In the past 12 months, the South Korean film industry has seen three massive box office hits. Two - heist movie The Thieves, starring Gianna Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Yun-seok, and period drama Masquerade, starring Lee Byung-heon - are high-profile, big-budget productions.
But the runaway success of the third work, Miracle in Cell No7, came as a surprise to critics and film industry insiders alike. With more than 12.8 million tickets sold in South Korea - a box office take of US$82 million - the popularity of this film has both inspired and discouraged fellow directors, and set off a wide-ranging debate about the state of the country's film industry.
Described as a combination of I Am Sam, The Green Mile, and Life is Beautiful, the US$3.1 million-budgeted Miracle in Cell No7 is a tragic story centring on the loving relationship between a father and his daughter. Yong-gu is a grown man with the IQ of a six-year-old who lives alone with his young daughter Ye-sung. They are an unconventional family, but they live happily until one day Yong-gu is wrongly convicted of murder.
Thrown into a prison cell, Yong-gu is devastated at being separated from his daughter. His cellmates eventually take pity on him, and devise an unlikely plan to smuggle Ye-sung into their cell and keep her hidden there.
The film, which left audiences in tears, has provoked widely divergent opinions among the country's critics. Nonetheless, virtually everyone agrees the work's primary strength stems from the performances of its cast.
Lead actor Ryu Seung-ryong (All About My Wife), who in his early 40s is a highly bankable star, gives a dynamic and touching performance as Yong-gu. He is backed by an accomplished ensemble of supporting actors, with experienced thespians such as Oh Dal-su ( Oldboy), Park Won-sang ( National Security), and Jeong Jin-young ( The King and the Clown) among others.
But the biggest discovery of Miracle in Cell No 7 is six-year old actress Gal So-won, who has become an overnight sensation for her confident, poised and adorable portrayal of Ye-sung. It is her performance in particular that carries the film.
Touching dramas about familial love and tragic twists of fate are nothing new for South Korean cinema. Nonetheless Miracle in Cell No7 now ranks as the third bestselling South Korean film in history, behind only Choi Dong-hoon's The Thieves (2012) and Bong Joon-ho's groundbreaking monster movie The Host (2006), both of which attracted just over 13 million.
Whereas the directors of those films had already established themselves as major commercial directors before reaching this milestone, Miracle in Cell No7 director Lee Hwan-kyung had experienced only low to moderate commercial success in his previous three features: youth romance He Was Cool (2004), and two horseracing dramas, Lump of Sugar (2006) and Champ (2011). The fact that this offering's success seems to have come out of nowhere has led many in the film industry to question the basis of its popularity.
Some of the conclusions being drawn are less than optimistic. In private, many filmmakers express concern that the movie's commercial success represents a trend of emphasising emotionally manipulative material over well-constructed stories. "That film is filled with individual scenes that provoke a strong emotional response from viewers," says one director, "But when you look at the overall structure, they didn't even try to make a logically cohesive, convincing story."
Respected film critic Choi Kwang-hee reserved stronger words for the film. "The way it portrays society's abusive treatment of a mentally handicapped man is so artificial, and its efforts to wrench tears out of its viewers is so obvious, that it's hard to call this film successful … But to the extent that it gave viewers who wanted to cry a resounding slap to the face, and made them mistake this for genuine emotion, the film succeeded."
Despite the objections of critics and the reservations of rival directors, Miracle in Cell No7 seems likely to make an impact in other Asian territories as well. The film was well received at recent film markets, securing distribution deals to Hong Kong along with Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mongolia.
Miracle in Cell No 7 opens on Thursday