Before 2011 no Korean animation had attracted more than a million admissions. It's a number that, according to director Oh Seong-yoon, has "symbolic meaning", a figure that his first feature animation "Leafie, A Hen Into The Wild" eventually more than doubled. "Leafie" spent seven weeks in the top ten last summer, never rising higher than fourth or claiming more than 250,433 admissions at a time. It lingered for weeks and was supported by a steady flow of curious filmgoers, all while competing with the likes of "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" (7.4M), "The Front Line" (2.9M), "Quick" (3.1M), and many others that were on show during its impressive spell. This popular adaptation went on to entertain more than 2.2 million filmgoers, making it the most commercially successful Korean animation in history. "Leafie" was a polished, beautiful story that was well voiced, and unashamedly touched on the selfless trials of modern motherhood.
"Leafie, A Hen Into The Wild" was adapted from Hwang Sun-mi's popular children's book "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly"; the story of a little chicken trapped in an egg-laying barn who dreams of a better life. Leafie (Moon So-ri) longs to experience more of what the world has to offer, and has hopes of raising chicks of her own someday. She is tired of just watching her eggs roll away in the cold machine's belly, and wills her way out with a morbid scheme. Leafie executes her daring escape, but finds her enthusiasm and friendliness shunned by the both the barnyard crew and the wild animals she meets along the way. Her blissful ignorance gets her into danger early on, and a hungry weasel named One-eye (Kim Sang-hyeon) almost gets a free dinner out of her. But after a brief encounter with death she is rescued by the dashing guard duck Wanderer (Choi Min-sik). Smitten with Wanderer's obvious bravery and charisma, Leafie tries to get her prince's attention but with no success. This little chicken's circumstances then get shaken up once again by One-eye's cruel intervention, and she's left to nurture Wanderer's last surviving egg by herself. Leafie becomes an unwelcomed alien in a foreign land, but finds purpose mothering Wanderer's heir.
Throughout her journey, Leafie experiences just how harsh and unforgiving the world can actually be for an outsider. The animals on the farm panic at just the thought of letting her join their elite madhouse, and the outside world is just a bigger barn with less obvious dangers. She simply does not belong in any world outside of laying eggs with the others. But something compels her to seek out a greater role in a new world, and when she finds herself sitting on Wanderer's egg for the first time, her motherly instincts take over and her social insecurities are replaced with a new life purpose through motherhood. Leafie's social standing does not improve though, she is still a single mother with no support, or security, and is nursing a foreign young one in a world she knows little and less about. Her son, Greenie (Yoo Seung-ho), is growing up fast and soon starts to question his own place in the world as he presses towards the great guard duck he's destined to become. It's a bittersweet dream that Leafie selflessly supports as her one and only gets ready to leave the nest and fly into the future.
Korean communities places a particular importance on mothers and their role in society, and Leafie's own hardships can be said to mirror that myth of motherhood the culture holds. The film makes some interesting comments on the stigma of single mothers and adoption, for example, a discrimination that is still experienced in contemporary Korea. Throughout the film Leafie receives no direct support (except from "Wild Otter", voiced by Park Chul-min, whose character actually wasn't part of the original story) from both the communities she approaches, and her love and sense of duty to her son ends up being the sole force driving her. The other animals reject her largely because they think she does not know her place. She quite simply, according to the rules of the barn and the everglades, does not belong here. However her son still manages to find mentors in the community that help him with his swimming and flying skills, telling traits that define him as he grows in the shadow of his remarkable father. Despite her alienation, Leafie manages to guide Greenie to greatest, perhaps teaching him the most important lesson his biological father died honouring.
2011 also saw the release of a few other Korean animated features, most notably Yeon Sang-ho's "King of Pigs" (19, 366 admissions); a harrowing dystopia that was filled with fatalistic examinations of violence, power, in modern culture. "King of Pigs" was palpably less successful commercially than it was on the festival circuit, its darker edges arguably more suited to those who enjoy the shadier side of the screen. Ahn Jae-hun's new animated thriller ("The Fake") recently made its international premiere in Toronto, and will be introduced locally at this year's Busan International Film Festival. Korean animations are slowly getting themselves known and are exploring an exciting range of stylistic and thematic approaches to the genre. And while "King of Pigs" is gouging the eyes of its festive followers, films like "Leafie" counterbalance with a more universal message and commercial plumage. Both stories are actually very melodramatic and tragic, but what's worth noting is that both were able to find purchase at different ends of the film-going spectrum.
It's still not all clear skies for Korea's animations but a few recent productions have been able to attract a following. Last year Han Sang-ho's "Speckles: The Tarbosaurus" managed a little over a million admissions, and earlier this year we also saw Korea's own born and bred Pororo in "Pororo, The Racing Adventure" (929,472) come just short in reaching that "symbolic" admissions digit. Though it's still tough being a Korean animation, since 2011 the industry has been given a new magic number to aim for, to challenge and hopefully soon shatter. But whether the film's figures are surpassed in the near future or not, "Leafie" remains a landmark effort that stuck it out at the box office to become the most supported animation in Korean history. So by whatever means and measures, this particular little animated chicken has successfully cross the glass road, and reports that the coast is all clear and, indeed, possible.
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