The Emergence of the South Korean Blockbuster through Globalisation: Creating Films for an International Market for Profit

In 1999 the film Shiri (Je-kyu Kang) broke records in South Korea both as the largest budget and highest grossing film. This Hollywood-style film began a surge in Korean made films and filmmakers to find success locally and internationally, such as, Oldboy (Chan-wook Park 2003), Train to Busan (Sang-ho Yeon 2016) and Okja (Joon-ho Bong 2017). Shiri and the films that came after it rely on our global interconnectedness to exist in their style and with success locally and internationally, thus forming the Korean blockbusters popular now. Shiri could not have been made without the government forming a globalisation policy that demanded chaebols and other domestic companies to invest in the local film industry, as well as changes to censorship of the media. The changes made intend to create profit by internationalising Korean film and leveraging the international film festival market to sell Korean films and stories. This strategy results in Korean films, especially those provided big budgets, being designed to appeal cross-culturally keeping the local Korean film industry alive and profitable. To create an internationally appealing Korean film, filmmakers create Hollywood blockbuster style films and use Asian cinematic techniques and styles to add to their Korean stories that form a cultural hybridity within Korean cinema. While cultural diversity is maintaining Korean cinema so far, there are concerns about constantly increasing production costs and the quality of films exported from Korea as commercialism becomes more important than the art of cinema. The South Korean government have transformed culture into a profitable industry in an era where people around the world are more connected than ever before.

South Korea has a troubled history of censorship and media oppression, this naturally impacted filmmakers and their ability to tell certain stories without fear of punishment. Despite this, Korea has a long history of filmmaking starting with their first feature film Plighted Love Under the Moon (Yun Baek-nam 1923) while still oppressed by the Japanese; leading to arguably the most significant film of the time Arirang (Na Un-kyu 1926). The film contained hidden political messages and inspired other filmmakers to make films that resisted the power Japan held over Korea, however, Japanese censorship hindered the development of Korean cinema. Korea eventually became a republic (currently in its sixth republic) where throughout its history oppression of citizens and strict control over media, including art, became the status quo. During the Young-Sam Kim administration the government shifted its policy on the media and subsequently the film sector, to turn their culture industry into a profitable venture (Han 2011). This leap towards globalisation was intended to stimulate economic growth in Korea, which it did successfully, and was a major factor in the beginning of the Korean Wave (Hallyu). The changes in government policy and their support of the film industry led to the creation of Shiri, which was partially funded by Samsung, a film heavily influenced by 1980s Hollywood action blockbusters, about the reunification of North and South Korea. In the past, such a controversial subject would never be allowed especially with the somewhat sympathetic portrayal of North Koreans:

Less than a decade ago, South Korea was an inhospitable environment for its filmmakers. The challenge of making movies was daunting: limited resources, inflexible bureaucracy, and frequent government censorship, all of which discouraged a large number of filmmakers from pursuing their passion. This adverse environment, however, has virtually vanished as South Korea is now being recognized as Asia’s most vibrant film market (Kim 2003).

The government’s adoption of a globalisation policy led to the removal of significant censorship barriers for filmmakers, allowing them freedom to make more meaningful films. Although the government is more relaxed about content there are new roadblocks for filmmakers as success is measured in box office receipts.

Prior to the release of Shiri, U.S films held the largest share of box office receipts at 60% while domestic films only accounted for 20%; the years following Shiri exponentially increased this share to 50% which still holds as of 2018. While globalisation is not a new concept, within the film industry globalisation has resulted in a Western dominated ethos where Asian representation and culture is absent (Hogarth 2013). Asian representation is abundant in films, though mainly in Asia as these films rarely break local and continental boundaries. South Korea has achieved commercial international success in Asia and beyond through filmmakers creating their own film culture that appeals universally. Shiri, Oldboy, Train to Busan and Okja all conform to this style where they produce “…both uncompromising highly personal films and crisp, intelligent genre movies” (Thomas 2002). Each film remains uniquely Korean through the stories they tell and the meaning etched into every frame showing audiences what it is like to be Korean, while employing Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema techniques that appeal to international audiences. This combination of culture and style is evident throughout all four films where large budgets (relative to South Korea) allow for big action, the use of rapid camera and editing techniques accelerate pace and tension during action sequences and Hollywood style narrative structure. Each film, while employing these methods, stays true to their poignant message about Korea usually hidden within more universal themes that appeal to larger audiences, that is, forgiveness (Shiri), revenge (Oldboy), selflessness (Train to Busan) and environmental issues (Okja). By internationalising Korean cinema and through the government support of the industry, Korean films leverage the international film festival marketplace to showcase and sell films; a profitable strategy that has kept their local industry alive.

