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Ko-pick: Korea’s Film Franchises

Jun 14, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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The Roundup: Punishment (2024) starring and produced by Don Lee recently made history marking the first time a third film of a series had surpassed 10 million admissions making it a so-called “triple 10m” franchise.


The series of films that center on an unorthodox cop (Don Lee) who relies on his firsts to take down nefarious criminals began in 2017 with the sleeper hit The Outlaws (2017) that sold 6.8 million tickets during the Chuseok season. The sequel The Roundup (2022) performed even more robustly selling 12.6 million tickets in the spring of 2022 becoming the first film in the pandemic era to accumulate more than 10 million admissions.  Just a year later the third film The Roundup: No Way Out (2023) pulled in 10.6 million viewers even though the critical consensus suggested it wasn’t as well received as the first two films. Given the immensely successful nature of the franchise it’s not surprising that Don Lee has plans for up to eight features. The Roundup is also being remade in Hollywood, which is currently in pre-production.


The Korean film industry has been less dependent on franchises than Hollywood with filmmakers keen to produce original content. Its success, both locally and internationally can be attributed to its ability to innovate and adapt to the market producing content that connects with audiences – films that are not based on existing IP but also titles that are. Several franchises have emerged over the years and as the success of The Roundup illustrates, there is huge demand for them – even as the industry transitions into the streaming era.


Series in Korean cinema is not new. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid trilogy (1960-1982) is an earlier example. Several series targeting children emerged in the 1980s including Ureme (1986-1993) spanning nine films, Super Hong Gil-dong (1987-1992) that consisted of eight films, and the Ban-Dal Mask (1990-1992) featuring six titles.


The 1990s saw Im Kwon-taek’s, General’s Son films (1990-1992) and Two Cops (1993-1998) directed by Kang Woo-suk, while the horror series Whispering Corridors began in 1998 and has continued into the 2020s.  Since the 2000s, there have been a host of franchises with Public Enemy (2002-2008), Marrying the Mafia (2002-2023), Tazza (2006-2019), the Admiral Yi Sun-Sin trilogy (2014-2023), Detective K (2011-2018) and Along with the Gods (2017-2018). Reflecting the breadth of Korean cinema, these franchises encompass a range of genres; from period and fantasy to comedy and horror. This week we take a look at many of the series beginning with General’s Son.



General’s Son

Directed by Im Kwon-taek, General’s Son stands out among his other work during the 1980s and 1990s as a more commercial film, which paid off given how it was one of the most successful films of the early 1990s. It spurned to two sequels: General’s Son II (1991) and General’s Son III (1992).


Set during the Japanese colonial period, it follows a gangster, Kim Du-han, (Park Sang-min) who works his way up the gangs of Jongro, a district in downtown Seoul, using his skills as an able fighter. This is set against a backdrop when the yakuzas are seeking to expand their influence. Du-han, though, the son of independent activist and general Kim Chwa-chin, seeks to prevent the Japanese from controlling the district.


While the colonial backdrop might not appear significant now given the number of films set during this period in the 2010s (Assassination (2015), The Age of Shadows (2016)), since the 1960s it was unusual to see films set during the Japanese colonial period, perhaps owing to the sensitivities in depicting this period of history.


Im Kwon-taek’s films of the ‘80s and ‘90s were often dealing with themes of culture and national identity seen through films such as his unexpected hit Sopyonje (1993). In a sense General’s Son is part of this but with its smartly choreographed action-sequences that would be replicated in the gangster films of the 1990s and 2000s, it also shares similarities to his earlier work that was more commercial in nature.



Two Cops

The subgenre of action-comedies that continues to resonate with Korean audiences to this day was also evident in the 1990s with Kang Woo-suk’s Two Cops (1993) that led to two sequels: Two Cops 2 (1996) and Two Cops 3 (1998).


The entertaining first film that leans more heavily on comedy than action set-pieces follows a pair of detectives with different approaches to their professions with the more experienced cop played by Ahn Sung-ki less keen on following the rules while the younger and more eager and principled policeman acted by Park Joong-hoon puts him in conflict with his partner.


The pairing of Ahn Sung-Ki and Park Joong-hoon was one of the most enduring onscreen duos and bromances in Korean cinema with both actors starring in several films beginning with Chilsu and Mansu (1988) and continuing with features in the 1990s including Two Cops and Nowhere to Hide (1999) and then lasting into the 2000s with Radio Star (2006).


Two Cops was filmed by the much-admired cinematographer Jeong Kwang-seok (Whale Hunting (1984) Nowhere to Hide (1999) who shot a whopping 172 films. He passed away at the age of 91 this week, on June 8.


The success of the film and trilogy would be instrumental for Kang Woo-suk who would later emerge as one of the most powerful individuals in the industry. He founded Cinema Service in 1993, the year Two Cops was released. The company would be a leading studio as the industry entered a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s distributing a number of hits such as My Sassy Girl (2001) and The King and the Clown (2005).



Whispering Corridors 

Park Ki-hyung’s Whispering Corridors (1998) also distributed by Cinema Service ushered in the longest series of films in the contemporary era spanning a total of six titles released between 1998 and 2021. Park’s film was also massively influential in the wider body of Korean horror, often focusing on female protagonists, dealing with trauma and retribution.


Set in an all-girls high school, Whispering Corridors starring Lee Mi-yeon, Kim Gyu-ri and Choi Gang-hee centers on the story of a ghost of a former student who comes back to seek revenge. It was notable along with many of its sequels for tackling taboo themes such as Korea’s intensive and strict education system and authoritarianism.


