Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
KO-pick: From the screen of a smartphone to a silver screen
Seven Korean movies based on webtoons
Webtoons have been a staple of Korean culture ever since the introduction of this format of digital comics took over the small screens we constantly carry in our palms. First coined in 1999, the term was initially employed in Korea to designate all kinds of animation or comic distributed online. Of course, the concept of uploading and sharing comics online wasn’t new nor started in Korea. Most of them were just pages initially designed for publication in newspapers but shared online. Everything changed when Daum, then a web portal that had just taken the lead from Yahoo, launched its first online comics website. You could still find manhwa that had simply been digitized, but Kang Full, an artist who at that point was known for comic strips broke the codes with Love Story in 2003. He removed the constraints of strips specifically for the online readers. He let the drawings and the texts “float” on the web page, creating a continuous vertical string. It also fit the narrative structure, as he was also among the first to attempt to tell a continuous story in serialized episodes. The series was a hit and the idea started to gain traction. This format turned out to be fit for the smaller screens of smartphones, which opened up webtoons to a whole new audience eager for some entertainment during their commute. Webtoons adopted a more common grammar, with panels being spread out vertically like one long vertical strip, allowing for an easy reading experience just by scrolling. With that, Korea had invented a new comic format for the 21st century.
The webtoon format presented authors with a new set of tools to play with; and some of them have similitudes with filmmaking techniques. Whereas authors of a book or magazine-format comic often keep in mind the double-page structure to pace the narrative or sync a big surprise with the turn of a page, webtoon artists are free of such restrictions. Frames can be interspersed with a lot of space, and bubble speeches can be positioned outside of the panel, therefore accentuating the temporality of the action, creating suspense or adding rhythm. Since each panel will appear in a scrolling motion, a long vertical panel that requires several scrolls to get to the bottom of it can create an effect similar to a long up to down tilting shot or a travelling shot. Some webtoons even include music, sound effects, or some rudimentary animation by suddenly taking control of the scrolling and scroll through several frames create an effect similar to a flipbook.
Of course, webtoons quickly became a rich material for adaptation into films and series. In fact, some of the most successful Korean dramas and movies of the past few years have been based on webtoons, such as Along with the Gods, Itaewon Class, and Sweet Home. The first webtoon-based adaptations appeared in 2006, with Dasepo Naughty Girls based on the web comic by B-rate Dalgung, and A.P.T. based on the namesake webtoon by Kang Full. And the trend is not slowing down anytime soon. Just last Summer, Disney+ released its first original Korean series, Moving, which is based on the webtoon of the same name by none other than Kang Full. Meanwhile, in theaters, fans can watch the action-comedy film Brave Citizen, which is based on the webtoon of the same name by Kim Jeong-hyeon. This week, we will explore how webtoons are transforming the Korean film and series industry, and why they are so appealing to both creators and audiences.
Start-Up (2019), based on Cho Geum-san’s webtoon of the same name
In Start-up, Don Lee plays a Chinese restaurant owner who doesn’t mind throwing a punch or two when someone gets on his nerves. One day, he hires Park Jung-min, a runaway teenager from a small town who wants to escape his nagging mother. The movie follows their hilarious and somewhat intense relation as they try to make ends meet while sharing the same roof. The movie is a departure from the original webtoon, which had a more serious and dark tone. Whereas the webtoon explored the harsh realities of living in poverty and the conflicts between parents and children, the movie, on the other hand, is a light-hearted comedy that focuses on the friendship and growth of the main characters. The movie also adds some action scenes to showcase Don Lee's signature punching skills, which are always fun to watch.
Long Live the King (2019), based on Willow Forest's webtoon of the same name
Long Live the King is a hilarious and thrilling action comedy that adapts the popular webtoon by Willow Forest, a creative team of a writer and an illustrator. The film marks the second feature of director Kang Yun-seong, who previously helmed the hit crime thriller The Outlaws (2017). The story follows Jang Se-chool (Kim Rae-won), a notorious gangster who has a change of heart after saving a group of people from a bus accident. He decides to run for the National Assembly, hoping to use his power for good. However, his political ambitions are met with fierce opposition from the incumbent lawmaker Park Sang-pil (Choi Moo-seong), who fears losing his third term to the charismatic newcomer. Park teams up with a rival gang leader (Jin Seon-kyu) to sabotage Jang's campaign and reputation, leading to a series of hilarious and action-packed confrontations. This film is a fun and fast-paced film that offers a satirical look at the Korean politics and society, while also delivering some heartwarming moments and impressive fight scenes. The film stays rather faithful to the first part of original webtoon, which eventually follows the protagonist all the way until he becomes president of South Korea just because his crush told him she wanted to be the First Lady.
