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From Page to Screen - Korean Manhwa Adaptations

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Comic books have always been a popular source of cinematic inspiration, and over the past few years such films have been enjoying unprecedented success on the silver screen, with the likes of The Dark Knight and Iron Man racking up incredible box office figures across the world. This has also long been the case with the Asian film industry, primarily in the case of Japan, with manga comics having provided a never-ending list of popular films and television series, both animated and live action. Indeed, the country has become famous for such adaptations, with recent hits such as Death Note receiving international releases. Even other Asian countries have used manga as source material, as in the case of the Hong Kong productions Initial D and Shamo, and from Korea the hit 200 Pounds Beauty and director Park Chan Wook's worldwide blockbuster Oldboy.

However, Japan is by no means the only Asian country with a thriving industry of comic book adaptations, and the last few years have seen an explosion in films and series based upon Korean comics, also known as manhwa. Certainly, the form has been taking over both television screens, through massive hits like Full House and Palace, and cinemas through such diverse productions as Tazza: The High Rollers, Duelist, and Apartment. As a result, manhwa artists such as Hur Young Man and Kang Pool have become widely recognized names in the worlds of film and television as well as print. With more high-profile manhwa adaptations on their way, their stock, and indeed that of other artists is only likely to rise yet further.

Manhwa Adaptations

Although in the West the stereotypical image of comics is that they tend to offer little more than tales of superheroes in tights battling bizarre super villains, manhwa covers pretty much every genre and subject imaginable, from the fantastic through to the domestic. As such, manhwa adaptations do not form a convenient genre to the extent that comic book films do in Hollywood. Interestingly, Korean manhwa do differ from Japanese manga in a number of ways, chiefly in that they tend to emphasize Asian origins of characters.

As such, they provide a natural source of material for film and television, and indeed although it is only recently that they have started making headlines, manhwa adaptations are by no means a new phenomenon. Foolish Mistakes of a Fool, the first cinematic manhwa adaptation was produced way back in 1926, directed by Lee Pil Woo and inspired by the comic strip of the same name that ran in the newspaper the Josun Ilbo. After this, the next notable manhwa adaptation did not come until 1978 with The Man with Seven Faces, based upon a comic by Hur Young Man. Born in 1947 and having made his print debut back in 1974, Hur quickly became recognized as a top talent in the field, and his career has seen him continue to provide the basis for hit television series and films. This has been especially true since the late 1990s, and an increasing number of his comics have been adapted to huge popularity and acclaim.

The 1980s saw the first real boom of manhwa adaptations, with films such as The Spring of Oh Dal Ja, Lee Jang Ho's Baseball Team, and The Chameleon's Poem, based on another of Hur Young Man's works, achieving success. This continued into the early 1990s with hits such as the high school drama Young Shim from director Lee Mi Rye and the Hur Young Man KBS drama Asphalt My Hometown, which marked the debut of future superstar Lee Byung Hun.

The New Wave of Manhwa Films

It was not until 1995, however, that Korean comic book films truly began to achieve mainstream recognition, arguably with the release of The Terrorists. An action packed adventure starring Choi Min Soo and Lee Kyung Young as brothers at war with the criminal underworld, the film not only signaled a new wave of manhwa adaptations, but can also be seen as a precursor to the modern style of Korean thrillers such as Shiri and others. This was followed in 1997 by Beat, which was adapted from a graphic novel by Hur Young Man and was directed by Kim Sung Su, who through this and other works such as Runaway and Our Sunny Days was noted at the time as being one of the leading voices in the newly emerging trend of angry youth films. A visceral crime film, it also helped make stars of a number of young actors and actresses, including Yoo Oh Sung, Lim Chang Jung, and Ko So Young.

The success of such film paved the way for the recent explosion in manhwa film adaptations, such as Duelist, directed in 2005 by Lee Myung Se, famed for his stylish, highly cinematic works such as Nowhere to Hide and M. The film was based upon a famous 1970s manhwa called Damo Nam Soon by artist Bang Hak Gi, a historical series which followed the exploits of a female detective during the Joseon Dynasty era. Starring Ha Ji Won in the lead role (a part she had also played several years back on television) and with support from legendary veteran Ahn Sung Ki, the film played fast and loose with the original source material, with the visionary director being more concerned with producing a visual feast than a faithful adaptation.

2006 saw another of Hur Young Man's works on the silver screen in the form Tazza: The High Rollers (also released as War of Flowers), directed by Choi Dong Hoon, helmer of The Big Swindle. An exciting drama based around Korean flower cards, the film boasted an all-star cast including Cho Seung Woo, Baek Yoon Shik, and actress Kim Hye Su. Importantly, it was the biggest hit yet for manhwa adaptations, ranking as one of the all-time top ten highest earners at the domestic box office, and winning a number of prizes at the prestigious Blue Dragon and Daejong Awards.

More Hur Young Man followed in 2007 with Le Grand Chef, based upon his bestselling comic book series. Directed by Jeon Yoon Soo (previously responsible for My Girl And I), the film followed the battle between two celebrity chefs (played by Kim Kang Woo and Yim Won Hee) and was another massive box office hit. Hur apparently spent four years researching the subject matter, and the results certainly translated well, with the film being a veritable banquet of gourmet delights. Interestingly, the success of these two films saw them both later being adapted for television, underlining the strength and appeal of Hur's original manhwa.