The second installment Memento Mori (1999) helmed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong was also significant for being the first commercial Korean film to focus on lesbian characters. While thematically the films shared similarities along with its high school setting, the films featured different characters and were also directed and written by an array of filmmakers. Yun Jae-yeon helmed Wishing Stairs (2003), Choi Ik-hwan directed Voice (2005), Lee Jong-yong made A Blood Pledge (2009) and Lee Mi-young was behind Whispering Corridors 6: The Humming (2021).




Public Enemy 

Along with Two Cops, Kang Woo-suk was also behind the popular but darker and violent Public Enemy films that center on a tenacious and unscrupulous police detective played by Sol Kyung-gu as he comes up against criminals. In the first film released in 2002, he seeks to take down a slick fund manager who is a sadistic serial killer (Lee Sung-jae). The sequel Another Public Enemy hit screens in 2005, while the third of the trilogy was Public Enemy Returns was released in 2008.


Public Enemy, which pulled in close to 3 million admissions in Korea despite its violent narrative, was also released overseas. It was one of the first Korean titles to hit multiplex screens in the UK in 2003 under its Asia Extreme branding as part of its Asia Extreme Festival – together with Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Kang Ja-gyu’s Swiri (1999) and Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy (2002) – illustrating the appetite among Western audiences for Korean genre cinema.


Public Enemy also marked the first collaboration between Kang Woo-suk and Sol Kyung-gu. The actor would not only feature in all of the Public Enemy films that were directed and produced by Kang but also Kang’s Silmido (2003), which was the first Korean film to surpass ten million admissions marking a new era for the Korean film industry.




Written and directed by one of Korea’s most commercially successful directors Choi Dong-hoon, Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) is based on the manhwa (Korean comic) of the same name by Huh Young-man and Kim Se-yeong. The story centers on a group of fraudulent gamblers known as “slickers” who are involved in the Korean card game known as Hwatu. The protagonist played by Cho Seung-woo is attempting to regain his savings after losing it at a gambling joint. The film also stars Kim Hye-soo, Baek Yoon-sik and Kim Yun-seok.  

Tazza is visually arresting with its production design, colors and staging, while it has an abundance of energy owing to its story, performers and execution. As such, it was a critical and commercial hit selling close to seven million tickets. The success of it saw two films also based on the same comic that came much later with Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Tazza: The Hidden Card (2012) starring Choi Seung-hyun and Shin Se-kyung, and Kwon Oh-Kwang’s Tazza: One Eyed Jack featuring Park Jeong-min and Ryoo Seung-bum.


However, both films were unable to replicate the success of Choi Dong-hoon’s much-acclaimed film with the two features selling 4 million and 2.2 million tickets, respectively.



Detective K 

Period films have often struck a chord with Korean audiences so it’s not a surprise that a series of films revolving around a detective in the Joseon dynasty in the 1700s emerged in the 2010s. Based on the novel by Kim Tak-hwan, the first film Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow

(2011) directed by Kim Sok-yun sees the famous detective played by Kim Myung-min assigned by King Jeong-jo to investigate a series of murders that the king suspects is part of a conspiracy by high officials to cover up an embezzlement scandal.

With plenty of comedic elements together with its alluring visuals, it was popular with viewers becoming the fourth most successful film of 2011 spurring two further sequels: Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (2015) and Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead (2018). Both films would also feature Kim Myung-min in the leading role along with Oh Dal-su who plays his sidekick as they embark on different adventures. They are also directed by the same filmmaker Kim Sok-yun, which is in contrast to a series like Whispering Corridors demonstrating how these franchises have evolved in different ways.



Yi Sun-Sin trilogy 

While at the center of these films is the revered admiral Yi Sun-sin who took on the Japanese navy in a series of a battles in the 1500s, behind the camera is Kim Han-min who directed and co-wrote all three films beginning with The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) that remains the most successful Korean film of all time amassing 17.6 million admissions in 2014.


Starring Choi Min-sik as the admiral, the film revolves around one of Yi’s most famous victories at the Battle of Myeongnang in 1597 defeating a Japanese armada of 333 ships with just 12 vessels. It was one of three films set at sea in the summer of 2014 with The Pirates (2014) and Haemoo (2014) also playing in the multiplexes over the same period, but it was The Admiral: Roaring Currents that went on to break multiple box office records striking a chord with viewers in a tangible way.


The subsequent films, Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022) and Noryang: Deadly Sea (2023) would depict Yi’s other battles (Hansan was an earlier one in 1592, while Norang was the last of the major victories in 1598). Different actors would play the admiral with Park Hae-il playing Yi in Hansan and Kim Yoon-seok took on the role in Noryang as they convey the protagonist in differing ways bringing varying nuances to the role.



Along with the Gods

With a budget of 40 billion won for both filmsKim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) and Along with the Gods: the Last 49 Days (2018) was a risky endeavor for the studio Lotte Entertainment that financed and distributed them. Shot back-to-back, this marked the first time two films had been shot concurrently mirroring Lord of the Rings that were all filmed before The Followship of the Ring was released in 2001.


Based on the webtoon series of the same name by Joo Ho-min, the films star Ha Jung-woo, Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi as three grim reapers who guide souls in the afterlife. Its themes of life and death along with its exhilarating visuals emulating Hollywood blockbusters and its doses of melodrama enabled the film to attract a wide demographic with both films collectively amassing 26.6 million admissions. It was, therefore, a gamble that paid off initiating a new phase of franchises in Korean cinema. It also underscored how Dexter Studios – the company behind the film’s visual effects – was quickly becoming a leading VHX studio in Asia.



Edited by Shim Eunha 

Written by Jason Bechervaise

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