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What SNOWPIERCER Means to the Korean Film Industry

by Darcy Paquet   04.30.2013
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▶ PART1 - The summit of KOREAN Film’s ambition
 
 
Mixed in among the fevered anticipation surrounding this summer’s release of Snowpiercer is the knowledge that, for the Korean film industry, this is not just another film. Korean cinema has never turned out a movie quite like this one, and the way it is received domestically and internationally will leave a lasting mark in Korean film history.
 
It’s not just the film’s scale, although in this respect alone it is a highly notable work. Snowpiercer’s record budget of roughly US $40 million exceeds that of both KANG Je-kyu’s My Way (2011) and the official estimate for SHIM Hyung-rae’s D-War (2008). However bright the film’s commercial prospects may seem, it still represents a significant financial risk for the film’s main investor CJ E&M. During pre-production, CJ courageously stepped in and shouldered the entire budget of the film after its partners pulled out of the project. International pre-sales have now recouped half of the film’s budget, but the film will still need to perform very well domestically in order to break even.
 
In a broader sense however, Snowpiercer represents the dreams of a local film industry to create highly ambitious, accomplished works that draw the attention of viewers around the world. South Korea’s cultural industries used to be seen as small and inwardly focused, but the explosion of the Korean Wave over the past 10 to 15 years has changed the world’s perceptions of the country. Nonetheless, Korean cinema still lacks a fervent international fan base such as that enjoyed by K-pop or Korean TV dramas, or a breakout hit on the level of Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Perhaps the closest thing to that is the film Old boy by PARK Chan-wook, who serves as the producer of Snowpiercer.
 

Cinema is a very different medium from television or music, and the complex distribution networks that bring films to viewers around the world can be difficult to navigate. However the inherently global character of Snowpiercer, with its international cast and English-language dialogue, should help to smooth its path. Having decided to use primarily international actors, BONG Joon-ho was able to assemble a cast that resembles a cinephile dream team, thanks in part to the strong reputation that his previous films have earned among filmmakers. The great Tilda SWINTON, for example, confessed to being a fan of BONG’s work and eagerly accepted a chance to work with the director. Although PARK Chan-wook and KIM Jee-woon worked with similarly starry casts in their recent Hollywood debuts, this is the first time for a locally-produced work to employ such a renowned international lineup. If Snowpiercer turns out to be a success, it is unlikely to be the last.
 
All of this brings up another issue, which is how Korean directors with international ambitions should walk the line between the “local” and the “global.” BONG Joon-ho’s career path has been meteoric thanks in part to the distinctive cinematic style and evocative sense of place that he has created within his films. He has been particularly adept in working with actors like SONG Kang-ho, BYUN Hee-bong, and KIM Hye-ja to create memorable personalities that embody certain sectors of Korean society. But for the first time in Snowpiercer, BONG has left his native soil and set his film within an entirely imagined space in a hypothetical future. His expert handling of the inflections of the Korean language will be felt in the lines spoken by SONG Kang-ho and KO Ah-sung, but it remains to be seen how successful he is working with a cast of native English speakers.
 

Korean viewers did not turn out in droves to see PARK Chan-wook’s Stoker or KIM Jee-woon’s The Last Stand when they were released earlier this year, despite the presence of stars such as Nicole KIDMAN and Arnold SCHWARZENEGGER. Is this because these works by well-known Korean directors were seen as too “global,” and not “local” enough? Other factors may have been at play, but Snowpiercer is likely to be perceived differently. Not only is it a local production, that will enjoy the full benefits of CJ E&M’s marketing muscle, but the casting of SONG Kang-ho and KO Ah-sung may also come to be seen as an astute choice. Although undeniably global in character, Snowpiercer will have a bit of the local mixed in as well.
 
There’s one other, somewhat overlooked respect in which Snowpiercer may leave its mark in Korean cinema history. The genre of science fiction has had a difficult time taking root in Korean cinema, from its earliest beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, when filmmakers suffered from a lack of production values, to a string of expensive commercial failures in the early 2000s. Most other genres have seen their share of breakout hits in recent years, even formerly disreputable sub-genres like the sports drama. But with the possible exception of 2009 Lost Memories (a film that sold 2.2 million tickets, thanks in part to the star power of JANG Dong-gun), Korean science fiction films have yet to enjoy any commercial success. If Snowpiercer performs at the level that many observers expect, it will be able to add one more breakthrough to its long list of accomplishments and firsts.
 
 
 
▶ PART2 -
   
 

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