Korean film

Mark Schilling schill at gol.com
Fri Mar 10 03:00:30 EST 2000

Stephen asked for additional info on the state of production in Korea.

FYI, here's an analysis piece I wrote for Screen International based on
interviews at last year's Pusan Film Festival. It's a bit dated but the
basic points, I think, are still valid. 

Mark Schilling

Re: Korean news analysis

Pusan: Give Korean filmmakers credit -- the Japanese may have a bigger
market and the Hong Kong Chinese a higher international profile, but among
their Asian colleagues they are unrivaled in their determination to keep
their industry alive and thriving, by any means necessary. 
	This determination has been most dramatically expressed in the industry's
long, bitter struggle against what it considers Hollywood's attempts to
wipe it out of existence. Korean filmmakers fervent defense of the quota
system, which requires local exhibitors to set aside at least 106 days a
year for Korean films, is the most prominent example. The campaign by the
Motion Picture Producers Association to end the quota, as part of the talks
over the Korea-US Bilateral Investment Treaty, has inspired rallies,
vigils, protests and a nationwide petition drive over the past year. 
	Indications by the Korean government that it is willing to ease the quota
as a means of moving the negotiations forward have been denounced by quota
defenders, who stand firm against any compromise. At last month's Pusan
International Film Festival representatives of the Emergency Committee to
Protect the Screen Quota System issued a statement proclaiming that "The
Korean film industry cannot be a bargaining scapegoat" and calling on the
industry to halt all production on December 1 in protest." "The US's
persistence in trying to abolish the screen quota system in Korea is a sad
reminder that human values and decency have no relevance when avarice
rules," said the statement, which was signed by leading Korean film
directors, actors, producers and scholars. 
	But while manning the barricades and heaving verbal Molotov cocktails at
Jack Valenti, the industry has taken more positive steps to ensure its
survival in the next millennium. One is the Pusan International Film
Festival, which has emerged, in the four years of its existence, as the
most vibrant event of its kind in Asia. Whereas other Asian festivals,
including those in Hong Kong and Tokyo, have been beset by budgetary and
other problems, Pusan has forged ahead with the backing of the government
and the local business community, as well as the enthusiasm of local film
fans. Attendance at this year's festival was 163,168, with 63 films
enjoying sold-out screenings. 
	While presenting a wide spectrum of world and Asian cinema, the festival
has also served as an international showcase for Korean films. "Before
Korean producers didn't think much about the overseas market," said
festival programmer Lee Yong Kwan, "but with the Pusan Film Festival our
films are getting more international exposure -- it's made a big impact on
the industry." 
	At this year's edition, from October 14 to 23, the program included an
eleven-film Korean Panorama that presented not only arthouse fare, but
several recent commercial films, including two of the biggest Korean box
office hits of 1999 -- Nowhere to Hide and Phantom, The Submarine. The
crowd of foreign festival programmers and buyers present were taking
notice, with Nowhere to Hide, a stylish cop thriller with a Gene
Hackman-like lead, getting the biggest buzz. 
	Likewise raising the industry's profile was the second Pusan Promotion
Plan (PPP), a pre-market modeled on the Rotterdam Film Festival's CineMart.
At this year's PPP seventeen projects were on offer by Asian directors,
including such prominent names as Fruit Chan, Garin Nugroho, Murali Nair
and Makoto Shinozaki. Among the nearly 250 attendees were representatives
from Miramax, Fine Line, NHK, Pony Canyon and Sony PCL. Several projects
attracted co-production or post-production backing, one being Unknown
Address by Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk, who got a promise of co-financing
from a German producer. 
	Also, Korean projects took three of the six prizes awarded at PPP. One,
the UniKorea Award, underwritten by UniKorea, a Korean financing firm, gave
10 million won ($8,333) to Kim Eug Soo for I'm a Taxi Driver In Paris.
Another, the Hanul Award, backed by film financier HanWool Cine,
presented10 million won to Bae Changho for Africe My Love, while the KF-MAP
prize, sponsored by Sony PCL and the PIFF, granted special film processing
services to Song IL Gon's The Knife. PPP, emphasized coordinator Taesung