Steel Rain (2017) by Yang Wu-seok, based on Yang Wu-seok’s webtoon of the same name
Steel Rain is a rare example of a film adaptation that was directed by one of the original webtoon authors. Yang Wu-seok, who started his career as a webtoon writer, made his film debut with The Attorney (2013), which was based on a script he initially wrote for another webtoon. His most successful webtoon, however, was Steel Rain, which he published in 2011. It was only natural for him to decide to bring it to the silver screen as his follow-up project. The webtoon tells the story of a US-South Korean operation to stop a military coup in North Korea that killed Kim Jong-il, right before an inter-Korean summit. However, due to the changing geopolitical situation in the Korean peninsula, Kang had to rewrite almost the entire script for the film version. In the film, the North Korean leader is still targeted by a coup, but he is saved by a loyal special forces agent who was tricked unbeknownst to him to participate in the plot. The agent flees with him to the South, where he meets by chance a presidential secretary. The two understand that there is more at play and decided to join hand to prevent a nuclear war as the new North Korean regime and the US escalate tensions. Both the webtoon and the film aim to portray realistic and complex scenarios that avoid simplistic views of the North-South conflict and consider the roles of different factions and foreign powers. This plot was later used for a new season of the webtoon.
Inside Men (2015) by Woo Min-ho, based on Yoon Tae-ho’s webtoon of the same name
Based on a popular webtoon that was originally published on the website of one of the most influential newspapers in Korea, Inside Men offers a realistic and gripping portrayal of how power and money can manipulate public opinion and shape the fate of a nation. The film follows the story of Ahn Sang-goo, a gangster who works for a powerful businessman who controls the media and has connections with a leading politician, Jang Pil-woo. When Ahn is caught stealing the records of a slush fund that his boss uses to bribe politicians and journalists, he is brutally punished by having his right hand chopped off. A few years later, he is contacted by Woo Jang-hoon, a prosecutor who was investigating the same slush fund but had to drop the case due to Ahn's interference. Woo offers Ahn a chance to get revenge on his boss and Jang, now a presidential candidate, by teaming up with him and exposing their dirty secrets to the public. Inside Men was a huge hit in Korea, attracting more than 9 million viewers. The film was praised for its sharp and realistic depiction of the corruption and collusion that sometimes plague the Korean politics, as well as for its stellar performances by the main cast, especially Lee Byung-hun as Ahn, who delivers a complex and charismatic portrayal of a man who is both a victim and a villain. He therefore largely dominated the awards season by collecting a dozen trophies, including those from the Baeksang Arts Awards, the Blue Dragon Film Awards and the Grand Bell Awards.
Secretly Greatly (2013), based on Hun's webtoon of the same name
This film follows the life of an elite North Korean spy, who was selected through rigorous training and fierce competition, and who infiltrates South Korea with a secret mission, which turns out to be nothing more than pretending to be an easy-going young man living in a slum, reporting on the mundane lives of the residents. His boring and lonely existence is disrupted when another spy, who trained with him, shows up at his door, bringing trouble along with him. Starring Kim Soo-hyun just before he became an international star with the series My Love from the Star, the film was a huge success at the box office, and, just like the original webtoon, it was praised for its portrayal of North Korean spies in a sympathetic light, as victims of the political powers that manipulate them. The story was so popular that it was adapted into a stage musical in 2023, which received positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.
The Neighbors (2012), based on Kang Full's webtoon of the same name
The Neighbors is a thriller that explores the dark side of urban life, where a serial killer lurks among the residents of an apartment building. Based on a webtoon by Kang Full, who is known for his horror stories, the film takes a different approach from his usual style, focusing more on the psychological tension and suspense than on paranormal activities. The film features a stellar cast, including Kim Yun-jin, who plays the stepmother of one of the killer's victims. Kim is famous for her role in the hit US series Lost, where she portrayed one of the survivors of the plane crash. In The Neighbors, she shows a different side of her acting skills, as she tries to cope with the loss of her stepdaughter and the suspicion that the murderer might be someone she sees every day. Another standout performance comes from Don Lee, who plays a tough-looking man who unwittingly confronts the killer over a parking dispute. Don Lee, who is also known as Ma Dong-seok, became a star after this film, as he impressed the audiences with his charisma, physical presence and his intense delivery. Among all the films based on a webtoon by Kang Full, it remains one of the most commercially successful ones.
Moss (2012), based on Yoon Tae-ho's novel of the same name
This adaptation of one of the earliest webtoons is directed by Kang Woo-seok, a veteran filmmaker who has helmed several successful action and crime movies, such as Silmido, Two Cops and Public Enemy. Unlike other webtoon-based films, Moss entered production while the original comic was still being serialized online. This gave the film a sense of freshness and unpredictability, as the audience did not know how the story would end. The story follows a man who travels to a remote village to attend the funeral of his estranged father. He soon realizes that the villagers are hiding a dark secret, and that his father's death may not have been an accident. He decides to stay in his father's house and investigate the mystery, but he faces hostility and danger from the locals, who are involved in a shady land deal. As he uncovers more clues, he also learns more about his father's past. The film features a stellar cast of actors, including Park Hae-il and Jung Jae-young in a standout role for which he was aged through special makeup. Kang won the Best Director award from both the Blue Dragon Film Awards and the Grand Bell Awards for his work on this film.