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DISPATCH FROM PUSAN: Asian Filmmakers and Producers Look Both Inward and Abroad for Future Growth

DISPATCH FROM PUSAN: Asian Filmmakers and Producers Look Both Inward and Abroad for Future Growth

Haze and fog settled over Pusan on Monday and Tuesday, but inside the headquarters for the first annual Asian Film Market, taking place alongside the 11th Pusan International Film Festival, at the Grand Hotel in the city’s Haeundae area, the bustle is evident as film industry reps scurry to meetings and wait — often quite a long time — for the hotel’s crowded elevators to take them to companies that have set up temporary headquarters in the hotel’s upper levels. Film reps from across Asia are heavily represented here, though word was that at least some screenings were sparsely attended at the market’s main screening venue, Primus. The Asian Film Market, however, is just one aspect of what appears to be Korea and other Asian countries’ growing aspirations to further establish themselves in the broader film world.

Photos from the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival are available in indieWIRE’s iPOP section.

Homegrown Korean films are making an aggressive push at the market, but also keeping a firm eye on American audiences. There appears to be a growing desire here among the Korean film industry to broaden both its appeal and collaboration overseas in order to protect future growth in a territory some here view as fully matured. “The Korean movie distribution industry is now saturated,” said Sang-jun Oh from local film and games company Gravity Tuesday morning at the Asian Film Market, during a panel called, ‘New Content Model: The Future of Film Business.’ “[Many] now want to focus on the U.S., which is [considered] the largest and most important distribution center in the world.”

This year’s Korean entry for best foreign-language Oscar consideration, “King and the Clown” by Lee Jun-ik is screening in the Pusan International Film Festival’s Korean Cinema Today section. Set in the Cho Sun dynasty, a local clown runs away to Seoul with his lover who is also the nobility’s object of amusement. While in Seoul, the pair stage a satirical play about a king, and are appointed as the “royal clown team” to the current — and unstable — king, and they are caught in the middle between him and a senior official’s battles for power. The film was Korea’s highest grossing film for the first half of 2006.

While “King and the Clown” will vie for U.S. Academy recognition, at least one Korean production company is making an ambitious push to entrench its presence in the United States. The new film “Julia Project,” being spearheaded by Korean producer Lee Seung-jae, is one such example of the Korean film industry’s latest push to collaborate with their American counterparts. Lee’s company, LJ Film, opened an office in New York last February, and has joined with Focus Features chief James Schamus to produce the English-language epic drama, with pre-production underway and slated for completion in 2007.

Based on the true story of American Julia Mullock who married Kyu Lee, the last crown prince of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. After leaving New York for Spain in 1957, Mullock met Lee after seeing an ad for furniture she had posted. The two fall in love and, despite initial intimidation by his background, marries the exiled prince. With U.S. passports in hand, the two visit his parents in Tokyo and meet Japan’s emperor, Hirohito. In the 1960s, supporters of the fallen dynasty persuade the couple to return, and take residence in a royal palace, and Mullock devotes herself to work for the poor and orphans. Internal family members, however, conspire against Lee’s Caucasian and apparently sterile wife and pressure mounts for him to abandon his wife in favor of a Korean heiress. The pressure eventually becomes insurmountable and the two divorce, though Mullock stays in Korea continuing her work in a country she calls “my homeland.”

LJ’s Lee invited Mullock, now living in Hawaii, to Seoul and spoke with her about her life over six months in 2005, and bought the rights to her story. Focus Features and LJ are splitting the financing for the project, and a director, while identified, has yet to be officially announced.

Producer Lee Seung-jae (left) with “My Friend & His Wife” actor Park Hee-soon and director Shin Dong-il in Pusan last weekend. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“Korean film has developed rapidly, but the market is relatively small,” Lee told indieWIRE Monday afternoon in Pusan, via an interpreter, about why he targeted an American collaborator for the project. “America is a gateway to the worldwide market, and [we] want to do films in the English-language. To do that properly, it must be done with American producers.” Lee said he took the idea to Schamus who gave his go-ahead, in part, because the story has cross-cultural appeal. “We need to develop projects that will appeal to both cultures,” said Lee.

Lee, who produced “My Friend & His Wife,” which is screening as a world premiere at PIFF in the Korean Cinema Today section, in addition to three other films, has an ambitious plan for further American collaboration with other projects in the pipeline that will keep him commuting between his Seoul headquarters and his new New York office, which he said will become fully operational in November with a New York crew in place in time for the “Julia Project”‘s shoot. Other planned LJ films include a political thriller about famous Korean composer Isang Yun who was charged with leading a North Korean spy ring and later tortured by South Korea’s intelligence service (being developed with Germany’s Pandora Film), and the “Lee Shim” project, a true 19th century love story again involving Korea’s royal household, which LJ hopes to develop with Focus.

“This may be the first feature film that is shot in North Korea,” said Lee about the “Isang Yun Project.” LJ plans to use over 100,000 extras in Pyongyang during a location shoot for the film.

While the American angle is one strategy for Korea and Asia’s film industry, others are looking inward for collaboration opportunities. Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung‘s “Battle of Wits” is the result of a pan-Asian effort. The film, starring Andy Lau and currently in post-production, is produced by Japan’s Satoru Iseki (“The World’s Fastest Indian“), Korea’s Lee Joo-ick (“Big Show“), and China’s Wang Zhonglei (“The Banquet“). “Battle of Wits” is based on a popular Japanese manga that takes place during Japan’s Sengoku period, about a series of civil wars spanning the 15th to early 17th centuries, and was mostly shot in China. “We wanted to create an all-Asian production, and wanted [to find] someone from China to come on board,” said Iseki in Pusan Sunday morning. Iseki continued to say that ten or twelve years ago, it was more essential to work with American or European distributors, in part because China’s film industry was still in its infancy, though now the dynamic has changed.

“It’s still too early to say [“Battle of Wits”] will become a blockbuster, but we’ve proved an all-Asian production is possible.” The $16 million project shared costs with 35% of financing coming from Japan, 30% from China, while both Korea and Hong Kong contributed 15% each and the remainder coming from Southeast Asia. “This is a model for how all-Asian productions can come together in the future,” said Joo-ick Lee.

[indieWIRE Associate Editor Brian Brooks covering the Pusan International Film Festival and the Asian Film Market. He will have another indieWIRE Dispatch at the end of the event.]

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