Seong Chun-hyang ( Seong Chun-hyang )
Love Me Once Again (Miweodo dasi hanbeon)
Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (Byeoldeul-ui gohyang)
Winter Woman (Gyeo-ul-yeoja)
The General’s Son (Janggun-ui adeul)
Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbiguyeok jei eseu ei)
Silmido ( Silmido )
Taegukgi (Taegukgi Hwinallimyeo)
King and the Clown (The Royal Jester) (Wang-ui namja)
The Host (Geoimul)
It would not be right to speak of box office hits in Korea without bringing up director Na Wun-gyu’s < Arirang(Alilang) >, a film made in 1926 that supposedly touched the hearts of all the Korean people, or director Lee Gyu-hwan’s < The Love Story of Chun-hyang ( Chun-hyang Jeon )>, a film made in the late 1950s which brought around the restoration period of the Korean film industry. However, we left these two films out of the box office hit list because there are no official records about them.
The oldest record of box office hits in the Korean film industry that can be seen in newspapers or magazines is set by the film < Seong Chun-hyang ( Seong Chun-hyang ) >, directed by Shin Sang-ok in 1961. The competition between two of the best directors of their times, Hong Seong-gi and Shin Sang-ok, as they each planned and filmed their own version of ‘The Love Story of Chun-hyang ( Chun-hyang Jeon ),’ ended in director Shin Sang-ok’s victory. This film was released right before Lunar New Year’s Day in 1961 and stayed in theaters for a record-breaking 74 days, attracting 360,000 audiences just in the city of Seoul. The running time was over 2 hours but the fancy visual effects with cinemascope techniques, great acting from Kim Jin-gyu and Choi Eun-hee, and most of all, the comic character Bang-ja, played excellently by Heo Jang-gang, made the movie popular beyond anything before it.
Many people thought that < Seong Chun-hyang ( Seong Chun-hyang ) >’s record could not be beaten easily and that was proved to be true. The film held its place as the greatest box office hit for 7 years until director Jeong So-yeong’s < Love Me Once Again (Miweodo dasi hanbeon) > finally breaks it in 1968. This typical new-school melodramatic film triggered tears from 370,000 audiences, closely beating < Seong Chun-hyang ( Seong Chun-hyang ) >’s record.
Afterwards, the Korean film industry went into recession and no movie was able to break the record of < Love Me Once Again(Miweodo dasi hanbeon) > for a long time. Finally, on March 25th, 1974, director Lee Jang-ho releases < Heavenly Homecoming to Stars> in the Gukdo Theater in Seoul, attracting a record breaking 460,000 audiences during the 105 days in stayed in the theater. The film was a unique combination of an innovative structure and the tragic life of a hostess girl and starts off a new genre called hostess films. The line, “It’s been a while since I’ve lay down with you, Gyeong-ah,” and the theme song “I Am Nineteen” sung by the young voice of Yoon Shi-nae are still famous.
It was not long before this record was broken by the 1976 film < Winter Woman (Gyeo-ul-yeoja) > directed by Kim Ho-seon. Adapted from a novel written in the Joseon Dynasty, the film is about a college student girl, Ehwa, learning about her sexual desires. It starred the top actress of the times, Jang Mi-hee, and attracted 590,000 people with tickets being sold out for 40 consecutive days.
< Winter Woman (Gyeo-ul-yeoja)>’s record remained intact for the rest of the ‘80s until it was broken by an unexpected director. He used to be a director who made popular hit films until the ‘70s, when he suddenly began to make artistic pieces that represented Korea in the ‘80s ? Im Gwon-taek. The movie was < The General’s Son (Janggun-ui adeul)> (1990) that portrayed Kim Du-han as a nationalistic hero during the Japanese rule. Audiences fell in love with the eye-catching Korean-style action sequences formed by the golden duo, Im Gwon-taek and Jeong Il-seong. < The General’s Son (Janggun-ui adeul)> drew in 679,000 audiences and broke the record of < Winter Woman> that had been going for 14 years.
