Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
Korean Creators Look at Home for New Content
Adapted Webtoons, Shorts, Musicals and Films, Drama Remakes Dominate Korean Screens
With Korean films and dramas in the global spotlight, a lot of attention is also being drawn to the original works on which they are based. Films like Miss Granny (2014) have been reimagined as local productions around the world, while Parasite (2019) is being prepped for a Hollywood remake, but many of the Korean titles that are capturing the global zeitgeist are based on local IP, some with built-in audiences, others brimming with the promise of novel ideas not yet seen on the big screen.
Like other film industries, Korea has long looked to its novelists for source material, with book-to-film adaptations being a prominent fixture on release calendars for decades. But after the dawn of the new millennium, Korean filmmakers began to tap into a larger array of mediums to find their next big-screen stories.
My Sassy Girl (2001)
A series of online blog confessionals became a pan-Asian hit in Kwak Jaeyong’s romantic comedy classic My Sassy Girl (2001), and Bong Joonho made his mark by adapting a play into his seminal crime thriller Memories of Murder (2003). The industry found one of its most reliable sources of stories when the floodgates opened on ‘manhwa’ (comic book) adaptations, which, in the early days of the Korean film industry revival included Bichunmoo (2000), Fighter in the Wind (2004), Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) and 200 Pounds Beauty (2006), among many others.
As the 2000s rolled into the 2010s, physical manhwas morphed into digital webtoons, and the well grew deeper following the first wave of manwha-to-film hits. Certain authors became reliable providers of easily adaptable and very cinematic webtoon originals. These included Kang Full, whose original webtoons provided the basis for Late Blossom (2011), The Neighbors (2012), 26 Years (2012) and the upcoming Disney+ series Moving, the most expensive piece of Korean content to date with a KRW 50 billion (USD 40.74 million) budget. Encompassing a diverse array of genres, other recent major webtoon adaptations have included Moss (2010), Secretly Greatly (2013), Inside Men (2015) and both of the Along with the Gods films.
Steel Rain (2017)
The dawn of the streaming era has only intensified the thirst for Korean webtoon IP, particularly as foreign viewers have also begun to embrace these adaptations. Recent drama hits, armed with larked budgets and even more ambitious ideas, have included the monster horror Sweet Home, the dystopian demon thriller Hellbound and the high school zombie show All of Us Are Dead.
One of the clearest indications of the embrace of webtoons in the Korean market is the fact that several filmmakers are also webtoon authors. Yeon Sangho adapted his own webtoon (co-written with Choi Gyuseok) into Hellbound, and Yang Woosuk was a webtoon author before making The Attorney (2013), while he adapted his own webtoon into his second film Steel Rain (2017).
The film and drama industries have long relied on the publishing industry for content, but after building their confidence as well as a library of successful IP for the past two decades, Korea’s audiovisual sectors have increasingly begun to look to themselves for new content ideas.
The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos (2019)
Starting a decade ago, producers of hit drama series have attempted to push their content into the film realm to expand the reach of their most popular stories. This began with the edited film version of TV shows, such as Iris: The Movie (2010) and Athena: The Movie (2011). Later, some hit TV shows created major motion picture sequels, such as The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos, which became the most successful film of the Chuseok holiday in 2019. Straight film adaptations of hit dramas have also appeared, such as the 2018 film adaptation of the 2016 Cheese in the Trap series.
Yet things have been a little busier the other way around, as drama producers have sought to adapt successful and/or acclaimed Korean films into drama series, to meet the increasing drama content demands of a growing global audience.
16 years after conquering the hearts of viewers around the world, My Sassy Girl returned as a 16-part period drama adaptation in 2017. Yeon Sangho crops again owing to his acclaimed indie animated films, two of which were adapted into live-action drama series. His 2013 feature The Fake, about a fake religion destroying a small town, was adapted into the second season of the horror anthology series Save Me in 2020. His Cannes Film Festival-screened debut The King of Pigs, an unflinching look at high school bullying, is returning as a drama series of the same name in April of this year.
The romantic comedy Mr. Handy, not a major hit when it was released in 2004, was reborn as Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, one of last year’s most successful shows. Meanwhile, an adaptation of Bungee Jumping on Their Own (2001) was announced last year (though plans were suddenly halted last month over the objections of the original writer), and the world of Park Hoonjung’s gangland hit New World (2013) is reportedly also eyeing a move to the small screen.
Late Autumn (2010)
The film industry can also look to itself for inspiration. Over the years, a few remakes of classic Korean films have emerged, notably Im Sangsoo’s 2010 adaptation of the Kim Kiyoung classic The Housemaid (1960), which screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and Kim Taeyong’s Late Autumn (2010), which was already the fourth remake of the lost 1966 Lee Manhee film of the same name.
Beyond classic films, modern short films have also served as the basis for mainstream projects. Director Ryoo Seungwan’s adapted his own short into the 2008 spy action spoof Dachimawa Lee. Jang Jaehyun was able to graduate to feature filmmaking when he turned his award-winning 2014 short 12th Assistant Deacon into the hit exorcism thriller The Priests (2015). Similarly, Choi Hangyong was given a chance to turn his 2014 short The Sea of Tranquility into the big-budget SF horror-thriller series The Silent Sea on Netflix last year. The Call (2020) director Lee Chunghyun’s award-winning short Bargain is also being turned into a streaming disaster series due out later this year.
Over the years, a number of hit Korean films have been adapted to the stage in successful musicals. These have included musical-themed films such as Waikiki Brothers (2001) and Harmony (2010) and romantic titles like Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001) and Singles (2003). In the other direction, theaters are now awaiting the launch of Hero, an adaption of the smash-hit musical, which is the latest film from Ode to My Father (2014) director JK Youn. Originally due out in 2020, the film was delayed during the pandemic and is currently awaiting release.
The cross-pollination between Korea’s varied and vibrant content sectors is continually on the rise as Korean creators tirelessly search for new stories to bring to the screen.