WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Another "Crouching Tiger": Korea Sustains Boom with Blockbusters and Auteurs
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 08.22.02) -- Watch out, Hollywood. Add South Korea to a growing list of national cinemas (see France and India) with the right dose of big-budget blockbusters and prolific auteurs to draw in local audiences and stir up international interest. Last year, homegrown works nabbed the top five spots at the country's box office with an estimated 49.1 percent market share, beating out American studio product like "Shrek," "Harry Potter," and "Pearl Harbor." And all over the world, Korean masters like Im Kwon Taek (best director at Cannes 2002 for "Chihwaseon") and new mavericks like Kim Ki-Duk ("The Isle," opening in the U.S. this Friday from Empire Pictures) and Hong Sang-Soo ("Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors," screening this week in the New York Korean Film Festival) have received critical praise and festival accolades.
The first half of 2002 shows the trend continuing: grandmother/son drama "The Way Home," detective thriller "Public Enemy," and sci-fi pic "2009 Lost Memories" are among the top five grossing films. Plus, a staggering four Korean features have been bought for Hollywood remakes (see Why Studio Remakes Don't Suck; U.S. Versions Rebound Foreign Originals); "Flight of the Bee" director Min Boung-hun's "Let's Not Cry" received special jury and FIPRESCI prizes at last month's Karlovy Vary Film Festival; "Peppermint Candy" director Lee Chang-Dong's latest "Oasis" will premiere at Venice next month, and new movies from Kim Ki-Duk ("Bad Guy"), Hong Sang-Soo ("Turning Gate," screening at the New York Film Festival) and controversial "Lies" director Jang Sun-Woo ("Resurrection of the Little Match Girl") all reflect an unrelenting pace.
Referred to more than once on the festival circuit (reductively) as the "fishhook film," Kim Ki-Duk's "The Isle" is much more: a lyrical, beautifully realized meditation on pain, pleasure and devotion, inflected with a subtle dark sense of humor. (Fishhooks enter orifices that will make you squirm, yes, like a fish.) A self-taught filmmaker, Kim began generating attention with his third feature "Birdcage Inn." His 2001 work "Address Unknown" screened at Venice last year, and with "The Isle" finally washing up on these shores, his reputation as a Korean director with international appeal should be solidified.
"Bad Guy," Kim's seventh feature in six years, has already opened in Korea. The story, about a pimp who tries to turn a college girl into a prostitute, has become the writer-director's most successful work to date. Darcy Paquet, a Korean correspondent for Screen International, credits the film's domestic success to several factors, including increased marketing, Kim's own growing status, and the presence of actor Jo Je-hyun, a rising member of the nation's flourishing star system. Kim is already at work on his next film, "The Shoreline," which will star bona-fide Korean celebrity Jang Dong-Gun ("Friend," "2009 Lost Memories") and will likely boost the box-office potential for the once-marginalized filmmaker. (In Korea, it's worth noting action stars Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jackie Chan have all been supplanted by locals like Jang, Han Suk-Kyu, Lee Jung Jae, and Jung Woo-Sung.)
The recent phenomenon of the Korean blockbuster -- and all the money and fervor it's generated -- has contributed to an upswing for films, both big and small. "It can be said that the appearance of low-budget art films is a side effect of the Korean hit movies and the concentration of capital in the film industry," says Noh Kwang Woo, a correspondent for the Korean Film Commission and a coordinator of this year's New York Korean Film Festival. Further proof of the run-off can be found in the building of a new sound studio (to be the nation's largest) in the city of Busan, and the Korean Film Commission's undertaking of a new digital fiction feature fund, contributing up to $25,000 to independent DV narratives.
Some skeptics wonder how long Korea's boom can last. A recent article in Variety postulated that soaring budgets (U.S. $5-$8.5 million) were not sustainable, given the relatively small Korean movie-going population and the limited market for such films overseas. But Noh describes a situation in which increased international co-productions will sustain growth. While inaugural blockbusters "Shiri" and "Joint Security Area" may have been financed by single domestic companies, Noh contends that "co-production and co-financing may be more dominant." Noh adds that "though the rate of profit of big budget films is not as high as expected, there still will be big hit movies such as 'Friend' and 'My Sassy Girl,' which are produced with relatively lower budgets."
But "Friend," Kwak Kyung-taek's top-grossing epic tale of four friends-turned-gangsters, screening as part of the New York Korean Film Festival, may aspire to the scope and style of a Scorsese, it still lacks the emotion and pull of its American equivalent. Other genre efforts and U.S. premieres at the fest, such as "Guns and Talks" and "No Blood, No Tears," are sure to offer some thrills, but little else. In fact, judging from the programming