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What is the future of Korean film?

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s grand prize win at the Venice Film Festival on September 8 marked a new high for Korean cinema. The Golden Lion Award for Pieta was the first time for a Korean director to take the top prize at one of the “Big Three” film festivals of Berlin, Venice and Cannes.

The win was no less than the “biggest triumph in Korea’s film history of the last century”, in the words of Busan Film Festival’s founding director, Kim Dong-ho.

Indeed, the success in Venice could be seen as the peak of a recent uptick in the industry. Korean films took up more than 50 per cent of admission at the domestic box office in the first half of this year. Last year’s Korean market share also passed the 50 per cent mark, a feat not previously seen since 2007, the year the government eased the quota for domestically produced films at theaters. In the early ‘90s, Korean film’s share of the market had hovered at about 20 per cent, reaching its lowest ebb in 1993 with just 15.9 per cent of admissions.

Kim Mee-hyun, team leader of the global marketing team of the Korean Film Council, expressed her hope that Kim’s win could be an opening for other small Korean productions to garner attention overseas.

“The fact that a Korean film has won the biggest prize at the Venice International Film Festival is very meaningful for the international status of Korean films,” said Kim.

“It is even more so since Pieta is an extremely low-budget film which only cost 130 million won from the director Kim Ki-duk’s own pocket. I hope more low-budget art films will be produced through unconventional methods of movie making.”

Seeking out audiences overseas and “niche markets” will be vital to the future vibrancy of the local industry, according to KOFIC’s Kim, who said the film body was committed to “international engagement such as co-production and export”.

Industry challenges

“The possibility for the Asian market is relatively high, thanks to the geographical, historical and cultural proximity. The Chinese market, for example, has expanded sharply, though entering the market is not easy because of the Chinese government’s protection measures. Therefore, international production cooperation and support for film exports is very much needed,” said Kim.

Lee Young-mi, an up-and-coming filmmaker and the CEO of production house Film Front, said Korean film needs to expand its focus overseas, adding that many in the industry are still too cautious about forging partnerships abroad.

“Apart from getting more investment or more support from inside Korea, I think Korean films should find more opportunities to work in outside countries like Japan and America or China, and European countries as well. Co-productions or co-distribution, or maybe Korean scripts can be sold to Hollywood, or maybe film directors can be exported.”

Yet, for all the popularity and acclaim generated by Korean cinema, all is not well in the local industry. Local films’ slice of the domestic market has yet to repeat its 2006 peak of over 60 per cent, with piracy and difficulties in overseas distribution having been cited as threats to local cinema. In 2008, alone, piracy cost the industry some US$800 million.

Less-established filmmakers complain of the difficulty of getting their work seen in a market dominated by a small number of conglomerate-owned distributors, a number of whom own their own theatre chains.

The five biggest distributors ― CJ E&M, Lotte Shopping/Lotte Entertainment Co., Ltd, Showbox/Mediaplex, NEW and Filament ― held more than 95 per cent of the market for homegrown films in the first half of the year.

Lee said that more support was needed for unknown filmmakers to get the recognition they deserve.

“Frankly speaking, I think the support or investment for distribution and cinema release, the opportunities for distribution, should be more open to diverse subjects or [unknown] filmmakers. Otherwise the films will have a similar color or a similar subject,” said Lee, who caused waves last year when she complained about the limited release of her feature-debut Secrets, Object.

Limited audiences

Jung Jae-hyung, a professor of film theory at Dongguk University, said that the biggest challenge for unknown filmmakers was overcoming the barriers in distribution rather than financing.

“It’s not the matter of supporting finance for a filmmaker’s film, rather it’s good to distribute their films so they make it on the screen for the audience. That’s the real benefit for the filmmakers,” said Jung.

For all the acclaim it has generated, even the reach of Pieta may be somewhat limited. Observers such as film critic Jun Chan-il have complained that the low-budget offering may not reach as wide an audience as it deserves due to the top-down distribution system. With most of Kim Ki-duk’s films having failed to attract more than 100,000 domestic viewers, however, Pieta is still expected to bring him his greatest commercial success at home to date and attract more than 1 million viewers, though still a fraction of the record set by Bong Joon-ho’s The Host in 2006 with 13 million.

Despite recent successes, many in the industry remain convinced of their underdog status in the face of the Hollywood behemoth. Government subsidy and a screen quota, though relaxed in recent years, have long been in place to protect the local scene. Over the decades, the government regulation and censorship of the pre-democratic era evolved to simple support.

This relatively new-found freedom is cause for optimism for the future of Korean film, said Lee.

“Subject-wise, now we don’t have any limitation for writing anything about Korean history or politics or anything. We can do anything, so in that way it is filmmakers’ responsibility and filmmakers’ freedom to express themselves,” she said.

Local films’ growing status in recent years, too, has been nothing short of impressive, Jung said.

“Now, in my personal view, the status of Korean film is almost near to Hollywood in terms of mass entertainment,” he said. “See the first-half period of this year: There is a surprising statistic that the number of Korean films with an audience of over 1 million is 20. It’s an amazing fact that Korean films are succeeding over Hollywood films nowadays.”


Though local films continue to perform well, it is not the time to abandon protectionism in the industry, according to Kim. Film industries have risen and fallen before.

“Currently, Korean films are competitive in the local market. But the history of the film industry shows it clearly that the fall of a country’s film industry happens in the twinkle of an eye,” said Kim.

“Because of the absolute dominance of Hollywood movies, the Korean films can hardly maintain their share in the domestic market without supportive policies and subsidies. The share of Korea films in the domestic market is above 50 per cent and the current screen quota standard of 20 per cent, 73 days in a year, has little actual effect. Still, the screen quota should be maintained as the final protection measure because no one is sure what will happen in the future.”


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