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  • 2020 - The Year that Was in Korean Film
  • by Pierce Conran /  Dec 14, 2020
  • From Oscar High to COVID Lows

    Over the past 20 years, few 12-month cycles have been quiet for Korean cinema, an industry that has evolved rapidly during that time, yet none could have imagined the highs and lows it would experience as we woke up to 2020, all the way back on January 1st. Then again, the whole world wasn’t ready for what the year would have in store.

    This week for KoBiz, we’re going to take a look back at the year that was in Korean film, from Korean film happenings that shook the whole world, to global events that throttled the local industry.

    PARASITE Ushers in Korean Film’s Greatest Ever Triumph

    Korean cinema’s highlight in 2019, arguably its greatest achievement to date on the world stage, was BONG Joon-ho becoming the first Korean filmmaker to earn the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with PARASITE. Little did we know that that was merely the first step toward an even greater accomplishment that shocked the whole world.

    Following a hugely successful launch in North American theaters in October, during which time it scored one of the highest per-screen averages debuts of all time, PARASITE (2019) quickly found itself embraced by the American critics community, which featured it en masse at the top of myriad Top 10 lists. Shortly thereafter it began to conquer critics groups prizes, not just for Best Foreign Film, but for Best Film, Director, Screenplay and even technical prizes. The main industry awards followed suit, with PARASITE (2019) taking Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes (one of its three nominations) before it shocked Hollywood by winning the Best Cast in Motion Picture Award at the Screen Actors Guild. It went on to garner six nominations at the Academy Awards, when no other Korean film had ever landed so much as one (although YI Seung-jun’s In the Absence also landed a nomination for Best Short Documentary at the same edition).

    PARASITE then beat the odds to not only claim Best International Film, but Best Screenplay, Best Director and, most shocking of all, Best Picture, making it the first ever foreign language film to claim the prize.

    COVID-19 Empties Theaters, Shuts Down Foreign Shoots and Stops Financing

    With nary a moment to catch our breaths from the highs of the Oscar stage, the spread of the COVID-19 virus became a full-blown global pandemic, with Korea following China as one of the first major hotspots of the disease. Unlike many global markets, cinemas never closed in Korea, but attendance was severely affected nonetheless, with major local and foreign productions delaying their releases and admissions crating to under 100,000 admissions a weekend in early spring. Traffic in Korean multiplexes has been up and down all year, in tandem with the various spikes in coronavirus infections that have emerged, though the country has offered some of the few bright spots of the year in terms of global box office, with films like DELIVER US FROM EVIL managing to welcome over 4.3 million viewers.

    Also affected were films with foreign shoots that were forced to postpone, such as Bogota (working title) with SONG Joong-ki in Colombia, and Kidnapping (translated title) with HA Jung-woo and JU Ji-hoon in Morocco. Various projects have had to temporarily suspend production throughout the year following on-set outbreaks, such as Emergency Declaration with LEE Byung-hun, SONG Kang-ho and JEON Do-yeon, and PARK Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave. With so many titles awaiting release and concerns over filming, financing for film projects has also slowed down.

    Planned Theatrical Releases Find New Home on Netflix

    Among the earliest casualties of the pandemic in Korea this year was YOON Sung-hyun’s sci-fi thriller Time to Hunt. Distributor Little Big Pictures pulled the film just days before its intended February 26 release and several weeks later Netflix announced that they would become the exclusive home for the film. A brief legal spat between Little Big Pictures and the film’s sales agent Contents Panda, which had already sealed several international deals on the film, ensued but after a brief delay the film was released on Netflix on April 23.

    On November 27, the highly anticipated thriller CALL, from debut director LEE Chung-hyun, also debuted on the platform. CALL was originally going to be released by NEW (the parent company of Contents Panda) in theaters in March, but also had its release postponed owing to COVID-19.

    Early next year, Time to Hunt and CALL will be joined by the mega-budget space drama SPACE SWEEPERS with SONG Joong-ki and KIM Tae-ri. The film was originally scheduled for release in Summer, and then during the Chuseok holidays, but both dates were abandoned owing to public health concerns. Also rumored to be going to Netlfix is Night in Paradise, a new gangster drama from PARK Hoon-jung which debuted at the Venice International Film Festival.

    Women Directors and Characters Take Center Stage

    2020 has offered viewers fewer new Korean films than usual, but among what has been released, an unusually large numbers of works foregrounding women’s stories and/or directed by women have emerged across both the commercial and indie realms.

    The last successful debut prior to the pandemic was CHANG You-jeong election comedy HONEST CANDIDATE, a vehicle for RA Mi-ran. After distributors stopped launching new releases in late February, the first major local film to usher in a wave of new releases in early June was Intruder, the mystery-thriller debut of SOHN Won-pyung. The next commercial film directed by a woman came in time for the Chuseok holidays, with CHO Seul-ye’s diving-themed noir Diva with SHIN Min-a and LEE Yoo-young. HONG Eui-jeong’s thriller Voice of Silence followed in October, and then PARK Ji-wan’s mystery-thriller THE DAY I DIED : UNCLOSED CASE with KIM Hye-soo and CHOI Ha-na’s drama MORE THAN FAMILY with JUNG Soo-jung, followed in November.

    Women were also the main subjects of many other commercial films, including Innocence with SHIN Hye-sun, the UHM Jeong-hwa vehicle OK! MADAM, Oh! My Gran with NA Moon-hee and SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS starring KO Asung, E som and PARK Hye-soo, not to mention CALL, with PARK Shin-hye and JUN Jong-seo.

    Among the year’s most successful and acclaimed indie films were Lucky Chan-sil by KIM Cho-hee, YUN Dan-bi’s Moving On, A French Woman by KIM Hee-jung and LIM Sun-ae’s An Old Lady.

    However, there remains a significant caveat concerning commercial films, as it remains unclear whether some distributors merely dropped several projects directed by women, while holding their more prized commercial projects for a post-pandemic marketplace.

    Award-Winning KIM Ki-duk, Alleged Rapist, Succumbs to COVID-19

    Controversial filmmaker KIM Ki-duk shocked the industry on the evening of Friday, December 11, when news broke that he had passed away earlier that morning in a hospital in Latvia owing to complications from contracting COVID-19. He had been in the country for three weeks after he moved there in search of a new home and residency. This was his third new home, following Kazakhstan and Russia, after fleeing Korea in the wake of a deluge of serious allegations of rape and misconduct that had been levelled at him early in 2018.

    Director KIM was famous for being the first Korean filmmaker to earn prizes from the troika of prestigious European festivals, i.e. Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the latter of which awarded him the Golden Lion for Pieta (2012). His famous earlier works include The Isle (2000), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring (2003) and 3-Iron (2004). Over the years, praise for his films was also joined by a vocal chorus of people decrying the apparent misogyny of his work. Rumors of KIM’s abusive behavior on set have spread widely within the industry for years, but only entered the public sphere in 2017 when an actress who worked with him on Moebius (2013) claimed he became abusive when she refused to perform in an unplanned sex scene. Far more serious claims from three other actresses, touching on what he did to them after the cameras stopped rolling, emerged the next year, effectively ending his career at home.
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