Myeongnyang and the Anatomy of a Korean Blockbuster

The recent Korean historic epic Myeongnyang has been shattering Korean box office records like an ironclad turtle ship through Japanese lines, achieving an unprecedented 15 million viewers in just four weeks. I saw it last week and thought that although it had some technical issues (choppy slow motion sequences and some questionable editing) and took some liberties with the details, it was competent depiction of one of the greatest naval battles in world history (13 Korean ships versus a Japanese fleet of over 300 ships) and arguably the greatest naval commander who ever lived. But even a competent movie can be enough to achieve box office success in Korea, so long as it has all of the necessary elements.

Before I discuss the various characteristics of a successful Korean blockbuster, let’s define the Korean blockbuster. Now, Korea has a thriving film industry with some of the world’s most creative and interesting directors (think Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame or Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho) and plenty of films that have achieved international success, but today I’ll be discussing the exalted 10 million club, which is those films that have earned 10 million viewers or more during their theatrical run in Korea. There are only ten Korean films in this exclusive club and they are: Silmido (2003), Taegukgi (2004), The King and the Clown (2005), The Host (2006), Haeundae (2009), The Thieves (2012), Masquerade (or Gwanghae, 2012), Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013), The Attorney (2013) and of course, Myeongnyang. There are also two foreign films in this club (guess which ones! No? Okay fine, they’re Avatar and Frozen. Big surprise, right?), and plenty more movies in the 8 to 9 million viewer range, but there’s something special about these 10 million viewer movies.

Now, you can divide these ten movies into two categories: the Korean blockbuster, which I will be discussing extensively, and the Hollywood blockbuster, which are Korean films that emulate a certain Hollywood blockbuster genre not usually emulated in Korean cinema. The Hollywood blockbusters in this case would be Haeundae (disaster film), The Thieves (Ocean’s Eleven-style heist film), and arguably The Host (monster film), although Bong does weave in enough of the characteristics of a Korean blockbuster that I’m tempted to call it a hybrid. Now, what makes a Korean blockbuster? Oh yeah, spoilers ahead.

1. It’s a period piece

Koreans just love their history. Most of the Korean blockbusters are set in historical settings with figures who are largely familiar to Korean audiences. Some of them depict actual events, like Silmido (a unit of convicts trained to assassinate Kim Il Sung revolts when the government tries to liquidate them) or Myeongnyang (the Battle of Myeongnyang), others are fictional accounts revolving around historical figures, like The King and the Clown (the Chosun dynasty’s tyrant Yeonsangun) or Masquerade (another Chosun dynasty king Gwanghaegun), and others are completely fictional stories in specific historic periods, like Taegukgi (the Korean War), and Miracle in Cell No. 7 (late 90s?). I’m guessing that part of this has to do with the idea of using these historical periods as a mirror to reflect issues in the present day, like Masquerade, which presents a revisionist depiction of Gwanghaegun as a visionary king who fought against the entrenched aristocrats for the common people in a not-so-subtle nod towards former president Roh Moo Hyun, who is also the protagonist of The Attorney. Or it might have to do with the fact that these settings and events make for fascinating stories, like Silmido and the story of Unit 684 or Taegukgi and the Korean War. Or it might just be an appeal to that nationalist pride (the Korean equivalent of ‘muricanism), like in the case of Myeongnyang, which is a story about an awesome Korean doing awesome things. Because patriotism sells, you know? Of course, there are always exceptions, and in this case I would say that Miracle in Cell No. 7 is the weakest link since it is set in the recent past, but even that film seems faithful to the spirit of the time, when the powerful and connected could abuse the system and the underprivileged with impunity. Which brings me to the next element of a Korean blockbuster.

2. The system is an antagonist, or, INJUSTICE

Like I said in an earlier post about the Winter Olympics, Koreans have suffered through a long history of injustices and hardships. Which makes it rather odd that they would seek out these things in movies, which are usually escapist affairs. But Koreans just love to grit their teeth and shake their heads angrily at scenes where the protagonist faces some sort of injustice, usually at the hands of government officials or law enforcement that should know better. And I’m not even talking about the out-and-out villains, but people who are nominally on the protagonist’s side. It’s like the opposite of justice porn, which are stories of justice being served to those who deserve it. So I guess injustice porn (definition: injustice served to innocent people who don’t deserve it)? Classic examples include the aforementioned Miracle in Cell No. 7, where the mentally challenged protagonist is railroaded by the justice system because the police commissioner (who physically abused him earlier) thinks that he killed his daughter (which, spoilers, he didn’t), or so many instances in Taegukgi, where Jang Dong-gun’s character’s fiancee is executed by anti-communist militia simply because she signed up for the Worker’s Party of Korea (to survive) and thinks his brother died because the South Korean commander ordered the jail be set on fire with prisoners trapped inside. Or the protagonist might be the victim of bureaucratic incompetence, like Song Gang-ho’s character in The Host. I don’t think this has to do with some weird masochistic tendency, but the experiences of the Korean people, who have spent long periods of their history chafing against broken systems of one kind or another. Koreans have historically been the underdog, which is why they can relate to these stories where the protagonist has the odds stacked against them. And they are all to aware that sometimes, you can’t beat the odds.

