Art film gets comfortable in mainstream theatersThough Kim Dong-won, 49, has made independent documentary films since 1988, theaters have balked at showing his works, which were hardly box office hits. Other than at small indie film festivals, opportunities to appreciate films by Korea’s “godfather of independent film” were rare to nonexistent.
Fortunately, Mr. Kim’s 2003 film “Songhwan (Repatriation)” became an exception. Supported by a group of art house theaters collectively known as Art Plus, “Repatriation” opened March 19 at five theaters nationwide.
Cinephiles have responded by going in droves to this two-and-a-half hour documentary of former political prisoners who spent decades in jail for refusing to give up their pro-North views.
In the 10 days since its opening, the film has attracted 10,000 moviegoers. Though that figure may seem paltry at a time when local blockbusters sell 10 million tickets, in the independent film scene it is tantamount to a miracle, according to an Art Plus official.
Expatriates are being courted by these theaters as well. Starting Saturday, the film will screen with English subtitles at Hypertheque Nada in Daehangno, central Seoul at 11 a.m. on weekends and holidays.
Theater staff said they got the idea of featuring subtitles after seeing several foreigners buy tickets for shows without subtitles. Because “Repatriation” was screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, subtitles had already been made, so adding them to the screenings was not a problem.
At Sundance, “Repatriation” made its mark as the first Korean film to win an award at the festival; the director received a Freedom of Expression award. Back home, the Korean Film Commission granted Mr. Kim 70 million won ($60,000) so that he could transfer his documentary from digital film to regular film.
With that support, the director and his production team began exploring ways to launch films without help from mainstream distributors. Teaming up with Indie Story, a distributor of independent films, Mr. Kim budgeted 14 million won on marketing but allotted the remainder to making a film print out of digital data.
The final hurdle was finding a theater to screen an indie film. That’s where Art Plus, established last year by the Korean Film Commission, stepped in.
This group of 10 theaters nationwide was looking for a domestic art film to promote and considered “Repatriation” a solid candidate. Two weeks after opening ― the minimum time that Art Plus will screen a film ― the group’s first selection is going strong.
Commercial movies tend to generate the most ticket sales during their first weekend and slowly die out, but “Repatriation” sold more tickets during its second weekend, according to Hypertheque Nada. Encouraged by the movie’s success, the CGV multiplex in Incheon has also decided to screen the film.
One Art Plus official says the movie remains strong. “Repatriation” will serve as a test case, she says, to see whether independent film is more likely to thrive with an independent distribution system.
Unlike some mainstream films that leave the theaters after only a week, “Repatriation” may keep running for weeks to come.
by Chun Su-jin
Tickets cost 6,500 won ($5.50) for English-subtitled morning screenings and 7,000 won for afternoon shows. Hypertheque Nada in Daehangno, northern Seoul, can be reached from Hyehwa Station on subway line No. 4. For more information, call (02) 766-3390, ext. 293.