A still from Han Jae-rim's "The King" / Courtesy of NEW
By Jason Bechervaise
Looking back at 2016, it was without doubt the best year for Korean cinema in recent memory. Various factors were attributable to its success including the return of some of the most revered Korean auteurs including Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, while Hollywood studios also played a part given the critical reception and popularity of "The Wailing" and "The Age of Shadows."
Glancing ahead, 2016 is a difficult act to follow but over the coming 12 months, there are a number of projects that are set to attract attention.
This has the potential to be the biggest hit of the year. The cast is huge: Hwang Jung-min, Song Joong-ki, So Ji-sub and starlet Kim Soo-an. Director Ryoo Seung-wan previously helmed "Veteran" that amassed a whopping 13 million admissions in 2015.
Set on Hashima Island during the Japanese occupation where about 400 workers attempt to escape from forced labor, it's part of a trend over the past 18 months to explore this period of history in films such as "The Age of Shadows," "Assassination," "Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet" and "The Last Princess."
What worked so well in Ryoo's "Veteran" was an attempt to scale back and keep things straightforward in terms of the storytelling following the over-convoluted "The Berlin File" (2013). If Ryoo can continue to adopt his audacious set pieces while ensuring the script remains tight and focused, this could strike a chord with audiences both home and abroad. It is scheduled to hit local screens this summer.
Although Han Jae-rim has not quite established his filmmaking career in the same way as directors such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, he remains a notable figure in the local industry. Han experienced financial success with the sumptuous period drama "The Face Reader" (2013), but it is his excellent dark romantic comedy "Rules of Dating" (2005) and the terrific gangster noir "The Show Must Go On" (2007) that really demonstrate his wealth of talent.
His new crime-drama "The King" starring Jung Woo-sung and Jo In-sung about a prosecutor in his quest for power appears to share similarities to films such as "Inside Men" and "A Violent Prosecutor." It also deals with the judicial system and politics. Given the current political climate in Korea where the Choi Soon-sil scandal continues to dominate the headlines, this could resonate with audiences. It is to be released in local cinemas on Jan. 18.
"Taxi Driver" poster /Courtesy of Showbox
Another film that could also feed into political sentiments is Jang Hoon's ("The Front Line") latest film that stars Song Kang-ho as a taxi driver who smuggles a German journalist played by Thomas Kretschmann ("Avengers: Age of Ultron") into the city of Gwangju in 1980 during the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
Scheduled to hit screens this summer, it is another interesting casting choice for Song Kang-ho who starred in Yang Woo-suk's 2013 box office smash hit "The Attorney" that was also set in the 1980s during the Chun Doo-hwan regime (1980-1988).
‘With God -- Part 1'
Also released this summer is Kim Yong-hwa's star-studded "With God" based on the webcomic of the same name. Featuring the likes of Ha Jung-woo, Cha Tae-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ju Ji-hoon and Ma Dong-suk, it is poised to at least open well.
Produced by Realize Pictures who were behind the hit "Masquerade" that was embraced by local critics in 2012, the film is set in the afterlife where the deceased have seven trials over a period of 49 days.
The film's visual effects are being orchestrated by Dexter Studios, while the film is to be released in two parts -- an unusual move for a Korean production. It is a risky project, not least given how poorly the studio's "Mr. Go" performed at the box office in 2013, but the high profile cast and interesting story should arouse interest.
"VIP" poster /Courtesy of Warner Brothers Korea
Directed by Park Hoon-jung ("New World," "The Tiger"), his next film about a hunt for the son of a high-ranking North Korean official who is suspected of being a serial killer is being produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Korea. The film stars Jang Dong-gun, Kim Myung-min, Lee Jong-suk and Park Hee-soon.
The Hollywood studio made an impact with their first Korean-language film, "The Age of Shadows," which together with 20th Century Fox Korea's "The Wailing" demonstrated that bold projects can be commercially viable. Going ahead, the local industry will be watching closely how projects such as "VIP" along with Warner Bros' "Single Rider" starring Lee Byung-hun also to be released in 2017 will perform.
Also attempting to enter the local market is the American streaming giant Netflix, optimized by their $50 million project "Okja" directed by Bong Joon-ho. Shot both in Korea and North America, the cast includes names such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Lily Collins, Bong Joon-ho's regular collaborator Byun Hee-bong, and young Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun.
Following a girl who will do anything to prevent a multinational company from kidnapping her best friend, a large animal called Okja, the film is reported to feature both English and Korean dialogue. It is indeed interesting that "Okja" comes four years after Bong's English-language project "Snowpiercer" that was funded by a Korean studio.
"Okja," of course, is not technically a Korean film, but given the pedigree behind the camera and conception of Bong's latest feature, it would seem unfair to not include it in what is arguably one of the most anticipated projects of the year.
Jason Bechervaise is a movie columnist for The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.