Jeong, "exists to promote, not the Pusan Film Festival, but Asian films" --
Korean films being among the major beneficiaries.         
	As these awards indicate, much of the backing for Korean films is now
coming, not from the chaebol -- the conglomerates that were among the
hardest hit in Korea's economic crisis -- but small venture capital
companies that have arisen in large numbers over the past several years. "A
lot of the chaebol put money into films before the crisis, but now most are
pulling out," explained Taesung. "But venture companies have taken up the
slack." As a result, production has stabilized, with nearly 40 films going
into production this year. "There are fewer films being made now, but
they're getting bigger and better," commented Taesung. 
	The best known exemplar of this trend is Shiri, the Kang Je-Gyu spy
thriller that beat Titanic at the Korean box office this year. And it is
not the only Korean film to hit the jackpot  in 1999 --  13 local films
have recorded 100,000 or more admissions, compared with an average of only
four or five in previous years. "Before filmmakers were looked down on --
now they are getting more respect," explained Taesung. "As a result more
talented young people are coming into the industry and they're making
better films." 
	Korean filmmakers are not only improving their product, but becoming more
knowledgeable about promoting and marketing it abroad. "Before Koreans
didn't know how to sell their films to foreign buyers," said Taesung. "Now
they putting them in film festivals and taking them to film markets in ever
greater numbers." One beneficiary of this new savvy is Spring in My
Hometown, a festival favorite that international sales agent Celluloid
Dreams has sold to Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other territories in
Asia and around the world. "It's earned more than $1 million in overseas
box office," said Taejung. "That's extremely rare for a Korean film." 
	Another positive factor has been a radical shift in government policy,
from censorship and neglect in the 1980s, to liberalization and active
support in the 1990s. Exactly how active was recently made clear when
Korean government announced that it would pour 150 billion won ($125
million) into projects for promoting Korean cinema between 1999 and 2003,
under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. 
	One part of this plan involves constructing 100 theatres throughout Korea
specializing in Korean films. Another is to build 20 cinematheques that
will screen independent films from Korea and elsewhere. Still another is to
provide funds for studios, laboratories and other production and
post-production facilities in major Korean cities. "Realizing the basic
structure of this plan will require nearly 600 billion won ($500 million),
with much of the money coming from the government," said Lee. 
	Still another factor spurring the revitalization of the Korean film
industry is the multiplex boom. Of the 700 screens in Korean, nearly 20 to
25 percent are part of cinema complexes. Also, construction continues
apace, with nearly 100 new multiplex screens scheduled to be built in Pusan
alone. In the Haeundae Beach area -- Pusan's Gold Coast -- a 30-screen
megaplex is being planned, while a 20-screen cineplex is going up near the
Hotel Lotte. 
	Beside providing a pleasanter theatre-going experience, the multiplexes,
says Lee, are bringing a much needed transparency to the Korean exhibition
business. "A lot of theatres in this country under-report admissions,"
explains Lee. "But with the computerized ticket system of the multiplexes
that's no longer possible. Before, foreign investors were reluctant to put
their money into Korean films because they had no way of telling how much
they were actually making. Now they can be more confident." 
	The forecast for the industry is not all blue skies and sunshine, however.
Many of the venture companies want to be in the media business, not the
movie business. "They're already heading in the direction of CD-ROMs and
game software rather than films," commented Lee. "If they were to pull
their money out, the film industry would face a crisis." 
	Also, though the Kim Dae-jung government is sympathetic to the industry,
the next politician to occupy the president's mansion may not be. Also,
there is no guarantee that Kim will deliver on his promises. "I'm a bit
skeptical about Kim's pronouncements -- he tends to exaggerate," said Lee.
"That doesn't mean I'm pessimistic -- as long as we keep making better
films, the future will be bright."    	

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