‘Taegukgi’ director aims only to pleaseFor a local movie to reach several million viewers was a big deal in the late 1990s. In 1999, when the Korean blockbuster “Shiri,” which sold more than 6 million tickets in Korea, broke the 1 million viewer mark in Japan, the director Kang Je-gyu, his film crew and distributors threw a party at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo.
This year, another blockbuster, “Silmido,” broke another previously unthinkable mark, 10 million viewers. But Mr. Kang’s “Taegukgi,” which opened nationwide on Feb. 5, is closing in fast.
Mark Yoon, who heads Kangjegyu Films’ international business division, is confident about the Korean war movie’s box office performance. “As of this week, ‘Silmido’ and ‘Taegukgi’ will be neck and neck,” he said. “By early April, ‘Taegukgi’ will surpass ‘Silmido.’”
Having conquered Korean audiences, “Taegukgi” is ready to enter a new stage: the rest of the world.
Soon after the opening of “Taegukgi” in Korea, Mr. Yoon spent two weeks in Santa Monica earlier this month to sell the film at the American Film Market. It is considered one of the world’s biggest film markets, along with Cannes and Milan International Film Exhibition and Multimedia.
Mr. Yoon said he’s satisfied with buyers’ response to the film at the screening, with sales at least three times bigger than that of any other Korean film. Even so, he believes that making it big in the United States will take a long time.
“The emotional factor was similar to what we saw in Korea,” he said, “but beyond that, we’re trying to sell the film to different countries. Buyers may understand and love the film, but it still is a challenging market where [Korean] stars are not known.
“Although [‘Taegukgi’] is reviewed as a ‘very well-made Hollywood film,’ making it in America is about whether a middle-class average Joe might watch it. We have come up with a couple of unique tactics. We’re in the process of finding the right distribution partner, but we haven’t married anyone yet.”
While “Silmido” will open in other parts of Asia starting in April, “Taegukgi’s” international screenings will begin in Europe, with openings scheduled in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Benelux and Scandinavian countries in the fall. By the end of June, “Taegukgi” will open in Japan nationwide, and other Asian nations, such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, will follow. The U.S. release is expected to be around September.
“‘Taegukgi’ will be one of the biggest releases for an Asian film in Japan, and we’re expecting a big hope for generating as much revenues as Korea. In Korea, the movie is expected to generate over $100 million in total sales from theaters, videos and television, and we expect a similar magnitude in Japan as well, hopefully within this year,” Mr. Yoon said.
The new goals for Kangjegyu Films have been set: 13 million viewers in Korea, or even higher, and the No. 1 spot in Japan, whose market is second only to the United States.
“In Europe and U.S., we want to be able to have a good theatrical release so that the audience realizes the potential of Korean films. Previously, Korean films were mostly played in arthouse theaters in limited quantity or were released straight to video only,” Mr. Yoon said.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Mr. Kang about “Taegukgi” production in his office in southern Seoul.
Q. As a Korean film director, do you ever feel frustrated about the coverage of Korean films in international media?
A. Non-Korean film critics and journalists have tried to put Korean movies into a kind of “frame.” Those frames are usually political and social. After the Korean War, the only news coverage Korea got outside Korea was about North Korean situations. Political turmoil and ideologies especially in the 1990s and the screen quota, and the like... Those kind of noisy problems surfaced in the international press. So, they tried to relate those circumstances to movies.
To many Korean filmmakers, though, these things didn’t factor into the making of their movies. We just make movies, that’s all. Just like any other directors around the world, movies are about personal imagination.
“Taegukgi” has been compared to Hollywood war movies.
I’m aware of the fact that “Taegukgi” is often compared with “Saving Private Ryan.” But why? I don’t understand. Is that the only movie that critics have seen?
It’s the first time for Korean filmmaking to employ special effects and explosives that scale into a war setting, but the techniques used in my movie, such as the way blood splatters on a soldier’s face, the way the camera captures an explosion in which each bit of shrapnel hurls in mid-air ― they give the most realistic effect. Those techniques are universal in all war movies.
