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Ko-pick: The Rise of K-Animation

Jun 07, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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While Korean animation is somewhat overshadowed by the animated film industries of Japan and Hollywood, it has long featured in Korea’s film and wider content industry in different forms. The first feature film was released in 1967 with Shin Dong-hun’s A Story of Hong Gil-dong and several other films soon followed including Robot Taekwon V in 1976. In more contemporary Korean cinema directors including Yeon Sang-ho emerged with more gritty animations such as The King of Pigs (2011), while family-friendly animations have also found success in cinemas – most notably Leafie: A Hen into the Wild (2011) and of course the Pororo films that have struck a chord with toddlers and young children. 


The famous penguin was created in 2003 and aired on EBS as a Television series, the franchise has since produced a host of films including Pororo: The Racing Adventure (2013) that was also dubbed into English and Mandarin. It sold 929,000 tickets in Korea.


Even one of Korea’s most renowned auteurs Bong Joon Ho is turning to animation for one of his forthcoming projects that is being animated by 4th Creative Party based in Seoul. It’s reported to depict the relationships between deep sea marine life and humans.


On June 6th, one of the world’s leading animation film festivals, Annecy International Animation Film Festival kicks off in France. Over the years, Korean animated films have been invited there, often securing awards. Lee Sung-gang’s My Beautiful Girl Mari (2002) became the first Korean film to win the Grand Prix. Thereafter, films including Oseam (2004), The Shaman Sorceress (2020) and Chun Tae-il (2021) have won accolades.


This year, Ahn Jae-hoon’s new film Gill (2024) has been invited into the festival’s main competition while three other Korean feature animations including Hur Bum-wook’s Pig that Survived Foot-and-mouth Disease (2024) will also screen there. In addition, the event will host a Korean Animation Pitching Showcase on June 12th in collaboration with the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) that will introduce seven new animated projects. To coincide with the festival, we will profile several Korean animations beginning with Robot Taekwon V.



Robot Taekwon V 

Produced by one of the leading filmmakers of the 1960s, Yu Hyun-mok (Obaltan (1961), Robot Taekwon V is one of the most influential Korean animations released in the twentieth century. It became an instant hit upon release in 1976 premiering at the Daehan cinema in Chungmuro, downtown Seoul – the center of the Korean film industry between the 1960s and 1980s.


It was directed by Kim Cheong-gi who would direct a number of animated and live-action science fiction films in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It tells the story of a physicist called Dr. Kaff who builds giant robots to kidnap world famous athletes and brainwashes them calling his army “The Red Empire.” They come up against “Robot Taekwon V” who is developed by Dr. Kim that is piloted by his son, a young taekwondo athlete.


Released in the tumultuous 1970s when the film industry was struggling, it connected with a wide demographic owing to its themes of nationalism that struck a chord with older viewers while the film’s focus on robots resonated with children.


It was thought that the original print of the film was lost after it was sent to the United States. But a duplicate negative was discovered at the Korean Film Council’s print storage facility in 2003 though was significantly damaged. It was digitally restored with support from the Korean Film Council taking two years and costing one billion won. It was screened at the 10th Busan International Film Festival in 2005 and later released on DVD.




Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox

Also receiving significant financial support from the Korean Film Council was Lee Sung-gang’s Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox (2007). The project secured funds of 800 million won covering production costs making it at the time the largest production support for a single project by KOFIC. The film was distributed by CJ ENM, produced by Sunwoo Animation, and sold 482,988 tickets after its release in January 2007.


The film loosely based on the Korean folk tales of kumiho, it follows a young fox voiced by actress Son Ye-jin who was brought up by aliens that crash land into a hilltop. She takes on a new form as a human falling in love with one of the boys (Ryu Deok-hwan) from a group of students who come to the mountain. Like so many animations, it’s beautifully crafted – reflecting Lee’s wider work.


Along with Lee’s aforementioned My Beautiful Girl, Mari that made history at the 26th Annecy International Film Festival, he has helmed several other features including his most recent Princess Aya (2019) that premiered at the Bucheon International Animation Film Festival winning the Special Prize making him one of the most celebrated Korean filmmakers working in animated film. Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox also screened at several internationally renowned film festivals including the BFI London Film Festival.




Green Days

An Jae-hoon and Han Hye-jin’s Green Days (aka Green Days:  Dinosaur and I) released in 2011 is notable for its traditional animation that involved hand-rendered drawings by 14 artists on over 100,000 sheets. Animation has long been understood as a longer process compared to live-action films taking years to complete even for computer-generated 3D animation, but this film involved labor spanning eleven years. The film was produced by An’s company, Meditation with a Pencil – Green Days was its first feature. It also received “pilot production support” from KOFIC.


