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[HanCinema's Feature] Korea's Top Five Favorite Films of 2014


2015 is nigh upon us, a fresh year with its own host of hits waiting to entertain and be enjoyed. There is still a little time before 2014 passes us by, and before it does I wanted to glance back and take stock of this year's most successful spectacles and see what rose to top in terms of ticket tallies.

Last year Korean cinephiles were treated to an array of awesome attractions ("The Face Reader", "Snowpiercer", "The Attorney", "Miracle in Cell No.7"), but still Bong Joon-ho's 2003 hit "The Host" remained the nation's cash king with over 13M admissions. It would take something supremely special (historic) to rally such record-breaking support and slay this iconic stub-guzzler.

October 26, 1597, Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his 13 turtle warships engage the unwitting Japanese navy (around 133 warships led by Todo Takatora) in the treacherous Myeongnyang Strait near Jindo Island. Like King Leonidas holding the Hot Gates, Yi Sun-sin stood his strategically chosen ground against an alien army intent on absolute victory, and so historically stunted the Japanese Empire's expansion efforts and, in doing so, immortalised himself as one of the greatest naval strategists, ever.

This year, some four-hundred years on, Yi's stunning tale of triumph was given a rich cinematic chapter for the history books; an event that rocked almost every record modern Korean cinema had achieve to that point, a hero's dream Real enough to take on Bong's beast, and win.

At the end of July, Kim Han-min ("Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon") released a $18.6M monster of his own upon the Land of the Morning Calm. It scored 3.3M admissions (65%) its first weekend out, and from there it spent eight weeks in the top ten raking up royalties that would eventually amount to just under $112M. That hearty bottom-line came from the 17M tickets it sold over that period, a record-breaking run that saw a new Korean king crowned; a historic hero from the past, come forward to (re)write history and make new memories for a generation.

"The Admiral: Roaring Currents" was indeed epic and entertaining, but it was just one of a string of Joseon-inspired releases hoping to hit this trending sweet spot. Lee Seok-hoon's "Pirates" (2nd: 8.6M), Yoon Jong-bin's "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" (5th: 4.7M), and Lee Jae-gyoo's "The Fatal Encounter" (7th: 3.8M) all set their stories in Korea's most exclusive and tapped time capsule, and they all scored a spot in this year's top ten by exploring the Hermit Kingdom's guarded glamours, richness and intrigues.

"Pirates" (starring Kim Nam-gil and Son Ye-jin) spent two gruelling weeks wallowing in "The Admiral: Roaring Currents"'s wake, but it persevered and eventually tasted gold in week three and went onto banked $60.2M (less than half of its box office nemesis's $123M). It was the third film of 2014 to reach 5 million admissions (excluding "The Attorney"), but only narrowly managed to outplay the endearing "Miss Granny".

This year's third place finisher was released back in January, and enjoyed both the sweet timing of a Lunar New Year release, and the unfortunate luck of being co-released alongside Disney's "Frozen" (the fifth highest grossing film of all-time having banked over $1.2B worldwide). Hwang Dong-hyuk's "Miss Granny" opened with 851K behind "Frozen", but by the following weekend word had spread of its charm and it promptly overtook the animated ice giant by attracting over 1.7M filmgoers to its cause.

That was the height of this comedy drama's fame, to be fair, but it continued to tussle at the top for two more weeks, and would come to spend a total of ten in the top tier (remember "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" occupied eight for its 17.6M), pleasing more than 8.6M people as they came. "Miss Granny" was recognised by a host of organisations, and was consistently considered for the Best Actress (Shim Eun-kyung), Best Screenplay (Dong Hee-seon, Hong Yoon-jeong-I, Sin Dong-ik), Best Music (Mowg), and Best Film awards. It had the moon in her favour against the cold foreign favourite, and although its place in history will no doubt be somewhat inflated due to the 'lunar effect', the film endured to become a class comedy with heartfelt humour and an important message to mind.

"The Attorney" (2013) came into the fray late last year and continued its righteous run well into February. Song Kang-ho was on fire last year, and the film went on to become the tenth film ever to reach 10M admissions (11.3M in all, 5.6M of which came during this year). Yang Woo-seok's politicaly-charged drama took inspiration from a time when Korea was under the authoritarian rule of army general Chun Doo-hwan, and centres on an incident (known as the "Burim Case") where a number of students were wrongful arrested and charged as North Korean sympathisers. Like "The Admiral", "The Attorney" drew deeply from history; its filmmakers rewarded for their compelling re-imaginings of old heroes and hardships.

Released the week before Kim Han-min's "The Admiral: Roaring Currents", "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" made a hasty 4.7M (almost half of which came during its opening weekend) and managed to survive in all just three weeks in the top ten. Still, some linger for ten weeks, others less so, it's how you make use of the time that really matters, and to that end "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" fought furiously for its quick-fire fortune.

Like so many of these five fine features, "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" was critically honoured, and won acclaim at the Grand Bell Awards (Costume Design), the Blue Dragon Film Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, Best Music), the Buil Film Awards (Best Music), and it won Best Cinematography and Best Music at the 34th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards. Light and action-packed, "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" found firm footing with the public as Ha Jung-woo and his band of outlaws challenged the corrupt status quo of mid-19th century Korea.

Here they are again:

1. "The Admiral: Roaring Currents": 17,611,750 Admissions ($123M)

2. "Pirates": 8,665,652 Admissions ($60.2M)

3. "Miss Granny": 8,658,002 ($56.9M)

4. "The Attorney": 5,688,905 ($38M)

5. "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant": 4,774,751 ($33.5M)


So there you have it, the year's biggest blockbusters and the figures that marked their success. Have you seen them all yet and have a favourite? Maybe your pick of the year wasn't a money magnet, but was still incredible in its own right. Feel free to share your favourite film of 2014 in the comment section below…

For more information on Korea's top performers (both foreign and domestic) visit KOBIZ's box office database.


- C.J. Wheeler [chriscjw@gmail.comKoreaOnTheCouch]

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