South Korean movies ride crest of the wave

From the hordes of screaming fans to the flag-lined streets and non-stop parties that have transformed this southern port city, the South Korean movie industry is clearly in the mood to celebrate after a decade of phenomenal growth.

The Pusan International Film Festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year has plenty of reasons to be cheerful: cinemas are packed, exports are soaring, and the world’s leading film gatherings are paying homage to South Korea.

The festival in Busan, which has a daily procession of international and local stars treading the red carpet near Haeundae Beach, has become the jewel in the crown of Asia’s new cinematic king.

Organisers of the nine-day event have been basking in the gushing compliments of all-comers from Jackie Chan to leading Taiwan auteur Hoa Hsiao-hsien, who have all proclaimed the festival the biggest and best in Asia.

“The Pusan International Film Festival has been getting bigger and better each year, while the fortunes of Asian, and particularly South Korean, film have grown as well,” festival programmer Kim Je-seok told Agence France Presse in an interview. “There’s a synergy.”

More than 80 homegrown movies were produced last year, compared with less than 50 in 1999, according to the Korean Film Council. Domestic box office receipts have increased ten-fold over the past decade, boosting market share from 20 to more than 50%.

Exports have risen to more than $50-million per year compared with just $200 000 in 1995, with 194 films sold abroad in 2004, up from 15 a decade before.

“There has been huge, huge growth.
The industry has grown very quickly,” said An Cheong-sook, chairperson of the Korean Film Council, noting that South Korean filmmaking began to improve when the military dictatorship ended in 1987.

“There was no more censorship so producers and directors were allowed to use their creativity,” she said.

Western film festivals took notice, and critical acclaim poured in for distinctive works by leading Korean directors including Jang Sun-woo, Park Kwang-soo, and Lee Myung-se.

“The [commercial] market only came after the festival success,” An said, adding that a change of attitude to the industry in 1999 provided a second spur to growth.

The government pledged about $150-million to the industry and set up the film council to help produce, promote and distribute Korean films.

About the same time, it began enforcing a quota system requiring every cinema screen to show homegrown movies at least 106 days a year which, while unpopular with the US, dramatically boosted domestic market share to the highest in the world, An said.

 

Star power

Busan’s film festival’s growth has mirrored the fortunes of national cinema and this year is bigger than ever with more than 300 films from 70 countries, while attracting leading film and industry figures from around the world.

Festival programmer Kim attributed the meteoric rise of South Korean cinema to its inability to be pigeon-holed and the X-factor that has made Korea’s stars among the biggest in Asia.

“Hong Kong films make you think of action, Japanese films of Samurai and animation, but what kind of film is Korea known for? There is no one type,” Kim said.

“Of course that could be a negative, but I think it’s positive because we get to have a variety of films,” he said.

“Secondly we have star power,” added Kim, referring to the likes of heart-throb actor Bae Yong-joon who has inspired frenzied fan scenes from Taiwan to Tokyo and whose mass appeal stretches as far as the US and Mexico.

Bae is among a host of film, TV and pop stars to have gathered an international following as part of the “Korean Wave” of pop-culture sweeping overseas.

Ryan Law, who runs a website in Hong Kong devoted to Korean movies, said South Korean films had simply overtaken the competition in terms of quality.

“Hong Kong used to make more than 100 films year. Now it’s 50-something. In Korea it has gone up from around 50 to 80,” said Law.

“But the quality is also increasing. They spend time on the scripts and production and you will find something original—unlike Hong Kong which just copies and follows trends.”

When the Pusan International Film Festival started, Chinese movies enjoyed a much higher profile but they have since been upstaged by homegrown movies.

Almost all the Korean movies screening at the festival have sold out, and Western film critics and movie buyers are queuing up to watch them.

“South Korean films have undoubtedly been the best in Asia over recent years,” said Harri Rompotti, a critic from Finland. “Perhaps it’s because there’s a generation now which doesn’t remember the dictatorship, or perhaps it’s just a confluence of talent,” he said.

While domestic box office takings dipped in the first half of this year as the industry hit a rough patch, it rebounded in the summer with three blockbusters drawing more than 10-million viewers between them.

Japan remains by far the main overseas market for Korean films, accounting for nearly half of all exports but the US, Japan, France, Germany and Thailand are all significant buyers, and new markets are opening up in Mexico and South America.

Korean movies have yet to wow mainstream audiences outside Asia but they have been increasingly feted by major festivals and Hollywood movie moguls.

MGM, Miramax, Warner Brothers and Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks have all bought rights to remake Korean movies in recent years, and scouts are everywhere at the Busan festival.

The country’s best-known filmmaker, Im Kwon-Taek, was awarded an Honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in February, while Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy won the runner-up Grand Prize at Cannes last year.

This year’s festival in Busan features Park’s latest work Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as well as other well-known Korean directors including Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, Hur Jin-ho’s April Snow and Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow.

Programmer Kim said he was more excited by the up-and-coming directors being showcased in a Korean Panorama section, citing Love Is A Crazy Thing, the second feature from Oh Seok-geun which debuted on Saturday with a blitz of publicity.

Predicting further growth in the years ahead, Kim said the new directors would form the next wave of the festival’s, and industry’s, success story.

The film council’s An said: “The future is bright. Until now Korean films were not known in the West, but this is just the start. The future is very bright.”

Law was even more emphatic. “The future is Korean,” he said. - AFP

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