Korean movie industry shifts into higher gearBefore the opening of “Silmido” last December, the movie director Kang Woo-suk issued this challenge to his crew: “Write down on a piece of paper the number of people you expect will see the movie. We’re going to seal the paper in an envelope and open it up after the movie stops showing at every single theater in the country. I’ll give a bonus to the one whose number is closest to the real number of tickets sold.” When a staffer asked Mr. Kang what his guess would be, it did not take long for the director to answer, “10 million plus one.”
Nobody took Mr. Kang seriously back then. Despite his reputation for having a nose for box-office success, the number 10 million seemed little more than a pipe dream. His crew either laughed it off or took it to be wishful thinking.
Two months later, Mr. Kang’s crews are dumbstruck by the director’s intuition. By Feb. 6, “Silmido,” based on the true story of an assassination squad trained to kill Kim Il Sung, had sold nine million tickets nationwide. By the end of this week, it will reach the seemingly unattainable goal.
Ten million has always been a dream figure among Korean moviemakers. “Silmido” made that dream come true. But it doesn’t appear to be the last mega-success, as “Taegukgi” is keeping the ball rolling.
“Taegukgi,” a Korean War drama that opened Feb. 4, is already outpacing “Silmido” in audience numbers. Over its first four days, it sold about 1.8 million tickets, putting it on track to hit the dream number even faster than “Silmido” did.
What’s behind these twin successes? Why, when so much of Korean society is stagnant or depressed, is Korea’s movie scene in such high spirits?
This isn’t completely new. Korean movies have enjoyed strong growth over the past 10 years or so. But what’s happening now is like transferring from a milk train to a bullet train.
It all began in 1993 with Im Kwon-taek’s “Seopyeonje,” a tale of ill-fated singers of pansori, the traditional Korean vocal style. Attracting 2.2 million viewers, “Seopyeonje” was a record-breaking hit.
But while it took four months for that film to break the 2-million mark, all “Taegukgi” needed was a debut weekend.
Perhaps the comparison is unfair. “Seopyeonje” screened at fewer than 10 theaters; “Taegukki,” on the other hand, is showing on over 170 screens just in Seoul, and 440 nationwide.
The next milestone for contemporary Korean cinema was “Shiri,” directed by Kang Je-gyu. The 1999 film broke “Seopyeonje’s” record, selling more than 6 million tickets. Taking in 4 billion won ($3.4 million), the film qualified as a blockbuster in Korea. The director is now back with “Taegukgi,” budgeted at 19 billion won. More than 4 billion won was spent on marketing alone.
From a statistical standpoint, the turning point for Korea’s movie industry was in 1998 and 1999. As Kim Dae-jung took office, the government formed a special 150-billion- won fund to strengthen the movie industry.
From 1998 to 2002, the money amassed through various funds aimed at the movie industry reached 310 billion won. In the midst of the late-1990s economic crisis, this was the crutch that kept the industry intact. The rise of multiplexes such as CGV and Megabox may have helped, too, as the number of screens grew to 1,200.
Without quality films, however, all this support would have been for naught. Today, the Korean movie scene is a melting pot of talent, full of young faces with diverse experiences, like studying abroad or producing short films. One culture critic complained that all the best young men have moved into movies, leaving the literature circles barren. The era of letters has ended, replaced by the era of images.
Alas, success has not put a smile on every movie industry player’s face. The head of one film agency specializing in importing foreign art films heaves a deep sigh. “Out of 1,200 screens, major Korean films like “Taegukgi” and “Silmido” take up about 900, with the rest going to Hollywood films,” he said. “There’s no room for small art films.”
Kim Ji-seok, with the Pusan International Film Festival, said, “The overall success of the Korean movie industry is heartily welcomed. But what’s more important is the effort to keep and protect small art films.”
Small movie producers also have some complaints. “The average budget of a Korean film these days reaches 5 billion won, which means that at least 1.5 million tickets must be sold to meet the break-even point,” said an employee of one production house. “That is not easy in any sense. Last year, the local movie industry’s average profit was minus 10 percent, telling us that there were more productions that saw red ink than the few successful ones. Those few big hit films with giant budgets are not trustworthy indexes of the overall Korean movie market.”
It might be a bit early, it seems, for the Korean movie industry to pop the champagne.
by Lee Young-ki, Lee Hoo-nam