It is as if they were looking for clues from the movies they were most familiar with. If there were anything similar, it just cannot be “Ryan,” but maybe “Band of Brothers.” If anything were closer, then it could have been “We Were Soldiers.”
But that’s critics. I don’t make movies to please only a few people.
There are two kinds of movies, ones loved by the general public, which are usually hated by critics. When critics love it, then the movie fails at the box office.
What’s important to you in making films?
I had the general public in mind in the first place, and I’ve been very keen on pleasing, if possible, as many viewers as possible.
There are some directors who prioritize what they want in their works, but then there are directors who know what works on the screen to bring what’s called “satisfaction.”
Within those two, three hours, how can I deliver satisfaction to the most number of people? What sort of impact can the movie bring to the audience? ― I’ve been eager to deliver that onto the screen. According to a survey by [ad booking agency] DAVE company, “Taegukgi” topped the category of “audience satisfaction.”
That sense of satisfaction is a complex thing. It embraces many factors ―psychological, emotional, physical... If you’re satisfied, whatever that exact element may be, that’s good enough for me.
I’m so keenly aware of my audience that I’ve tried very hard to reflect their interest in my movies in the past.
What is the Korean audience like?
The Korean audience has particular characteristics. To most American audiences, movies are just a way of passing time: Hey, let’s go see a movie, buy some popcorn and enjoy ourselves. No serious expectations, before and after. There are a number of different genres of movies and they simply accept that. They accept the way directors are, the way movies are.
Koreans are not like that. They want to put movies into fixed categories and tend to expect a movie to offer them something heavy and profound. And they cannot accept it when a director or his movie doesn’t belong to simple categories.
Hong Kong movies are just one of a kind. A lot of Koreans grew up watching those fun movies made for entertainment.
Even if Koreans say Jackie Chan is just for entertainment and those action flicks are not supposed to be “really significant,” the actor has a place in many of us who grew up watching his movies. Many Koreans don’t want to accept that.
There are different values or ideas or works, but they have a hard time accepting it. But a movie is just a movie.
What kind of research did you do to make “Taegukgi”?
I watched about 20 war movies from all over the world. Of Korean films, I watched mostly documentaries on Korean wars, from which I based my research.
War movies usually carry ― apart from the treacherous destiny of mankind and destructive aspects ― strong, winning themes of heroism, or strategic collaboration among soldiers, ideologies, etc. So I needed to incorporate the generality of war movies made in modern times.
But to me, a war is so personal. First of all, you are separated from loved ones, you’re lonely and in pain. It’s grimy and all... But it’s a very, very sad situation for anyone and everyone.
I’ve looked at existing movies, but thankfully, none is about the personal sadness in a war. That sadness, the personal feeling is universal, and that’s perhaps what makes “Taegukgi” unique and can appeal to international viewers.
You had planned for an international release.
Asians are now ready to accept Korean movies, but Westerners are not.
Showing movies is like throwing a fancy dinner party. If people out there know about the event, they would volunteer to come, but there are great parties some people are just reluctant to attend because they are not familiar with them. So party organizers hire promoters.
In Asian markets, the popularity of Korean stars or programs has surged, fortunately. At first, directors nor producers didn’t expect such success outside Korea, so without any systematic strategies, Korean productions continued to expand.
Now it’s about time the Korean entertainment industry established a system to promote the strength of Korean products.
But this has to do with Korean culture. Humility and humbleness are considered great virtues in Korean customs. You’re not to speak loudly about your work or fame. Most Korean industry professionals stay rather mute about their creative works or talent, which is not necessarily good in Western markets. Koreans need to learn aggressive, systematic promotion skills.
How is “Taegukgi” doing internationally?
Representatives from major distributors, such as Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Columbia, attended the screening in Korea, and we’re in touch with others as well.
I know Western movie industry professionals rarely cry watching movies. My partners who worked on promoting “Taegukgi” at the American Film Market told me a lot of them were crying at the screening.
The representatives are contacting major distributors to release “Taegukgi” in international markets. We hope to close our deals by the end of Cannes.
by Ines Cho