A significant portion of South Korean films, specifically big budget blockbusters, will be entered into major international film festivals to promote Korean films and find distribution (profit) across Asia and beyond. Jameson (cited Wilson 2001, p. 313) states that “…the push towards making the `festival film’ and winning international recognition becomes the means of a national-based film survival…”. South Korea’s push towards festivals initially succeeded in selling remake rights, with their goal to pique the interest of Hollywood in distributing their films. Eventually, with critical successes like Shiri and Oldboy Hollywood became more interested in distributing their films and the previously uninterested European film industry also wanted a stake. Without the prestige and market of film festivals, it is unlikely South Korean films would be popular outside of Asia and whether the financial success within their local industry would continue to flourish is debatable. Film festivals, such as, Festival de Cannes offer opportunity for critical and global recognition of Korean films where Oldboy was nominated for the Palm d’Or and won the Grand Prix in 2004. South Korea continues to use the festival market to showcase their films and enjoy success, most recently with Joon-ho Bong’s Parasite winning the Palm d’Or:

Of all pop culture exports, Korean film has established itself as a force in global cinema… star directors such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho continue to produce critically recognized work that is screened at film festivals and art houses and on college campuses around the world (Oakes 2018).

South Korea’s success internationally began with the government changing their policies to be global rather than local in an effort to capitalise on the culture industry. This resulted in a cinematic style that suited local and international audiences where film festivals are used to promote and profit from their local industry. This led to Korean filmmakers inventing their own cinematic style and stories that designs films for cross-cultural appeal, therefore export and profit.

Shiri, the film that propelled South Korean film into audiences globally, borrows heavily from Hollywood blockbuster action films which is evident as a Western viewer. Je-kyu Kang wrote and directed Shiri specifically to utilise this style and appeal to wider audiences:

…after surveying numerous South Koreans, he realized that there was limited interest in a film with this type of overt political orientation… Kang wrote a script that he thought was commercial as well as socially meaningful… The film has plenty of galvanic action sequences to satisfy testosterone-laden guys, a number of surprising twists and turns, and a heart-tugging love story to satisfy most romantics (Matsumoto 2002).

Using the Hollywood formula helped revive the local industry and shine international attention on South Korean films. It is evident on viewing Shiri, that Kang was heavily influenced by 1980s and 1990s Hollywood action films through the formulaic plot, constant exposition, camera and editing techniques and special effects. At the time, Korean audiences were used to Hollywood films and style but hadn’t seen this applied to uniquely Korean stories. Box office records were broken as audiences flooded to the cinema to see Shiri with its heavy emphasis on violent and gory action sequences, explosions and plot twists. This style is reflected in Korean film exports since while maintaining its own Korean voice. A few years later, Oldboy followed a similar structure with heavy action and violence but also incorporated martial arts style fighting influenced by Hong Kong films, an industry that had become stale. Train to Busan refreshed the zombie genre using a unique Korean take (Korea’s first zombie film) steeped with criticism for Korea’s current political and social climate, but kept the same Hollywood codes and conventions seen in the horror and action genres. Okja is the biggest budget film of the three discussed and caused controversy at the Festival de Cannes for being associated with Netflix. This co-production between South Korea (Lewis Pictures) and the U.S (Plan B Entertainment) is the embodiment of the last 20 years of Korean film. Okja expertly combines the Western and Eastern ethos (Capitalism and Confucianism) and the influence of one over the other into a film that celebrates simplicity and an old way of living. South Korea’s use of multiple cultures through its film industry has created its own new culture hybrid, one that has made South Korea known for its film market around the world.

