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Lee Sang-yong’s 2022 feature, The Roundup, had many twists and turns before it was finally released in South Korean theaters in May. The production originally began in 2019, but filming was temporarily postponed, as location permits did not come through in Vietnam, where the story is mostly set, because of the pandemic. The industry’s old saying that “no sequel is better than its prequel” put even more pressure on Lee, who was an assistant director on the film’s precursor, 2017’s The Outlaws, about an old-school detective taking down a ruthless gangster in Seoul’s Chinatown.
“I really didn’t think the movie would turn out this well,” says Lee, whose feature became a smash hit, beating its predecessor at the box office. “I’m just stunned and grateful. It’s the result of the hard work of many actors and staff for over three years, and I’m overjoyed that I was able to deliver good results.”
A crime action film starring Don Lee (Eternals), Roundup is so far the biggest box office hit this year, selling more than 10 million tickets. Its box office is considered a major milestone, given that the country’s film industry was just coming out of the pandemic’s peak in May. Owing to the film’s success, filmmaker Lee is now shooting a second sequel, The Roundup: No Way Out, set in Japan with Don Lee fighting against a Japanese gangster played by Aoki Munetaka.
The film’s phenomenal success is no accident. The star cast and the film’s artful timing, at a point when audiences started to feel comfortable returning to theaters, helped the film’s box office triumph. But domestic crime movies in general have always been steady sellers — from Park Chan-wook’s famous Vengeance Trilogy, including 2003’s Oldboy, to Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser, which was picked up by Warner Bros. for remake rights in 2008. Korean directors of both art house and mainstream commercial films have looked to the genre as a stylistic exploration (Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life from 2005) and also as entertainment fused with critiques about social injustice and the abuse of power by the privileged class (2016’s Veteran from Ryu Seung-wan).
In fact, four out of the 10 highest-grossing Korean films of all time are crime thrillers, according to box office records collected by the Korean Film Council, a government-run film body, while two of the top five box office hits this year — The Roundup and Confidential Assignment 2: International — deal with themes of organized crime. The trend extends to streaming services as well. Director Yoon Jong-bin’s Netflix original series Narco-Saints hit the top of its non-English-speaking drama category in the third week of September, with 62.65 million hours of viewing time, and stayed in the top 10 for two consecutive weeks. The series from Yoon (2012’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time) deals with the country’s National Intelligence Service agents looking to hunt down a drug lord disguised as a priest in the corrupt state of Suriname in South America.
In a recent survey of consumer behavior of local moviegoers published in September, the Korean Film Council reported that Koreans preferred crime movies and thrillers above all film genres, followed by action and romantic comedy. Of the people polled, 48.2 percent said crime movies were their favorite genre.
“With films like Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser receiving rave reviews in overseas markets since the mid-2000s, a series of Korean crime movies have been produced and continue to attract ticket buyers both at home and abroad,” says Youngsoo Park, a senior manager of content investment at Next Entertainment World, a film distributor also known as NEW.
What’s particularly unique about Korean crime movies is that many of them — including Narco-Saints and Memories of Murder [from 2003]— are based on a true stories, and depict realities that are deeply critical of the country’s social injustices.
“The Korean crime genre is often intertwined with a political thriller or human drama and is often used to express public rage about institutions,” says Min Yong-joon, a local film critic. “Popular crime movies like Veteran and Inside Men [the 2015 corruption drama from Woo Min-ho] depict stories of detectives hunting down corrupt heirs of a conglomerate and politicians who collude with local gangsters. In a way, I think many Koreans are drawn to the idea of punitive justice that many of these films convey. The country’s history of rapid industrialization led to some political gangsters [being] hired by the government and playing an important role. The public rage still persists among Koreans about that time.”
In a capitalist society where traditional value systems of family and friendship are increasingly lost, gangster films, which often center on themes of loyalty and betrayal, also seem to offer a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, if not serving as a metaphor for lost values.
Film critic Lee Chung-geun also notes that Korean crime movies often use the concept of family to generate empathy for their characters and raise questions about the true nature of evil and corruption. In a 2007 film The Show Must Go On, the director Han Jae-rim tells a story of gang boss In-gu (played by Song Gang-ho), who is also an ordinary father simply trying to support his family as a career gangster.
“Even in brutal crime movies, we see a glimpse of the villains and their attachment to a family or a surrogate family,” critic Lee says. “In A Hard Day [from 2014] the male lead is a corrupt policeman who collects money from businesses. But he’s also depicted as a single dad, and his daughter shows up in the film’s critical scenes. In Chaser , you have Joong-ho, who is a nasty pimp but attracts sympathy from audiences when he looks after a girl who lost her mother to a psychopath.”
The complex layers in characters and their surroundings also distinguish Korean crime movies from Hollywood mob flicks that focus primarily on plot and action.
“Even when it’s based on a true story, the focus is more on the character rather than an incident,” says Park, of the distributor NEW. “[2012’s] The Thieves is one such case where by casting multiple main leads and giving each character a strong personality and narrative, the film focuses more on their relationships, rather than on the act of theft. In Veteran and The Roundup, the dynamics between the characters shine, with detectives that have a strong sense of justice while being just as cruel as the villains, and antagonists contrasting with the main leads. With [darker] crime thrillers such as Memories of Murder and The Chaser, the film’s strength comes from the characters rather than the events, as audiences empathize and see how their relationship develops.”
Many critics agree that Korean crime movies are also unique in that they offer a hybrid of genres which often mixes social satire, family drama and even comedy.
The 1990 feature General’s Son, one of the earlier mob films by the director Im Kwon-taek, depicts a patriotic gang leader under Japan’s colonial rule. Friend, a blockbuster from the early 2000s, delves into the coming-of-age story of four childhood friends, with two of them joining a rival gang and growing apart. Set in Busan during the 1970s, the film, while telling a story about a ruthless underworld of gang brutality, vividly captures scenes of life in modern Korea and raises questions about friendship when class sets people apart. The Roundup subtly mixes the crime thriller genre and comedy in a balanced blend of humor and tense action scenes.
“I wanted to filter out expressions of violence as much as possible,” says director Lee. “The focus should be on the villain and not the victim. Even when I was shooting brutal scenes, I felt uncomfortable focusing too much on the actual portrayal of a sword stabbing the body. Instead, by way of showing the villain’s facial expressions or eyes, I could convey his cruelty and character better.”
Which isn’t to say Korean crime films eschew violence altogether, and Korean audiences tend to have a high tolerance for onscreen violence. But many critics note that the nature of this violence separates it from the way such foul play is portrayed in Hollywood films.
“Some Hollywood movies are violent too,” says film critic Min. “But the nature of violence in Korean movies is slightly different. They’re somehow able to express violence in a more ordinary way, as if it’s embedded in our daily life. The portrayal feels much more organic, which makes it feel even more violent and dynamic.”
Major Korean film companies continue to put multiple crime action movies in their pipelines. Lotte Cultureworks just released the thriller Confession, an adaptation of a Spanish film about a mysterious murder in a locked hotel room, and next up is Streaming, about a young man who uses his live video streaming broadcast to look for clues about an unsolved murder case. Content Wavve is also prepping Gentleman, about a private detective who is framed for murder, while NEW is prepping Accident (working title) about the boss of a contract killer organization. On the streaming front, Disney+ is releasing Shadow Detective, the story of a detective who is nearing retirement and is falsely charged with murder.
“There have been many high-quality crime movies in Korea that introduced interesting subject matter,” says an official at Lotte Cultureworks. “They present catharsis to audiences, because their ending is often incisive, and that’s different from our social reality.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 2 daily issue at the American Film Market.
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