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  • Korean Cinema Comes Out of the Gate Strong in 2019
  • by Pierce Conran /  Feb 20, 2019
  • Lunar New Year Hits and Promising February Titles

    If 2018 ended on a down note for the Korean film industry, in the wake of several major box office disappointments, the mood has quickly turned around in 2019 as the first few months of the year have welcomed record returns for local films with more promising titles about to join the fray.

    Memories of last December were swiftly erased when two mid-sized titles (MAL·MO·E: The Secret Mission and The Dude in Me) turned into surprise early January hits, but the real fireworks started in the lead up to this year’s Lunar New Year holidays. The 2018 festivities welcomed four big local titles, yet by comparison this year’s top Lunar New Year offering (Extreme Job) is on track to gross over three times the combined totals of the whole holiday lineup from last year.

    On the back of that record performance, a number of well-received titles are crowding the February release schedule which bodes for the industry as audience confidence toward original local content seems to have been restored.

    This week, KoBiz takes a look at the recently released Lunar New Year heavy hitters, both currently in theaters, and the main local titles arriving this month.

    Extreme Job (January 23)

    Every so often a comedy breaks out in a big way in Korea and the connecting thread between those lucky few, aside from a strong sense of local humor and a good script, is a clever and easily understood concept. 2013’s Lunar New Year champ Miracle in Cell No.7 featured a room of convicts conspiring to bring a daughter to live with her father in prison; in LUCK-KEY (2016), a master hitman becomes an amnesiac and inadvertently switches places with a hapless out-of-work actor. Now, in Extreme Job, a detective squad goes undercover in a fried chicken restaurant, only for the establishment to become an overnight sensation.

    Director LEE Byoung-heon previously scored at the box office with the youth comedy hit Twenty in 2015, but with Extreme Job, which stars RYU Seung-ryong of Miracle in Cell No.7, LEE Ha-nee (Heart Blackened, 2017) and JIN Seon-kyu (THE OUTLAWS, 2017), he has singlehandedly redefined what a Korean comedy can achieve and it would be safe to assume that the release schedules of the next few years may reflect this as a new trend for comedies may well emerge in its wake.

    On February 14, Extreme Job overtook RYOO Seung-wan’s Veteran (2015) to become the fourth most successful Korean film of all time. The film then crossed both Ode to My Father (2014) and Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) in the following days to become the second highest grossing of all time in the country. Some believe it may even reach Roaring Currents’ all-time 17.62 million admissions benchmark, achieved in the summer of 2014.

    Hit-and-Run Squad (January 30)

    The other big title that coincided with the holidays was the action-thriller Hit-and-Run Squad, the far more ambitious sophomore outing of HAN Jun-hee, whose well received debut Coin Locker Girl (2015) premiered in the Critics Week lineup of the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Hot on the heels of her leading role in LEE Kwon’s acclaimed mystery-thriller Door Lock (2018), a remake of the modern Spanish genre classic Sleep Tight, KONG Hyo-jin stars as a detective who is demoted to a lowly position in a traffic squad, where she is partnered with a lively young officer with a secret past, played by RYU Jun-yeol of Believer (2018). The pair find themselves going head-to-head with a vicious young corporate head who terrorizes the streets of Seoul at night in his fast cars, played by JO Jung-suk, who was on screens last December alongside SONG Kang-ho in The Drug King (2018).

    HAN’s latest combines the appeal of car-themed action-thrillers from overseas such as the Fast and the Furious franchise, and local themes of corporate corruption, which include JO’s antagonist, who has drawn parallels with the villain of RYOO Seung-wan’s Veteran (2015), played by YOO Ah-in.

    Innocent Witness (February 13)

    Six years after his last film, dramatic specialist LEE Han, whose most famous work is the endearing teacher-student drama Punch (2011) with KIM Yun-seok and YOO Ah-in, is back in theaters with another pair of stars joining forces against the odds. Innocent Witness stars JUNG Woo-sung (Steel Rain, 2017) as a poor defense attorney who works on humanitarian cases, who takes on a new client when a housekeeper is charged with killing her elderly employer. The only potential witness to the crime is a young girl with Asperger’s, played by KIM Hyang-gi of the enormously successful Along with the Gods films. Like LEE’s other works, which also include Thread of Lies (2014), Innocent Witness uses strongly drawn characters in a heartwarming story that explore several social issues on its fringes.

    Svaha: The Sixth Finger (February 20)

    Following his explosive exorcism thriller debut The Priests (2015), director JANG Jae-hyun is back with SVAHA : THE SIXTH FINGER, a new dramatic thriller that explores the world of religious cults. LEE Jung-jae of Assassination (2015) stars as a pastor who specializes in exposing fraudulent religious groups. His latest assignment is to investigate the Deer Mount group and before long his work overlaps with a police officer’s murder investigation, which focuses on a mysterious young man, played by PARK Jung-min of DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet (2016).

    Exploring similar territory to YEON Sang-ho’s gritty indie animation The Fake (2013) through a style that is reminiscent of NA Hong-jin’s THE WAILING (2016), JANG’s latest looks at an unseemly side of Korean society, where Christian groups are very powerful, but some opportunists have sought to take advantage of congregations.
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