Shortly following the new record of < The General’s Son (Janggun-ui adeul)>, Im Gwon-tek beat his records with his own movie in 1993. This was the ever-famous < Sopyonje(Seopyeonje) >. The film documented the traditional music of Korea with beautiful scenery and became one of those films that every Korean had to see. Just in Danseong Theater, the film was screened for a record-breaking 196 days, attracting 1,035,000 people and becoming the first film to bring in over one million audiences.
This record is broken yet again after a few years by director Kang Je-gyu’s < Swiri(Swili) >. The film was released around Lunar New Year’s Day in 1999 and attracted 2,450,000 audiences just in Seoul, setting an unprecedented record in Korean film history. < Swiri(Swili) > is significant not only because it set a new record in the box office, but also because it was the product of a new system (the so-called new-Chungmuro), completely different from the premodern system of the Korean film industry. The success of < Swiri(Swili) > elicited glowing evaluations that “Korean films are just as sophisticated as Hollywood films” and transformed the impression that Korean audiences had about domestic films. This is the point in film history when Korean films began overpowering foreign films.
But < Swiri(Swili) >’s unprecedented record was broken in an unbelievably short amount of time. The year after < Swiri(Swili) > hit the theaters, director Park Chan-wuk’s film < Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbiguyeok jei eseu ei)? > attracted 2,510,000 people in Seoul and beat < Swiri(Swili) >’s record by a narrow margin. September 2000, when < Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbiguyeok jei eseu ei)? > was released, was when the mood for reconciliation between the two Koreas was in its peak after the summit conferences on June 15th. The movie was interesting of course, but it also benefited greatly from the historical events in time.
The parade of records continued in the year 2001 as well. The next film to break the record was director Gwak Gyeong-taek’s < Friend (Chingu) >, which made the Busan regional dialect very popular across the country. The film based on the director’s autobiographical stories attracted 2,680,000 people in Seoul and Jang Dong-geon, who was only known as an idol TV star made a name for himself as an actor.
In the year 2002, several blockbuster films such as < Resurrection of the Little Match Girl ( Seongnyang-pari Sonyeo-ui Jaerim )> turned out to be big flops and the film industry met an overall recession, failing to produce movies that would set new records. But in the following years, in late 2003 and early 2004, two new records are established in a row. One is director Kang Wu-seok’s < Silmido (Silmido) > and the other is director Kang Je-gyu’s < Taegukgi (Taegukgi Hwinallimyeo) >. These two films were grand-scale block buster films of more than 10 billion KRW in production costs and both movies attracted 10 million audiences across the country. < Silmido(Silmido) > drew 3,2640,000 people in Seoul and reached the 10 million line first and < Taegukgi (Taegukgi Hwinallimyeo) > drew 3,509,563 people in Seoul and 11,746,135 people nationwide, setting the record for the greatest box office hit ever.
But the records of these films are dashed down by a completely unexpected film in 2006. This is < King and the Clown (The Royal Jester) (Wang-ui namja)>, directed by Lee Jun-ik. The film did not cast any superstars and did not invest huge amounts of money for production or for marketing and failed to secure many screens in theaters. It started small but the word-of-mouth among audiences spread fast and theaters began giving more screens as the weeks passed ? a rare phenomenon. The film wrapped up the industry of 2006 with a bang. The Korean Film Council has not been able to come up with exact figures yet but according to distributors, the film has attracted 12,301,289 people nationwide and 3,659,525 audiences in Seoul.
The year of 2006 was also the year for director Bong Jun-ho’s < The Host (Geoimul) >. Unlike < King and the Clown (The Royal Jester) (Wang-ui namja)>, the film received high recognition in the Cannes International Film Festival and the reputation of the director and the actors all worked to raise expectations regarding its box office records even before the film was released. On July 27th, 2006, the film was released in 620 theaters across the nation, a record in itself, and attracted 2 million audiences nationwide in just 4 days ? yet another record. As a result, the record of < King and the Clown (The Royal Jester) (Wang-ui namja) > was broken after just half a year by < The Host (Geoimul) > and currently in November 2006, 13 million audiences have seen the film (figures from distributors) ? making < The Host (Geoimul) > the holder of the highest box office hit record to this day.
(These numbers refer to audiences in Seoul. National audiences have not been recognized as official records until the year 2003 due to difficulties in counting audiences in the country)