The same year also featured a rather different kind of manhwa adaptation in Someone Behind You, which was based upon a horror comic called Two People by artist Kang Kyung Ok. A pleasingly bloody affair, the film stood apart from other Korean genre outings thanks to its twisted plot and the fact that it did not revolve around the antics of the usual vengeful female spirit. Proving again the versatility of the manhwa form, 2008 brought Hellcats (also released as Some Like it Hot), a multi-generational tale of modern Korean women based upon Kang Mo Rim's comic book 10, 20 and 30.

Online Inspiration

With the ever increasing popularity of manhwa comics, inevitably the form made the transition to the web, resulting in a new generation of artists and a slew of cinematic adaptations. Once such young artist who has achieved fame has been Kang Pool, several of whose award-winning works have been turned into films, including Apartment, directed in 2006 by Korean horror master Ahn Byung Ki and starring Ko So Young, followed in 2008 by the drama Ba:Bo from Ditto helmer Kim Jeong Kwon. Unsurprisingly, the success of these has led to more of his works being snapped up for the big screen, including the thriller 29 Years and the drama Hello Schoolgirl, starring Yoo Ji Tae, Lee Yeon Hee, Chae Jung Ahn, and Kang In. Kang Pool is by no means the only online manhwa artist to have seen his works adapted to film, though it's doubtful that the form will produce anything quite so bizarre as Dasepo Naughty Girls, a musical and truly crazed tale of highly sexualized high school students directed by industry veteran Lee Jae Yong, best known for the possibly more respectable An Affair and Untold Scandal.

Manhwa on the Small Screen

Arguably even more impressive than the recent run of cinematic manhwa adaptations has been the increasingly prolific number of comic book-based television series. One landmark series, first screened in 2003 was the historical drama Damo: The Undercover Lady Detective (also known as Legendary Police Woman), which like Duelist was based upon Damo Nam Soon by artist Bang Hak Gi. As well as beating Lee Myung See's film by several years and giving actress Ha Ji Won an early crack at the role, the series was far more faithful to the manhwa, exploring its theme of revolving around a strong, fiercely independent female protagonist in a stratified society. Importantly, the series set a new standard for television dramas, as well as dragging the traditional historical form into the modern day by keeping audiences entertained through fight scenes and special effects.

The first of the real blockbuster manhwa television adaptations came the following year Full House, based upon the comic by Won Soo Yon. The romantic drama was a massive hit, starring Song Hye Kyo (who had previously featured in several other popular series such as All In, Hotelier, and Tale of Autumn) as a woman called Ji Eun who loses everything after being tricked by her friends, and who tries to get back the titular mansion which her parents built. Unfortunately, the house is taken over by a film star played by international pop singer Rain, and Ji Eun is forced into a contract marriage with him. As well as attaining a massive 40% of the viewing audience for its final episode, the series also won a number of awards, including Best Couple at the KBS Drama Awards for Song and Rain.

Another huge hit arrived in 2006 with Palace (also known as Princess Hours, or Goong), which was adapted from the manhwa of the same name by artist Park So Hee. The series was a fairy tale affair, taking place in an imaginary modern Korea ruled by a monarchy and following the lives of the young royals. A winning mixture of comedy, drama, and romance, it mainly revolved around Ju Ji Hoon as the crown prince and his relationship with a commoner played by Yoon Eun Hye, with the two being thrown together in an unlikely arranged marriage. As well as being extremely popular, the series was recognized several times at award ceremonies for the excellent performances of the two leads, in addition to its gorgeous production values.

The success of Full House and Palace inevitably opened the floodgates for manhwa adaptations, and the following years saw several high-profile comic-based series hitting the screen, including The Great Catsby starring MC Mong, the crime comedy Kid Gang, and the gripping War of Money, inspired by the work of Park Yi Kwon. There have been more historical manhwa adaptations, most notably the recent Iljimae, a Robin Hood-style tale set during the Joseon Dynasty which follows Lee Jun Ki as a righteous thief who leaves plum tree branches behind as a signature at the scenes of his crimes while romancing governor's daughter (played by actress Han Hyo Ju). The Kingdom of the Winds is another big budget historical adaptation, this time based upon a comic by Kim Jin and following the life of the famed Jumong's grandson, Daemusin. Starring Song Il Kook in the title role, the series is an epic affair, partly filmed in China and featuring plenty of exciting action.

Hur Young Man on Television

Unsurprisingly, the works of Hur Young Man have also provided the source material for a number of high profile television series, with 2008 seeing three Hur Young Man adaptations being broadcast. Tazza has made the transition to the small screen, with actor Jang Hyuk in the lead role. The Grand Chef, or Gourmet, is another recent series, based upon the same comic as Le Grand Chef, starring Kim Rae Won, Nam Sang Mi, and Kwon Oh Joong. Repeating the success of the film, the show again won praise for its immaculate and mouthwatering recreations of traditional Korean cooking. Finally, the romantic drama I Love You starring Ahn Jae Wook, Hwan Hee, and Seo Ji Hye also aired in 2008.

Manhwa and Hollywood

Given the vast wealth of material available and with the form now being as internationally recognized as Japanese manga, manhwa will doubtless continue to provide a rich source of inspiration for films and television series for years to come. Indeed, even Hollywood seems to be getting in on the act, with an adaptation of artist Hyung Min Woo's Priest apparently in the works. With Asian remakes still a hot currency in the West, should this prove a hit, it's a safe bet that more will follow.

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Published December 30, 2008

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