Tomboy, the second film by Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, premiered at the Berlin film festival almost a decade ago in 2011. Following a summer in the life of a 10-year-old who’s recently moved to a new neighbourhood, the film won acclaim (and criticism, when it was included in the curriculum in French schools) around the world for its depiction of a child experimenting outside gender norms, and has built up a steady fanbase ever since.
But it was never released in South Korea – at least, not until Portrait of a Lady on Fire swept the country’s box office earlier this year to the tune of nearly 150,000 admissions, becoming the most successful French film in Korea for more than five years. After that success, Tomboy was released on 14 May, and at time of writing, has had over 30,000 admissions, and tens of thousands of Instagram posts using the hashtag 톰보이 (literally Tomboi in Korean).
This isn’t just a one-off, however. It’s the latest example of a continuing interest in female-directed and driven stories among Korean audiences. Seoul Pride film festival organiser and activist Dave Kim suggests that interest in women’s rights in South Korean society has risen dramatically in recent years, impacting not only real life but also what is popular at the cinema. “After #MeToo in 2018, there was a rising support for feminism in Korea. This has strongly affected the arthouse film market also. The main audience group is young women and they have become more willing to watch more films with a feminist idea or directed by a female director.”
Seoul-based producer and film journalist Pierce Conran agrees. “A lot of the indie successes over the last year or two in Korea have been about marginalised women, films about young women or girls … and themes of identity,” he says. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire was able to latch on to that in a big way.”
#MeToo has had a dramatic effect in South Korea. The country had always ranked low among OECD countries on women’s rights, particularly in terms of pay parity and the number of women in political roles. South Korea had its Harvey Weinstein equivalent in An hee-jung, a high-flying politician brought down by sexual assault allegations. As in the US and Europe, it prompted a similar wave of women sharing their experiences and support.
But Tomboy’s success is also down to a uniquely astute form of marketing, particularly on social media. South Korea’s biggest cinema attendees are young people, particularly women aged between 20 and 35. Like a number of independent releases in South Korea, Tomboy’s distributor offered ingeniously designed special pins, decorative tape and photo cards that depict key scenes from the film, handed out at special screenings or awarded after seeing the film a certain number of times. One set of pins, for example, mirrors a scene in Tomboy with the young protagonist’s first kiss, with folds in the presenting card enabling the characters’ eyes to be covered. .
“More and more people are collecting these items to remember and celebrate the movies,” says designer Oh Sebeom. “Audiences now want to see not only the beauty of the merchandise, but also how they capture the meaning and details of the movie.” According to Oh, the benefit isn’t purely to turn a profit: these items aren’t mass produced like collectible popcorn buckets but limited-edition pieces designed to sustain interest throughout a film’s theatrical run. Scroll Instagram and you’ll see countless posts of these sold-out items from fans. “The audience was able to naturally promote the movie on social media,” says Choi Yuri, chief executive of OURS, the marketing firm working on the film, predicting that the popularity of such promotional items “will grow even more”.
But do gimmicks like this work? Just look at the box office figures. Though South Korea’s population of 51 million is dwarfed by those of Russia and China, the country is frequently at the top of global box office grosses, and increasing year on year. Latest reports from UniFrance and Statista found that South Koreans attended cinemas on average 4.3 times each in 2019, much more often than people in the UK (2.64 times), Australia (3.38 times), or the US (3.77 times). Even after the Covid-19 outbreak, while occupancy limits were imposed and major studio releases were postponed, South Korean cinemas never closed, giving increased opportunities for independent films such as Tomboy, which normally have to fight for screens.
“That mindset is prominent – you see so many collectibles for different films,” says Hieu Chau, a film programmer and founder of the website Filmed in Ether. Chau points to other forms of entertainment – K-pop, for example – that are able to drive a fervent social media following through similar experiential elements, offering exclusive items and in-person opportunities that are primed for sharing, and a way of adding value to an otherwise intangible thing. “It’s a way for you to take a piece of the film with you, and physically show your support for it.”