Hybridisation is not merely the mixing, blending and synthesising of different elements that ultimately forms a culturally faceless whole. In the course of hybridisation, cultures often generate new forms and make new connections with one another (Jin 2010).

South Korea’s use of different industrial and cultural elements in film has breathed new life into their local industry and economy, creating a new era of Korean filmmaking that is both popular and commercially successful. Through globalisation and improved technology that facilitate global interconnectedness, as well as government changes, Koreans are more exposed to cultures around the world and filmmakers have adopted parts of this as part of their own craft aiding the explosion of Korean Wave (Hallyu) starting in Asia. The Korean blockbuster film is a result of this cultural hybridity, a new form of storytelling that is dominating Korean film investment and cinemas. This evolution of Korean cinema has “… developed hybrid narrative conventions that mix the local and the global (mainly Hollywood) through dynamic cultural and artistic processes of assimilating, modifying and re-creating” (Shim & Yecies 2011). As Shim and Yecies discuss, Korean filmmakers have not simply appropriated a culture but have created a cultural hybrid that is uniquely Korean yet familiar to non-Korean audiences. Train to Busan exemplifies this notion through its use of a well-known and beloved genre using the correct codes and conventions all with a universal setting with universal themes. Additionally, the film tells the audience a lot about life in Korea across different social and economic classes, so that even those not from South Korea understand and can relate to the characters. While South Korea continues to release critical and commercial successes, it focusses on the Hollywood blockbuster model of high budgets as a means for generating more profit. This has potentially damaging implications for the South Korean film industry.

South Korea’s film industry has grown exponentially locally and internationally since the release of Shiri in 1999. At the time Shiri was the largest budget production in Korea, since then big budget blockbusters (relative to South Korea) have dominated investment and production of films creating the need for productions to spend more and more on their films to keep up with their popularity; this raises the argument of whether this model is sustainable (Han 2011). Rising production costs mean less new filmmakers are given opportunities and formulaic storytelling is given precedence over new methods and ideas, restricting the industries ability to evolve with the market and audience as the industry focusses more on profits than on artistic merit. This is ironic considering that Korea’s film industry has become popular using existing methods and models shaped into a new meaning and culture within their film industry. The commercial focus of Korean film, that is profit driven films along with the increasing production costs, damages the quality of storytelling and dominates cinemas locally where small budget films aren’t able to compete. This is evident where big budget films are considered higher quality and monopolise cinemas across the country, conversely small budget films that are critically acclaimed get shorter releases as they are in direct competition with more commercial films (Kim 2003). South Korea’s film industry, as with the Hollywood model, faces the uncertainty of sustainability due to these issues. While Hollywood’s model is scrutinised on the quality of films and the sustainability of the blockbuster model, this industry is far wider reaching than South Korea’s industry and is unlikely to change or breakdown in the future. The same cannot be said for South Korea where big budget is comparably a low budget film for Hollywood and has less reach globally.

The South Korean government made extensive changes to its policies on censorship and adopted a globalisation policy to improve the economy and monetise the culture industry. This made it possible for Shiri to be made where it exceeded expectations locally and revived the local film industry where the Hollywood dominated the box office. Shiri utilised the Hollywood blockbuster method and style of storytelling to appeal to a Korean audience, this started a change in how the Korean film industry thought about making films that allowed other major successes like Oldboy, Train to Busan and Okja to be made. The film industry evolved to making films internationally appealing yet uniquely Korean and utilised the film festival market to popularise Korean film and maximise profits through remake rights and distribution. The combined elements of Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema along with Korean stories created a cultural hybrid within the industry that continues to be popular locally and internationally. While the Korean industry remains successful, its current blockbuster model is criticised for increasing production costs and reducing the artistic quality of films. The sustainability of this model is questionable when in competition with Hollywood and streaming services, though the Korean entertainment industry has not waned in popularity it must continue to rely on its other exports such as television and music if there are no changes made.


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