Top Ten Korean Films of 2015

2015 in review

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s the perfect time to review the highs and lows the Korean film industry experienced over the past 12 months.

As the final figures roll in it’s clear that, commercially speaking, 2015 has been a stellar year with much to celebrate. In early December the Korean Film Council announced admissions had hit over 200 million whilst stating total sales of over KRW 1.58 trillion (USD 1.34 billion); two films achieved over 10 million admissions, while six now feature in the top 50 highest grossing Korean film of all time (source: KoBiz). Furthermore, the year still isn’t over as the figures for Himalaya, The Tiger, and The Joseon Magician still haven’t been finalised and look set to add more gains to already impressive figures.

However in terms of quality output 2015 was an especially weak year for Korean cinema. In Hanguk Yeonghwa’s review of 2014 I stated the year had been a lackluster one for K-film and, as much as it pains me to say it, 2015 was worse.

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

In fact, the first six months of 2015 were so woeful for the industry that media outlets were forced to acknowledge that, “only 40.7 percent, or 35.46 million cinemagoers saw a Korean film this year, a record low since statistics began in 2004.” (source: Chosun Ilbo, June 19). Many spectators blamed the low attendance on the dominance of big Hollywood films including Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, yet critics were also keen to point out that while production values in K-films were significantly improving, Korean output was generally becoming increasingly generic and made for profit which turned local audiences towards international fare.

The year began with the continued dominance of historical epic Ode to My Father, which ultimately went on to become the second highest grossing film in K-cinema history. While critics were upset with the film’s continued presence in multiplexes, there also weren’t any strong new releases to topple it as despite a slew of high profile titles appearing in cinemas from January to June – including Gangnam Blues, C’est Si Bon, Detective K 2, Empire of Lust, Twenty, The Treacherous, The Silenced and many more – they were met largely with audience indifference.

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

During this period however, K-cinema saw international success as four titles – Coin Locker Girl, The Shameless, Madonna and Office – were selected to represent Korea at the Cannes International Film Festival in May. While their selection is cause to celebrate, these films too were met with a muted response by critics and audiences alike when released across the peninsula, although Coin Locker Girl notably exceeded expectations.

Thankfully, the doom and gloom was lifted in summer. The release of uber-patriotic Northern Limit Line in June was a big success hauling $38.9 million, while a month later ever-reliable director Choi Dong-hoon’s blockbuster Assassination scored over $84 million to become the filmmaker’s biggest ever opening, and currently sits comfortably in seventh place on the list of highest grossing Koreans films of all time. Expectations of the spy-thriller’s longevity turned out to be somewhat exaggerated however as a week later Tom Cruise vehicle Mission Impossible 5 went straight to the top spot, but early August saw the release of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran which became a huge hit with audiences and, thanks to positive word of mouth, surpassed predictions to scoop up the lion’s share of audience revenue to become the biggest film of the year and the third biggest film in K-cinema history securing $89.8 million.

The Himalayas (히말라야)

The Himalayas (히말라야)

Such positivity was continued in November as The Priests and Inside Men defied predictions and became sleeper hits with $36.2 million and $46.8 million, respectively, and helped to propel actor Lee Byung-hun back into some positive limelight.

December saw The Himalayas and The Tiger appear in cinemas a day before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The face-off was widely publicised as a victory for the Korean Wave as, “The Himalayas grossed $8.7 million from Thursday to Sunday, topping The Force Awakens‘ $7.9 million performance over the same period” (source: The Hollywood Reporter). While such articles generally failed to take into account the difference in screen share between the films involved, the Korean film industry took the final figures as a triumphant way to end the year.

Ultimately, 2015 was a highly lucrative year for the industry with cinema attendance hitting yet another record high and Korean films attaining around 52% of the market share (source: Chosun Ilbo).

Now that the year is over, here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s top ten Korean films of 2015.

INTRO – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

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Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 – Most Memorable Moments of 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013 – Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Film News

Lee Byung-hun’s Comeback ‘Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)’ Gets English Subtitled Trailer

Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)

Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)

Martial arts period drama Memories of the Sword has finally received a teaser trailer with English subtitles.

Originally set for release at the end of 2014, the film was reportedly delayed due to the blackmail scandal involving Lee Byung-hun, yet as the issue has now subsided an August 2015 date has been announced.

