Edgy Korean Indies on a Roll


Independent Korean film sare enjoying an unusual resurgence at festivals and at the domestic box office.

HONG KONG -- A number of South Korean independent films are enjoying an unusual resurgence in international film circuits and domestic box office.   

Following last year’s success of Yang Ik-june’s Breathless, which won the top awards at the 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival, films by emerging directors question the viewers’ perception about Korean identity.  

Bleak Night and Journals of Musan, which jointly won the New Currents Award at last year’s Busan International Film Festival, are some of the examples. Both films are presented in Korean Film Council’s “Platforms- Indie Power” at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night is an alluring journey of three teenage schoolboys that trace the death of a boy who committed suicide. The film, since opening on 20 screens in Korean arthouse theaters this month, attracted more than 9,000 admissions in an industry where 10,000 admissions for an indie film is considered equivalent to 1 million for a commercial film.

Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan also had a promising start by winning the Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam and Deauville Asian Film Festival in France, as the film waits for local release next month. The film, a story of a North Korean defector trying to settle in the South, has also been invited to the Tribeca and San Francisco film festivals.

March is typically a high season for Korean indie films because blockbuster films tend to aim for summer and major local holidays in Lunar New Year’s in February and Korean Thanksgiving in September. 

Also playing at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival is Kim Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town about a female North Korean defector who was forced to flee after being accused of smuggling gifts from outside. 

While not in Hong Kong the Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu’s Tumen River about the life of ethnic Koreans near the Chinese-North Korean border, and Re-encounter by Min Yong-geun about a woman reuniting with her old lover are adorning Korean indie screens this spring by Indiestory. Min’s film, since opening in mid-February, broke 10,000 admissions and lasted more than a month in theaters.  

Korean indie films started out as anti-government propaganda under the military regime during the 1980s. Indie films today are more diversified and CJ’s CGV, the country’s largest multiplex chain, now runs 10 screens exclusively featuring indie features, documentaries and animation. 

In 2009, the director Lee Chung-ryeol’s documentary Old Partner set a new box office record for a Korean indie, selling 2 million tickets. The film follows an old farmer as he awaits the death of his 30-year old ox. 

“We used to see a lot of social commentaries in Korean indie films,” said Kay Kwak, director of international business at Indiestory, which is distributing Kim Jong-kwan’s Come Closer in Hong Kong. “Now the stories are more individualized with solid drama, and more Korean audiences are opening up to it.”