A joint success story

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A joint success story

"Joint Security Area," the hit Korean movie of 2000, finally reached the shores of Europe this summer.

The film, better known as "JSA," recently opened in Germany and has generated something of a buzz about the actor Christoph Hofrichter. Hofrichter, one of two German actors in the film, played a Swiss general in the movie.

"JSA" is a political drama involving the mysterious deaths of young soldiers from both North and South Korea. The film takes place at the Demilitarized Zone, or the joint security area along the 38th parallel. The film won numerous prizes, including Best Foreign Language Film from Japan's Blue Ribbon Awards, a Best Picture award at the Asian Film Festival in Deauville, France, and a New Director's Showcase Special Jury Prize in the Seattle International Film Festival in Washington state.

Early this month, when the movie opened in Germany, it was Hofrichter alone -- or sometimes accompanied by his fellow German actor, Herbert Ulrich -- who flew everywhere, making appearances and giving interviews, while the Korean actors kept busy promoting "JSA" in Taiwan.

Hofrichter, 55, a film and theater actor since 1967, appears in two scenes in "JSA" -- in the beginning of the movie and at the end, in which he issues an order to Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae), the female lead, a major in the Swiss Army. Although his part in the film is considered minor, Hofrichter's active role in promoting the Korean film and Korea has been major. During the three weeks he spent on the peninsula to film his part of the movie, Hofrichter says he was deeply taken with Korea and its people. In March 2001, when the "JSA" team visited France to compete in a film festival, Hofrichter flew there to wish his friends good luck from "back home."

In Korea, Hofrichter worked with some of the Korean film industry's best: the director Park Chan-wook, the actors Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-heon and Song Kang-ho, and Myung Films, one of Korea's biggest producers and marketing geniuses, and CJ Entertainment, a founding partner of DreamWorks in the United States and the distribution powerhouse that connects a vast international and domestic network. CJ Entertainment also owns CGV, the biggest multiplex theater chain in Korea.

Released on Sept. 9, 2000 as "Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok" in Korea, a translation of "JSA," it grossed $28 million domestically in 2000 and 2001 combined. After the film reaped an additional $12 million in Japan in 2001, CJ Entertainment began to push the movie toward Europe. "JSA" was sold to Russia, France, Scandinavia and the other Asian countries ?all except for mainland China because the content of the film was considered too political. By early next month, "JSA," dubbed in German, will be showing in 22 theaters in 15 major German cities including Berlin, Cologne and Munich. In September, it will move to Austria and Switzerland.

Has "JSA" been profitable in Europe? "Not yet, it's too early to determine." said Mark Yoon, an international sales executive with CJ Entertainment. "But one thing is clear: 'JSA' is one of only a few Asian films released in Germany."

Yoon adds, "After the release of the two Korean films 'The Isle' and 'JSA' in Europe, we're just trying to expose Korean films. Korean films are perhaps the most exciting product coming out of Asia. They're gaining a lot of attention and critical acceptance at film festivals."

To release "JSA" in Germany was a tough, time-consuming task that took nearly two years to accomplish. In fact, "JSA" was one of the few Asian films to be released nationwide in Germany, a country that strictly regulates the showing of foreign language films.

"Unlike American movies, which have local offices to plan ahead of time, Korean films didn't have that kind of systemic approach," Yoon said. "Two years ago, few Korean films were available in the international market, and no one had a serious interest. Now the processing it needs to market and promote Korean films picked up, and the response time is getting quicker. Some Korean films nowadays are planning marketing when only scripts are written. With 'Musa: The Warrior,' the processing at the global scale will be much shorter. We're looking forward to its big release this year."

Hofrichter is glad to be part of the wide exposure of "JSA" and Korea. The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently talked with him about his role in the film.

How did "JSA" change your life?

