SOUTH KOREA - This weekend, Disney's animated film "Frozen" broke the 10-million viewer mark in local theaters, becoming the second film to reach the milestone this year after "The Attorney."
It is no exaggeration to say the country is almost obsessed with the film. Not only is "Frozen" the highest-grossing animated film ever in Korea but it is also one of only two foreign movies among the nation's 10 highest grossing films of all time ― the other is James Cameron's "Avatar."
Local costume players like to dress up as Elsa, the beautiful but unhappy princess who has special powers in the film, while netizens make parody videos ― some feature celebrated figure skater Kim Yu-na and even President Park Geun-hye ― and share them on personal blogs and YouTube. "Let It Go," the title song of the film's soundtrack, is also enjoying huge popularity here, topping major music charts including Melon and Monkey3.
Why is "Frozen" so popular? Experts say the film is a total package, with beautiful yet complex characters and an engaging plot, as well as a very successful soundtrack. It was also very lucky ― there were no major competitors while it was in theaters; the film was released just three days before "The Attorney" exceeded the 10 million-viewer mark.
The film's G (General Audiences) rating, for viewers of all ages, also played a factor. According to research commissioned by local movie site Maxmovie, children and women in their 30s who grew up watching Disney films have watched "Frozen" the most.
"Researchers haven't figured out why, but women viewers tend to attend more cultural events, including movie screenings, during winter time," said culture critic Lee Moon-won.
"And women viewers also tend to watch the same film multiple times, if they like it a lot, whereas it's less likely for male viewers to do that. 'Frozen' was very much adored by female viewers here, and I think that was a huge benefit for the movie."
Based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale "The Snow Queen," the film tells the story of Anna, a brave princess who goes on an adventure to find her estranged sister, Elsa. Elsa has "icy powers" and her spell has trapped the kingdom in perpetual winter. Afraid of her own special powers, Elsa rarely came out of her room while growing up, isolating herself from the rest of the world.
Lee points out that Elsa is physically attractive while also capable and independent, and does not get rescued by prince charming. One of the major themes of the film is sisterhood, not romantic love.
"Women viewers also like to see princesses who are beautiful; it's not just men," he told The Korea Herald. "I think in recent years there have been a lot of efforts by animation filmmakers, especially Pixar Animation Studio, to make films that are politically correct. And as a result of that, they created characters like Merida and Princess Fiona. And Fiona turns into an ogress.
"'Frozen' is, in many ways, a classic Disney movie featuring traditionally beautiful female characters," he continued. "The important difference is they no longer wait for men to save them or make them happy. And I think it worked for many female viewers here."
Hwang Miyojo, programmer for the International Women's Film Festival in Seoul, thinks it is the complexity of Elsa's character, as well as her beauty, that attracts female viewers in Korea.
"I think Elsa is the second Disney Princess with special powers, following Rapunzel. She is stunningly beautiful, and has these amazing powers and abilities. This combination makes her already captivating," Hwang told The Korea Herald. "But Elsa is more complex than that. She is afraid of her own powers. In spite of her beauty and power, she is always alone and insecure. It takes her time to realize who she really is. I think such qualities resonate with women viewers today."
Film critic Jeon Chan-il, on the other hand, thinks it is the film's soundtrack that played the biggest factor in its popularity in Korea.
"I personally don't think 'Let It Go' is a masterpiece," Jeon told The Korea Herald. "But it's catchy, and it's very easy to sing along to. For a film soundtrack, that's all you really need. I personally think 'Let It Go' will survive longer than the film. It's almost like how 'Memory' is arguably more famous than 'Cats.' "
Critic Lee said he considers "Frozen" a musical film, just like Tom Hooper's 2012 film "Les Miserables." Hooper's film also enjoyed much popularity in Korea, generating a wave of parodies online.
"Most Disney films, including 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'The Little Mermaid,' used to be musical films. Perhaps 'The Lion King' was the last one," he said. "And its later works were just Disney films with soundtracks. 'Frozen' is the return of a solid Disney musical film."
Critic Jeon also noted that the film is a very well-made adaptation of Anderson's famous tale. "People often think 'Life of Pi' is entirely Ang Lee's creation, but it was only possible because the original novel was extremely well-written. The same applies to 'Frozen' as well. It didn't just come out of nowhere. The success of 'Frozen' was possible because the original tale was a timelessly great one, and those in charge did a very good job making it into a film."