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Ko - production in Busan
  • Whatever Ever Happened to K-Horror?
  • by Pierce Conran /  Aug 13, 2015
  • New Gusts of Chills in Korean Cinema
    Following a rocky first half of the year, Korean films have finally staked their claim on the local charts, with a slew of popular blockbusters demonstrating that the industry is alive and well. However, as with previous years, the once lucrative horror genre has proven scarce in the rankings yet again. K-Horrors are still made at roughly the same frequency, but with lower budgets, unambitious scenarios and by drawing from a less impressive pool of talent, the genre’s best years, according to many, are long behind it.
    Once a popular summer draw sought out for ‘chills’ to beat the seasonal heat, the Korean horror genre barely registers on the radar for most viewers these days, despite some ad campaigns that are still quite visible. Yet that isn’t to say that it doesn’t remain an integral part of the industry. Emerging filmmakers, whether through shorts, low-budget features or omnibuses, frequently rely on genre, and beyond that, Korean horror is still alive and well in commercial cinema. However, rather than the whole package, it has become more successful as an element within more complex productions.
    Something to Need More in Korean Horror
    Recent years have yielded few successful outings, with only Killer Toon (2013) finding its way over the one million admissions mark in the current decade. So far, 2015 has seen only a handful of Korean horror films, and among those, the most popular has been The Black Hand, a standard issue haunting/surgical horror tale that attracted a measly 11,650 viewers to theaters earlier this summer. By comparison, at this point last year we had already seen the high school horror comedy Mourning Grave (481,696 viewers), with Tunnel 3D (80,989 viewers) and Manhole (133,663 viewers) still in store. Things will likely take a turn for the better this month when moviegoers get a chance to see the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) closing film The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (August 20) and the Cannes Film Festival midnight screening Office (August 27).
    Between those, Office has the best chance of breaking out, and if it does, it won’t be because of its slasher flick leanings. As a (mostly) single location murder mystery, the most attractive element in The Chaser (2005) scribe HONG Won-chan’s debut film is its exploration of Korean office politics, a relatable setting with provides plenty of real-life horrors for Korean office workers. The same setting was used for The Wicked, which debuted at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2014 and bowed in theaters last year, though it mustered only 8,148 viewers. Hoping to improve on that score significantly, Office stars KO Asung, PARK Sung-woong and BAE Sung-woo.
    Genre hybrids have been a staple of the Korean industry since its renaissance at the turn of the millennium and remain popular today, particularly as studios seek to attract wider demographics and filmmakers have proven more sophisticated at seamlessly blending them over time. Just as it was in films such as JANG Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003) and BONG Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), horror today remains an important element of these genre cocktails.
    More recently, horror has seen its role in these hybrids increase, as seen in influenza dramas such as 2012’s Deranged (4.52 million viewers) and 2013’s The Flu (3.12 million viewers), while most prominent of all was the disturbing socially tinged horror-thriller Hide and Seek, which became a major hit in the summer of 2013 with 5.6 million admissions.
    Nothing quite that big has come along since, though films such as the serial killer thriller Monster (526,547 viewers) and the romcom-horror My Ordinary Love Story (46,775 viewers), which served as the closing film of BiFan in 2014, attempted to strike the same chord. Success has also proven elusive this year, despite positive critical receptions for the Colonial Era psychological horror-thriller The Silenced (356,342 viewers) and The Piper (828,027 viewers), an adaptation of the Brother Grimms tale ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’.
    Korean Horror: A New Hope
    Following Office and KIM Hwi’s The Neighbors (2012) follow-up The Chosen: Forbidden Cave, a shaman thriller with KIM Sung-kyun, horror may soon find itself in the spotlight again with a few major offerings scheduled for the coming months. First up will be The Priests, a rare Korean exorcism horror that features major star wattage in the form of KIM Yun-seok and GANG Dong-won. A debut from acclaimed short filmmaker JANG Jae-hyun (12th Assistant Deacon), the film is expected to hit screens before the end of the year.
    Then there are not one, but two new films from The Fake (2013) director YEON Sang-ho. Those include his zombie outbreak animation Seoul Station and a live action sequel to that film called The Train via Busan, featuring GONG Yoo. While the latter is currently still in production, both may see the light of day in early 2016. Also expected next year is Jang-san-beom (Korean title), the sophomore film from Hide and Seek director HUH Jung which will see him team up with YUM Jung-ah, who hasn’t starred in a horror film since KIM Jee-woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003).
    Aside from crossing over into other genres, thus offering itself to larger potential audiences, contemporary Korean horror has begun to shy away from the tired staples that used to be its calling card, such as the high school girl horror tales that featured in the popular Whispering Corridors franchise (1998-2009) as well as numerous other well known K-horrors.
    Shamanism has appeared a few times, notable in LEE Yong-ju’s acclaimed Possessed (2009), but catholicism has rarely been mined for genre thrills in Korean cinema. Given its prominence in western horror fare and the significant number of christians in modern Korea, the incoming The Priests will be looking to tap into a new audience. Zombie tales are another western staple that have seldom been seen in Korea, save for indie flicks such as The Neighbor Zombie (2010) and Let Me Out (2013), thus raising expectations for YEON’s pair of undead flicks in the pipeline.
    Korean audiences may not be clamoring for local horror films the way they used to, but even if the incoming crop fails to connect, with so much history in the industry, Korean chillers are unlikely to disappear entirely. At the very least, local horror mavens will find new ways to discover audiences for Korean horror films, even if it’s outside the country’s borders. Top horror helmer AN Byung-ki has already found success with his popular Bunshinsaba,Ouija Board remake trilogy (2012-14) in China and perhaps other markets, whether through remakes or with the help Korean horror filmmakers on local production, will soon find K-horror in their back yards.
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