On Jan. 21, 2000, I got a casting call while skiing in the Tyrolean Alps. I was on a ski lift when my mobile phone rang. An agent in Berlin/Bessau asked me if I would like to be in a film in Korea. Almost immediately I raced down to the valley to follow up the call. On April 23, I arrived at Gimpo airport. Coming to Korea and meeting its wonderful people changed my life and broadened my horizons. Working with the director Park Chan-wook and the excellent Korean actors were milestones in my career. I have never experienced such quality work in the German film industry. Park Chan-wook had cast for the roles of a Swedish officer and Swiss general from Germany. His intention opened to me an opportunity to work with Koreans.

What was your perception of the DMZ?

The concept of the DMZ was Germany, which had been divided over 40 years into two states, a communist state and a democracy. But the DMZ with Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area was harder and more inhuman than the former German wall. Ours was somehow more orderly.

What is your nationality and ethnic background?

I was born in Stuttgart. My mother was half Austrian, my father came from Silesia, which became part of Poland after World War II. Ethnically, I am German, a "postwar mixture."

What was it like to be there in person at the DMZ and doing a movie on the DMZ?

The situation on the DMZ was familiar to me. I had lived many years in the divided Berlin by "The Wall." To get to Berlin, one had to drive across a transit street and be checked by communist soldiers. I can compare that sentiment to the Korean situation. I've felt a great understanding and sympathy for the destiny of Korea.

Some people said your German accent doesn't sound real.

I play the Swiss UN General Major Bruno Botta. He comes from Zurich. His native language is German. He speaks English in Korea, as an international language. So, as with many Koreans, English is a foreign language to him. I emphasized my German accent to be particularly "real." In person, I speak English with a less strong German accent. Perhaps they are used to perfect English through American or English-speaking films.

How is "JSA" doing in Europe now?

The film has been well received. In Cologne and Munich, it sold out. Major newspapers have printed great reviews about the movie. The film opened on July 11 in my native city of Stuttgart. I hope many viewers will see it. But it was very strange because, being dubbed, all the Koreans suddenly spoke fluent German.

In September, it will be showing in Austria and with subtitles in Switzerland, the "native country" of Sophie Jean and General Major Bruno Botta in the movie.

As far as the German film market is concerned, you don't know how difficult it is to bring a film like "JSA" here. Everything is blocked by American film companies and unsuccessful subsidized German films. In reality, American films make up 80-90 percent of the German movie market, and the remaining portion is divided among French, Italian, British/Irish and German films. Not being presented in Cannes, Venice nor Berlin will lead to attracting no more than about 10 percent of German audiences to their own films! German films and distributors are subsidized by the state and television organizations, so a flop doesn't ruin a producer or a distributor. One can say that the German movie market is "stopped up" by its own films. It's clear in the end, when such a great international success with a film like "JSA" from a smaller country in Asia comes into comparison, the German market's own weaknesses and failures become apparent.

What did you do to help promote "JSA"?

I went to the premiere of "JSA" in Seoul two years ago and celebrated with all my Korean friends and colleagues at a bar. At a karaoke room, I sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" with Lee Young-ae, the lead actress, and Lee Kang-bok, the president of CJ Entertainment. At the end, we sang the song from our film together as we stood in a circle the way the Korean soccer team did during the World Cup. Since then, I feel I belong to the "Myung [Films] family."

I've tried my best to support "JSA" in Germany. There were stories in major newspapers and on television. I have given several interviews. The premiere of the original version took place in Frankfurt on July 1 at the Korean Consul. The event was attended by representatives of Hyundai, Samsung and a lot of Koreans living in Germany. I got homesick for Korea when I saw all the Korean actors on screen again. My future plan is this: I would like to work as an actor in Korea again.

What did the World Cup mean to you?

I spoke on the phone to the friends in Seoul and said before or after the matches in which the Korean team played: "My heart beats for Korea!" I downloaded the Korean flag from the Internet and stuck it on my car. At the matches against Italy, Spain and even against Germany, I lighted a candle in front of the television set to wish for Korean victory. I guess the candle didn't help.

by Inēs Cho

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