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Ko - production in Busan
  • Period Films Open Up the Era of 10 Million Admissions
  • by KIM Hyung-seok /  Sep 07, 2015
  • How Period Films Became the Hottest Trend in Korean Cinema in the 21st Century?
    The hottest trend in Korean cinema today is "historical drama," Korean historical films, or Sageuk, which means costume dramas usually set in the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Along with modern period dramas (a.k.a. shidaegeuk), costume dramas set in the 20th century, a more recent past, historical dramas have become the driving force for modern Korean films' strong box office performance.
    Their great performance is proven by data. Korean cinema went through a brief recess towards the end of the first decade in the 21st century, but since 2012 it became active again with the support from its strong domestic performance. Since the summer 2012 until present as many as 8 films have scored the symbolic box office record of 10 million admissions, and 5 of them are either Sageuk or shidaegeuk. Roaring Currents (2014), in particular, attracted 17.61 million viewers and became the biggest local film of all time, manifesting the power of Sageuk.
    Faction Wins the Heart of the Audience, Balancing between Historical Facts and Imagination
    The strongest advantage of historical films is that they offer the two most basic pleasures of cinema: narrative and characters. "Faction" took the period film genre to a more interesting dimension. Faction is a combination of fact and fiction that refers to a fictional story made up of imagination added to historical facts. To be sure, most sageuk adapts historical facts, but what makes faction more special is that in those stories, historical facts meet imagination at very subtle and unique moments.
    Masquerade (2012) is a good example. This movie digs a historical fact: the unrecorded 15 days of King Gwanghaegun. Then the imagination goes as far as to create a clown who looked just like the king and make him sit in the king's throne for the 15 days. Such a setting created a story that twists familiar historical facts and figures in a new perspective. As a result, it crossed the hit status of the 10 million admissions.
    Among the sub genres of sageuk, faction attracts the most viewers, and The Face Reader (2013) is definitely one of them. It is set during the political turmoil where Sooyangdaegun (who became King Sejo later) kicked out King Danjong, his own nephew to take the throne. The film shows how a face reader who attempted to go against history fails in the progress. 
    Besides, many films stimulated curiosity of the audience by looking into the hidden side of history, including The Treacherous (2015) which is set during the time when King Yeonsangun executed a number of courtiers, Empire of Lust (2015) which depicts the "war of the princes" at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty, The Fatal Encounter (2014) that deals with the attempted assassin of King Jeongjo, I am the King (2012) that illustrates the crown prince days of King Sejong who is known to be the most revered king of Joseon, and Gabi (2012) that investigates the poisoning theory of King Gojong's death.
    These films may be called "palace dramas" in the sense that they depict the royal family, their close relatives and courtiers. In the past, these palace dramas dealt with more or less the proven history while more unofficial historical episodes weaved with imagination add much more flexibility to the story spectrums these days.
    Sageuk Becomes Korean Blockbuster

    Another reason why historical films are popular today is because of the spectacle. Big budget Korean movies made with KRW 10 billion (USD 8.4 million) or more, excluding the P&I, are mostly sageuk or shidaegeuk. If SF and super hero movies make blockbusters with large scale actions and spectacles in Hollywood, it is sageuk or shidaegeuk that plays the role in Korea.
    It is fair enough to say that The Divine Weapon (2008) was the beginning. This film introduces world's first rocket cannon called 'singijeon' with sword action plays and explosion spectacles combined. Its box office success later triggered the sageuk blockbuster craze. In 2011, War of the Arrows that depicts the war of arrows in the setting of the Chinese Invasion in 1636 became the top box office performer that year. The Grand Heist (2012) is a faction caper movie that creates spectacles by illustrating how the thieves steal ice. Historical films had enjoyed their golden era in 2014: KUNDO : Age of the Rampant, Roaring Currents and The Pirates stately hit cinema back to back.
    There are largely two reasons that helped sageuk make it to a blockbuster's scale. Firstly, for Korean cinema that lacks the tradition of SF movies with future settings, it is easier to go back to the past and develop the story and widen the scale of the settings and the spectacles there. For example, The Pirates shows a lot of action coming back and forth between the sea and the mountains, that seems rather natural because it is a sageuk. The second reason would be technology; as you may see in the whale character and roller-coster action in The Pirates, the computer graphic technology enables spectacles in sageuk. In addition, as noted in KUNDO : Age of the Rampant, development in production design, costume and make-up are all important factors as well.
