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Korean Movie Sector Rediscovers Mojo, But Fears Mainland Brain Drain

The Hong Kong film industry may have much to learn from the way its Korean counterpart has recently reinvented itself according to Liz Shackleton, Asia editor of "Screen" magazine, reporting from the Busan International Film Festival.

Photo: Currently roaringly successful: 2014’s Roaring Currents.
Currently roaringly successful: 2014's Roaring Currents.
Photo: Currently roaringly successful: 2014’s Roaring Currents.
Currently roaringly successful: 2014's Roaring Currents.

Much like Hong Kong's Entertainment Expo, South Korea's Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is a major gathering point for the pan-Asian film industry. Structured along similar lines to the Entertainment Expo, it encompasses a film festival, a market for trading film and TV distribution rights and a projects market, where filmmakers seek finance for new films. While Hong Kong's major film event is in March, BIFF usually takes place in the first week of October.

BIFF has promoted Korean cinema since its first edition was held 19 years ago. Along with K-pop and TV drama, film remains one of the country's strongest cultural exports. Although the festival has grown considerably and moved into glitzier venues over the years, it's still the ideal place for discovering up-and-coming Korean filmmakers – or bumping into veterans, such as Bong Joon Ho (the Korean film director and screenwriter best known for his 2013 hit Snowpiercer) drinking soju and dissecting cinema late into the night.

This process of analysing the current state of affairs is something that the Korean film industry never seems to shy away from. A panel discussion during BIFF's Asian Film Market brought together a group of leading directors and producers, many of whose films have pulled in more than 10 million admissions at the Korean box office. In total, 10 Korean films have crossed this benchmark over the past 12 years – including Roaring Currents, a recent release that has grossed more than US$130m.

In most countries, this string of blockbusters would be a matter for back-slapping and self-congratulation. For the Korean filmmakers, however, the panel discussion was a chance to voice concerns that vertical integration and monopolisation are killing creativity in the industry.

Korea's film industry is dominated by a small group of powerful conglomerates – the country has around 2,200 cinema screens, with more than 1,500 of them owned by CJ E&M and Lotte Entertainment. Two of the top hits this summer – Roaring Currents and The Pirates – were financed and distributed by CJ and Lotte respectively.

One of the many to voice concern was Choi Yong-bae, producer of the 2006 hit monster movie The Host. He said: "Investment, distribution and screening are all operated by conglomerates. They are abusing their rights and position, so adventurous or experimental films cannot be made. The system should be changed so filmmakers can make more creative films."

Won Dong-yeon, producer of 2012 historical drama Masquerade concurred, saying: "We don't have any system to control the monopoly. Even if we could control it, we wouldn't see any benefit for independent movies. We need more discussion about how to support independent films."

This introspection and self-criticism is typical of the Korean film industry and is perhaps one of the reasons it continues to be so successful. After decades of heavy censorship, Korean cinema first took off in the late 1990s, when venture capital groups, then a number of studios, notably CJ, Lotte and Showbox/Mediaplex, started to invest heavily in film production.

Taking its cues from Hollywood, this nascent industry focussed on developing scripts, investing in new talent and upgrading its CGI capabilities, as well as other areas of filmmaking technology. The result was a string of hits, including Shiri, Friend and JSA: Joint Security Area, all of which enjoyed box office success at home and sold strongly overseas. At the height of the market, in 2004-2006, Japanese distributors would happily invest US$2m or more to buy distribution rights to Korean films. Sensing an opportunity, the US studios also began to pay attention, acquiring the English-language rights to remake Korean films.

In film industry cycles, success usually breeds complacency. Accordingly, the first boom resulted in too much repetition – a flood of films with shallow stories that looked too similar and cynically used K-pop and TV stars to attract Japanese buyers. Many of these films flopped and the financiers fled the market.

Jason Chae is one of the founders of Seoul-based Mirovision, one of the first companies to sell Korean movies overseas. He sees direct comparisons with Hong Kong's film industry. He said:"The Korean wave was really started by movies – K-pop and TV drama came later. Now the Korean film industry is facing the same dilemma as Hong Kong – its expectations are still high, but market reality has set in. A bubble was created when Japanese buyers were signing seven-figure deals. When that crashed, the market became sceptical about Korean films."

When the bubble burst, rather than retreat from the market, the Korean industry started to analyse what was going wrong. Remembering this period of reinvention, Youngjoo Suh, Chief Executive of Finecut, a leading Korean production and sales company, said: "From around 2008-2009, producers and distributors started to spend more time on development and put more focus on writers and directors, ensuring that Korean cinema could become more diverse again."

