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Animals and Agents Dominate 2020’s 1st Holiday Season

Jan 20, 2020
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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Korean Studios Line Up their Lunar New Year Titles

Just a few weeks into the 2020s and the first holiday season is already upon us, with the Lunar New Year holidays falling on Saturday, January 25 this year. After ASHFALL (2019), START-UP (2019) and Forbidden Dream (2019) pulled in the crowds through the end-of-year season in late 2019, Korean studios have lined up a fresh batch of titles in the hopes of luring family audiences throughout the holiday period.

For viewers who have frequented cinemas in Korea over the last few months, there will be several familiar faces, as actors such as LEE Byung-hun (ASHFALL, 2019) and KWON Sang-woo (The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful, 2019) will be back on screens. Meanwhile, LEE Sung-min headlines a pair of this year’s holiday titles and AHN Jae-hong stars in one and has another new film premiering in February (Time to Hunt). There’s also quite a lot of thematic overlap within this batch of Lunar New Year contenders, as two are centered around zoos (SECRET ZOO and MR. ZOO: THE MISSING VIP), while three feature government agents as principal characters (MR. ZOO: THE MISSING VIP, The Man Standing Next and HITMAN: AGENT JUN). 

Following last year’s Lunar New Year bonanza, when crime comedy Extreme Job (2019) became the second most successful Korean film of all time with over 16 million admissions, observers are curious to see whether another high concept comedy such as SECRET ZOO may win out, or whether a star-driven historical thriller (The Man Standing Next) will be able to cross the divide and move audiences young and old.


Director SON Jae-gon
Cast AHN Jae-hong, KANG So-ra, PARK Yeong-gyu, KIM Sung-oh
Release Date January 15

Ten years after his acclaimed crime comedy Villain & Widow (2010) with HAN Suk-kyu and KIM Hye-soo, director SON Jae-gon, who was also responsible for the off-kilter romantic comedy My Scary Girl (2006), is making a long overdue return to the director’s chair with another high-concept comedy that is drawing praise from critics and viewers.

Tae-su (AHN Jae-hong) has been stuck in a dead-end job as a temp in a law firm for years, in the hopes of landing a full-time position. One day he gets the chance of a lifetime, when he’s tasked with revitalizing a failing zoo. The problem is that the establishment doesn’t possess any animals but nevertheless, with a three month deadline and help from the zookeepers, he comes up with a daring scheme: have the staff dress up as animals and fool the general public. His team practices as they dress up as polar bears, tigers, gorillas, sloths and then after opening day the scheme pays off when a video of Tae-su as a polar bear drinking a can of coke hits the internet and goes viral. All seems well and Tae-su is poised to get his full-time position, until he uncovers his firm’s real intentions, which forces him to make a tough decision.

SECRET ZOO opens a week earlier that the other three films vying for a piece of the Lunar New Year box office spoils, as it hopes to jump start its run as a sleeper hit, much like Extreme Job (2019) and Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013) did. The film’s start has been less than encouraging however and at this point it will need a big word of mouth push to become a major hit.

The Man Standing Next

Director WOO Min-ho
Cast LEE Byung-hun, LEE Sung-min, KWAK Do-won, LEE Hee-jun
Release Date January 22

WOO Min-ho and LEE Byung-hun, the director and star combo that catapulted the stylish corruption thriller Inside Men to box office glory in 2015 with over nine million admissions, are back in theaters with The Man Standing Next, a gripping political yarn set in 1979 that chronicles the weeks leading up to the bloody end of President PARK Chung-hee’s administration.

Towards the end of President PARK’s (LEE Sung-min) reign, Kim Gyu-pyeong, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), is tasked with retrieving a tell-all manuscript penned by former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (KWAK Do-won), who is in hiding in Washington D.C., where he is testifying to congress about political malfeasance in Korea. Kim is considered the second-in-command but the increasingly paranoid President is paying more and more heed to the reckless protestations of Kim’s rival, the head of Secret Service (LEE Hee-jun). As tensions in the Blue House escalate and pressure from the outside urging for a new regime intensifies, Kim finds his loyalties pushed to the brink.

LEE is coming off a major hit with ASHFALL (2019) and has a strong track record at the box office, however Director WOO missed with his last film, the period crime saga The Drug King (2018) with SONG Kang-ho. The film is also more in tune with the sober, politically-charged dramas such as 1987: When the Day Comes (2017) and The Spy Gone North (2018), which also starred LEE Sung-min, so it may need a very strong critical and audience response to translate into a major hit.


Director KIM Tae-yun
Cast LEE Sung-min, KIM Seo-hyung, BAE Jung-nam, SHIN Ha-kyun
Release Date January 22

Versatile actor LEE Sung-min is also headlining the high concept action-comedy MR. ZOO: THE MISSING VIP, from New Trial (2017) director KIM Tae-yun. The film also co-stars KIM Seo-hyung of The Villainess (2017) and BAE Jung-nam, who was LEE’s co-star in The Sheriff in Town (2017), while Save the Green Planet (2003) star SHIN Ha-kyun lends his voice to the film.

Tae-ju (LEE Sung-min) is one of Korea’s top national security agents, but he also has a fear of animals which proves to be a major disability when he takes on a gig to babysit a special Chinese panda named Ming-Ming in a bid to get a fast promotion. During a welcoming ceremony, the animal is kidnapped but when Tae-ju goes after the panda-napping terrorists he knocks his head in an accident. When he wakes up he discovers that he now has the ability to talk to animals. As he continues in his mission to track down Ming-Ming he discovers that a retired military dog named Ali (SHIN Ha-kyun) may be the only witness capable of helping him, so he begrudgingly partners up with him. 


Director CHOI Won-sub
Cast KWON Sang-woo, JUNG Joon-ho, HWANGWOO Seul-hye, YI Yi-kyung, LEE Ji-won
Release Date January 22

Another actor making a quick return to screens is KWON Sang-woo, who has been the lead of three films in just over three months, starting with the romcom Love, Again (2019), continuing with the action-thriller sequel The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful (2019) and finishing with this month’s action-comedy HITMAN: AGENT JUN.

KWON plays Jun, the top agent at Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS). When he becomes disenchanted with his work, he decides to live a normal life as a family man and to pursue his dream of becoming a webtoon artist, but in order to do so he must fake his own death. However, the webtoons he pens fail to draw any attention and he once again falls into a funk. So he decides to write a webtoon about his past as an agent, yet when the file is leaked to the public and becomes a viral sensation he becomes a target for agents and gang members from his past who use it to track him down.

This is the second film by Director CHOI Won-sub, following 2009’s My Burning Heart, which screened at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan). He also worked on the script of the melodrama Closer to Heaven (2009).
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