K-Movie Series – 1990’s to 2011

In this blog post, we will continue with the development of K-Movie in the period from 1990’s to 2011. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Korean film industry enjoyed satisfactory growth and K-movie has become one of the components of Hallyu (Korean Wave) which began in the early 2000’s. However, the popularity of K-movie started to decline after mid-2000’s due to declining quality of films, surging costs, and relaxation of the screen quota.

1990’s and Early 2000’s

The transformation of the Korean film industry in the 1980’s including the relaxation of government control, the appearance of independent film-makers and the investment by chaebols (large conglomerates) paved the way for the renaissance of the industry in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in which significant growth was noted. For example, the market share of Korean films in the local market rose from 23.1% in 1996 to 35.8% in 1998 and further to over 50% in 2001.  New box-office records were also set.  For example, the spy thriller, Swiri (쉬리)(1999), became a huge hit, with box-office record of 6.2 million surpassing that of Titanic (4.3 million) in the Korean market and enough revenue to repay its huge budget of US$8.5 million. Joint Security Area (공동경비구역)(2000) and Friend (친구)(2001) also attracted 5.8 million viewers and 8.1 million viewers, respectively.  Silmido (실미도)(2003) and Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며)(2004) were the first Korean films to pass the 10-million-viewer mark.

After the financial crisis in 1997, the badly-hit big chaebols like Samsung withdrew from film production to concentrate on their core activities.  The second-generation chaebols like CJ, Lotte and Orion and venture capitalists became the major investors of the Korean film industry.  Moreover, the Internet-led venture boom also brought a lot of cheap money to the economy.  Some enterpreneurs even created websites to allow the general public to invest in film production.  For example, the Korean comedy film, The Foul King (반칙왕)(2000), raised 100 million won through this channel and its 464 investors each earned a return of 97%.

With the appearance of multiplex theatre chains like CJ-CGV, Megabox and Lotte Cinema invested by the chaebols, the number of screens increased drastically from 511 in 1996 to 1,648 in 2005. This made new box-office records a possibility. For example, Silmido and Taegukgi were released simultaneously on about 300 to 400 screens within South Korea (accounting for a third of the nation’s total), making it possible to get past the 10-million box-office mark.

In the early 2000’s, with the growing interest around the Asian region in Korean films, music and TV dramas, the term “Hallyu” (Korean Wave) began to appear.  My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀)(2001), which was popular in the Asian region, was probably the first success in Hallyu for the Korean film industry.  You can watch the trailer of this movie here. The Hollywood and Bollywood producers have even made remakes of this movie. Benefiting from the Hallyu phenomenon, exports of Korean films jumped from US$400,000 in 1996 to about US$75 million in 2005.

Outside South Korea, Korean film industry has gained recognition from the international film community by winning a number of awards at the international film festivals.  For example, Im Kwok-taek won the Best Director award for the film, Chihwaseon (취화선), at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.  Lee Chang-dong and Moon So-ri won the Special Director award and the Marcello Mastroianni award at the 2002 Venice Film Festival for the film, Oasis (오아시스) .   Park Chan-wook won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes for the film, Old Boy (올드보이), and in the same year, Kim Ki-duk won the Best Director award for the film, Samaria (사마리아) , at Berlin and for the film, 3-Iron (빈집), at Venice.

South Korea also started to hold international film festivals like Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) launched in 1996, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) launched in 1997, and Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) launched in 2000. These film festivals helped the promotion of Korean films to the world. Moreover, these film festivals won the support from the international film community, for example, 304 films from 75 countries participating in BIFF in 2012.

On the other hand, digital film production, which made low-budget films possible, gained popularity.  Key low-budget feature films included My Generation (마이 제너레이션)(2004), The Forgotten Child: Shin Sung-il is Lost (신성일의 행방불명)(2005) and The Unforgiven (용서받지 못한 자)(2005).

Mid-2000’s to 2011

The boom in the early 2000’s led to inflated actor salaries and a focus on simply securing the most famous stars, resulting in the decline in quality of Korean films after mid-2000’s.  The situation was worsened by the reduction of the screen quota (i.e., the number of days per year that Korean theatres have to screen Korean films) from 146 days to 73 days a year in 2006 to pave the way for a free-trade agreement between South Korea and the U.S.

As a result, popularity of Korean films both inside and outside South Korea suffered. For example, market share of foreign films in the Korean market increased from 36.2% in 2006 to 53.4% in 2010.  Exports of Korean film dropped from US$75 million in 2005 to US$24.5 million in 2006 and further to not more than US$14 million in 2010.  Although there were occasional big hits like Speed Scandal (과속스캔들)(2008) and Haeundae (해운대)(2009), overall speaking, the Korean film industry was struggling.

This doldrum continued until 2012 when the Korean film industry managed to come up with better quality films and turned the situation around.  We will talk about the resurgence of the Korean film industry in the next blog post.

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 16 June 2015.  Watch this space!


Related Blog Posts

K-Movie Series – The Birth of Korean Movie” dated 2 June 2015

K-Movie Series – Golden Age in the 1950’s and 1960’s” dated 4 June 2015

K-Movie Series – 1970’s and 1980’s” dated 9 June 2015

K-Movie Series – 2012 to Present” dated 16 June 2015



Jennifer Rousse-Marquet, “The unique story of the South Korean film industry“, ina global, 2013-10-07

Daniel Tudor, Korea: The impossible country, Tokyo; Rutland, Vermont; Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2012, pp. 229-239

Darcy Paquet, “A short history of Korean film“, Koreanfilm.org, 2007-03-01

The king, the clown and the quota“, The Economist, 2006-02-16

Kim Mee-hyun (ed.), Korean Cinema: from origins to renaissance, Korean Film Council, 2006

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