Few genres are as self-contained as the prison film. Set within limited locations with a finite number of characters engaging in mostly unambiguous relationships, stories of convicts have stood the test of time as a popular mode of storytelling in cinema.
Films such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994) are known the world over, but in its modern age, it may very well be the Korean film industry that has experienced the most success with the genre. The country boasts a surprisingly large and diverse field of jail-set films and since they can easily act as a microcosm for society at large, much like high school films, perhaps this is where we can find the key to their seeming popularity with Korean filmmakers and audiences. Known for their genre experimentation, Korean filmmakers have also played around with the prison drama, combing in with other genres, especially melodrama.
Not only have there been many Korean prison dramas, but relative to other industries they have proven remarkably popular in Korea, especially in the last few years with the smash successes of Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013) and last year’s A Violent Prosecutor, which are the 6th and 15th most popular Korean films of all time. Beyond last year’s hit, 2017 will feature a pair of new prison dramas, The Prison and The Merciless, and last month already welcomed two films with jail-set sequences, the man on the run thriller Fabricated City and court drama New Trial.
Diversity of Korean Prison Drama
So why the sudden surge in output? Looking at the contemporary narratives that have proven successful in the last two years offers a major clue. Titles like Veteran (2015), Inside Men (2015) and more have centered around corruption and the struggle between the haves and have nots in a society that is often caught between moving towards the future and repeating its past mistakes. The prison film allows filmmakers to fit these tales onto a smaller canvas and offers their views on the vagaries of human nature in local society, not unlike recent train set blockbusters such as BONG Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) and YEON Sang-ho’s TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), the latter of which was considered by many as a strong criticism of Korea’s collective response to emergency management.
Another area where Korean prison films have proven surprisingly adept are women’s prison films. The inclusion of the women’s prison sequences in PARK Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005) may have paved the way for the smash hit melodrama Harmony (2010) with Lost alum KIM Yun-jin in the lead role. Combining family melodrama and human interest story, the film was a major hit, welcoming over three million admissions. The film’s success demonstrated the flexibility of the prison film and emboldened filmmakers to try new combinations.
Several years later PANG Eun-jin directed JEON Do-yeon in Way Back Home (2013), the ambitious global human interest tale which was based on the real story of a Korean woman who spent several years in a jail on Martinique (where much of the film shot on location, using real guards from the prison as supporting characters) after being wrongfully arrested for drug smuggling. The film was a modest success and came close to topping two million admissions at the box office.
Yet the film’s most successful descendant was surely Miracle in Cell No. 7, a prison-set tale of a wrongly convicted simpleton whose cellmates smuggle his daughter inside that shocked many when it became the most successful Korean melodrama of all time at the time of its release after scaling its way to just shy of 13 million admissions. Miracle in Cell No. 7 was far from the first melodramatic prison film in Korea, following the previously mentioned Harmony but also works like SONG Hae-sung’s Maundy Thursday (2006), about a woman who begins to visit a man of death over week.
Sticking to the more traditional thriller and/or drama (and male-dominated) mode of prison films, Korea has taken its cue from successes overseas and tweaked them to the Korean market. Films like KIM Sang-jin’s comedy Jail Breakers (2002), with just over 3 million admissions and JANG Jin’s drama Righteous Ties (2006), with 1.74 million entries, were popular films that echoed the many jail break films of western cinema.
However, far and away the most successful among these has been LEE Il-hyung’s debut film A Violent Prosecutor. HWANG Jung-minstarred as the eponymous character who is framed for murder and seeks out the help of a low-level convict (played by Maundy Thursday’s GANG Dong-won) on the inside to help unearth the mystery of his incarceration. Though the film was largely a reflection of concerns with corruption in Korean society, the film’s structure and plotting were heavily indebted to The Shawshank Redemption. The combination proved a potent one during the Lunar New Year in 2016, with the film eventually notching up 9.7 million spectators.
Korean Prison Films in 2017
To be released on March 23rd by Showbox, The Prison, the feature film debut of director NA Hyun, is the next major Korean prison work. The film pairs HAN Suk-kyu, one of the country’s top stars for the last 20 years, and KIM Rae-won, last seen opposite LEE Min-ho in YOO Ha’s gangster epic Gangnam Blues (2015). KIM plays a former cop who winds up in a jail that is lorded over by HAN’s intimidating inmate. Prison guards happily do his bidding and even the warden is completely in his pocket in a story that exaggerates the extremes of corruption.
2017 will also feature a few more prison movies, namely a pair from CJ Entertainment. One of those is The Merciless with SUL Kyung-gu and IM Si-wan. Following a similar plot to The Prison, the film features SUL as the top inmate in a prison while IM is the undercover cop who insinuates himself into his inner circle. The film is due out in the second half of the year.
While not strictly a prison film, CJ’s biggest title of 2017 is RYOO Seung-wan’s Battleship Island, which takes place on a forced labor camp island during World War II. HWANG Jung-min leads the cast as a man trying to protect his daughter while he and his fellow forced laborers suffer from harsh treatment by the Japanese. Part drama, prisoner of war film and escape thriller, it’s both RYOO’s most ambitious film to date and the boldest Korean prison film yet.
Time will tell if audiences take to this year’s new crop of prison-set tales but regardless of their financial outcomes the industry will surely continue to cook up more inventive twists on the genre in the years to come.
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