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Korean Film News
A Review of Korean Cinema in 2005
Jan 19, 2006
* This article is for "Korean Cinema 2005" published by KOFIC in December 2005. 1. Humanism The films released in 2005 delivered the humanism which Korean moviegoers had long yearned for. Amongst these films,
, a film directed by Jeong Yun-cheol that created its own new sub-genre, the human drama, emerged as the front runner. This film, which tells the story of a young man with autism, who with the help of his mother and a coach, begins to train for a marathon, attracted 5 million moviegoers nationwide despite the fact that it did not showcase a dramatic story or spectacular scenes. The film < Marathon> does not criticize the reality which the disabled have to face, nor focus on the arduous path which disabled persons must take to overcome their limitations. Rather, the film describes how a child with autism grows mentally, becomes independent, and learns to communicate with other people. Audiences openly accepted the main character's heartfelt efforts, and were impressed by the film's depiction of the insignificant events which make up the reality of our daily lives.
The success of , which finishedon top of the box office (8 million admissions) in 2005, seems to have been based on similar circumstances. On the surface, appears to have all the attributes of a blockbuster. However, this is a film which is at its core a human story. The film tells the story of a group consisting of South Korean deserters, North Korean soldiers retreating from the front, and a member of the U.S. armed forces who survived a plane crash, that must live together in a small village in Gangwon Province. The North and South Korean soldiers soon become impressed with the pure hearts of the village people and decide to find a way to coexist. In this remote location, the soldiers are finally able to remove the ideological shackles which have long forced them to suppress their own opinions, and to see each other as human beings. These North and South Korean soldiers who are liberated from the dark ideology of hatred come to regard each other as brothers, and the U.S. soldier as an equal.
In addition to and , whichfinished first and second respectively at the box office in 2005, there were also other films emphasizing a human aspect that fared well with audiences. Although directed by Park Jin-pyo has been classified as a melodrama, the love affair depicted in this film is based on the notion of humanism. AIDS is the barrier which exists between the film's two main characters: a farmer and a sex worker from the local coffee shop. Under the harsh reality of Korean society, in which a patient with AIDS is branded in a manner akin to the "scarlet letter", the only way for these lovers to consummate their relationship is forthem to first see each other as human beings. Humanism can be defined as the unconditionallove which one person feels for another, and as a love which transcends social norms and external appearances. The unexpected success of can also be understood as having been based on a similar foundation. A woman who runs away with a lottery ticket and the gangsters who run after her arrive on a remote island known as Mapado. Although the gangsters must endure all kinds of difficulties on this island populated only by five old widows, they are eventually overcome by the humanity possessed by the five widows. This film, despite being a comedy, has all the elements of a human drama. Other films which can obviously be listed in the human drama category include , the story of two men who try to secure a better life for themselves through boxing, which is about a boy and his older brother who has cancer, which tells the story of a mother who walks hundreds of kilometers to attend her daughter's wedding, and in which two men in rural Korea fly to Uzbekistan in order to secure ethnic Korean brides for themselves.
Certain common themes can be found in these human dramas. With the exception of and , these films were based on real stories. These real-life stories are different from those found in and , two films which shattered box office records in 2004 and which were based on historical facts. While the "historically authentic films" released in 2004 simultaneously exposed two tendencies, namely the desire for spectacular scenes and a return to the past, the real-life films released in 2005 are characterized by their focus on the reality of individual lives. The fact that this individual reality has replaced the desire for spectacle which had been dominant over the last few years proves that Korean cinema has now entered a phase in which the focus will increasingly be on the telling of more authentic and individual stories. This trend is also visible in fictional blockbusters such as < Welcome to Dongmakgol>. The fact that humanism has proven to be a popular topic does not meanthat the range of realism has been extended. Nevertheless, the emergence of new themes and materials constitutesa significant development, in that, it marks a new departure for a Korean film industry which had long dealt with the same topics. Furthermore, these films attracted not only moviegoers in their teens and 20s, but also appealed to audiences over the age of 30. As such, human dramas have to some degree contributed to expanding the range of moviegoers in 2005.
