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This Week in South Korean Film - 3/10/2021
Assassins, Aliens, and Anachronisms
There’s a lot of releases this week, but they’re almost entirely foreign ones, and I doubt any of them can overcome the momentum of Minari. Still, the closest thing to a favorite is probably the rerelease of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring this week. Calling it a favorite at all is a generous term. The Tolkien-inspired fantasy franchise certainly exists in South Korea. Back in the aughts it might have even be considered reasonably popular. But the Hobbit movies in teens never broke three million admissions apiece. They weren’t failures by any means but this particular brand of fantasy action just hasn’t left much of a pop culture footprint on South Korean culture.
For a sense of contrast, the first Hobbit movie failed to overcome 26 Years in the long haul, despite it having the superior mid-December opening position compared to late November for 26 Years. In all fairness, 26 Years hasn’t had that much more longevity in terms of 2012 movies, although I’d argue that has more to do with politics than genre fatigue. 26 Years deals with a group of assassins attempting to murder a mastermind of the Gwangju Massacre back in 1980. Given the conservative government that ran South Korea when 26 Years was produced I’m still kind of surprised the movie got made at all. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to learn that former president Park Geun-hye’s film industry blacklist was prompted in part by the movie’s success. As an ensemble adaptation of a not particularly well known comic book (even if it was written by Kang Full) 26 Years had about as many factors working against it as The Hobbit had working for it.
The second Hobbit movie came out in the same weekend as its chief Korean competitor. And while this time Middle Earth came out ahead, the margin was a lot closer than you’d think given the competition. The Way Back Home doesn’t even have a real strong high concept working for it. The dramatic movie deals with a wife driven by her family’s financial desperation into selling drugs. The sharply realistic story that unfolds shows how she’s brutalized by the French criminal justice system, which she’s literally incapable of understanding. Interestingly, the French themselves are less the villains here than the South Korean Embassy in France, which shows horrifying indifference toward so much as even getting the poor woman a lawyer. The actual criminals she was working with, with their own lawyers, easily go free. It’s very brutal stuff that still holds up.
The third Hobbit movie had much less luck in the South Korean market when it came to its direct competitor. It had the misfortune of opening up against Ode to My Father, which currently sits at fourth place and over fourteen million admissions at the all-time South Korean box office. The retrospective movie is about as far off from 26 Years as you can get- it’s a generally optimistic and conservative summation of South Korean history after the Korean War, told through the spectrum of a single family who escaped the wreckage of the war. The movie’s anachronistic in the sense that the characters show nationalistic values even as they work overseas. Nationalism in South Korea is actually a fairly recent phenomenon- in the German work program depicted in the movie roughly half of the Koreans involved actually chose to stay behind in Germany. Most of the movie’s right-wing politics are subtle like that, as can also be seen in the generally cheerful detour through Vietnam.
These politics are further rendered inscrutable by such aspects as pro-immigration actually being a conservative political stance in South Korea, at least in theory. It’s also a leftist stance, to be clear. Ode to My Father was not expected to be a big hit, but it struck a big chord with older nostalgia minded audiences- an often underrated demographic when it comes to the South Korean market.