Around 6,000 people have watched "Wild Hogs" in Korea, some 60,000 checked out "Chuck and Larry," but a staggering 1.35 million have seen "August Rush." This may puzzle some in the U.S., where "August Rush" ranked a modest 77th in terms of box office takings and made US$28.48 million as of Dec. 20.
"Wild Hogs" by contrast raked in $168.27 million to become no. 10 at the U.S. box office but closed within a week of opening in Korea. What is it that reverses the films' fortunes here?
Aside from major blockbusters that hit Korea this year such as "Transformers" and "Spider Man 3," "August Rush" starring Freddie Highmore as a musical prodigy and "Music and Lyrics" featuring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore were the most watched Hollywood films, both attracting around 1 million moviegoers.
This is not what happened in the U.S. According to the Internet box office database www.boxofficemojo.com, "Music and Lyrics" was in 42nd place and "August Rush" in 77th. The Irish independent musical film "Once" was also an unexpected sell-out in Korea, accounting for 1/10 of the movie's worldwide revenue of $14.64 million and drawing some 200,000 viewers.
So what makes a movie a hit or a failure in Korea? Experts point to familiar storylines and music.
"Dramas that succeed in Korea are usually those with Cinderella-type stories in which characters prevail against heavy odds," said Prof. Sim Eun-jin of Chungju University's film studies department.
"The general public tends to be drawn to romantic love stories with clear changes in emotion." Some think that Korean viewers are trying to find something in foreign films that they can't in Korean ones.
"Japanese literature and foreign independent films like 'Once' are attracting people in their early to mid-20s, especially women in Korea,” said Hong Seong-nam, a movie critic. "Not many domestic films feature the fun and inspiration of everyday lives, and this seems to prompt Korean viewers to turn to overseas."
American comedies, on the other hand, are almost always a disaster here. For instance, "Superbad," one of the top hits among low-budget movies this year in the U.S., is likely never to make its way to Korea.
"Besides dramas with happy endings and action-packed blockbusters, it is incredibly hard especially for American comedies to succeed in Korea," says a marketer from Sony Pictures Korea. Language is another stumbling block. The humor and parody are often lost in the translation.
"Austin Powers" is a perfect case in point. "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," the second in the series, was a huge hit in the U.S., becoming no. 4 in the box office rankings, but most viewers in Korea were baffled.
Some joked the movie must owe its 120, 000 audience figures here to the U.S. Forces Korea. "Wedding Crasher," No. 6 at the U.S. box office in 2005, closed within 10 days of opening in Korea, with many saying they don't understand why anyone would just crash someone's wedding for no reason.
Steve Carrell's mega hit "The 40 Year Old Virgin" drew a paltry 50,000 people in Korea. "For a romantic comedy to succeed in Korea, it must first attract women viewers, and excessively sexual comedies don't really have an appeal for them," says Hong.