The swordplay epic follows the exploits of three warriors during the Goryeo dynasty who instigate an uprising, yet when their plan is finally set to achieve fruition master swordsman Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) betrays his comrades. To escape his wrath, Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) flees with her young daughter to a place he can never find them. Eighteen years later, Deok-gi has positioned himself as a powerful ruler while Seol-rang – now blind – trains her daughter Seol-hee (Kim Go-eun) in ways of martial arts, preparing to exact her bloody revenge.

Directed and co-written by Park Heung-sik – who previously worked with Jeon Do-yeon on My Mother the Mermaid (2004) and I Wish I Had A Wife (2001) – Memories of the Sword will be a real test of the combined star power of three of Korea’s top tier actors, as well as a good indicator as to whether Korean cinema-goers have gotten over Lee’s transgressions.

MotS Kim Go-eun

MotS Kim Go-eun

MotS Lee Byeong-heon

MotS Lee Byeong-heon

MotS Jeon Do-yeon

MotS Jeon Do-yeon

Film News

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹) gets an English Subbed Trailer

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹)

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹)

Steamy thriller Perfect Proposal – or more literally translated as Secret Temptation – has received an English subtitled trailer ahead of its June 4th release date in Korea.

Based on French novel “La Femme de paille” (Woman of Straw) by Catherine Arley, the scandalous story depicts an ambitious young man (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) attempting to scheme a fortune from his sickly uncle (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), enlisting the help of an attractive yet heavily-indebted woman (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) to do so. If she can marry the old man and manipulate him into changing his will so that she inherits his fortune, the pair will be rich forever more. Yet things don’t turn out as planned.

Director Yoon Jae-goo (윤재구), who previously helmed Secret (2009) and wrote Seven Days (2007), adapted the screenplay as well as taking the megaphone, and it will be interesting to see how he has interpreted such thrillingly seductive source material.

Perfect Proposal also signifies the return of actress Im Soo-jeong after a three year absence from the big screen, and playing a particularly different role from her last outing in Everything About My Wife.

For the English subbed trailer, please see below.

Film News

Seoul Int. Women’s Film Fest Announces Short Film Line-up

SIWFF LOGOThe 17th Seoul International Women’s Film Festival (SIWFF) has unveiled the finalists for the Asian Short Film and Video Competition, as well as the ‘I-TEENS’ program.

3 Year 3 Month Retreat

3 Year 3 Month Retreat

According to festival officials SIWFF 2015 received more submissions than at any point their history for the competition, eventually selecting the final 21 films – 13 Korean and 8 non-Korean – from 415 entries from over 20 Asian nations.

Oh Lucy!

Oh Lucy!

Of the finalists, four will be selected for prizes. The Sungjoo Grand Prize (alongside $9,000 cash) will be awarded to the best film, while two Sungjoo First Prizes (as well as $4,500 each) will be bestowed upon the runners up. Through audience ballots conducted throughout the festival, a film will also be chosen for an Audience Award.

That Day of the Month

That Day of the Month

Meanwhile the I-TEENS category, now in its second year, will screen seven films produced by Korean teenage females.

SIWFF will run from May 27th to June 3rd at Megabox in Sinchon.

For the full list of finalists, please see below.

SWIFF Asian Shorts

SWIFF I-TEENS

Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Seoul International Women's Film Festival (제 17회 서울국제여성영화제)

Jeonju Int. Film Festival 2015 – Hot Picks

The 16th Jeonju Int. Film Festival

The 16th Jeonju Int. Film Festival

The 16th Jeonju International Film Festival, which will run from April 30th through to May 9th, has unveiled the full lineup of Korean and foreign films to be screened.

In terms of Korean cinema, in addition to the already previously announced Korean Competition and Korean Competition for Shorts that features new and emerging talent, films from the peninsula will feature within Korean Cinemascape and Korean Cinemascape for Shorts, as well as in other select programs.

With so many independent productions from which to choose, selecting quality films can be somewhat of a daunting task. As such, here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Hot Picks for the upcoming festival.

Jeonju Digital Project 2015

Samnye (삼례) – Director Lee Hyun-jung (이현정)

Samnye

Samnye

Director Lee’s previous JIFF film, Echo of Dragon, appeared in the 2013 Korean Competition and proved her art-house sensibilities. Samnye tells the story of a struggling screenwriter, who meets a charming yet strange girl. Art cinema fans should definitely take a look.

Snow Paths (설행 눈길을 걷다) – Director Kim Hee-jung (김희정)

Snow Paths

Snow Paths

Described by JIFF Head Programmer KIM Young-jin as, “undervalued in the Korean film industry,” director Kim (Grape Candy) returns with Snow Paths, a film exploring the life of an alcoholic seeking solace in the mountains who befriends a nun.

