In August, the South Korean film Assassination became the year’s biggest box-office hit in the country, surpassing Avengers: Age of Ultron, and taking its place as the eighth highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Assassination has all the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster—plenty of action, star power, a lengthy running time—but it’s also the kind of movie South Korean audiences have gobbled up in recent years. Specifically, it’s a nationalistic period piece where the Japanese serve as the villains.
Assassination takes place in the 1930s, during the Japanese colonial period, and centers around a group of Koreans tasked with killing a Japanese commander and a pro-Tokyo sympathizer. Its success comes at a time when the region has been marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and when relations between Korea, China, and Japan remain tense, due in part to the latter’s wartime actions. Many in the first two countries say Japan hasn’t shown enough remorse for what it did, especially when it comes to acknowledging the use of sexual slaves known euphemistically as “comfort women.”
China has also ramped up its patriotic programming over the last few months, leading to a military parade last week celebrating Japan’s defeat. (Though it’s worth viewing the country’s reported box-office numbers with some skepticism: Some analysts have claimed the government inflated ticket-sale numbers for a new Chinese patriotic film ahead of the war anniversary.) Even Japanese theaters have seen a new wave of popular, war-focused films in recent years. Big patriotic movies are hardly unique to East Asia—the United States certainly isn’t lacking in this genre—but consumers in China, Korea, and Japan are embracing them against the backdrop of real-world geopolitical drama, and the demand for them has grown as diplomatic relations have worsened. So it’s no surprise these nationalistic tales are a financial boon for filmmakers. A recent Pew study found the three countries mostly have negative views of one another, which are reinforced by cultural depictions—China and Korea want to see Japan as a villain, while Japan wants to feel like it didn’t do anything too bad in the conflict.