This Week in South Korean Film - 12/9/2020

Melodrama, Music, and Misfits

The big release this week is unquestionably Josee, a melodrama which stars Nam Joo-hyuk and Han Ji-min in the leading roles. Both actors are fairly popular in South Korea, largely due to their work on television dramas, which is the main reason why Josee is the obvious movie to see in a busy week with nine other releases. It certainly isn’t due to the efforts of Warner Brothers Korea, which continues to be a bit of an embarrassment when it comes to marketing their domestic films. For a sense of perspective, despite Josee going into wide release tomorrow, it still doesn’t have a full public cast list. Any movie can only go so far in the midst of tightening COVID-19 restrictions but there’s always been a bare minimum effort level that Warner Brothers Korea has struggled to meet which is why none of their domestic films have done well.

As always, an English language release for Josee will be far off, if ever. But as a remake of an old Japanese film you can at least (probably) watch the older version, which came out in 2003 with the longer title of Josee, The Tiger, and the Fish. An anime remake version of the movie is also coming out in Japan later this month. Unlike the Korean live action remake, the anime remake has already been licensed in English, which means you’ll probably have access to that version sooner too. If you’re curious as to the possible differences between the versions- I suspect that in the Korean version the age gap between the lead will be more of an issue. But that’s just a guess based on the fact that Han Ji-min is quite a bit older than Nam Joo-hyuk. The original version did not have a significant age gap between the lead actors, and both were playing college-aged characters.

In another abject lesson in the importance of stardom, the most popular of the remaining nine new films this week looks to be Swag, a musical romance that appears to have been fronted entirely thanks to the bankability of Niel of the K-pop group Teen Top. I would not call Niel exceptionally famous. But with lower level releases even a minor K-pop star can often bring in enough of a fandom to make producing a movie worthwhile. It helps that Swag is explicitly promising lots of music. Its trailer has a music video style presentation, which I imagine is exactly what Niel’s fans are hoping for, alongside the usual story about mixed up youth.

Speaking of which, two of the remaining releases this week trade on that theme, albeit in very different ways. Boys Be!! is a rough and tumble movie featuring high school boys getting into lots of fights- of the cheerful fun variety, I expect. Its trailer is wordless, which rather decently sets expectations for this being a simple no frills genre flick. Set Play looks to be rather more pretentious by comparison, focusing on young people in more dire economic circumstances, which isn’t any big surprise given that it premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year. The better films from Jeonju tend to come out gradually following the festival, although even the ones lucky enough to get a domestic release are long shots for international distribution.

Even so, OTT platforms are often enough to get such movies to break even. That’s a big part of why there’s so many movies opening this week in spite of the COVID-19 issues and also in spite of Josee being the only one to get particularly good distribution. It’s gotten very cold very fast and people like to stay indoors and watch streams. Consequently, next week will have a much lighter assortment of flicks, with only one confirmed release as of this writing.