Korea Cinemascape

Black Stone (블랙스톤) – Director Roh Gyeong-tae (노경태)

Black Stone

Black Stone

Black Stone premiered at Rotterdam earlier this year. A Korean/French co-production, the film depicts highly controversial issues in contemporary Korea, involving inter-racial families and abuses within the Korean military.

Death in Desert (붉은 낙타) – Director No Zin-soo (노진수)

Death In Desert

Death In Desert

Director No has been busy recently with Total Messed Family (JIFF 2013), The Suffered (JIFF 2014), and The Maidroid (Yubari Fantastic Festival 2015). With Death in Desert, he explores an obsessive relationship between a couple who just can’t let go of each other.

Made in China (메이드 인 차이나) – Director Kim Dong-hoo (김동후)

Made In China

Made In China

There’s been plenty of buzz around the Kim Ki-duk produced Made in China, which premiered at Tokyo in 2014. Featuring stars Park Ki-woong and Han Chae-ah, the story involves a Chinese eel farmer and a cold-hearted Korean food inspector.

Speed (스피드) – Director Lee Sang-woo (이상우)

Speed

Speed

Director Lee is notorious for tackling controversial subject matter within his films, as exemplified by Mother is a Whore, Barbie, and Fire in Hell. Following short film Exit at JIFF 2013, he returns with Speed, a tale of four friends whose lives are intertwined.

Trap (덫, 치명적인 유혹) – Director Bong Man-dae (봉만대)

Trap

Trap

Director Bong’s Han River premiered at Busan 2014 to praise for exploring suicide with dark comedy. With Trap, a miserable screenwriter travels to an inn to finish a script, yet falls for the charms of a seductive teenage girl with increasingly dark ambitions.

Korea Cinemascape for Shorts

The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도) – Director Moon So-ri (문소리)

The Running Actress

The Running Actress

Legendary actress Moon So-ri steps behind the camera for The Running Actress, a 24 minute short film. In it, Moon plays a woman trying to balance domestic life and hardships while attempting to forge a career on screen.

Outdoor Screening

Like a French Movie (프랑스 영화처럼) – Director Shin Yeon-shik (신연식)

Like a French Movie

Like a French Movie

Director Shin has a rare ability to helm films both mainstream (Rough Play) and artistic (The Avian Kind, The Russian Novel). In Like a French Movie, which seems to be one of the director’s artistic endeavours, the protagonists all embody the traits of characters within a French film.

For more information of the films playing at Jeonju International Film Festival, please follow the link here.

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

2014 FinalWith the end of the year almost upon us, it’s time to revisit the films released over the past 12 months in order to discern the best offerings from the Korean film industry for 2014.

First, however, a quick review of the year is in order to chart the highs and lows from the peninsula, as it was a tumultuous time for Korean cinema indeed.

For those who cannot wait, please scroll down to find the top ten of 2014.

2014 – In Review

2014 was, by all accounts, a rather lacklustre year for Korean cinema.

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

The beginning of the year was undoubtedly dominated by Hollywood. While the release of several high profile Korean films including Plan Man, Man in Love, Hot Young Bloods and Venus Talk occurred, none of them performed particularly well, especially when faced with the gargantuan success of Disney’s Frozen. Things changed at the end of January with the release of Miss Granny, thanks largely to positive word of mouth. Starring Shim Eun-kyeong as an elderly woman transformed into twenties, the mild-mannered comedy was a fairly big success scoring over 8.6 million admissions. Controversial independent film Another Promise also performed impressively. Concerned with people stricken with cancer after working at a Samsung factory, the film was all but rejected from multiplexes causing outrage from critics as well as accusations of insider suppression, even prompting an article from UK outlet The Guardian.

For the next few months, Korean cinema continued to stagnate until things went from bad to worse in the wake of the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster on the 16th of April. With the entire nation reeling from the loss of so many lives – mostly high school students – cinemas, understandably, largely remained empty. For the next few months, with the population still in a collective state of mourning, attendance and revenue was considerably down compared to the year prior, with audiences also tending to stay away from violent films such as No Tears For The Dead and Man On High Heels.

Indie success came in the form of Han Gong-ju. Released in April, the film scored over 60,000 admissions during its first four days, and eventually surpassed 160,000 during its box office run to become one of the most successful independent films in the history of Korean cinema. Han Gong-ju was also an enormous hit on the international film festival circuit, achieving several top honours as well as acclaim from cinema maestro Martin Scorsese.

