How Did Science Fiction Become the New Big Thing in Korean Cinema?
Jan 26, 2021
- Writerby PARK Agnes
Better computer graphics and material exhaustion lead to the dawn of a new genre in the industry
Had it not been for the pandemic, “science fiction” might have been the word that best defined last year’s Korean film. SF8, which is dubbed as a “Korean-style Original SF Anthology Series”, debuted on the Korean VOD platform Wave in July, and films SPACE SWEEPERS (2020) by JO Sung-hee and Seobok by LEE Yong-ju were initially expected to hit theaters in 2020. The “SF fever” that took hold of the Korean film industry may have been quietly tempered by the pandemic last year, but the same period also saw a significant number of science fiction projects being greenlit. So, you may wonder, for what reason science fiction is gaining so much traction in Korea’s film industry?
Korean-style SF, a niche?
If the news announcing the development of the SF series SF8; SPACE SWEEPERS (2020), which is described as “Korea's first authentic science fiction space movie”; or Seobok, which deals with human clones, were all received as an event of some kind, it is because such projects have been all too rare in Korean cinema. Whereas Hollywood movies, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading the way, often add SF to their mix of genres, in Korean cinema, there are few cases where SF was referred to as a genre in its own right. The SF genre, which notably gave us Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002) by JANG Sun-woo, Save the Green Planet (2003) by JANG Joon-hwan, The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013) by BONG Joon-ho and Sector 7 (2011) by KIM Ji-hoon, used to be only represented by a couple of titles in any given year.
Even in terms of box office results, the science fiction genre has never been greeted with open arms in Korea. The domestic performances of the Star Wars series, aka the classic science fiction film, have been rather disappointing. Among the installments in the franchise that were released in the 2010s, only Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) was a hit with 3.27 million admissions, while the rest underperformed (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016, 1.02 million adm.], Star Wars: The Last Jedi [2017, 960,000 adm.], Solo: A Star Wars Story [2018, 210,000 adm.] and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [2020, 510,000 adm.]). Taking a step back, we can notice there have been some rather good results for the SF genre in Korea. 22 of the 100 most-watched movies of all time in Korea (as of January 10, 2021) are science fiction titles, and 6 of them even broke the 10-million-viewers threshold. As hinted at earlier, these titles are mostly comprised of MCU movies like the Avengers series, but we also find James CAMERON's Avatar (13.34 million adm., ranked 8th) and Christopher NOLAN's Interstellar (10.31 million adm., ranked 24th) among the science fiction films that have been warmly received in Korea. On the other hand, Korean science fiction films didn’t work that well. Only two Korean productions, both from BONG Joon-ho, broke into the top 100, namely The Host (10.9 million adm.) and Snowpiercer (9.3 million adm.), ranking 20th and 29th, respectively.
However, in 2020, the effusion of SF projects of all kinds was such that it would not be exaggerated to designate it the “Year Zero of science fiction”. SPACE SWEEPERS (2020), which follows a space garbage collector spaceship in 2092, and Seobok, which depicts a hunt for a human clone, were made with large budgets, and it has been announced that the SF crime film Alien (translated title), directed by CHOI Dong-hoon and starring RYU Jun-yeol, KIM Tae-ri and, KIM Woo-bin, will be released in two parts. Director KIM Yong-hwa chose the space story Moon as his next project, and director KIM Tae-yong followed suit with Wonderland, which will tackle artificial intelligence. Director KIM Bora confirmed that her next project, which many are looking forward to following her lauded debut House of Hummingbird, will be based on KIM Choyeop’s science fiction novel Spectrum, and actor JUNG Woo-sung is making the move to production with the Netflix series Sea of Silence (translated title). GONG Yoo, BAE Doo-na, and LEE Joon are set to appear in this project, which will be a series adaptation of the short film of the same name by director CHOI Hang-yong.
The appeal of a genre that knows no borders
So, what could be the reason for the Korean film industry’s recent interest in the science fiction genre? First, we can point at the exhaustion of the original material and the development of computer graphics (CG). Thrillers have been steadily popular for more than 10 years since The Chaser (2008), many zombie stories have been created since the release of the zombie action film TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), and after the Along with the Gods series (2017), fantasy has been enjoying new popularity. At this point, wouldn’t it be the right time to try to expand the scope of Korean cinema by venturing into a yet untapped genre? Besides, the recent advances in CG technology now provide the stable foundation required to render the science fiction worlds that had long remained “uncharted territories”.
The budgets, which would be too high to be covered by domestic theatrical returns alone, do not seem to be seen as an issue, as the focus is instead put on the prospects of international success. Even though this came as a last resort following the consequences of the pandemic, the blockbuster SPACE SWEEPERS (2020), which had a budget of KRW 24 billion (USD 21.7 million), was sold to Netflix for KRW 30 billion (27.2 million), and now the general mood in the industry tends to corroborate that the SF genre is a genre that everyone favors, regardless of where they live. Netflix has struck gold with the distribution of Korean zombie shows, i.e. the series Kingdom and the movie #Alive. It can be inferred that narratives of space exploration are highly competitive in the global market because, for human beings living in the era of the climate crisis, these are all but universal themes that naturally transcend borders. As such, science fiction is widely regarded around the world as one of the best genres to overcome cultural barriers.
Meanwhile, in 2020, increased interest in science fiction was not limited to the film industry but could also be noticed in the literature world. In addition to popular authors such as CHUNG Se-rang, BAE Myung-hoon, and Djuna, young science fiction writers such as KIM Choyeop, CHEON Seon-ran, SHIM Neo-ul, and HWANG Mo-gua have been receiving a lot of attention. In the case of KIM Choyeop, her first short story, If We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light, was the big talk of the town as it became a bestseller. In an interview with the magazine Arena in August of last year, HWANG said, “Readers have been consuming a much wider range of works recently, and since the development of science and new technologies can have an immediate effect on us, there seems to be an urgency, even on an existential level, to apprehend these trends.” She added, "It seems clear to me that the extent to which readers are receptive to unfamiliar worlds has increased." In the same interview, KIM Choyeop put it in a nutshell, "It is hard for science fiction to be boring since it deals with spaces and times that are different from ours."
In 2020, more science fiction books were read than ever before in Korea due to the impact of COVID-19. In a world where the climate crisis and zoonotic infectious diseases have become part of everyday life, science fiction themes no longer belong to the realm of the outlandish. Therefore, science fiction themes seem destined to become bigger points of discussion in the Korean film industry too. Of course, this is under the assumption that we will see an end to some extent to the current sanitary crisis that is gripping the theater industry.