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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 10 Korean Film Stories of 2011

I started the weekly Korean Cinema News feature at the beginning of April of this year and over the past nine months it has become more comprehensive, grown more popular, and I hope better.  As pleased as I am with its success more than anything it;s been a thrill to cover the wide-ranging news related to the ever-expanding Korean film industry.  It's been a huge year for Korean film news and in 38 weeks of reporting, Modern Korean Cinema has featured nearly 1000 news items, festival reports, articles, interviews, trailers, posters, and box office analyses.

In considering 2011 as a year in Korean film I decided to work up a top 10 for the year's most important pieces of news.  I've stayed within the exclusive scope of Korean film so major stories that are somewhat related, like the continuing global Hallyu takeover or Kim Jong-il's death, have been omitted.  Each entry is followed by a selection of interesting articles that appeared throughout the year.

As always, if you have any comments or think I've missed something, please get in touch.

Enjoy and Happy New Year from Modern Korean Cinema!

1. Reversal of Fortune at the Korean Box Office

The year's biggest story has been the reversal of fortunes at the Korean box office.  Looking at the slate of films in early 2011 for the year ahead, there were a number of blockbusters well-positioned to end the year on or near the top.  Chief among them were CJ's 3D Imax monster feature Sector 7 and the 30 billion won WWII, pan-Asian blockbuster My Way.  Sector 7 was immediately savaged by critics and audiences alike and was quickly out of theaters.  It may be early days for My Way as it has only been released for a week, but the prognosis at this stage is not good and there is a palpable danger that it will not recoup its enormous production costs.  There were also other blockbusters that failed to meet expectations, like Quick and The Front Line, and a great number of star vehicles that did not manage to draw big crowds, like Hindsight and Countdown.

The vast majority of the year's biggest successes turned out to be mid-level productions that boasted strong scripts with an absence of marquee names which struck a chord with audiences.  Sunny had a decent start but an extraordinary word of mouth effect kept it in the top 3 for 11 consecutive weeks as it powered its way to 7,375,110 admissions.  Other mid-size productions that far exceeded expectations included Detective K, Silenced, and Punch, which all landed around the 5 million mark.  Even more unexpected films crossed the 2 million mark, including Meet the In-laws, Blind, Leafie, A Hen Into the Wild, The Client, and Spellbound.

(The Hollywood Reporter, May 13, 2011)

Rookies Directors on the Rise, Stars Lack Drawing Power
(The Chosun Ilbo, July 8, 2011)

Newcomers Trump Established Names at Korean B.O.
(The Hankyoreh, July 23, 2011)

Sunny Holding its Own Against Summer Titles
(Film Business Asia, June 28, 2011)

A Look Back at the Year's Breakout Films
(, December 15, 2011)

2. The Silenced Controversy

The controversy surrounding the release of Silenced (aka The Crucible/Dogani) probably generated more international press coverage than any other Korean film item this year.  The film was based on a non-fiction book of the same by prominent female writer Gong Ji-young which chronicles the serial abuse of deaf children at a school for the hearing-impaired in Gwangju between 2000-2005.  The perpetrators were put on trial six years ago but received light sentences and some even went back to work in the school.

Following the uproar which ensued after Silenced's release, the school was finally shut down.  After viewing the film, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak called for measures to protect the vulnerable from sexual attack.  The film inspired a wave of anger which was reported in the world's major publications such as The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and many more.

(The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2011)

(Joong Ang Daily, October 5, 2011)

(The Dong-a Ilbo, October 1, 2011)

(, October 4, 2011)

(The Economist, October 11, 2011)

(The New York Times, October 17, 2011)

(The Washington Post, October 28, 2011)

3. Korean Animation Has Its Biggest Year

Korean cinema is see as a strong producer of films that span a number of genres and formats.  Animation is one of the few production modes that Korean filmmakers have failed to successfully mine, at least that was the case before 2011.  This year was the dawning of a new era for Korean animation, led by the huge success of local animation Leafie, A Hen Into the Wild.  Many other Korean animated films have found success at festivals this year, such as The HouseKing of PigsEarth Rep Rolling Star, and I'm Sorry.  Korean animators of late have also found enormous success abroad, especially Jennifer Yuh, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2 for Dreamworks, incidentally the film became the second-highest grossing non-Korean film of the year.  

