Foreign films with a message gain unexpected success

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Foreign films with a message gain unexpected success

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“Begin Again” (2014), left, and “About Time” (2013) provide messages of consolation to viewers, which could be why Korean audiences loved the movies so much. Korea was the highest-grossing country worldwide for both movies. [JoongAng Ilbo]

For the past couple of months, Koreans have been in love with the movie “Begin Again.”

The rom-com has remained in the top 10 on the box office for 10 consecutive weeks and has collected more than 3.3 million viewers since it opened on Aug. 13.

The film’s soundtrack also took over shops and restaurants. “Lost Stars,” one of the original songs from the film, was especially popular here, so much so that it ranked at No. 2 on Melon, Korea’s top music chart - a rare phenomenon for a track from overseas.

But the surprise doesn’t end there. On the back of the film’s undying popularity, Korea eventually became the U.S.-made movie’s top-grossing country.

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According to Box Office Mojo last week, “Begin Again” had earned $24,591,627 in Korea, while in the United States it made $16,168,741.

But is this unexpected popularity an anomaly?

There are several similar cases of films from overseas peaking in Korea compared to how they do abroad.

In December, the British film “About Time,” which gained less popularity internationally than in Korea, succeeded to pull in 3.4 million viewers here. Among the 52 countries it was distributed in, it did its best in Korea, grossing $23,434,443.

A few weeks later, Disney’s “Frozen” caused a sensation when it became the first animation in Korea to break the 10 million viewer milestone. It made $76,695,633 by March and grossed its highest figures in Korea, after the United States and Japan.

A single theme penetrates these three movies, which can perhaps explain why they captured local moviegoers’ attention: Each deals with overcoming obstacles.

In the past, Koreans have tended to prefer one-dimensional content that is provocative and filled with renowned actors, or movies that give immediate pleasure such as action films.

But domestic expectations have changed, and film fans in Korea seek deeper messages that they can apply to their real lives.

“Begin Again” is about bouncing back after failing big in the music business. “About Time” ultimately centers on the importance of family, especially the father-and-son relationship, which is considered vital in Korean culture. “Frozen” received recognition for its heartwarming depiction of sisterhood.

“Messages of healing and overcoming failure appeal a lot to the Korean audience these days,” said Kang Yoo-jeong, a film critic and a professor at Gangnam University.

“Rather than movies that consume and entertain, Koreans are leaning towards films that reflect utilitarian and relatable messages,” she added.

“Although ‘About Time’ contains fantasy elements, its core message is to tell viewers how one should cherish his or her family.”

In that sense, the easygoing ambience of these films is another contributor to their popularity.

With the trend in local cinemas leaning towards splashy, big-budget Hollywood films, it is natural that people are welcoming calmer films with open arms.

“It’s a kind of reverse effect,” said Kang. “[Audiences] don’t want to feel tension, even in theaters.”

Another vital factor behind the unexpected success of these three movies is music, which fulfills audiences’ desires to sit back and enjoy a more civilized film experience.

Over the history of the Korean box office, locals have flocked to the cinema to see music-themed films such as “August Rush” (2007) and “Once” (2007).

Aside from the North American market, both films earned the most in Korea compared with their worldwide performance, grossing $15,532,118 and $1,503,400, respectively, here.

“It’s considered as a small concert for [movie watchers],” said Shim Young-seop, a film critic and a clinical psychologist.

“People who are over 30 especially love these music-oriented films in order to relieve work stress. They don’t want to just ‘watch’ cultural media, they want to ‘enjoy’ and savor them. … Music-filled movies are the easiest medium to fulfill their desire compared to something else like concerts or operas.”

And with Koreans being highly connected to the Internet at all time, direct feedback on social networking services lead popular movies to gain more word of mouth attention, which is why most of the aforementioned movies boast great endurance at the box office.

“Word of mouth played a big part. While people pay attention to films that boast a stellar cast and are big-budgeted at first, [the attention] later shifts to films that receive a positive response from friends or on the Internet,” said Kang.

BY JIN EUN-SOO [jes@joongang.co.kr]

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