Toronto: Crime Wave Hits South Korean Cinema

'Believer' Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Thrillers driven by criminal elements have become one of the country's most consistent genres at the box office, but graphic depictions of violence have stirred controversy.

South Korea’s entertainment industry may be best known globally for its K-dramas and sunny rom-coms, but no genre has proven as consistently bankable at the South Korean box office in recent years as the gritty crime thriller.

In 2017, 37 feature films were being produced in South Korea with a budget of $3 million or more, and 14 of them were categorized as crime films — which ranked as the most popular genre overall.

Despite a decline in total film admissions in South Korea in 2018 — from nearly 220 million in 2017 to 216.4 million last year — the trend has continued to hold up. The fourth and sixth biggest Korea film releases of last year — Believer ($38.6 million) and Dark Figure of Crime ($29.2 million), respectively — fell squarely in the crime genre, as did The Drug King ($14.5 million), which Netflix acquired for worldwide streaming.

"As the tastes of Korean moviegoers matured, they naturally craved different genres; and filmmakers started to indulge in different kinds of crime films," says Jung Hanseok, Korean cinema programmer at the Busan International Film Festival, who notes that Bong Joon-ho’s landmark Memories of Murder (2003) was instrumental in helping the genre gain local fans and recognition. "An influx of American crime-thiller TV shows also has made the [Korean] audience more accustomed to the genre," Jung adds.

Despite the genre’s consistent box office success, not all crime films have been welcome during this period of high growth. The 2017 action crime thriller V.I.P., directed by Park Hoon-jung, generated an uproar over its scenes of graphic violence against women, with many critics labeling the film misogynistic. As the #MeToo movement took root in the South Korean entertainment scene not long after in 2018, filmmakers were called upon to adjust what had become almost routine depictions in the local industry of violence against female characters.

Still, the Korean crime flick wave shows little sign of dissipating. Of the two Korean films shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year, one was Bong Joon-ho’s Palme D’or winner Parasite — a crime film of a kind — and the other was Lee Won-Tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, which earned $24.8 million locally and was picked up by Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Productions for a U.S. remake. Two of the most anticipated releases in September ahead of the Chuseok holiday period — typically a box office bonanza — also happen to be crime flicks: Tazza: One-Eyed Jack, the third installment of a popular poker crime series, and The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos, an adaptation of a hit TV show which follows a cop on the trail of escaped convicts.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.