With numerous awards and international sales under its belt, Korean animation is looking strong for the near future.

(Animation Insider, June 3, 2011)

Leafie Set to Revitalize Korean Animation
(, July 8, 2011)

Korean Animation Waddles Into China
(Joong Ang Daily, October 1, 2011)

Korean Animators Face Screen, Financing Barriers
(The Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 2011)

Canada's 108 Media to Distribute Korean Toon Leafie
(animation Magazine, November 28, 2011)

4. CJ Poised for World Domination

CJ Entertainment, Korea's largest studio and head of the country's primary exhibition chain, CGV (CJ-Goldstar-Village Roadshow), has made its aims for the future very clear.  It more or less amounts to world domination as the corporation is:  trying to revolutionize cinema with 4D film screening technology (which adds sensations like smell, fog, and vibrations to enhance cinema viewing);  launching direct distribution in Vietnam and Thailand; producing a $100 million budget Rob Cohen Korean War film; clinching a raft of film presales; engaging in a $110 million Korean entertainment project; and keeping strong ties in Korea as well as helping develop emerging talent by partnering with the Korean Academy of Film Arts.

CJ has not been timid about its ambitions and I'm sure that more plans are in the works.  Its CGV theater in LA is getting more popular as are a lot of its international operations and now that its claws are getting stuck into Hollywood, more people may become familiar with their catchy opening logo before long.

(Film Business Asia, October 13, 2011)

KAFA Partners With CJ E&M and CJ CGV
(KOBIZ, December 19, 2011)

Route One Films Enters $110 Million Korean Entertainment Partnership
(The Hollywood Reporter, December 15, 2011)

Lots of Korean Presales as CJ Readies for Cannes
(Screen Daily, May 11, 2011)

CJ's 4D Cinemas to Launch in Thailand
(Bangkok Post, June 14, 2011)

Rob Cohen to Direct Korean War Film Produced by CJ
(indieWIRE, July 29, 2011)

CJ E&M Harbors Global Ambitions
(Asian Media Journal, August 11, 2011)

5. A New-look BIFF Unveils

The 16th edition of Korea's largest film festival opened with a new name, a magnificent new venue, a new director, and a new image.  Previously called the Pusan International Film Festival, the renamed BIFF (Busan International Film Festival) began on October 6 in the brand new $150 million Busan Cinema Center, designd by Coop Himmelblau of Austria.  More than ever, the event, often dubbed the 'Asian Cannes', was seen as a showcase for the emerging strength of Asian film industries.  The event was a flurry of news beginning with the center and the selling out of the opening film in a record seven seconds.

There was much discussion over the new venue (including rain leaks), the type of films being shown, the sales in the film market, the direction the festival was taking, and more.  Every major entertainment news agency ran multiple pieces on the event.

(The Chosun Ilbo, September 20, 2011)

BIFF's Opening Film Sells Out in Seven Seconds
(, September 27, 2011)

Busan: Fest Maps New Future
(Variety, October 3, 2011)

How a New Cinema Center Could Change the Busan Film Festival
(The Hollywood Reporter, Ocotber 1, 2011)

Busan Festival Takes a Bold Step, But Is Asian Cinema Ready?
(The Japan Times, October 14, 2011)

BIFF Organizers Clash Over Festival Expansion
(The Hankyoreh, October 19, 2011)

A New Era for Asia’s Biggest Film Festival
(Joong Ang Daily, October 21, 2011)

6. Korean Films Find a Foothold in China

Recently Korean films have seen their presence increase dramatically in mainland China as numerous works were sold there and have been breaking records.  The Man From Nowhere had a strong showing earlier this year, despite its 18 certificate.  Sector 7 is currently enjoying the best Chinese release of any Korean film, though it has only been released for a few weeks.  Ha Ji-won's K-Drama Secret Garden was immensely popular in China and she is said has become quite a celebrity in the country.

