The Horror within Korean Cinema: The phenomenon (Part 1)

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Hello. This is Prof. AKIA from Korea. How are you? What is your November looking like?
With Halloween coming and going last week and the Korean “The Exorcist” clone called “The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) coming out, I thought it will be interesting to look over the state of Horror within Korean cinema in 2 parts. In the first part, I’ll try to get a detailed look into the phenomenon. In the second part, I’ll go over my thoughts about what lies behind the phenomenon.

K-Trailer Talk Ep. 1: The Priests / 검은 사제들 (2015)
Click Pic

In general, how is the horror genre doing in Korea?

It is not great!

Korean cinema was never really welcoming to “genre” movies in the first place. I am talking about specific niche hardcore movies. Most of the Korean movies especially in the mainstream are composed of family dramas, Romance movies, comedies, and thrillers/noir. Over the past decade or so, thrillers have really become the mainstay of Korean movies surpassing even Romance movies. Most foreigners, especially in the west, would have encountered Korean movies first through its thrillers/noir movies.

“Whispering Corridors 1 /여고괴담”

There are very few places for other genres of movies in Korean cinema. And this is not only me saying this. Science fiction is basically completed dead. More accurately it was never born here in the first place.  In terms of horror, there was a surge of interest starting in 1998 with the unexpected hit of “Whispering Corridors 1 /여고괴담” which was highly influenced by the already then mature Japanese horror cinema traditions. Oh and as reference, the first Japanese “Ringu” movie opened in 1998 also.

Since then, on average, the revenue earned from mainstream Korean Horror theatrical releases composes about 2% of the annual revenue earned by domestic Korean movies and less than 1% of the total Korean box office. 
That is pitiful!
It is basically less than what one decent hit movie earns here.  

A closer look
In 2015, there were only 3 Korean Horror or Horror-ish movies that ranked in the top 50 of Korean movies that got theatrical releases prior to November.

More of the Thriller but still...

경성학교사라진 소녀들 : The Silenced
Click Pic for review
The Chosen: Forbidden Cave

Here is a chart of these Korean movies that includes revenue figures.

All three of the movies are in the lower end of the top 50 and were considered financial failures. You really need to come in above 25th place to be considered a success even for a mid-ranged budget movie. In total, these three movies consist only 1% of the revenue generated by Korean movies prior to November. This is not great but not something to be surprised about. If you look at the graph below, this is the natural state of horror movies in Korea.

Market Share of Horror Films among Korean films (2004~2015)

The Blue line in the graph is indicating all movies that have some horror elements. The orange line sticks to a more strict definition of Horror. The two lines are displayed because, since Horror is not a strong draw for Korean audiences, there is a tendency to veer more closely to thriller territory or mix genres to spice things up.

Spellbound /오싹한 연애

The weird years
There are a few years that show abnormal spikes in Horror revenue according to the Blue line but not the orange one. This is because one or two special movies made a real difference. In 2011, there is a spike contributed to “Spellbound /오싹한 연애“ which was horror themed Rom-com. I said mixing genres was a thing. It was a decent hit coming in 8th place among domestic movies and 14th overall that year.

But still a Rom-Com and was successful because of it!
It was not the horror that made people go see it.

The Host /  괴물
There was a massive spike in 2006. It was the year of “The Host /  괴물“ which was technically a “Horror” movie although more on the art house spectrum. That movie won the year coming in 1st place of the total box office. Looking at the movie within the context of Korean cinema, it really has to be seen as an abnormality than a start of something new.

Ghost House/귀신이 산다
To Catch a Virgin Ghost /시실리 2km

In 2004, which is the last year I have exact data for, there is another spike because of 2 horror comedies “Ghost House/귀신이 산다” and “To Catch a Virgin Ghost /시실리 2km “. However, unlike the subsequent years, 8 horror movies in total made the top 50 domestic movie list. This would never happen ever again. Look at the graph below which is the total number of Horror movies in the Top 50 domestic movies over a decade. The average annual number is around 3 horror movies per year.

“Whispering Corridors” franchise 

This shows that there is a trend of consistent decline for the demand of Horror movies within the Korean market. Really, 2004 should be considered the last okay year for proper Korean horror movies. As a mentioned before, 1998 was the start of a short-lived heyday for Korean horror movies. “Whispering Corridors” was released that year signaling to people that Horror could sell in Korea. And “Whispering Corridors” franchise went on to be the only long lived mainstream Korean Horror movie franchise with a total of 5 movies. Korean still doesn’t do movies franchises much.

But that is a talk for another day.

However, one could argue that Korean audiences may be getting their demands satisfied by superior Hollywood horror movies. And this is a valid assumption to be made. Hollywood imports do make about 45~50% of the overall Korean box office after all.

Hollywood Scares
Let’s look at the import market then. From the period of 2004~2015, the highest ranking Hollywood horror movies of any year was “World War Z” at 11th in 2013 and “The Conjuring” at the 27th  following in the same year. This is the total box office and not only the Hollywood movies. Even considering that “World War Z” came off more like a disaster movie, this is a coup and an abnormality. In prior years, there were very few instances in which any type of horror-ish made the top 50. That is the state of Hollywood Horror movies here.

In 2004, we had “Van Helsing” and “Blade: Trinity “in the overall top 50 which I had to stretch the definition of horror to include. In 2006, we had “Monster House” at 34th place but that is a 3D animated kids horror movies. I’m not sure we should count it. In 2010, “Resident Evil: Afterlife” made the cut but less said about that movie the better. Last year, “Dracula Untold” barely made the cut which just shows getting into the Top 50 overall movies in Korea should not be anything to call home about. This year, “Insidious: Chapter 3” also barely crawled into the Top 50. In all other years, there were no Hollywood horror movies that ranked within the overall Top 50. This is a terrible record for Horror.

Overall, it is really difficult to even imagine why anyone would want to make a horror movie for the Korean box office. There is no demand for it. In part 2, I’ll speculate the reasons why.

This was professor AKIA with “The Horror within Korean Cinema: The phenomenon (Part 1)”

The Horror within Korean Cinema: Behind the scenes (Part 2) coming soon.

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1 comment:

  1. Colorful movie. Lots of characters and fun.