Escape artists: Korean directors head overseas to find audiences
Jang Sun-woo’s “Lies,” a film about an affair between a teenage girl and a middle-aged artist, was show in Venice in 1999, giving it the publicity to stir up controversy at home about the film’s pornographic content. Kim Dong-wan’s “Repatriation,” a documentary about North Korean “unconverted prisoners,” had its world premier at Sundance before it hit an art house theater in Seoul; Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman is the Future of Man” was screened at Cannes before its local premiere in 2004; “The Unforgiven,” by Yun Jong-bin, also recently held a Cannes screening to compensate for its disgrace after being sued by the Ministry of Defense for openly criticizing the Korean army. The list goes on.
Yet the irony is that many of these auteur-independent films cannot be found in Korean video stores. Some don’t even make it to screenings in regular theaters. In fact, many auteur film directors in Korea say the local market promotes a distribution network that makes it increasingly difficult for directors to survive, leading them to rely more on international festival circuits and foreign investment. That is, if your name isn’t Park Chan-wook, famous for “Oldboy,” or Bong Jun-ho, the director of “Memories of Murder.”
An article in the International Herald Tribune by Sonya Kolesnikov-Jessop recently described a similar problem for Asian filmmakers in their native countries: They increasingly have problems “connecting with their own audiences” as the domestic industry declines and Hollywood productions fill their space.
“It’s an evident phenomenon that more and more auteur films in Korea are on the downslope,” said Song Il-gon, the director of “Flower Island” and “Magicians,” who often works with small producers unaffiliated with major distributors. “The audience for art house films is still there, but most theaters don’t wait long enough for word to spread about the films. That’s the only way for small, independent films to attract attention, because there is so little money spent on the film’s marketing and PR, but the reality is that they close after two weeks.”
In Korea, there is perhaps no better example of the gap between foreign applause and domestic silence than the films of Kim Ki-duk. At home, Mr. Kim seems to be the director everyone loves to hate.
“Address Unknown,” one of his earlier films about the lives of youth growing up on a U.S. Army base in Korea, was invited to Venice in 2001. In Korea, though, the film drew only 10,000 viewers and was pulled from theaters after a week. “The Bow,” which was screened at Cannes, opened in a single theater at home without a press screening, which was a particularly unusual case for an art house film that desperately needed publicity. The film attracted 1,400 viewers in Korea. For his latest film, “Time,” Mr. Kim insisted that the movie not be released in Korean theaters.
In Europe, however, he is a film superstar. A rare case, his badge of honor as an art house director led to commercial success in Europe.
Cineclick Asia, which runs Mr. Kim’s foreign distribution, says “3-Iron,” the director’s previous film, has made about $1 million overseas. Foreign distributors, including Sony Pictures and Hopscotch, have purchased the rights to the film. His earlier film, “The Coast Guard,” which miserably failed in Korea, made $300,000 overseas.
The increasing reliance on overseas responses ― whether through foreign investment or major international festivals ― is not limited to art house films. A significant rise in overseas DVD sales has also led Korean TV dramas and commercial films to target markets outside Korea.
Kim Yun-suk, a marketing coordinator of the Hong Kong-based Yes Asia, one of the biggest online shops for DVD sales there, said that last year Korean films featuring hallyu (Korean wave) stars reached a historical peak in popularity.
Han Jeong-hwan, a distribution coordinator for DVDs at Taewon Entertainment, one of the major producers of commercial films, said exports of Korean commercial films to Japan have been steadily increasing.
“In Asia, the preference in films tends to depend notably on the cast and the genre,” said Chi Sang-eun, a senior manager of Cineclick Asia. “In Europe, however, there is a tendency to prefer works by certain directors, those who produce works that veer between typical art house films and commercial films, without being one or the other. Kim Ki-duk is a rare exception. Sales of his works have been brisk in countries outside of Korea, better than any commercial films. He is probably the most established Korean director to make low-budget, independent films that have a great commercial achievement.”
But as overseas markets become compelling targets for both commercial and auteur Korean directors, critics suspect that directors will inevitably need to compromise specific historical themes in favor of style and visual spectacle, to suit the tastes of overseas audiences.
A typical result shows in films like the Korean-Dutch co-production “Daisy,” or “Typhoon,” which set a new record for the highest production budget in Korean film history at $20 million and earned praise overseas with its release in the United States.
“Typhoon,” an action blockbuster depicting the rage of a North Korean defector, was hailed by Stephen Hunter, a film critic of the Washington Post, as “very Korean, as well as universal.” Among the critics in Korea, however, the film was bashed for recycling the themes of nationalism into a grand spectacle. One critic even dubbed the film “a giant disaster,” saying it fetishized race and nationalism.
Some directors are aware of the increasing lack of specific historical issues in Korean cinema as they rely more and more on foreign response.
In a recent press conference, Bong Jun-ho, whose latest film “The Host” is scheduled to open in Korea in July after its world premiere at this year’s Cannes, said that the main reason he decided to hold the film’s world premiere at Cannes was because it was one of the festivals that gets the most attention from the world press.
“I’m happy that I was able to earn some foreign capital at Cannes,” he said, referring to the sales of “The Host” to foreign distributors. “The audience was amused. They laughed, but there is humor in this film that can only be understood by Koreans. The foreign viewers couldn’t have understood 100 percent of the jokes in the movie. I’m nervous about the film’s release, because only a Korean audience could truly tell the film’s value.”
Kim Hwa-beom, a distributor at Indie Story, one of the biggest producers of independent films in Korea, said that by relying on foreign capital, Korean films would suffer identity issues and lose a stronger breeding ground for dynamic films.
“There is no systematic support for smaller films at the moment,” he said. “This is a bad sign for the development of a domestic market in the long run.”
by Park Soo-mee