South Korean Films Get Political Amid Corruption Scandals

Courtesy of Next Entertainment World

A string of political thrillers such as 'Master' are resonating with audiences.

South Korean political thriller Master opened at the top of the local box office on Thursday, breaking several records.

The film, which is due in U.S. theaters on Jan. 6 via CJ Entertainment, drew 390,000 admissions on Thursday alone, setting a record for a weekday opening in December in the country and beating the opening performances of some of the top Korean films of all time, including Ode to My Father and The Attorney.

The title features The Magnificent Seven star Lee Byung-hun as a politically connected con man committing fraud, and is the latest of a string of films that are resonating with the public for addressing a widespread sense of political turmoil and unrest in the Asian country amid a slew of corruption scandals.

The makers of the film as well as onlookers have drawn parallels to the latest scandal that has taken the nation by storm, culminating with Korean president Park Geun-hye's impeachment earlier this month. For eight consecutive weeks, as many as 1.3 million angry Koreans have convened for weekly protests against the scandal involving Park's close friend Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of using her connections with Park to coerce local businesses to contribute millions of dollars to the organizations.

Since the country's transition to democracy in the 1980s, every South Korean president has been disgraced by corruption scandals, mostly involving family members, and ended their terms in ignominy. The recent demonstrations mark the largest organization since the pro-democracy movement in 1987, and what has been dubbed "Choigate" is considered the biggest political upheaval in recent Korean history.

Master's writer-director Jo Ui-seok (Cold Eyes) said he was inspired by real events. "I began working on the screenplay two-and-a-half years ago. I watched the news while preparing for the film and focused on taking historical figures and molding them into characters," he said.

"Movies often change depending on the social conditions and trends of the times, and I believe the fact that there have been an increasing number of crime movies and thrillers in Korea reflect what is happening in reality," said lead actor Lee during the Busan International Film Festival in October about starring back-to-back in films like Master. Last year, the Red 2 star appeared in the hit crime drama The Inside Men, which also features a small group of insiders that design state affairs at their whim. Lee swept top local film awards and critics' prizes for his role in The Inside Men. The film also won best picture at the Blue Dragon Awards, the Korean equivalent of the Oscars.

"Film is a democratic art form that cannot ignore public sentiment. Movies mirror the thoughts of the times and pick up what the masses want," Kim Si-moo, president of the Film Studies Association of Korea, tell THR. "People are responding to movies that show lack of leadership at the highest level, a disintegration of function systems and overall sense of unease."

The negative sentiment of the times can even be felt in action films. This summer's blockbusters Train to Busan, about a zombie epidemic, and The Tunnel, about a politicized rescue mission to save a man trapped inside a tunnel, both feature incompetent leaders and everyday Joes, who are left on their own to save their loved ones. Pandora, which has earned over $20.6 million as of Thursday after topping the local box-office for two straight weeks, also portrays an unreliable president following an earthquake disaster.

All three films, fro Next Entertainment World (NEW), have been compared to the government's inept response to a 2014 ferry tragedy, which has had a nationwide effect in South Korea. "I'd be lying if I didn't think about the Sewol ferry accident while working on the film," said The Tunnel director Kim Sung-hoon.

"[The Choi scandal] is not just about Park and Choi's misdeeds, but other forces at play, such as the prosecutorial system, the bureaucratic system and their shortcomings that have made this incident possible," says Professor Kim Dong-choon, a social science professor at Sungkonghoe University.

In 2014, almost two-thirds of people surveyed by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission of the country said they thought Korean society was corrupt. The country recently passed an anti-corruption bill, but protests continued over the weekend even after Park was officially impeached in parliament.

Master certainly won't be the last film to address corruption.

"Political thrillers are booming right now, and I see many positive aspects about it," said film critic Jeong Ji-ouk. "These movies can inspire sharp criticisms, dialog and debate in regards to related topics, and I hope filmmakers will be able to bring something new to the genre. Movies must be first and foremost entertaining and if they aren't the audiences will tire of them no matter how well relevant their subject matters are."

One of 2017's most anticipated films is The King from NEW. "I wanted to portray the absurdities of Korean society with satire and farce," said director Han Jae-rim about giving an unexpectedly comic twist to the story about two corrupt prosecutors, played by popular Korean actors Zo In-sung and Jung Woo Sung, with seemingly boundless power and influence. A trailer for The King has made headlines and drawn social media buzz for featuring the powerful elite characters resorting to shamanism. Onlookers have noted the similarity with Choi's ties to a minor religious cult and what the media have called her "Rasputin-like influence" over Park.

During a recent promotional event for Master, Lee said: "This film deals with issues that mirror the current state of our society, but it also aims to offer cathartic release by offering solutions to these problems. We are living through difficult times, but I hope the movie can offer some solace."