[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]Korean cinema comes into its ownEighth in a Series
The rise of Asia in the late 20th century has been seen mostly in economic terms - but there has also been a dynamic growth of popular culture in Asia and the globalization of trade has been followed by cultural intercourse.
While Hollywood films and American TV shows dominate most territories, Asian pop culture has reached beyond traditional domestic and regional markets. For example, Japanese manga and anime, Hong Kong action and Korean TV soap operas have all found international audiences. More recently Hong Kong movie stars have been followed to Hollywood by Korean stars like Rain (in “Speed Racer”) and Yunjin Kim (in the very popular television series “Lost”).
Hong Kong cinema dominated the Asian industry in the 1980s but when its markets declined in the 1990s, its talent either went to Hollywood or the industry re-invented itself using the mainland Chinese hinterland to go global, a process that took almost a decade to succeed. As Hong Kong cinema re-strategized, a “new” Asian film industry emerged - in Korea.
Korea has a long and rich tradition of filmmaking, notably with Na Woon-gyu’s “Arirang” that initiated the “golden age of silent cinema” in the late 1920s and between 1955-1969. At the time the filmmaking center of Chungmuro was vibrant, and movie companies and stars drove the industry. These were the years of the “greats” - Kim Ki-yong (whose 1955 “Yang Sang Province” helped bring about this new era), Shin Sang-ok, Im Kwon-taek, Lee Man-hee and Chung Chang-wha, among others.
Like their peers in the region they began as apprentices and became masters of their craft. They showed versatility over a range of genres from romances through historical epics and biopics to action. They worked in an industry striving to meet audience demand in an emerging modernized, cosmopolitan society. Their filmographies, like the studio directors of Hollywood, Hong Kong and Japan, are prolific. Im Kwon-taek for example, completed his 100th film last year.
While the foundations laid by this “golden age” were eroded by stricter government requirements in the 1970s, the ground was cleared for a new cinema during the reforms of the 1980s. The censorship system was liberalized to gradually remove strictures on political expression, and the closed distribution system was opened up to more foreign imports while retaining a screen quota system for local productions. During this decade, Korean cinema began to attract international notice.
In the transitional era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, filmmakers like Jang Sun-woo and Park Kwang-su provided the first step toward the new Korean cinema. Park’s “Chilsu and Mansu” (1988) expressed frustrations with contemporary society and its references to political prisoners and arranged marriages were groundbreaking. Just one decade separates Chilsu and Mansu from “Shiri” but the difference seems like light years. In Shiri the depiction of North Korean terrorists departed from the usual stereotypes and reflected the new freedom to discuss sensitive political issues.
Equally important, director Kang Je-gyu’s film proved that the local industry could produce a well-made action thriller comparable to some from Hollywood. With Shiri we witness the maturing of an ambitious industry.
The industry had its ups and downs, but what is remarkable in this journey through the 1990s was its resilience. It rebounded from an all-time low of 16 percent of local market share in 1993 (when foreign imports increased after distribution was liberalized).
It turned the Asian financial crisis of 1997 to its advantage. When big corporations pulled out of the film business, venture capital companies stepped in to fund the debut of young filmmakers.
This combination of money and talent rebuilt the industry and propelled it into the 21st century.
The years 1996?2000 cannot be underestimated in their importance. From the establishment of the Pusan International Film Festival in 1996 (now the major film festival in Asia), to the first films by a battalion of young directors, Korean cinema was ascendant.
Overnight it had become a self-sustaining territory with the kind of box office that could maintain a multifaceted industry with an ability to cater to the mainstream, as well as push the aesthetic envelope. It was an entire industry with stars, auteurs, themes and genres.
Unlike their immediate predecessors, these filmmakers were striving to make personally ambitious films with commercial appeal. Mark Siegmund of the Seoul Film Commission has observed Korean cinema on the ground since 1999: “The younger generation, who didn’t have to go to the streets to fight for democracy, started to concentrate more on the individual, on leisure including entertainment and cultural ‘consumption.’ Korean cinema was young, fresh, innovative, exciting to watch. Always surprising.”
