‘Wonderful Days’ ahead?Can this be the one? Can a Korean animated feature film actually hit it big and alter the fate of other Korean animated films to follow?
That was the question on everybody’s mind just hours before the opening of “Wonderful Days,” an animated film directed by Kim Moon-saeng. The movie, opening in theaters across the peninsula tomorrow, has already drawn public attention largely because of its 12 billion won ($10 million) budget ― the largest ever for a Korean animated film ― and for the expectation it will draw record audiences.
“We hope the movie will draw an audience of at least 1 million,” said Lim Sun-young, a marketing manager of Tin House production company. “Wonderful Days” is the firm’s first movie venture. Up to now, it mainly has produced animated TV ads for fast-food restaurants and soda companies.
Without a doubt, Mr. Kim harbors high hopes that his animated feature will blast across the nation’s theaters.
Early indicators of the film’s success are phenomenal. At the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, tickets sold out for “Wonderful Days,” the festival opener, in 15 minutes.
Viewers there extolled the film’s creativity. “The drawing is somewhat different from those of Japanese and American animated films,” Mark Siegmund, a German, said after seeing the movie.
However, some folks, including Mr. Siegmund, questioned the movie’s ability to hit the big leagues on account of a weak plot. “Visually, the movie is very attractive but there’s something missing in the story that makes it incomplete,” Mr. Siegmund said.
Even in Korea, Japanese and American companies have dominated the animation business for decades. Last year, for example, Hayaho Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” captured crowds just shy of 2 million in Korea alone. Dreamworks’ “Shrek” drew another million Koreans to the theaters in 2001.
What about Korean animation?
For years, the local crowd has generally overlooked its homegrown talent, even animators who had earned praise at foreign film festivals. The movie studios putting on the local stuff never saw audiences exceed even 500,000 viewers.
Take “My Beautiful Girl, Mari,” a Korean animation flick that appeared in theaters last year. Despite winning the Annecy (France) International Animation Film Festival’s best feature award last year, it barely caused a ripple and drew just 110,000 viewers. The more recent offering, “Oseam,” came and went, seen by only 200,000.
Industry watchers are grappling to explain why Korean animation flicks failed to earn their due respect ― and audience numbers. After all, Korean animation has been around since 1967, and the industry has produced at least one film each year since then. In those 35 years, however, not one production has met with the success of Walt Disney Pictures or Japan’s Studio Ghibli, who over the years have effortlessly churned out such crowd-pleasers as “Princess Mononoke” (1997) and “Spirited Away.”
The failure of Korean animated features, even on home turf, has stemmed from local production companies’ emphasis on subcontracting work from major international film companies such as Studio Ghibli, suggested Mr. Kim.
“If you look at the end credits of major animated films, you will notice there are lots of Korean names listed,” Mr. Kim said. “We have the knowledge and the technique to create a major film.”
However, when it comes to orchestrating and combining the elements into a full-length feature, the production companies must start at the bottom, which was “the hardest part for me and my staff,” Mr. Kim said.
Though Mr. Kim earned his stripes shooting animated commercials, the 42-year-old Seoul resident confessed to having scant knowledge about directing an animated film.
Distribution problems figure as another factor in the Korean animation film industry’s lackluster performance, said Han Chang-won, a professor at Sejong University specializing in animation.
“If a movie isn’t profitable, then theater owners have to pull it down,” Mr. Han said, adding that animation films have not been successful enough to prod studios to market them more aggressively.
Based on this weak history, Mr. Kim’s attempt to release one may be perceived as foolhardy by some. But statistics and accounting figures could not discourage this devotee of animation, a fan of the genre since his childhood.
As a child, he said, “I worried that when I died I wouldn’t be able to see the cartoons that came out after my death.”
In middle school, Mr. Kim swooned over Japanese animation. This passion for another country’s product propelled him forward, as he dreamed of Koreans, including himself, producing such films on home turf.
As he put it, “I wanted to make a movie that had a Korean identity in it.”
The identity of an animation, he explained, can be found within the storyline and its characters rather than the visual drawing. Bringing this out amounts to no less than a heroic feat of creativity, said Mr. Kim: “I still have a long way to go. I’m just on the starting line.”
Right now, all eyes are focused on the industry’s future, and the potential for “Wonderful Days” to bust Korean animation from its laggard past to one on par with leading foreign studios.
According to Mr. Han, “Wonderful Days” differs from earlier Korean productions in being the first to successfully integrate two-dimensional drawings such as hand-drawn cartoons with three-dimensional work done on computers.
The release of “Wonderful Days” signifies a transition period in Korea’s animation industry, according to Mr. Han. It marks the entry into integrated two- and three-dimensional animation, whereas in the past the two were always separate.
The professor noted that “Wonderful Days” nicely exhibits Korea’s advanced technique in animation and proves the local studios can compete effectively with other leading countries.
Even Lee Chang-dong, the minister of culture and tourism, expressed amazement at how far Korean animation has progressed after viewing the movie at the Fantastic Film Festival’s opening ceremony last week.
Another factor spurring on the movie is its integration of miniatures with two- and three-dimensional animation, which constitutes a breakthrough for the animation industry.
Mr. Kim used background settings in miniature to create imitations of reality. In the film, chairs, bottles, a ship and even pipelines are all hand-crafted miniatures of the life-sized version. Mr. Kim then overlapped them with hand-drawn characters and again with computer animation.
“Three-dimensional animation may look real but it does not have the quality of gravity that makes it real,” Mr. Kim said.
“And I used two-dimensional techniques for the characters to give them more expression.” The three dimensions also added speed and action to movements.
These techniques have impressed foreign buyers so much that the film could command $800,000 from distributors in France, Greece, Yugoslavia and Spain. Distributors in Italy, Germany, Japan and the United States. are now negotiating to buy the film.
In anticipation of commercial success, Tin House will release a series of toy action figures of movie characters and other special objects found in the film. When the movie soundtrack hit the music shop racks on June 27, it sold out in no time.
The 87-minute feature, by virtue of its appearance at Puchon, has been categorized in the science fiction-fantasy genre, but its makers have described it as delving into deeper philosophical and emotional terrain. It is set in the year 2142, when man-made pollution has darkened the skies.
Mr. Kim noted that people will not view his movie the way they watch animated American or Japanese films.
“Each [country’s work] has a different quality and a different approach,” Mr. Kim said. “American films focus on family viewers; that’s why they have so much humor and the subject is mainly on family issues. Japanese animation is mostly influenced by a bleak future and that’s why most of the Japanese animated films talk about the apocalypse.”
By contrast, Mr. Kim says, Korean animated films focus on human emotions and people’s daily lives.
“I took a poetic approach to ‘Wonderful Days,’ ” Mr. Kim says. “It’s a poem of a past, present and future, introduced through five chapters.”
The five chapters are oriented around the weather: rain, representing the gloomy present; fog, the uncertain past. Streaks of lightning stand for survival and bits and pieces of the past, the wind for change, and sunlight for hope and the future.
The movie does not pose a good-versus-evil dichotomy, Mr. Kim stressed. Instead, it addresses how people should look into themselves and step away to see the world.
The big question looms: Will this movie be a major success? Nobody can say for sure.
Mr. Kim, for one, thinks so, saying Korean animation has reached the point “where the seed has turn into a bud.”
“I hope it will finally blossom,” Mr. Kim added.
by Lee Ho-jeong