Internationally, good news also came in May as A Girl At My Door, A Hard Day, and The Target all gained invitations to the Cannes Film Festival.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

Things turned around considerably in late July. Upon release, KUNDO: Age of the Rampant broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into the industry…until that record, and virtually every achievement in Korean cinema, was decimated by historical naval epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Shortly thereafter the final two tentpole summer films – The Pirates and Haemoo – also graced screens to moderate success. Fears that the blockbusters would fail due to narratives that contain deaths at sea, and thus touching on the still sensitive issue of the Sewol tragedy, luckily proved to be unfounded.

The next big news to hit the industry came in the form of controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol. Premiering at the Busan International Film Festival, Sewol depicted the ineptitude of the government in failing to save so many lives during the disaster. Park Geun-hye’s administration responded by demanding the withdrawal of the film from the festival, as well as threats of funding cuts. BIFF refused, and it remains to be seen what ramifications the decision will have on subsequent festivals.

The year ended on a high note, particularly for independent cinema, as positive word of mouth led to documentary My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) attracting over 1 million viewers and knocking Hollywood films Interstellar and Exodus from the top spots at the box office. It currently stands as the second most successful documentary in Korean cinema history.

The Best of 2014

Honourary Mention – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Before beginning the top ten countdown, it would be impossible to exclude any discussion of Han Gong-ju. Rated in joint first place in last year’s ratings (due to its premiere at BIFF), director Lee Su-jin’s directorial debut is bold, powerful, and emotionally resonating. Featuring an outstanding performance by Chun Woo-hee – who won Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Film AwardsHan Gong-ju is based on the true story of a high school girl who is forced to relocate to a new area following an horrific event. As she attempts to rebuild her life, Gong-ju discovers that she cannot outrun her past however much she tries. Appearing at over 15 international film festivals and receiving acclaim from Martin Scorsese himself, Hang Gong-ju is not to be missed.

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

No. 10 – Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits is a beautifully stylised, wonderfully constructed documentary that is emblematic of the new artistic approach being employed to genre. Directed by artist/filmmaker Park Chan-kyong, Manshin presents the life and times of renowned shaman Kim Keum-hwa through a startling array of storytelling devices, all in the aesthetic of traditional Korean culture. Periods from shaman Kim’s life are gorgeously reconstructed featuring three prominent actresses – Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong and Moon So-ri – which, while interesting in itself, is also a story that explores the cultural identity of Korea in the rapid transition from one of the poorest nations in Asia to the economic powerhouse it is today.

No. 9 – Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Amalgamating several real life stories that have transpired over the years, Korea’s most prominent queer director, Lee Song Hee-il, released arguably his most compelling film to date in the form of Night Flight. Poignantly depicting the relationship of two teenage gay Seoulites and their desire to escape their oppressive environment, director Lee Song goes beyond focusing primarily on the romance by profoundly developing the world they inhabit. The harsh education system, the class divide, single parent families and social injustice all feature, and as such homosexuality is naturalized as simply another facet of identity that youths struggle with, resulting in an insightful and compelling drama.

No. 8 – Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let's Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Documentary Let’s Dance is concerned with the topic of abortion in Korea. Director Jo Se-young brilliantly interviews a variety a women who have undergone the procedure, inquiring about their thoughts, reasons and feelings about the controversial subject matter. Yet the film is far from bleak; in fact it’s quite the opposite. During the refreshingly frank conversations the women laugh, joke and cry about their experiences, while dramatic recreations of comical events are interlaced within, making the documentary a genuinely funny, enlightening, and empowering film. The film also hilariously pokes fun at male ignorance on the subject, including lack of awareness regarding contraception and even the length of pregnancy. Inspirational viewing.

No. 7 – Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Director Boo Ji-young’s insightful second feature film Cart premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, and for good reason. Based on the true story of unfairly dismissed supermarket employees who began strike action to be reinstated, Cart is a consistently impressive exploration of worker’s rights, women’s issues, and single parent families in contemporary Korea. The provocative drama explores each facet from several distinct perspectives and never fails to be engaging. It also has the distinction of being almost entirely female-centered to great effect, with acting duties from a host of incredibly talented actresses of all ages, combining to produce a moving, courageous and provocative socially-conscious drama.