In other news, Kwon Sang-woo and Song Hye-kyo have signed onto Chinese productions and many below the line technicians have been hired into Chinese film crews.  Chinese action and special effects film crews in particular seemed to be populated by Korean professionals.  It would also seem that president Hu Jintao is Hallyu fan, having had very good things to say about Jewel in the Palace, the landmark 2003 K-Drama.
(Korean Cinema Today, November 1, 2011)

Korean Crews in China
(Korean Cinema Today, November 8, 2011)

Sector 7 Hits Box Office Record in China
(KOBIZ, December 20, 2011)

Local Films Foray Into Chinese Market
(The Korea Times, December 26, 2011)

Sky's the Limit for Kwon Sang-woo as He Targets China, Hollywood
(The Chosun Ilbo, August 31, 2011)

7. Korean Directors Abroad

A number of Korea's most well-known filmmakers have embarked on foreign productions, including:  Park Chan-wook, who recently wrapped Stoker (2012), starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode; Kim Jee-woon, who is currently shooting The Last Stand (2013) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodrigo Santoro, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, and Johnny Knoxville; Bong Joon-ho, who is getting prepped for Snow Piercer (2013) which will shoot in March in Hungary with John Hurt and Song Kang-ho; and Ryoo Seung-wan, who is going to shoot his new spy thriller The Berlin File (2012) in Germany with Han Suk-kyu, Ha Jung-woo, Jeon Ji-hyeon, and Ryoo Seung-beom.

(Korean Cinema Today, November 9, 2011)

8. The Korean Film Council in 2011

As in previous years, the Korean Film Council has been involved in a lot of projects and initiatives designed to promote, improve, and aid the Korean film industry.  It has:  offered rebates for foreign films shooting in Seoul; subsidized labour costs on low-budget films; acted as guarantor for films with overseas potential; invested in contents funds; attempted to stop the illegal circulation of films online; and opened a new independent theater.

(Screen Daily, April 14, 2011)

KOFIC Opens New Independent Film Theater
(KOBIZ, May 6, 2011)

KOFIC's Keys to Industry Development
(KOBIZ, May 6, 2011)

Interview with KOFIC Chairman Kim Eui-suk
(KOBIZ, May 6, 2011)

KOFIC to Offer 25% Rebate for Filming in Korea
(Korean Cinema Today, May 13, 2011)

Mandatory Screening Times Could Be Altered
(The Korea Times, July 21, 2011)

Normalization for Online Film Distribution Demanded by Chungmoro
(, August 2, 2011)

9. The Return of Kim Ki-duk

After abruptly disappearing from the director's chair in 2008 following his film Dream and a lengthy attack against distributors' poor handling of independent features, Kim Ki-duk reappeared seemingly out of thin air early in 2011.  His name first appeared in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival where his new, self-reflexive documentary Arirang won an award.  Shortly after, Poongsan, directed by his latest protege Jung Jai-hong, a film he wrote and produced, opened to positive reviews and a solid performance in domestic theaters.  Then in August, another new Kim Ki-duk film, Amen, opened at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

Kim is a controversial figure in Korean cinema who frequently disparages the establishment and has been part of an acrimonious feud with his former protege Jang Hoon whom he believes has sold out.  Both his new films this year have had a strong presence at international film festivals but have been met with mixed reviews.

(The Korea Herald, May 16, 2011)

Kim Ki-duk Picks up Award at Cannes
(Joong Ang Daily, May 23, 2011)

Kim Ki-duk Produced Film Set for June
(The Korea Times, May 26, 2011)

Kim Ki-duk on the Benefits on Low-Budget Filmmaking
(The Korea Times, Junes 14, 2011)

Jang Hoon Explains The Front Line and Tensions with Mentor Kim Ki-duk
(, June 16, 2011)

Kim Ki-duk's Latest to Premiere at San Sebastian
(Film Business Asia, August 17, 2011)

10. Yun Jung-hee's Global Accolades

Yun Jung-hee, who has astounded audiences the world over this year with her wonderful performance in Lee Chang-dong's Poetry, received some significant accolades from various international sources.  Earlier this year she was awarded the French Cultural Order by French culture minister Frederic Mitterand and recently the Los Angeles Film Critics Association deemed her performance in Poetry the best of the year.

(YonHap News Agency, April 6, 2011)

Yun Jung-hee Wins LA Film Critics Award
(KOBIZ, December 13, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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