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  • Korean Films Cautiously Return to Cinemas in ‘Living with Covid’ Era
  • by Pierce Conran /  Dec 07, 2021
  • After being battered by COVID fears and restrictions in 2020, the Korean exhibition market has shown some signs of recovery over the past few months, but the benefactors of the growing crowds which have returned to the movies have by and large been highly anticipated Hollywood tentpoles, many of them from Disney/Marvel. 


    However, now that the country has entered the ‘Living with COVID’ era and begun to ease restrictions, with cinema hours no longer restricted and concessions once again allowed in designated ‘vaccinated screens’, mainstream Korean films are finally returning to multiplexes in sizeable numbers.


    Though it’s still too early to tell when the industry will return to its former glory, particularly with the Omicron variant posing renewed global health concerns, a wide variety of Korean films, including big-budget titles and several releases that have been patiently waiting in the wings since the outset of the pandemic, starting to fill theaters in November and are keeping the theatrical release calendars filled through to next year’s Lunar New Year holiday.   


    Tomb of the River  



    The first homegrown commercial film to open in theaters since the Chuseok holidays was the gangster drama Tomb of the River on November 10. Jang Hyuk of The Swordsman (2020) and Yoo Ohsung, who made his name all the way back in Friend (2001), headline this crime saga that joins the ranks of popular macho Korean gangster tales. Yoo plays the number two of the top gang in Gangneung, a city on Korea’s Eastern seaboard, who is drawn into conflict with Jang’s city slicker gangster who comes to his town to muscle in on a big land development deal. 


    Perhaps Love  



    Veteran character actress Cho Eunji, known for Im Sangsoo’s Tears (2001) and The Villainess (2017), makes her debut behind the camera as a feature film director with the romantic comedy Perhaps Love. Extreme Job (2019) actor Ryu Seungryong leads the cast as a successful novelist suffering from writer’s block who discovers that his ex-wife has been seeing his close friend and publisher. Meanwhile, a student moves in with him to write a book and makes an unexpected confession to him.


    Nothing Serious  




    Hit the Night (2017) and Heart (2018) director Jeong Gayoung makes her commercial filmmaking debut with the romantic comedy Nothing Serious. Burning (2018) and The Call (2020) star Jun Jongseo plays a woman on the cusp of turning 30 hoping to change her life, which is currently buried under a mountain of debt. Meanwhile, Son Sukku of Hit-and-Run Squad (2019) and Netflix’s D.P. features as a wannabe novelist and relationship-averse sex columnist, who she meets through a dating app.






    Yoon Kyesang leads the cast of Spiritwalker, a twisty action-thriller about a man who wakes up without his memories following a car crash and proceeds to suddenly change bodies every 12 hours while he tries to figure out who he is and what happened to him. The film debuted at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia last year and won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. From Heartbeat (2010) director Yoon Jaekeun, the film was also optioned for a US remake by Di Bonaventura Pictures, the company behind the successful Transformers franchise.


    Chun Taeil 



    Chun Taeil is a new animated work that chronicles the life of the eponymous activist, a symbolic real-life figure, who martyred himself through self-immolation to protest horrific working conditions for low-income workers in 1970. From renowned production company Myung Films (Joint Security Area/JSA (2000), A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)), the film debuted at the Busan International Film Festival last October. It marks the feature directorial debut of Hong Junpyo. Young star Jang Dongyun voices the famed activist.


    Major releases scheduled for the end-of-year season  



    The Merciless (2017) director Byun Hyunsung returns with the election drama Kingmaker, featuring Sul Kyunggu, hot off his award-winning turn in The Book of Fish, and Parasite (2019) actor Lee Sunkyun. Lee plays a political strategist who joins Sul’s presidential campaign. During an already explosive election season, a real explosion happens at the politician’s home, and his strategist becomes the main suspect.



    My Sassy Girl (2001) director Kwak Jaeyong returns with the romantic omnibus Happy New Year, which features a who’s who of local stars, including Han Jimin, Kang Haneul and Lim Yoona. Like SEOBOK and Midnight earlier this year, Happy New Year will be made available day and date in theaters and on CJ ENM’s TVING streaming service. However, Kwak’s project is the first film that was given the green light as a TVING original. This romantic tale, which will hope to catch the same crowds that make the British romantic hit Love, Actually an annual Christmas fixture in Korean cinemas, will follow several guests at a hotel and all their romantic tribulations. 


    Varied titles prepare to usher in the New Year  



    Parasite star Park Sodam will return to screens in Special Cargo, which will be next year’s first major Korean film when it opens on January 5. Park, who rose to stardom following The Priests (2015) and was recently seen in the drama Record of Youth, plays a driver who will deliver anything for the right price. From Private Eye (2009) director Park Daemin, Special Cargo went into production right after Parasite premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and had its release delayed during the pandemic.



    Cho Jinwoong of Believer (2018) and Park’s Parasite co-star Choi Wooshik will share the screen in the thriller The Policeman’s Lineage early in the new year. From Children… (2011) director Lee Kyuman, the film follows a rookie police officer who takes on an assignment to monitor a top investigator who may be corrupt. To get a closer look at his illegal activities, he joins the shady veteran’s team.



    After The Drug King (2017), Han Jaerim returns with the star-studded aviation disaster film Emergency Declaration, which counts Lee Byunghun, Song Kangho, Jeon Doyeon, Kim Namgil and Im Siwan among its many stars. The film, which is expected to be one of next year’s Lunar New Year holiday tentpoles, had its world premiere this past summer in an out-of-competition slot at the Cannes Film Festival. The price tag of this Showbox project was reportedly KRW 27.5 billion (USD 23.4 million). 


    Also expected to be among the big-budgets offerings during the Lunar New Year will be The Pirates: Goblin Flag, the sequel to the swashbuckling hit that welcomed over 8.6 million viewers in the summer of 2014. While Son Yejin and Kim Namgil led the first film, Han Hyojoo, Kang Haneul, Lee Kwangsoo and Kwon Sangwoo are the leads of this follow-up from The Accidental Detective (2015) director Kim Junghoon.

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