    What is interesting is the rise of sageuk franchise. Detective K franchise which began in 2011 (Detective K : Secret of Virtuous Widow) released its sequel in 2015 (Detective K : Secret of the Lost Island) ; the series' third instalment Secret Detective and Vampire is also on the way. These films could be called "fusion sageuk" that adopt the strategy of weaving a sageuk with other genres like detective stories or horror.
    Finally what is worth noticing is "sensual sageuk." In 2006, KIM Dae-woo first explored the genre of erotic sageuk with Forbidden Quest, and had an unexpected success with The Servant (2010). Since then, quite many palace dramas have started displaying fateful dramas of desire and destruction as their center focus. Including the abovementioned The Treacherous and Empire of Lust, past-set period dramas such as The Concubine show fairly explicit sexual illustrations. These films about veiled enmities in the palace have rapidly become very conventional and have lost the genre's own vitality.
    The new keyword for sageuk genre, that has experienced a variety of experiments in terms of industry, technology and genre in a short span of time would be "character." Character-focused dense palace dramas like The Throne and biographical sageuk pieces such as Gosanja: The Great Map of the East Land  and The Hymn are getting ready to meet the audience.
    Korean Cinema's Dear Joseon Kings
    King Yeonsangun (King And the Clown, The Treacherous)
    Korean sageuk genre's favorite ruler is, ironically, King Yeonsangun, the most vicious tyrant of Joseon. Traumatic memories of his wrongly executed mother who left him a severe mother complex, quint-essential femme fatal JANG Nok-su who kept him close, violence, weird behaviors, slaughter and madness…. King Yeonsangun’s life itself is perfectly the drama that films want.
    After SHIN Sang-ok’s Tyrant Yeonsan and Prince Yeonsan in 1962, IM Kwon-taek released Prince Yeonsan's Life in the 1980s, and Lee Joon-ik’s King And The Clown (2005) made a huge success, crossing the 10 million admissions mark.
    This year’s The Treacherous by MIN Kyu-dong shows a lustrous feast, which reminds of Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), and the vicious scheme of the evil courtiers who were practically the real power men and decision-makers back then.
     King Jeongjo (The Fatal Encounter)
    While King Yeonsangun became a tyrant, owing much to his deep-rooted mother complex, King Jeongjo became a great king of renovation and integration despite his father complex.
    His grandfather King Youngjo killed Jeongjo’s father, the Crown Prince Sado, by locking him in a rice chest and then-young Jeongjo went through extreme sufferings until his inauguration because of his status as the son of a criminal.
    Such inner struggle of King Jeonjo is depicted in The Fatal Encounter (2014) in the form of faction. In The Fatal Encounter, King Jeongjo (Hyun-bin) is a gloomy-faced young man who is trying to protect himself, not just a king. The Throne, that is set for a September release, deals with King Jeongjo’s father (YOO Ah-in) and King Youngjo (SONG Kang-ho).
    King Sejong (The Divine Weapon, I am the King)
    King Sejong, who is known to be the most revered king of Joseon, has appeared in historical dramas since the 1960s. Rather than a dramatic story, his great achievements and kind anecdotes have been the center of the narratives.
    Recently, films started illustrating other aspects of King Sejong that are rather unfamiliar. In The Divine Weapon, King Sejong (AHN Sung-ki) is a tough guy, who enrages at the interference of foreign influence. I am the King is a faction that depicts King Sejong's young days, where he lives outside the palace to understand the everyday life of the people with his status switched with that of a slave.
    King Gojong (Gabi, The Sword With No Name)
    King Gojong declared the Korean Empire and became the emperor when Joseon's prestige was on the decline. In films like Gabi, his life became a part of the assassination story.
    His wife Queen Myeongseong, who is better known as "the Last Empress," comes on historical dramas as much as King Gojong himself. Murdered by Japan, the very tragic moment of her life is reenacted in 2006's Hanbando. The Sword With No Name (2009) is a story of Queen Myeongseong (Su Ae) and her loyal guard (CHO Seung-woo).
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