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Why Korean Film Great Park Chan-Wook Is Betting on Streaming

Photo Credit: HBO
Words by: Claire Stemen

Best known in the West for his cult masterpiece Oldboy, Park Chan-Wook is now turning to television following the 2022 Oscar snub of his melodrama Decision to Leave. His miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is currently airing on HBO, and he has announced an English adaptation of Oldboy in partnership with Lionsgate. Whether this will be Park’s key to reaching a wider audience and securing a larger budget remains to be seen. 

Established film directors taking a stab at longer-form content isn’t unheard of. In fact, we’ve had strong showings from Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and The Young Pope from Paolo Sorrentino. 

From inside Korea’s film industry, Korean Film Council member Kim Tae-hyung and indie filmmaker Han Chang-rok give CONE insight on Park Chan-wook’s shift to miniseries, and if it’s motivated by the state of the Korean film industry.


Post-COVID Korean Cinema limps along

The global film industry has struggled for several decades, but COVID-19’s effects seemed critical. Only in the last two years has the market seen some promising growth, primarily driven by blockbuster film events. Gower Street Analytics found that the global film industry, excluding China, made an estimated $33.9 billion in 2023, up 30% from 2022. This is impressive but still about 15% behind pre-COVID figures. 

Highly publicized movie events like Barbie and Oppenheimer drove the most box office sales, with The Super Mario Bros. Movie following in third. This indicates that the best-performing films often have ties to existing media, such as toy franchises, video games, or historical events— bad news for indie filmmakers, as usual.

In Korea, the film industry faces significant challenges. Kim Tae-hyung, film director and Team Director at the Korean Film Council (KOFiC), an organization that promotes the production of Korean films, states that before COVID-19, the Korean film industry produced 80 to 120 films per year with an average net cost of 3 billion won (about 2.2 million USD). In the last year, however, fewer than 30 films were produced at the same cost. With skyrocketing movie ticket prices and the dominance of streaming, the Korean film industry is finding it near impossible to recover. 

When asked if this is why prestigious Korean filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook are turning to miniseries, Kim said: “Many Korean directors, including Park Chan-wook, have worked hard in directing miniseries rather than films in recent years not because films were less important, but because the Korean film industry during that time had contracted due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic….many directors had no reason to reject the love calls from global OTT industries, such as Netflix, and neither did Park.”

Photo Credit: HBO, Republic World

Working with popular subject matter like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel and Park’s best-known film are safe bets in the shaky Korean and global markets. With backing from HBO and A24, and leading acts like Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh on the project, The Sympathizer is in a strong position. While the entire series isn’t available on HBO yet, the episodes that are available have received positive reception (currently at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes)

The English adaptation of Oldboy, in partnership with Lionsgate, will expand on the story of Oh Dae-su, the protagonist tasked with finding his captor after being imprisoned for 15 years. It may draw English-speaking audiences into the orbit of Korean cinema and Park’s work, or it may struggle to capture the appeal of the original film, much like Spike Lee’s controversial 2013 adaptation. Regardless, it’s a safer bet than another feature film.


Is Bong Joon-ho the exception to the rule?

When discussing Korea missing out on another Oscar win, Kim Tae-hyung suggests this view reflects an American mindset. For him and many Korean directors, the Oscars are just one of many prestigious awards: “Winning the Oscars, Golden Globes and International Critics’ Awards was not a top priority until Parasite won the Oscars. This is because awards at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals have been considered more important than awards at the US side.” 

It’s not like Decision to Leave didn’t perform well. It won Best Director for Park at the Cannes Film Festival and was the first of his films to be considered for the Oscars, where it was shortlisted. Still, Park said in a profile in The New Yorker that it would be nice to be nominated. “It would be hypocrisy to say that art is the only thing that matters,” he added. “If you get an award, it might mean you have more power, more creative freedom, in your next project. It might mean you have a bigger budget.”

Park’s creative virtuosity and cinematic tableaus teeming with detail are already highly regarded, but he’s still far from being a household name in the West. With a market of $9 billion in 2023, North America commands a significant chunk of the global film industry’s profits. Even now, many Americans know of Parasite, if they know nothing else about Korean cinema.


Mini-Series are the new Cinema

TV miniseries may be the final frontier for filmmakers. It’s certainly where the money is, with some streaming platforms churning out shows at blinding speeds. In 2023 alone, 481 scripted series were released, a number down from previous years but still significant.

Indie filmmaker Han Chang-rok, who has shown at Rotterdam International Film Festival, admires what Park Chan-wook has achieved. When  asked about pivoting from feature films to series, he tells CONE that he tries to work flexibly so that his screenplays cater to both mediums, “[It] has the advantages and disadvantages of being able to enter the global market more easily through series and the disappointment that the special impression that can only be experienced in theaters disappears,” he explains.

He shares the same melancholy as Kim Tae-Hyung regarding  the state of the Korean film industry. Though he’s already shared his work abroad, he is always interested in the opinions of cultures outside of his own, noting, “I have always had questions about how people from different cultures will view my movies. I think all creators feel the same way, not just me.”

As for the kind of Oldboy we’ll get with the miniseries, Han believes the medium will allow for a deeper exploration of characters and themes from the original film. Unlike some diehard fans seeking the same rush as before, Han says, “I think a work of completely different personality from the original work can be produced.” So far, Park Chan-wook has only revealed that the miniseries adaptation will be in English, feature iconic fight scenes, and include all the shocking blood and guts that made the original film so jarring. 

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy rocketed him to fame in 2003, ushering in a Renaissance of Korean Cinema in the early 2000s. But his unflinching approach to violence, nudity, and the darkest reaches of humanity may have overshadowed the more delicate aspects of his directing: his meticulous mise-en-scene, layered imagery, and poignant characterizations. 

Backing off the blood and guts for 2022’s Decision to Leave left him empty-handed at the Oscars, but lauded in Europe. For him to achieve commercial success beyond what he has already attained, moving to miniseries and revisiting Oldboy might provide the overseas success to carry his name to heights previously unimaginable, while also opening the door wider for emerging Korean filmmakers.


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