No. 6 – Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

South Korea has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD. Thread of Lies tackles such difficult subject matter by exploring the lives of those effected in the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide, and is a powerfully provocative film in that the story not only depicts bullying and depression, but also delves into the problematic realm of accountability. Driven by the need for answers, Man-ji begins investigating her younger sister’s suicide, with the conclusions proving to be a painful experience. Thread of Lies is also notable for having a stellar all-female cast, a real rarity these days, with the array of talent combining to produce an understated yet deeply resonating examination of an important social issue.

No. 5 – The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Easily the most controversial Korean film of the year, documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol premiered at the Busan International Film Festival to uproar. Under pressure from government officials and the mayor of Busan/Festival Chairman Seo Byung-soo himself to remove it from the schedule, BIFF ultimately refused and screened it anyway to reveal a highly emotional and courageously critical exploration of the administration’s disastrous rescue efforts following the Sewol tragedy. Through the investigative approach of director Ahn Hye-ryong and journalist/director Lee Sang-ho, the documentary is a powerful tribute to not only the victims of the event but also the ongoing debate of accountability, and the collusion between the state and mass media.

No. 4 – A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

If there’s one genre synonymous with Korea cinema, it’s the thriller. Yet over recent years thriller films have tended to fall a little flat, a result of over-saturation combined with a lack of ingenuity. Not so with director Kim Seong-hoon’s A Hard Day. Premiering at Cannes Film Festival, the action extravaganza is perpetually riveting entertainment and a wonderful example of great popcorn cinema, so much so that the 2 hour 30 minute running time simply flies by. Featuring an exciting array of set pieces throughout, A Hard Day is a constant mix of excitement and tension that serves to keep the audience guessing – due in no small part to the phenomenal editing – while the ironic dark humour laced within the story always hits the mark.

No. 3 – Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Nominated as Korea’s official entry for the Academy Awards, Haemoo – or Sea Fog – is based on the horrific true story of illegal immigration gone wrong. Director Shim Seong-bo’s directorial debut is a thrilling visual tour de force, expertly capturing the fraught claustrophobia of life on a small fishing vessel and the abject horrors that occur. Produced by Bong Joon-ho and featuring cinematography from Hong Kyeong-pyo (Snowpiercer), the drama expresses a profound and distinctive aesthetic throughout, as well as great performances from the stellar cast and particularly from up-and-comers Han Ye-ri and Kpop star Park Yoochun. As such, Haemoo is certainly one of the best Korean thrillers in recent years.

No. 2 – Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

After seemingly years of performing authoritarian cameo-esque roles, Ahn Sung-gi once again revealed why he’s considered one of the best in the business with an outstanding return to form in Revivre. Veteran director Im Kwon-taek‘s 102nd film, Revivre explores the life of a middle-aged vice president whose wife is stricken by a terminal illness, yet while he struggles to balance his responsibilities a beautiful new deputy manager begins working in the office who captivates him. What could easily be yet another typical male fantasy is given extraordinary emotional depth due to director Im’s and Ahn Sung-gi’s seasoned hands, both of whom combine to depict a man torn between duty and desire with striking sincerity.

No. 1 – A Girl At My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Director July Jung’s directorial debut A Girl At My Door premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, which in itself states the incredible power of the film. Produced by famed brothers Lee Chang-dong and Lee Jun-dong, the drama beautifully explores the themes of alienation and discrimination in contemporary Korea, featuring phenomenally understated performances by Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron, as well as accompanied by some of the most exquisite cinematography seen all year. The sensitive and poignant story wonderfully captures the issues faced by those on the fringes of Korean society with incredible sincerity, and as such occupies the top spot in the list. Highly recommended and essential viewing.

Film News
In an iconic scene, Sang-goo begins protesting in central Seoul

Another Promise (또 하나의 약속) – ★★★☆☆

Another Family (또 하나의 약속)

Another Promise (또 하나의 약속)

Another Promise (AKA Another Family) (또 하나의 약속) arrived in Korean cinemas in February on a wave of controversy. Based on the true story of a young woman who contracted leukemia while working at a Samsung semiconductor plant, and her father’s subsequent battle to bring the chaebol (conglomerate) to justice, the film was mired in difficulties before it even began. With production companies refusing to fund the film writer/director Kim Tae-yoon (김태윤) turned to crowdfunding, and the resulting flood of private donations helped Another Promise to become the first film in Korean cinematic history to be fully fund in this manner. Furthermore, popular actors including Park Cheol-min and Kim Gyoo-ri offered to appear in the film for free which helped to generate even greater public interest.

