Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • THE FAKE and Prospects of Korean Animation
  • by Pierce Conran / 10.28.2013
  • Promising New Crop of Animated Features
    In 2011, the long-dormant Korean animation industry experienced a revival with the release of six films, the first time so many local animations had found their way to theaters in the country since the year 2000. Besides the sheer quantity of them, the quality and performance of the films also drew a lot of attention to this neglected sector of the Korean film community. Leading the charge was the studio animation Leafie, A Hen Into the Wild, a children’s film that smashed the record for most successful Korean animation when it soared to 2.2 million admissions. In fact, Leafie was the first homegrown animation to make it over the one million admissions mark and it has since been followed by Speckles: The Tarbosaurus, which was released in 2012.
    As a film medium, animation became a major trend in the late 1970s, largely based on the popularity of Robot Taekwon V but it was also a rare diversion for children who didn’t have video/computer games to play with back then. At the time, the television set had become commonplace in homes and animated TV series, most of which were imported from Japan, were children’s favored form of entertainment. As animation continued to grow in popularity and with the success of Robot Taekwon V, many animated films were made and released in theaters in Korea from the late 70s to the mid-80s.
    From the late 1980s, the medium moved to the small screen as major broadcasters such as KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation) first experimented with the format for specials and then quickly began developing TV series. The first TV animation made in Korea was KBS’ special Wandering Kkachi (1987) which was successful enough to be followed by a sequel.
    Once TV series grew popular, the feature animation film industry began to decline. Furthermore, as skilled Korean animators were beginning to be employed by Japanese and then Hollywood animation producers (such as Warner Bros. or Fox for shows such as The Simpsons) for outsourced work, the promise of steady income was luring many away from what had turned into a risky industry. However, Korea’s economic rise and increased cost of living has since negatively impacted this profitable outsourcing industry as those requiring hand drawn content have begun mining cheaper labor markets.
    While Korea remained well known for its talented animators, the feature film animation industry went through difficult times up until the 2000s, with only a few modest hits. In recent years, however, Korean film animation has seen many talented directors on the rise, particularly in the field of independent animation.
    Beyond Leafie, the recent animations that have emerged in the Korean film industry are most remarkable for being completely different from one another. From the 3D dinosaur film Speckles: The Tarbosaurus, to the long-gestating auteur film Green Days or the big-screen adaptation Pororo: The Racing Adventure to the student Korean Academy of Film Art (KAFA) graduation project The House, Korean animators have all been forging their own unique paths. 
    Perhaps most notable among them, of late, has been the young cineaste YEON Sang-ho, whose debut The King of Pigs followed a remarkable debut at the Busan International Film Festival in 2011 with a long run on the international film festival circuit, during which it grasped a clutch of awards, at the Dublin and Fantasia International Film Festivals, not to mention Busan. Independently produced and featuring unsophisticated hand-drawn animation, The King of Pigs was deliberately gritty and through its examination of dark Korean social mores, it demonstrated that cutting edge technique is not the only way to get noticed in the animation industry.

    YEON’s second film The Fake recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and has already received a raft of other invitations, including to this the recent Busan festivities and September’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, not to mention the AFI Fest, which takes place next month. It also won the Best Animation Award at the Sitges Film Festival this month.
    While The King of Pigs cast a cold eye on the brutal bullying that stems from an imbalanced and hierarchical class system within a high school, The Fake manages to out-darken YEON’s debut in its depiction of some of Korea’s most unflattering aspects. A con artist, posing as the leader of a fake religion, swindles villagers out of their money while an abusive man, recognizing him for who he is, goes up against him, even though his neighbors have long since ignored his expletive-riddled rants.
    Whether aimed at children or adults, animation is generally considered a medium where artists can explore the limits of their imagination, particularly from a visual standpoint. YEON, with his social commentary, grimy locations and realistic style, keeps things simple visually. Yet, while the events on screen could just as easily be filmed as a live action independent film, the fact that they are presented as drawn images only heightens the absurdity of the narrative, which is, sadly, all too familiar.
    On the opposite side of the spectrum, the biggest local animated release of 2013 was Pororo: The Racing Adventure, the cinematic debut of the enormously popular TV character that has been on air for a decade and sold to broadcast networks around the world. Produced for KRW 8 million (USD 7.56 million), 30% backed by the Chinese investor AGG and released on 6000 screens on China, the big screen debut of Korea’s beloved animated penguin was the product of big studio backing. This fact is notable as ever since the failure of Wonderful Days in 2003 (which drew a scant 224,000 spectators from a KRW 10 billion budget), investors have been wary of financing large-scale animations. Then again, a character with the global heft of Pororo (to date sold to 127 countries) seems a far less risky proposition than an ambitious original work.
    This coming winter will see the release of another animated feature that will mark the long-awaited debut of CHANG Hyung-yun. The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, in stark opposition to the films of YEON Sang-ho, is a more whimsical offering that follows CHANG’s numerous shorts, which include A Coffee Vending Machine and Its Sword (2007), a film so well received it prompted many to call him one of the most promising directors in the Korean animation field. CHANG’s film, which combines fantastical creatures and humans in a recognizable Seoul landscape, will feature YOO Ah-in and JUNG Yu-mi as voice actors and production company Now or Never is expecting to release the film in January.
    In The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, a pianist-in-training loses his heart and becomes a cow, while, with the help of Merlin, a satellite felled from the cosmos by a supernova is transformed into a girl. Following a narrow escape from secret agents chasing heartless people, the two mismatched characters draw close.
    Among other upcoming works is Brian JIN’s The Customized Play. JIN, a young animator who has won numerous awards for his shorts Tom N Jerry (2008) and Entering the Mind through the Mouth (2009), is currently making his feature length debut The Customized Play. Despite only boasting a team of five or six animators, JIN’s film, judging by completed work so far, is a beautiful and multi-faceted creation that draws from Japanese but particularly French inspirations but looks unlike anything that has come before. Once again, it bears no resemblance to anything that is being put out by the contemporary Korean animation industry. In the new animation, a company stages plays that are customized as per the wishes of their clients. When Jae-young and Yu-sun order a play for their father, he is thrown back into the past, through a combination of fiction and truth, and comes upon long-buried truths.
    It’s a very interesting time for the Korean feature animation industry with a number of young and talented animators breaking into the field. In addition to the aforementioned features, Korea’s top film schools, such as the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) and the Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) are spawning a number of impressive shorts, demonstrating a broad array of styles and techniques, many of which have been invited to prestigious international festivals. It seems that only more fresh talents are poised to enter the industry. Korean film animation may not have anything like the brand value of Hollywood’s Pixar or Japan’s Studio Ghibli, but by dint of its multifarious and creative output, it’s global reputation is only going on the way up.
    By Pierce Conran
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