Korean Indie Film Industry StagnatesThe owners of the Dong-soong Cinematheque knew that they would be catering to a small audience by showing only indie art films in its theater. They did not, however, expect to find their theater as empty as it stands today. Even 'Beautiful People'(1999), a film that garnered tremendous reviews at the Cannes Film Festival last year, attracted less than 1,000 ticket sales in Seoul. The situation at Dong-soong is a manifestation of rumors that abound in the Korean film industry: “Art films can't survive in Korea.”
The first person to operate a theater running art films exclusively was Lee Kwang-mo, with his film company Baekdudaekan. Lee directed the highly acclaimed 'Spring in My Hometown' in 199. He conjectures that there are approximately 4,000 Koreans who are actively interested in art films. Baekdudaekan's latest release, 'My Village in a Picture' sold only 3,000 tickets. Despite being lauded by international film pundits at the Berlin Film Festival and its uncomplicated plot, the film failed to attract moviegoers domestically.
In 1998, Yulga Film opened 'Oz,' a movie theater showcasing classic movies like 'Casablanca,' in the Kangnam area of Seoul. With fewer than 2,000 members after two years of operation, Yulga recently was forced to sell Oz to an internet company as a last resort in order to solve its financial woes.
The consensus is that the domestic film industry grows and progresses optimally when a balance is struck between commercially viable movies and independent art films. Unfortunately, that balance in Korea's film industry seems to be getting more and more lopsided.
Korea attained its indie art film heyday in 1995 when more than 30,000 moviegoers bought tickets for indies such as 'The Sacrifice' (1986) and 'Nostalgia' (1983), directed by renowned but notoriously abstruse director Andrei Tarkovsky. This enthusiasm was fleeting however and soon faded.
Conversely, scholarly work and occupations related to the film industry have increased considerably since the mid-90s. Approximately 20 universities have added film studies to their list of majors since 1995. Also, countless movie clubs fostering independent and experimental films have been founded and continue to operate actively. More than 70 film-related internet sites exist and myriad film magazines boast high subscription rates. Yet art films still fail dismally in Korea.
A cinema studies professor, who requested anonymity, expressed his dismay at the puzzling situation: “The small audience sizes at art films indicate just how abnormal the film industry is in Korea. Just as reading the great classics forms the basis of a great literary education, so does watching a lot of top-quality films form the bedrock for every film student. Students these days don't realize that you learn about films by watching other films. They think that having a lot of information is all that is required to produce a great piece of film.”
Independent art films nowadays find very little support from those involved in production. Only a few years ago, low-budget films were en vogue in Chungmuro, an area in downtown Seoul dotted with movie production companies. Movies by director Lim Sun-rye, such as 'Three Friends' (1996) and 'Barricade' (1997), were touted for their experimental plots and low-budget production costs. Today, however, no mention is made of low-budget movies in Chungmuro. Everyone knows that only movies sporting actors with star value do well. This trend has resulted in the making of mostly mediocre movies bordering somewhere between commercial and art films. This year's movie 'Interview,' by director Byun Hyuk, exemplifies such mediocrity. Although originally conceived as a film questioning the meaning of 'film' by alternating between documentary and fictional segments, 'Interview's final release inclines heavily towards the fictional aspect with stars Shim Eun-ha and Lee Jung-jae playing the main roles. The movie attracted only 170,000 moviegoers in Seoul. In spite of its star actors and its high production costs, the movie flopped at the box office.
A few months ago, Japanese director Chukamoto Sinya visited Korea and provided some insights into the Japanese film industry: “It's really difficult to make a non-commercial film in Japan as well. It's amazing how I can make such experimental films within such an unsuitable environment.”
Japan fares better than Korea, however, due to a system that the Japanese industry has implemented that supports indie films.
Young directors work with crew members dedicated to work for free. These movies are then shown in small art theaters for one or two weeks before the rights are sold to video and television production companies. Consequently, directors have the liberty to make experimental and artistic films without the constant interference of investors demanding commercial profitability. This system fosters the creation of novel films; foreign investors are attracted by the originality and cutting-edge quality of the films.
Korea is teeming with cinema studies majors and prospective film directors. But will Chungmuro be able to help them reach their potential? Most likely, it will continue to discourage creativity and dedication and perpetuate a system that produces sub-par films. If the Korean film industry is to progress and improve, it must formulate a new support and distribution system in which independent/art film production companies and theater companies can both thrive.
by Lee Young-ki