Premiering at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival to favourable reviews, Another Promise received global attention for challenging the most powerful company in Korea, prompting an article from The Guardian which went viral amongst Korean film enthusiasts. Later, when the film was finally granted a nationwide release, Another Promise was again the victim of controversy when it became widely reported that Megabox and Lotte Cinema, two of Korea’s biggest cinema chains, were accused of suppressing the number of screens on which the film was to be played. Despite huge public interest and advance ticket sales, The Hankyoreh reported that Megabox reduced the number of screens from 15 to 3 two days before release (which subsequently changed after public outcry), while Yonhap News stated Lotte Cinema allocated a measly 21 out of 99 theaters to showing the film and that most screenings occurred during early morning or late at night. Yet despite being being shown on a paltry 192 screens throughout February (in contrast, Miss Granny had 1024), Another Promise was the 8th biggest film of the month which is a remarkable achievement indeed. Yet controversy aside, is Another Promise any good?

Taxi driver Sang-goo teams with labor rights worker Nan-joo to take on the conglomerate

Taxi driver Sang-goo teams with labor rights worker Nan-joo to take on the conglomerate

Taxi driver Sang-goo (Park Cheol-min (박철민) is thrilled when his daughter Yoon-mi (Park Hee-jeong (박희정) is offered a job at the Jinsung semiconductor plant. As one of the leading companies in Korea, to be a worker at Jinsung is considered a great boon particularly for a humble family. Yet when Yoon-mi returns home months later extremely ill her worried family take her to hospital, where she is diagnosed with leukemia. As representatives from Jinsung arrive demanding paperwork to be signed and using money as bribes, Sang-goo is determined to discover the cause of his daughter’s disease. Teaming up with labor rights worker Nan-joo (Kim Gyoo-ri (김규리), the duo track down other sick workers and informants in a desperate attempt to finally bring the conglomerate to justice.

Another Promise is a film that very much wears its heart on its sleeve, which is both a blessing and a curse. As it is based on a true story, Another Promise is of course a highly emotional film that undoubtedly resonates strongly, particularly with Korean audiences. However director Kim’s decision to employ melodrama at almost every opportunity undermines the strength of the film’s message, which is a great shame. The most powerful scenes are also the most understated, in which the shocking abuses of power and the traumatized expressions of victims are allowed to speak for themselves, effectively conveying the full strength of the story. Yet far too often melodramatic devices are utilised, and over-simplified caricatures of ‘the perfect family’ and ‘the villain’ are expressed, which tends to make the film feel contrived while the direction and camerawork are competent yet akin to a TV film, also serving to weaken the importance of the story. That said, when scenes are done well they are utterly compelling and poignant, rarely failing to be tear-inducing.

In an iconic scene, Sang-goo begins protesting in central Seoul

In an iconic scene, Sang-goo begins protesting in central Seoul

Holding the film together is veteran actor Park Cheol-min, who arguably gives a career-best performance as the bereaved father. Park has a tendency to overact and has often been typecast in goofy supporting roles due to this, yet he carries Another Promise on his shoulders extremely well. He occasionally slips into his old habits early in the film yet he hits his stride shortly after, providing a remarkably restrained and emotionally charged performance. His speeches are particularly effective as he solemnly fights for justice, and Park’s sincerity continually forces the film to be compelling.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the supporting cast who are generally given quite meager roles. Kim Gyoo-ri is surprisingly given sparse screen time as labor rights worker Nan-joo, particularly given her status, although she competently fills the role with the little she’s been given. Other supporting actors fare less well as they tend to serve the purpose of siding with either party, with attempts to expand their backstories proving rather unengaging as there are so many of them it’s impossible to form emotional connections with them all.

Sang-goo gives compelling speeches about the importance of justice and accountability

Sang-goo gives compelling speeches about the importance of justice and accountability

Another Promise (AKA Another Family) (또 하나의 약속) is an important landmark in Korean cinematic history as the first fully crowdfunded film, and it’s clear writer/director Kim Tae-yoon had no choice but to do so given the subject matter. Based on the true story of a girl who contracted leukemia by working at a Samsung plant and her father’s fight for justice, the film has been mired in controversy from the beginning. The result is a highly emotionally charged drama that is often tear-inducing, yet the addition of melodramatic contrivances tends to undermine the film’s message. Yet thanks to a career best performance by Park Cheol-min, Another Promise is a consistently compelling film.

★★★☆☆

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