The attention to detail is evident in the film’s visuals set in the 1970s in a rural town drawing on nostalgia as it tells a coming-of-age story that centers on a high school student (Park Shin-hye). She begins a journey of self-exploration confronting her fears and also falls in love with a boy (Song Chang-eui) who dreams of being Korea’s first astronaut.


The directorial duo also made the shorts Innocent Joy (2000), When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom (2012) and the feature The Road Called Life (2014). The pair also collaborated with each other on The Shaman Sorceress (2021) with An Jae-hoon directing while Han Hye-jin served as an executive producer that was the last film by the studio to be drawn by pencil. The pencils are no longer sold or imported to Korea. It also received support from KOFIC for its theatrical release in 2021 and won the Contrechamp Jury Distinction Award in Annecy in 2020.



The Fake

Yeon Sang-ho attracted worldwide attention for his live-action smash hit Train to Busan (2016), but he was already very much an established filmmaker working in animation. He drew critical notice for his feature debut The King of Pigs (2011), which sheds light on the issue of bullying and violence. His subsequent feature The Fake (2013) would similarly take a dark turn compared to many family-orientated animations focusing on a religious cult – signified in the Korean title Saibi that translates into English as cult.


Also written by Yeon, the film is set in a rural village that’s being submerged owing to the building of a new dam. A swindler deceives the local villagers to hand in their compensation as church offerings. A local man despite his drunken behavior understands what’s really going on but is unable to convince them. 


The film’s religious themes would appear in some of his later work on streaming platforms, not least Hellbound (2021) but also Parasyte: The Grey (2024), while his appetite for social commentary is reflected in much of his projects including his animation Seoul Station (2016) that takes place before the events in Train to Busan.


The Fake was screened at multiple festivals around the world including SITGES where it won Best Animated Feature. It also secured support from KOFIC for its theatrical release in 2013 pulling in 22,000 viewers.



Chun Tae-il

Hong Joon-pyo’s animation – as the title suggests – follows the life of the life of Chun Tae-il who working in a factory as a tailor and then a manager at the Seoul Pyeonghwa market stood up to his superiors in demanding better rights for him and especially his colleagues; some of whom were falling ill with tuberculosis. He learned that there were regulations in place yet not enforced leading him to founding a labor organization. He died at the age of 22 when he set fire to himself in 1970 at a protest as he tirelessly campaigned for basic workers’ rights. 


The animation explores the earlier life of Chun – we see his upbringing before he moved to Seoul and the relationship he had with his parents. As such it’s more commercial and family friendly than Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (1995) that also examines his life.


The images and the level of detail involved in rendering the animation is impressive, not least of the Seoul Pyeonghwa Market itself. It drew acclaim on the festival circuit winning the Contrechamp Jury Distinction Prize at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2022. It received funding from the Korean Film Council under its feature-length animation development support program.




Also bagging an award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2022 was Moon Su-jin’s Persona (2022) that won the top prize of Cristal for a Graduation project. The film is a six-minute animation, which focuses on beauty, appearances and the need to fit in as it follows a young woman who slips into a second skin when she ventures out with friends. At home, however, her exterior skin and her inner being dissolve creating something different.


The film, which is the first animated short to have been invited to the Cannes Short Competition in 2022, is Moon’s graduate film from the Korea National University of Arts. It became a fixture on the festival circuit securing invitations to the Animafest Zagreb, Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival, London International Animation Festival, among others.




The Korean Academy of Arts (KAFA) that was established by the Korean Film Council in 1984 is producing an increasing number of animated films. In January 2023, the stop-motion animation Mother Land (2023) was released after premiering at the Busan International Film Festival in 2022. KAFA students have also directed shorts – this includes Oh Yoo-jin’s UNIQUE TIME (2022), Lee Yoo-Ji’s Boy with Stars (2022) and Go Hee-Jung’s Water in the Desert (2022). 


Also notable is Kim Hye-mi’s Climbing (2021) that was also invited to compete at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2021.


The layered film centers on a climber who having recently recovered from a car accident discovers that she is pregnant before the Climbing World Championships. Dealing with pregnancy and the psychological and social struggles that come with it, it’s part of growing body of work that is focusing on these themes including Birth (2022) amidst Korea’s chronic struggle with low birth rates.


Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise

Any copying, republication or redistribution of KOFIC's content is prohibited without prior consent of KOFIC.
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