We all know about the growing popularity of South Korean cultural products in Asia, first with K-drama, and then K-pop – which reached a new peak in 2017 thanks to boy band BTS. What’s next? It’s likely to be K-films.
In Hong Kong, for example, the South Korean film Train to Busan was the second-top earner in the box office in 2016, after the Marvel superhero movie Captain America: Civil War. Train to Busan, a zombie movie, earned about $93 million globally, including $8.5 million from Hong Kong, while its total production cost was only about $11 million.
And soon, there will be another test for K-films. A heavily computer graphic-assisted fantasy film called Along with the Gods: Two Worlds is scheduled to be released on 11 January for Hong Kong and Singapore audiences. The movie has already been performing well in other overseas Asian markets such as Taiwan and Thailand, where it was released earlier. Based on the local media coverage, the South Korean fantasy film is likely to be well received in Hong Kong, too.
CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 13: (2nd-L) Actor Yoo Gong, (3rd-L) Director Sang-ho Yeon, (C) Soo-an Kim, (3rd-R) Actor Jung Yoo-Mi and guests attend the ‘Train To Busan (BuSan-Haeng)’ premiere during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 13, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
The question is, will Along with the Gods be able to surpass the commercial success Train to Busan achieved in Hong Kong, as well as in other Asian countries? And if it does, can it be a sign that K-films, particularly big-budget entertainment films, will gain as much popularity as K-pop and K-drama have been enjoying in Asia?
This also means that the size of the country’s film market is comparable to more populous countries like Japan and is big enough to accommodate a couple of big-budget local movies every year. For example, Train to Busan needed 3.3 million viewers to break even, and eventually managed to attract more than 11 million local viewers, which represents about 5% of the total annual viewers in South Korea.
There are many local movies that have made even bigger commercial success in the local market than Train to Busan, but none of them were as successful overseas as the zombie movie was in 2016. One reason is that they were based on stories that only South Koreans understand and appreciate (e.g. historic events). In this regards, Train to Busan and Along with the Gods have something in common. The latter is based on a story of a soul of a recently deceased man going through a series of trials in the netherworld – a familiar story to those with some understanding of Buddhism traditions and culture.
Unlike K-pop, K-films have been produced mainly for the local audience. Train to Busan changed the trend by adapting more universal themes and materials, as well as relying on visual effects, which normally require extra production costs. In return, it earned more profits from oversea markets than the domestic market. Along with the Gods, which has an even bigger budget (about $15 million), follows the trail of Train to Busan. It is most likely that South Korean filmmakers will pay more attention on high-budget entertainment films that can attract oversea audiences, particularly Asian audiences, if they see the success of Along with the Gods.
Fortunately for South Korean filmmakers, Japanese and Chinese counterparts will focus on their own local markets for the time being. Since China’s film market is the biggest in Asia, it is worth the risk for the Chinese filmmakers to produce a big-budget local movie for simultaneously pursuing domestic and oversea markets. But, the fast growing local market is too important for them to lose.
On the other hand, Japanese film makers seem very cautious about making a big-budget local movie. That’s because only a few Japanese films, except for animations, have been significantly commercially successful in domestic or international markets. So, the chance for South Korean entertainment films to win Asian audiences seems quite high, as long as Hollywood continues to focus on superheroes and transforming robots.