This led to a second wave of Korean hits – many of which had fresh and unusual stories. Among the biggest hits last year was the comedy Miracle In Cell No 7, the tale of a man who is wrongfully sent to gaol and smuggles his young daughter into prison. Similarly successful was The Attorney, a courtroom drama based on former Korean president Roh Moo-hyun's early days defending the students accused of being North Korean sympathisers.

Photo: Summer smash: The Attorney.
Summer smash: The Attorney.
Photo: Summer smash: The Attorney.
Summer smash: The Attorney.
Photo: Miracle in Cell No 7: 2013’s comedy hit.
Miracle in Cell No 7: 2013's comedy hit.
Photo: Miracle in Cell No 7: 2013’s comedy hit.
Miracle in Cell No 7: 2013's comedy hit.

International sales, however, have yet to return to pre-crash levels. This, though, reflects the realities of the international market – it has become much tougher for all foreign-language films. This is largely due to the collapse of the DVD market and declining sales to TV.

Suh said: "The strength of Korean films is that they keep evolving – the industry is very fluid and can adapt to changing circumstances. Korean directors are also given a lot more freedom than filmmakers in Hollywood or Japan. New directors can make their debut films fairly easily if they're backed up by a strong production team."

Despite the concerns of Korea's hit filmmakers, even the might of the Korean conglomerates (chaebols) has been challenged. Suh handles the international sales of films from a start-up company, Next Entertainment World (N.E.W.). The company launched in 2008 and, last year, had a market share of 18%, putting it ahead of Lotte and Showbox, and making it second only to CJ. In recent years, venture capitalists, film studios and the Korean government have started jointly investing in funds to finance movies. This is perhaps because Korea has one of the world's highest average cinema admissions per head – four visits per year.

While all this looks rosy on the surface, the filmmakers on the BIFF panel were worried that the industry was heading for another crash, one fuelled by a lack of creativity and an over-reliance on stars with no profile outside of Korea. The market is also top-heavy, with a small number of blockbusters taking a large proportion of box office revenue. A healthy industry, they maintain, needs diversity to survive.

The hit-makers also observed that Korean cinema has grown as much as it's ever going to in its home country. It's now time, they believe, to expand overseas again, with China, the giant market next door, as the most obvious target. In fact this year's BIFF was all about deepening the relationship between China and Korea.

The two countries signed an official co-production treaty in July this year. The Korean conglomerates, though, have already made in-roads into China, setting up cinema chains and co-producing films with Chinese partners. As with Hollywood, this is seen as the best way into the market as there are limited quota slots for Korean films.

The attraction, though, is no one-way street, with Chinese audiences currently obsessed with Korean stars and TV dramas, notably You Who Came From The Stars. As a consequence, a large delegation of Beijing companies attended the Asian Film Market in search of co-production opportunities. Sohu, the Chinese Internet giant, recently acquired a 6% stake in Korean artist management company KeyEast and, as BIFF wrapped up, it was announced that China's Huace Film & TV was buying a 15% stake in N.E.W.

A sequel to the Korean hit My Sassy Girl, currently in production, will be the first film under the new co-production treaty, but several China-Korea co-productions have already been released. Showbox co-financed CGI family picture Mr Go, the tale of a baseball-playing gorilla, with Chinese partners, while CJ co-produced the hit Chinese-language romantic drama A Wedding Invitation, an adaptation of a Korean film. Chinese blockbusters also frequently make use of Korea's technologically advanced VFX companies.

Now many more China-Korea collaborations are in the works. Choi Yong-bae is working with Chinese partners on a sequel to The Host, while Won Dong-yeon said he was prepping a Chinese version of 200 Pounds Beauty, his hit romantic comedy. One of the first films from Heyi Film – the new film arm of Youku Tudou, the Chinese streaming platform – is Bad Sister, a China-Korea co-production directed by Kim Tae-gyun.

All of this activity is also raising concerns about whether it's healthy or damaging for so much Korean talent to head over the border to work in China, often on Chinese-language films. Choi, however, gave the development a positive spin, saying: "The China market is expanding rapidly and requires talent from outside, in the same way that Hollywood needed European filmmakers in its early days. Korean filmmakers can take the lead and work with China to make movies that can target the whole world."

Photo: The Pirates: A blockbuster success in Korea this year.
The Pirates: A blockbuster success in Korea this year.
Photo: The Pirates: A blockbuster success in Korea this year.
The Pirates: A blockbuster success in Korea this year.

Won was a little more circumspect, believing it could be a good thing, as long as the Korean film industry was clever about it. He said: "Rather than work project-by-project for Chinese producers, we should package our actors and filmmakers and exploit that package in the China market. We need to raise our credibility so that China thinks of us as equal partners – otherwise the future is not very bright."

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Busan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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