As interest in high-quality productions increased, local sales companies such as Mirovision sprung up. Korean films could now be aggressively marketed as distinct products rather than sold through foreign intermediaries. At the same time the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation, which had been in operation since 1973, was re-structured and renamed the Korean Film Council.
Kofic is unique in Asia for its breadth of support activities that encompass overseas promotion, grants for local production, operating a studio and school, participating in film investment funds and training programs. Kofic has, for the outside world, become an important point of contact and information on current developments in the local film industry.
The years between 2001 and 2006 are marked by films that broke box office records and expansion into regional markets. Kwak Jae-yong’s “My Sassy Girl” (2001), a romantic comedy based on an Internet novel, recorded a high of 4.9 million in ticket sales at home and then became a very big hit around Asia, starting a craze for all things Korean in the region and total box office earnings of $26 million, including $14 million in Hong Kong, a staggering amount for the small territory.
The blockbuster hits made Korean cinema seem unstoppable. “Sil-mido” (2003), a thriller about the training of commandos for a secret plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in the 1960s, was the first film to cross 10 million in ticket sales.
Success was not only confined to local blockbusters. In 2003 Kim Ki-duk’s low budget “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” a quiet film about a Buddhist monk going through the seasons of his life, did not do well at home but grossed almost $10 million overseas, an international record.
The industry hit its high point in 2005 and 2006. The former year is remembered for the record volume of foreign sales as film exports totalled some $76 million. Japan accounted for $60 million of those sales and Korean films came second only to Hollywood in the number of foreign films released. Also in 2006, the gay menage-a-trois period costume drama “King and the Clown” set a record of 12.3 million in ticket sales.
That record did not last long; the summer release of Bong Joon-ho’s mutant monster movie “The Host” set a new record of 13 million tickets. At this point, Korean films commanded a box office share of around 65 percent of the domestic market, one of the highest in the world.
Korean films for most of these years had now captured 50 to 60 percent of the local market, beating Hollywood for the first time in decades. Helped by the new multiplexes that had been built around the country, revenues between 1999 and 2003 more than doubled from $276 million in 1999 to $671 million in 2003.
Korean films were also doing well on the international film festival circuit. Park Chan-wook emerged as perhaps the major auteur of the new generation with a series of films that are highlighted by the powerful “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and the intriguing DMZ drama “JSA,” culminating with the internationally acclaimed 2004 Cannes film festival winner “Old boy.”
The latter film is based on a Japanese manga about a man who seeks revenge for his mysterious imprisonment. Baroque, outrageous, visually exciting with an iconic performance by Choi Min-sik, the film was at that time the most talked-about Korean film around the world.
Overseas, The Host did well in the most difficult market, the United States. As a foreign film with subtitles, it was marketed as an art house film. The strategy succeeded, and The Host took the top North American spot for any Korean film of all time. To date it remains the most successful Korean film ever with a box office gross of around $90 million, of which about one-third is from international sales.
Despite these successes however, the downturn began in 2007. The inflow of capital into the film industry led to higher production but lower returns as more films competed for exhibition space. Japanese cinema had also ramped up production, and the bottom fell out of that market for Korean films.
To cap it all, the screen quota system was reduced from 106-146 to 73 days a year for local films.
The intrinsic values of Korea’s films and industry bodes well for the future. Hollywood, largely through the efforts of Korean-American producer Roy Lee, has bought up to 15 Korean films (and counting) for American remakes. Only a portion of these films will make it to the screen but it shows that Korean films still have some of the best ideas in the world that can transcend national boundaries.
The Korean film industry has indeed come a long way. The advances of the past decade, in particular, have given the nation an industry whose business and creativity have earned the respect and recognition of the international community.
The Korean film industry is on par with the top producing nations, with a host of talent and some of the most exciting films to have come out of Asia in recent years, and its domestic market is still one of the best in the world.
With the increased activity of Hollywood in Asia, it is now perhaps not so much a question of national Asian cinemas “going Hollywood” as Hollywood “going Asian.”
As that happens, the Korean industry with its solid infrastructure and creative spirit will be there as a major player.
*Roger Garcia was director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and is now a writer, producer and film festival consultant. As a producer he has worked in Hollywood, U.S. television and on independent films in Asia. He is program consultant for film festivals in the United States and Europe.
by Roger Garcia
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