The Hallyu Korean Wave- phenomenon, whichhas been gaining steam across Asia, emerged as one of the most influential variables for Korean cinema in 2005. The film which best characterized the Hallyu craze was Hur Jin-ho's . Due in large part to the fact that it starred Bae Yong-joon -- whose popularity with female fans in Japan, where he is known as Yonsama, has reached epic proportions -- this film was presold for an estimated 7 million dollars in Japan, and did rather well at the box office there as well. , which revolves around a love affair betweentwo people in their 30s, marked director Hur Jin-ho's first foray into this particular genre. However, this personal milestone was overshadowed by the presence of Bae Yong-joon as the film's main star. While it fared rather poorly at the box office in Korea, was able to finish in the black on the balance sheet due to strong overseas sales in places such as Japan. Kim Jee-woon's featuring another top star, in this case Lee Byung-heon, is another example of this phenomenon. This film depicts the internal change which a killer undergoes after having assumed responsibility for protecting his boss' lover. Although this film did not reach the break-even point domestically, it was nevertheless able to turn a profit because of strong overseas sales in markets such as Japan. Other films such as , featuring Kang Dong-won, , starring Jung Woo-sung, and featuring Lee Young-ae, also garnered high revenues because of their strong showing in the Japanese film market.
The strong showing of Korean films in overseas markets such as Japan has emerged as a new driving force for the Korean film industry. In this regard, certain films were able, through presales, to secure the necessary costs for production prior to any actual shooting. As large-scale films can now to some degree guarantee profits, the production environment has improved tremendously. For example, , which features Kwon Sang-woo, another Hallyu star, was sold for a presale price of 5.2 million dollars; and this despite the fact that the film is presently in the production stage. , another film which stars Kwon Sang-woo, was sold for 4 million dollars; meanwhile starring Choi Ji-woo was sold for 3.5 million dollars. In the long run, Hallyu will help provide the foundation needed to produce large-scale films, something which the Korean market consisting of a population of 40 millioncannot do alone. It will also serve as a new source of revenues for Korean producers who must depend on the domestic box office for 70% of their overall revenues.
However, certain conditions must be met before Korean films can be sold to overseas markets. Above all, these films must feature actors such as Bae Yong-joon, Choi Ji-woo, Won Bin, Jang Dong-geon, Kwon Sang-woo, Jeong Woo-sung, and Lee Young-ae who have become household names across Asia. While the presence of such stars has little bearing on the quality of the films, the simple fact remains that a director like Kwak Kyung-taek would have been unable to raise the 15.0 billion won needed to produce if Jang Dong-geon had not been a part of the film. Given that a country's cultural contents usually begin to make inroads into another country once a star associated with the relevant culture becomes popular within the target country, it is not abnormal that the success of Korean films in overseas markets is premised on the presence of specific stars. What is more worrisome, however, is that the performance of these films at the box offices of these Asian markets has not improved. The Korean film industry now faces a situation in which it must produce quality films to maintain the interest created in foreign markets by its star power. The Korean film industry should prepare for the possibility of this Hallyu phenomenon fading away, and focus on the contents of the films it produces.
3. Auteur films
For director Hong Sang-soo, represents something of a turning point. Hong, who has long yearned for a "more reasonable production system", recently established his own production company, Jeonwonsa, and announced that he would from now on produce one film a year. was his first film since that announcement. It is a film about cinema and making cinema. This film consists of two parts: Part oneis a film framed within the film itself. Part two describes the behavior of a person who was influenced by the film he haswitnessed. This film and the film within it become entangled with one other as a thin line is drawn between life and death. The motif of imitation and repetition, which will forever be associated with director Hong, is also complexly intertwined. While is a film which showcases Hong's profound world, it also represents an attempt on the part of the director to reach out to the audience. Although less humorous and sexually provocative than his previous films, reaches out tothe audience in a more pleasant and cheerful manner.
