Political scandal affecting moviegoers’ choices : New movies hope to fill seats while protests hurt theaters

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Political scandal affecting moviegoers’ choices : New movies hope to fill seats while protests hurt theaters

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Crime-thriller “Master,” left, and disaster film “Pandora” are the two highly-anticipated local blockbusters scheduled to hit theaters in December. [CJ E&M, NEW]

December is usually a season for heartwarming films to enjoy with friends and family. The air of Christmas and the excitement of celebrating New Year’s Eve attracts moviegoers to joyous family or romance flicks such as the megahit family drama “Ode to My Father” (2014) and fictional historical romance “The Magician” (2015) to soundly wrap up the year.

This year in Korea, however, that trend seems to have diverged, possibly due to the ongoing major political influence scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye’s close friend Choi Soon-sil and her associates. Instead of turning to films to celebrate the holiday spirit, theaters are hoping to attract moviegoers with movies that depict disasters and investigations that do not seem far off the dramatic realities they see unfolding in the headlines.

Two of the most anticipated local films coming out this month are the disaster film “Pandora” and the crime-thriller “Master.”

Scheduled to hit theaters on Wednesday, “Pandora” anticipates what would happen if a nuclear power plant exploded in Korea, which has the most densely-packed cluster of nuclear power plants in the world. Based on research, “Pandora” draws on the realities that defenseless citizens would be faced with if the disaster was to occur under the leadership of an incompetent president.

“Master,” which will arrive in theaters on Dec. 21, will be an echo of last year’s megahit “Veteran.” The crime-thriller revolves around a corrupt CEO, who earned a great fortune by pulling political strings, and a crime investigator that tries to prove him guilty through one of the CEO’s closest aids.

Movies that reflect the ruthless reality are hoping to draw potential moviegoers, many of whom are choosing to go out to the streets on the weekends to protest against the Park regime instead of heading to theaters.

“Although I can’t be sure how many viewers ‘Pandora’ will be able to attract, I’m inwardly hoping [to set a box office record],” said the director Park Jung-woo during a press event held at the Wangsimni CGV, eastern Seoul, on Tuesday. “I believe the most powerful rivals of this film aren’t other movies, but the two middle-aged ladies,” referring to Park and Choi and indirectly satirizing their corruption scandal.

“We have prepared the movie for four years, but they prepared for the last 40 years. Our production cost is 15 billion won ($13,000,000) while they dealt with some hundred billion won. Since the scandal includes all sorts of genres, it seems impossible to win. And their ability to mobilize people is much more powerful.”

As shown by the filmmaker’s concerns, the recent candlelight vigils that have been held over the last five weeks and show no sign of stopping anytime soon, are hurting the movie industry. Gathering nearly as many as two million people, the number of overall weekend moviegoers has seen a drop since the first vigil took place on Oct. 29.

Some 1.11 million people headed to theaters on the Saturday that the first vigil occurred. The figure slipped to 770,000 the following week on Nov. 5, and that trend continued the next Saturday, when the local theaters sold only 620,000 admissions nationwide. Although the figure slightly rose to 880,000 on Nov. 19, the number is still low considering that it was two days after the Korean scholastic ability test took place.

Although the current state of affairs may have affected the box office results of major releases, it has been an opportunity for documentaries. As stories that people are more used to seeing in the movies have become reality in Korea, many are choosing to watch documentaries to learn about the political history of the country.

For documentaries, selling 100 thousand tickets is regarded a big success. But two recent documentaries - “Moo-hyun, the Story of Two Cities” and “Spy Nation” - jumped above that mark. “Moo-hyun,” which depicts the life of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, sold almost 180,000 tickets in the month since its release on Oct. 26. “Spy Nation,” which highlights a 2014 National Intelligence Service scandal, hit 130,000 in ticket sales. These are notable achievements considering that the highest-grossing current affairs documentary was 2011’s “2 Doors,” which sold 70,000 admissions.

“We didn’t anticipate the documentary to get such a big boost because the Choi Soon-sil scandal broke on almost the same day that the documentary was released,” said O Ji-hye, a manager at Momentum Entertainment, the agency promoting “Moo-hyun.”

“It was such a coincidence. However, we believe the documentary is receiving lots of people’s attention because the message it is trying to deliver matches the public sentiment.”

BY JIN MIN-JI, LEE HU-NAM AND MIN KYUNG-WON [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]
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