3. If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention

Most Koreans know the endings to these Korean blockbusters before they even step into the theater, because they know which historical characters are in them and what happens to them. The exception might be Miracle in Cell No. 7, but even then, the premise is that the protagonist is on death row, so no matter how funny or joyful the scenes and characters might be, you know that by the end of the movie he is going to die. Even the seemingly triumphant ones like Myeongnyang or The Attorney are colored by the knowledge of the fate of their protagonists (Admiral Yi Sun-shin killed in battle and President Roh Moo Hyun committing suicide after being hounded by the criminal justice system). At best, Korean blockbusters are bittersweet, beloved characters will die and many tears will be shed, and there are absolutely no Hollywood-esque dei ex machina. There’s quite a bit of (in my opinion unfair) backlash against the stereotypical Hollywood film, which Koreans perceive as having contrived and forced happy endings, which from their collective experience Koreans know don’t happen that often. I’m guessing this is why even the most dramatic Korean films tend to have some form of comic relief, to lighten the mood. Of course, these comic relief characters will die in tearjerking fashion.

4. The Sheinhardt Wig Company, or vertical integration

This is less about the actual quality of movies and more about the business side of the film industry. You see, there are only a few big movie chains in Korea (CGV, Lotte, and Megabox), and the number of screens they decide to devote to a film can make or break a film even before it opens. And when several blockbusters are opening in the same time period, the theaters have to prioritize. How do they do that? Well, in a competitive market, they would try to predict which films would draw the most audiences and give those films the lion’s share of the screens. But let’s face it, film studios might own distributors and theater chains, and so films made by those studios or distributed by those companies will have an advantage. One recent example would probably be Myeongnyang, which dominated the screens because it is distributed by CJ Entertainment, who happens to own the CGV theater chain. This was to the detriment of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which would have been a great success in Korea as are all Marvel movies had it not been in direct competition to Myeongnyang and therefore allocated maybe one, two screens per multiplex. Whereas Guardians of the Galaxy’s (relative) failure might be due to unfortunate timing, sometimes movies fail in Korea because the distributors conflict with the theater chains. One well-publicized example was the feud between Warner Brothers and the CGV and Lotte movie chains regarding the share of revenue in the Seoul metropolitan area. This led to several hotly anticipated Warner Brothers films not being screened in theaters owned by CGV or Lotte in the Seoul area, which is practically half of the Korean market in terms of population and probably more in terms of actual movie-going audiences. I almost missed the Lego Movie because of that.

5. Ryu Seung-ryong has to die

Okay, I’m only half-joking about this one, but in most of the movies that I’ve seen him in, Ryu Seung-ryong’s character either dies or I know because he is a historical character I know he will meet an untimely end. Sure, he doesn’t die in All About My Wife, but isn’t a broken heart a form of death? But one thing that I’ve noticed that Korean blockbusters don’t necessarily need are handsome leading actors. In fact, only three movies in the ten million club have so-called heart-throb actors: Taegukgi (with Jang Donggun and Won Bin as the distractingly attractive brothers), The King and the Clown (the eponymous clown played by Lee Joon-gi), and Masquerade (the king and his doppelganger played by Lee Byung-hun). Okay, that’s almost half the movies so I guess my point is weakened, but it’s still interesting that many of the protagonists of these movies are played by middle-aged actors like Ryu Seung Ryong who you can’t really say bring the screaming teenage girl crowds. Or maybe they do, I’ve never been a teenage girl so I wouldn’t know.

This isn’t an exhaustive list that guarantees Korean blockbuster success, but I imagine that if you can make a competent movie with these ingredients and a release date that isn’t in direct competition with a Marvel movie, you at the very least could hit 5 million viewers or so. Of course, this won’t guarantee international or critical success, which require a completely different set of elements, but hey, it’s a good start, isn’t it?

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