South Korea 2014 in Review: Hollywood Rises, China Partners, Local Film Sets Record

Courtesy of Cinema Dal
South Korean ferry disaster documentary 'The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol'

Theaters emptied out after a ferry tragedy, and the country followed the showdown over 'The Interview' after initiatives for inter-Korean understanding

2014 was an eventful one, to say the least, for the South Korean entertainment industry, including surprises and unprecedented box-office records.

Movie theaters emptied out following a tragic ferry disaster in April before the summer brought the country's top film performer of all time, The Admiral: Roaring Currents. While the film overtook Avatar in a sign of how Koreans continue to prefer homegrown fare, a string of Hollywood films enjoyed record-breaking success.

Meanwhile, the film industries of Korea and China grew closer than ever via a landmark co-production pact and various corporate deals forged in 2014. South Koreans also got a better peek at North Korean films and culture as local film festivals and even pop stars stood up to promote inter-Korean exchange and understanding.

Here is THR's closer look at key industry stories in South Korea of 2014:

Ferry Disaster
In April, the Sewol Ferry sank off the southwest coast of Korea, resulting in the death of more than 300 people, including teenagers on a school trip. Major festivals, concerts and premieres were canceled, and movie theaters emptied out as Koreans mourned the tragedy.

Celebrities near and far, including John Mayer and K-pop stars, made donations or paid tribute to the victims in other forms.

A much-contested documentary about the incident, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, created a stir, as some victims' families protested its premiere at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. Festival organizers pushed forth with the screening, however, raising some important questions about artistic freedom in Korea.

Victims' families, as well as filmmakers Michael Moore and Joshua Oppenheimer, have since supported the film, which went on to enjoy a blockbuster performance in local theaters.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents Beats Avatar
Avatar had been the highest-grossing film of all time (13.3 million admissions, $113 million in receipts, according to the Korean Film Council) in South Korea.

But a whopping 17.6 million out of 50 million Koreans flocked to cinemas this summer to watch CJ Entertainment's historical epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents ($134 million).

The Kim Han-min film is based on the true story of a 16th century Korean admiral defeating an armada of 300-plus Japanese battleships with just 12 vessels, using the notoriously tough currents of Myeongnyang Strait, which had hampered the rescue process for the Sewol Ferry, to his advantage. The film also went on to become the highest-grossing Korean title ever in the U.S., Australia and Thailand.

Local indie films also made a splash, with the documentary My Love, Don't Cross That River earning over $25 million -- and counting, as of Dec. 29 -- to become the top indie film of all time in Korea.

Hollywood on the Rise
Korea has been noted for being one of those rare markets where local films perform better than Hollywood imports, as demonstrated by The Admiral leaping over Avatar.

Warner Bros., looking to cash in on that fact, announced that it, like Fox, would start making local productions.

However, five of 2014's top 10 grossing films were Hollywood releases, compared to just one in 2013. Korea led the international box-office scores for a number of Hollywood films in 2014. Frozen became the first animated film to break the 10 million-admissions mark in Korea and became the second-highest-grossing foreign picture ever in the country behind Avatar. Korea was also the most successful market for Begin Again, which became the second most successful indie film of all time in Korea, earning $24.6 million.

The phenomenal popularity of Interstellar saw the emergence of scalpers in Korean theaters, and the film late in the year neared the 10 million admissions milestone and is already the third-highest-grossing imported film of all time.

In November, Korean films earned about $25 million less than in November of last year, while imported films earned $43 million more.

Read more 2014 South Korean Box Office: 'Roaring Currents' Takes All-Time Record, Stellar Year for Hollywood

'Gangnam Style' Still in the Spotlight
In addition to doing well in theaters, major Hollywood projects began shooting locally. Most notably, the Avengers: Age of Ultron film crew hit Seoul, rolling out the cameras across the city including in the now-famous Gangnam district.

Speaking of the posh neighborhood, Psy performed "Gangnam Style" in Gangnam for the first time shortly after the YouTube hit recorded 2 billion views.

The Korean rapper also welcomed Snoop Dogg to Seoul to shoot an alcohol-fueled music video for "Hangover" and conductor-composer Kristjan Jarvi showcased a classical version of "Gangnam Style" with Korean-American violin virtuoso Sarah Chang.

New Laws
The Avengers 2 shoot in Korea in 2014 inspired the Seoul metropolitan government to improve shooting conditions for local productions, with the Korean Film Council supporting the cost of having an ambulance on site for action films that often involve stunts.

New laws were also introduced to protect underage actors and singers, as well as underpaid cast- and crewmembers in the film industry.

Sexual minorities also received more support in the industry, with the Korean Supreme Court overturning a media ratings board decision on a gay romance film amid increasing attention to the local LGBT community.

Closer Ties With China
2014 was a landmark year for the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Korea's and China's film industries. The two Asian countries' culture ministries signed a pact that would treat co-productions as local titles, thereby guaranteeing these films a spot in local theaters.

The co-production treaty set the stage for the two countries' industries to grow closer than ever. Chinese online video giant Youku Tudou partnered with the Busan Film Festival, where iQiyi, another Chinese online giant, was one of the biggest buyers at Busan's Asian Film Market.

Also, Chinese theater giant Wanda struck deals with Busan city and Korea's CJ CGV, while other Chinese firms became major shareholders of Korean companies. Korean entertainment firms and filmmakers also announced plans to enter the lucrative Chinese market.

Korean Films and TV Formats Go Global
Amid the rising popularity of Korean films and TV shows overseas, 2014 saw an increasing number of local titles get sold and set up for foreign remakes.

The phenomenally popular TV soap My Love From Another Star will be remade in the U.S., while thriller Hide and Seek will get a Chinese-language remake.

As more and more Korean variety programs are getting adaptations in the U.S. (Grandpas Over Flowers) and China (Let's Get Together Ding Dong Daeng and more), actor-turned-producer Daniel Dae Kim announced plans to buy Korean film and TV formats.

Balancing Act With North Korea
Headline-making northeast Asian geopolitical issues once again affected the country in 2014.

They included deals involving not only China, but also North Korea. An increasing number of events took place across South Korea to promote inter-Korean relations, including North Korean film showcases in Gwangju and Seoul and peace-themed concerts featuring a choir of North Korean defectors.

South Koreans also watched along with the rest of the international community as its northern neighbor condemned The Interview, the Sony Pictures film featuring a farcical assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. A massive cyberattack against distributor Sony followed.

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