Why Did ‘Barbie’ Bomb in South Korea?

While Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has taken the global box office by storm and shattered numerous records — the film raced past the $1 billion mark in just over two weeks — it hasn’t connected with audiences in one major market, South Korea. Some observers cite cultural differences as the reason — especially the film’s feminist messaging.

According to the Korean Film Council, Barbie only managed an eighth-place finish at the box office in Korea over the Aug. 4-6 weekend, grossing $273,414, with only a 1.2 percent advance ticket sales rate, compared to 35.8 percent for the other half of the “Barbenheimer” juggernaut — Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer — which is set for release in South Korea on Aug. 15.

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Barbie has sold 518,172 tickets since its July 19 release, according to the KFC (for a total gross of $3.8 million according to Box Office Mojo). That compares to 3.8 million tickets for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which opened a week earlier.

Warner Bros. knew going in that Barbie would face challenges both in Korea and across Asia, which has underindexed as a region compared to other parts of the world. One intriguing development is China, where it opened to a forgettable $8.2 million but found its footing (sort of) after Chinese feminists flocked to see the film and urged others to do the same, saying it was an antidote to male-orientated patriotic action movies that rule the box office there. By the end of its third weekend, Barbie had climbed past $30 million in China, and Warner Bros. hopes this bodes well for Japan, where the pic opens Aug. 11.

But in Korea, a country where gender disparity and anti-feminist backlash are prevalent, the film’s focus — albeit uplifting — on female empowerment may have sparked discomfort and even fatigue.

“Given how gender has been politicized and became a polarizing issue in Korea in the past few years, young people seem to be easily exhausted by discussions around gender,” says Kang Yu-jeong, a professor of Cultural Contents at Kangnam University in the city of Yongin. “It’s such a sensitive topic for the younger generation — the film’s main target — that they want to avoid it entirely.”

Despite the country’s economic development and advanced technology, South Korea ranked 99th out of 146 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Global Gender Gap Report last year.

The country’s gender debate is so stark that during the 2022 presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol, of the conservative People Power party, ran a winning campaign while pledging to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming that the ministry promotes reverse discrimination against men. In a competitive job market, women’s economic advancement and mandatory military service for younger men have also fueled backlash against feminism in recent years.

“The parties widened the gender divide, targeting young men and women in their 20s,” Kang says.

Some suggest that the film may have suffered from the fact that its feminist undertones were not made clearer in its local marketing campaign. (For the most part, the global movie industry has lauded the Barbie campaign, saying it is one of the best sales efforts in modern times.)

“I think the film’s marketers have been too careful around the feminist subject,” Kang says. “So even the audiences who could have taken more interest in the film didn’t know what the film was about. It was really in the gray zone.”

On the film review site on Naver — the nation’s largest portal site — gender-specific reviews expressed surprise at the film’s feminist subtext. One user wrote: “If you’re a guy, skip this one, it’s uncomfortable and feels like an educational film.” Another added, “You don’t go to a movie to hear someone preaching.” Overall, male viewers gave the film a 5.99 score out of 10 while female viewers gave it a 9.27.

But marketing and gender issues aside, some see the film’s poor box office as being purely cultural, since Barbie is not seen as an iconic female figure in Korea.

Star Wars didn’t do well in South Korea either because it’s not part of our culture,” says Moon So-Young, a Seoul-based journalist who has authored several books on culture and art. “We didn’t play with Barbie when we were growing up. We are familiar with Lego but not Barbie. Kids here these days don’t play with Barbie either. So there is no real fan base for Barbie in Korea.”

Min Yong-joon, a Seoul-based film critic and author, agrees, adding that the film’s culturally specific humor may not have translated either.

“The humor related to Ken dressed in western outfits dreaming of imaginary horses in the real world just did not translate here,” he says. “The film had a very particular American context. The kitsch references also didn’t seem to communicate well.”

In general, Korean movies with female leads tend to struggle at the box office, but there are exceptions. The market share of the Korean film Smugglers, which opened July 26 and tells the story of a group of women who become entangled in a smuggling scheme, has sold an impressive 3.5 million tickets.

“We didn’t weigh the risks of starring female leads, because the story is built around female sea divers and they were essential to the plot,” says Kang Hye-jung, the film’s producer. “I couldn’t understand why Hollywood went so wild about Barbie, perhaps because it has never been our [toy]. In general, people are so much more selective when they go to a movie nowadays. There is no such thing as a tentpole film anymore.”

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