X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn’s new spy film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, has been one of the quiet success stories of early 2015 — except in South Korea, where the cartoonishly violent flick starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson has become a breakout hit and cultural sensation.
Since its mid-February release, the R-rated action movie has made $298 million worldwide, with nearly $40 million of that coming in South Korea. The small country is the film’s number one foreign market— surpassing even the United Kingdom, where the movie takes place and from where most of its actors hail — and has been the first or second-ranked movie there every weekend since it opened.
The film, which was adapted from a 2012 comic book by prolific writer Mark Millar, features youngster Taron Egerton as a street-wise kid who gets recruited into a top secret spy agency in the UK by Colin Firth. It’s a combination of modern-day hyper-violence and throwback to the cheekier James Bond movies of the 1970s, but in South Korea, the movie has been positioned as a populist feature at a time when class anxiety has gripped the country.
As The Wrap’s Todd Cunningham reports, Fox, the film’s distributor, took advantage of the nation’s panic over income inequality by producing and circulating three videos that depicted incidents similar to several caught-on-tape moments that caused nationwide outrage. One mocked the so-called “nut rage” outburst, in which a Korean Air vice-chairwoman threw a tantrum and fire a flight attendant who served her nuts in a plastic bag instead of on a plate; the original incident made international headlines, and saw the executive jailed for a year.
“There were many cases of the rich abusing the weak and poor,” said Tom Oh, one of Fox’s Korea-based employees. “We decided to take advantage of this and made three videos similar to the real-life incidents to promote the film.”
Once they went viral, the videos were revealed to be Fox productions and released as higher quality productions linked to the movie.
Thanks to the film’s pseudo-populism and appeal to the country’s action-loving audiences, Kingsman has not only become a huge hit, it has also inspired fashion trends. Oddly enough, given the marketing campaign’s embrace of working-class anxiety, ticket sales have also boosted sales of double-breasted suits by 64 percent at the country’s top department store, with moviegoers apparently desperate to dress like Firth’s buttoned up spy character, Harry Hart.
The confluence of populist rage and smart marketing has led to a massive profit for a global media conglomerate and high-end retailers. Win-win!