2003 featured relatively few gangster themed pictures.  Oh! Brothers (No. 6, 3,125,256) had gangster elements but was more of a buddy comedy, the same could be said for Oldboy (No. 5, 3,326,000) which does feature gangsters in what is probably the most iconic scene of Korean cinema.  Kwak Kyung-taek's Mutt Boy was relatively successful but was not in the top 10.  The second entry in the My Wife Is a Gangster franchise also did well but paled in comparison to its predecessor.

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


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