Upcoming Korean films in limbo due to Lee Sun-kyun drug allegations

Actor Lee Sun-kyun appears at the Incheon Nonhyun Police Station for questioning on illegal drug use on Nov. 4. [NEWS1]

After being summoned by the police a second time over the weekend, actor Lee Sun-kyun admitted that he did take illegal drugs, but said he took them “unknowingly.” As the case continues to develop, all eyes are on how the upcoming big-budget projects involving the actor will pan out.

It is likely that the films that had invested big sums of money into their creation will not see the light of day, according to industry insiders.

Korea is highly conservative when it comes to how the general public views celebrities involved in crimes related to drugs, sex and drunk driving. The three biggest broadcasters, KBS, MBC and SBS, have a mandate to restrict actors and singers who have committed crimes from making appearances, and once a celebrity has been convicted of a crime, that is usually the end of their career.

Lee is currently being investigated by the Incheon Police Agency for allegedly using marijuana and psychotropic drugs, and has filed a lawsuit against the manager of a membership-only adult entertainment establishment. The actor argues that he was “deceived” by the unnamed 29-year-old female manager and that he was blackmailed afterward.

Actor Lee Sun-kyun appears at the Incheon Nonhyun Police Station for questioning on illegal drug use on Nov. 4. [NEWS1]

The “Parasite” actor has two films lined up: “Project Silence,” produced and distributed by CJ ENM, and “The Land of Happiness,” from production company Next Entertainment World (NEW). Both are said to have already wrapped up principal filming and editing.

“Project Silence” reportedly cost 20 billion won ($15 million) to make and received a standing ovation at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival where it was screened. Lee plays Cha Jeong-won, a presidential aide who is stuck on a falling bridge and must try to save the citizens who are scrambling to survive. As Lee had one of the leading roles in the film, it is next to impossible for the filmmakers to edit him out, according to industry insiders.

“Lee’s character is central to the story and it would be nonsensical to edit out his scenes — that would destroy the whole story,” said an anonymous production company manager who has already seen a screening of “Project Silence.” “It is very unfortunate for CJ ENM, that an actor who has been involved in such a high-budget film has been implicated in a drug case.”

Actor Lee Sun-kyun poses for a photo during the Cannes International Film Festival held in Cannes, France, on May 21. [NEWS1]

CJ ENM’s films this year have all been tanking, with “Phantom,” “The Moon” and “Dr. Cheon and Lost Talisman” all being unable to meet the breakeven point. Now with the release of “Project Silence” unclear, the company could face billions of losses.

“We are seriously discussing the matter [of when to release ‘Project Silence’] internally,” a spokesperson for CJ ENM told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It is a very pressing issue, and we are watching the progress of what is happening with the investigation. We have not yet reached the point of starting discussions for the release date of ‘Project Silence,’ and will respond when more details [of the case] are made public by the police.”

“The Land of Happiness” is not facing much better prospects either, with Lee having taken on a leading role again in this film. A spokesperson for NEW told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the company is “closely watching the results of the police investigation” and that “the film is in the post-production stage, and we have yet to discuss release dates.”

But the reality of the matter is that the release of both these projects could be postponed indefinitely, according to critic Kim Hern-sik.

“There is a possibility that both of Lee’s projects could never be released,” Kim said.

Contracts drawn up between actors and production companies in Korea often include a clause that states that when and if actors cause “social controversy that could hurt the project,” they are liable to pay back twice the amount they were paid to appear in the project. But such clauses are not mandatory, and it is unclear whether such clauses were included in Lee's contracts for “Project Silence” and “The Land of Happiness.” CJ ENM and NEW did not comment on the matter.

A scene from ″Project Silence,″ a film produced and distributed by CJ ENM featuring Lee Sun-kyun [CJ ENM]

The standard contracts that actors sign also recommend that, should a dispute arise, the production company and the actor resolve it autonomously, mentioning civil lawsuits as the go-to solution. In the end, even if an actor causes a controversy and affects the timing of a work’s release, it is difficult for production companies to receive compensation through measures such as the refunding of appearance fees.

“I have seen cases where an actor leaves a project midway due to having caused a social controversy and the production company files a civil lawsuit, but there aren't many cases like that,” said an employee of a production company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think production companies need to come up with mechanisms to be able to demand damage compensation from actors.”

“The structure of the film industry and the way earnings and incentives are divided now rely too much on when and if a project successfully releases,” Kim said. “The industry needs to come up with a new structure where the staff of film projects can be paid before the release of a film, so that cases like Lee’s don’t hurt the prospects of everyone involved.”

To find out more about Lee Sun-kyun, visitCeleb Confirmed