South Korea's Star Directors Get Political for Local Hits 'Dongju' and 'Spirits' Homecoming'

Dongju Spirits Homecoming Split - H 2016

Intimate, low-budget dramas about the country’s troubled history are striking a surprising cord with local moviegoers.

Director Choi Dong-Hoon may have helmed South Korean blockbusters like The Thieves, but he recalls having serious doubts about Assassination, an actioner about Korea’s fight for independence during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945).

"There was that jinx [about colonial-era stories flopping]. Koreans are not comfortable with this era," Choi tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Frankly, many people thought it would fail."

The scars of colonialism still remain deeply embedded in many Koreans, and, until Assassination, no local film tackling the sensitive subject had managed to resonate strongly with moviegoers. The 2015 Showbox/Mediaplex title, however, went on to become one of Korea’s biggest box-office hits of all time ($85.8 million).

"Assassination provoked a group mentality. Theater attendance was driven by values and emotions shared by the masses, rather than pure entertainment," says Choi.

Indeed, following the success of Assassination, the first quarter of 2016 saw two sleeper hits emerge from this dark chapter of Korean history. Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (Megabox Plus M), a biopic about a young artist who perishes inside a Japanese prison, debuted at No. 5 on Feb. 17, while Spirits’ Homecoming (WAW Pictures), about teen girls forced into sexual slavery — or "comfort women" — on Japanese military bases, opened a week later at No. 1 and topped the charts for another week until Zootopia hit screens. The two microbudget films ranked among the top 10 for more than a month; Spirits’, a $2 million film, crossed its break-even point on its third day to gross $23.9 million, while Dongju, which cost just $413,000, took in $7.8 million.

Dongju is the pet project of star filmmaker Lee Joon-ik. He insisted on an indie-style shoot because he didn’t want to commercially exploit the late poet and independence fighter who inspired the biopic. Lee refused to use product placement or other forms of advertising incentives for the decidedly slow-paced, black-and-white film. "I really didn’t expect the film to do so well,” says Lee.

Director Cho Chung-rae faced enormous difficulties attracting investors for Spirits’ when he penned the script in 2002. It took 14 years and crowd-funding by more than 75,200 people to get the film made.

Despite tackling such highly politicized topics, however, observers say these films are succeeding because they intentionally reflect universal themes, rather than express explicit political messaging. Spirits’, for example, conveys the horror of rape but does so through the perspective of a modern-day shaman who tries to console the spirit of the deceased (only 46 among an estimated 200,000 Korean comfort women survive).

"Spirits’ deals with a larger human rights problem rather than Korea-Japan relations or political issues," says film critic Jeong Ji-ouk. The film has received special screenings in key U.S. cities including Los Angeles and New York, as well as college campuses such as Brown University, University of Connecticut and Northern Virginia Community College.

Adds Jeong: "Likewise, Dongju was really about the creative struggle, about producing such beautiful poems under such excruciating circumstances."