Kim Ki-duk, who showcased just how far he has progressed with 2004's <3-Iron>, has once again broken new ground with . Foregoing advance screenings, Kim released this film on one screen. This film, which tells the story of a unique love affair between a 60-year old man and a 16-year old girl, reflects Kim's distinctive view of the world. Rather than relying on shocking scenes, Kim approaches the film's subject in a sober fashion. Although Hong and Kim's films were recognized for their artistic value, and were invited to the competition and non-competition sections of this year's Cannes International Film Festival respectively, their films failed to achieve any success at the Korean box office. These two directors, who have had few opportunities to come into contact with audiences through the wide release distribution system, opted for the use of an alternative and more independent distribution system. This further compounded these films' failure at the box office. Nevertheless, these directors' efforts to increase artistic films'opportunities to come into contact with audiences was significant, in that, it provided a chance to reconsider the distribution system for artistic films in Korea.
Im Sang-soo's film, , which describes the last days of President Park, the authoritarian leader who ruled Korea for 18 years, also enjoyed a tumultuous run. As part of a lawsuit brought forward by President Park's son, who was trying to stop the film from being screened altogether, a court ruled that two documentary scenes 3 minutes and 50 seconds in length had to be cut from the film. Although Im and the film's producer, MK Pictures, openly voiced their opposition to such censorship, the film was eventually screened with the two scenes blackened out. The debate surrounding became a significant incident in that it marked a setback for the Korean cultural and artistic circles which have long tried to expand the freedom of expression. In particular, the fact that the justice system was able to interfere in art-related matters does not bode well for freedom of expression in Korea.
Director Park Chan-wook's new film, was another film which raised hot-button issues. The story of a woman who takes revenge on a man who betrayed her, does not contain stimulating scenes like , for which Park was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes. However, it provokes a debate on the ethics of revenge and salvation. The first half of the film focuses on showing a new image of Lee Young-ae, to the point where it can be labeleda comedy. The tone of this film, which showcases the absurdity of the world and life, suddenly changes during the second half of the film. The scene in which Geumja, along with other victims, hosts a revenge ceremony for Baek, raises questions as to whether this film is attempting to bring up ethical issues related to revenge or is simply an unethical film which deals with ethical issues. Despite the various debates generated by this film, it is clear that has extended Korean films' range of narratives.
Lee Myung-se's new film, also brought many issues to the surface. The release of was considered big news because it marked Lee Myung-se's first film in six years, or since the runaway hit . While once again reinforced the director's status as an outstanding visual technician, its lack of a narrative left audiences perplexed. This lack of a narrative appears to have been intentional on the part of the director. In this film, Lee, who has always pursued "cinematic things", uses exaggerated visuals and the gestures of stars which have been upgraded to the point where they almost look as if they are dancing. Meanwhile, the film's characters and the stories told by these characters are often disconnected. Lee's attempt to "break the fixed notion that cinema is a drama" canbe labeled as a half-success.
Despite its artistic quality, the film , Jung Ji-woo's first since in 1999, failed to mesh with audiences. The refined description of the main character's inner struggle and cinematic structure of this film, which tells the story of the love affair between a woman in her thirties and a young student, have led this work to be regarded as having opened up new horizons for Korean melodrama.
4. Korean Film Industry
The Korean film industry underwent tremendous change in 2005. The wholesale reorganization of the film investment and distribution structure, exemplified by the growing role of large-scale companies, was by far the most important occurrence. Cinema Service, which was established with domestic capital for the purpose of producing Korean films, was forced to merge with CJ Entertainment because of financial difficulties. For its part, Showbox, which is associated with the Orion Group, managed to solidify its position in the market with such box office hits as , , and . Meanwhile, the Lotte Cinema branch of the Lotte Group is becoming increasingly involved in films as both an investor and distributor. These conglomerates all share the commonality of having secured their own content window, that is, multiplexes. The dominant structure formed by these large-scale companies, which have focused on providing multiplex content in order to raise revenues, is expected to continue for some time.
Telecommunication companies' entrance in the film market has also brought about a big change. SK Telecom purchased the equity of IHQ (Sidus HQ), which was the biggest management company in Korea. KT also entered the film industry, becoming the biggest shareholder in Sidus FNH. This denouement has allowed IHQ and Sidus FNH to secure the funds needed to invest in and distribute films, while making it possible for telecommunication companies to participate in the film industry. These telecommunication companies have entered the film industry so as to gain access to strong contents in order to concretize new services such as DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting), and WiBro (Wireless Broadband). Such telecommunication companies are expected to become a new source of investment for the Korean film industry.