FESTIVALS: Nowhere to Hide: Subway Cinema Stages Korean Invasion
by Augusta Palmer
(indieWIRE/ 08.14.01) -- Critics from London to Los Angeles have been extolling the pleasures of contemporary Korean cinema for years now. But aside from isolated runs for arthouse fare like Im Kwon-taek's period love story "Chunhyang," most audiences have been largely left out of the loop. From August 17 to 26, Subway Cinema -- the same guys who brought you annual Old School Kung-Fu fests, a Tsui Hark retrospective, and even the whole Milky Way (in the form of a retro featuring films from the Hong Kong production company of that name) -- invades New York's Anthology Film Archives for a ten day series of Korean crowd-pleasers, titled "When Korean Cinema Attacks." This mini-fest features a populist blend of kinetic action thrillers, gross-out horror, and loopy romantic comedies from the past years' international festival circuit.
Despite MPAA attempts at quota busting, Korea's movie biz is arguably the world's healthiest film industry. Homegrown blockbuster and surprisingly nuanced political thriller "Joint Security Area" (a Berlin 2001 competition entry) recently topped another action thriller "Shiri" -- which had previously outsold "Titanic" -- at the domestic box office. Their slick production values, inventive storylines, and hunky anti-heroes have been gaining mainstream popularity all over Asia and a cult following in the U.S.
Each of the eleven films included in the series offers its own pleasures. At the horror end of the spectrum are serial killer shocker "Tell Me Something" (which gets a theatrical release through Kino International on Aug. 24) and the lesbian high school horror flick "Memento Mori" (which premiered at Slamdance 2001). Then there are the comedies, which run the gamut from the candy-sweet romantic froth of "Art Museum by the Zoo," to the bomb-tossing black humor of "Attack the Gas Station." In between, there are dramas like "My Heart," a woman's survivor story set in the 1920s, and "Christmas in August," about a photographer trying to conceal his terminal illness from those around him.
"When Korean Cinema Attacks" itself is a joint effort. The Korean Film Forum, who have never staged a New York event, teamed up with New York's Subway Cinema, a group of five avid fans of Asian cinema who banded together to import and promote Hong Kong films after New York's last Chinatown cinema, the Music Palace, closed its doors in 1999. Though it took a lot of legwork for Paul Kazee, Brian Naas, Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson and Grady Hendrix (whose day jobs range from banking to DJ-ing and electrical engineering), the members of Subway Cinema have established themselves as the fairy godfathers of Asian cinema in New York.
Subway Cinema first got involved with Korean film when they decided to organize a New York premiere for a film which actually had distribution -- Lee Myung-Se's painterly abstract action epic "Nowhere to Hide" -because the distributor, Lion's Gate, decided not to hold one. Grady Hendrix says, "We thought it was a shame because the movie wasn't going to get the publicity it deserved. We had only three days to put it together and we managed to sell out two screenings of the film."
Their initial dependence on seat of your pants marketing has begun to pay off. Subway Cinema's marketing icons, B horror masters William Castle and Roger Corman, would have cackled with glee when a freelance writer attending a "When Korean Cinema Attacks" press screening of "The Isle" for the New York Post actually fainted after a particularly graphic scene. Says Hendrix, "He came staggering, white-faced, out into the lobby and just sort of hit the ground. Naturally we called the Post and plan to post a 'see this film at your own risk' sign at the public screenings."
If that's not enough to draw in audiences, Subway Cinema offers other enticements. "We simply ask ourselves," says Hendrix, "What would it take to get me to see this movie?' and most of the people who come to see what we do leave happy, especially if they win something in one of our drawings before the screenings."
Subway Cinema is attracting audiences that, like them, bemoan the blandness of the plexing empires that have cornered the market on movie-going. "Now it's sort of like you're renting a giant screen TV," says Hendrix. "You go and sit in this refrigerated multiplex and you quietly munch your popcorn. And while there's a place for that kind of thing, it's become a very homogeneous experience. There's nothing like being part of an audience -- a real audience, which becomes an uncontrollable, hideous beast. The only thing Subway Cinema really cares about is getting these movies to an audience. We're suckers for an audience."
Though Subway Cinema makes no claim to being pros at booking or distribution, Hendrix speculates, "It seems there's only room for two things in releasing foreign films: one is 'world cinema masterpieces' and the other is 'trash' -- or what gets lumped under that label. There's not a lot of room left for plain old good movies.
"One of the reasons we've been able to do well is that there's a gap," continues Hendrix. "These movies are being made and they're not being picked up, but there's clearly an audience who wants to see them. We're just the only people stupid enough to take the risk. On the level we're at, distribution and booking seems like a fool's game. No one's in it to get rich. Although we don't get paid to do it, we love it. And, if we weren't doing it, no one would be."
Despite the vagaries of audience taste, Subway Cinema has never lost the money they put into bringing Asian films to New York audiences. They've always broken even with ticket sales and have recently started to turn a modest profit, which they have put into future projects like their annual Old School Kung-fu Fest in November and December and a "celebration of extreme cinema" tentatively scheduled for April 2002, according to Hendrix. "We want to find the most horrifying, bizarre movies we can," he says, "and see how audiences react."
More information, film synopses and screening schedules are available at:
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and a doctoral student in N.Y.U.'s Department of Cinema Studies. She has taught cinema at N.Y.U. and the School of Visual Arts and is currently writing her dissertation, "Crossroads: Chinese Urban Cinemas at the turn of the 21st Century."]