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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: January 2013


Welcome to the first MKC Thought Leaders' Corner! We are thrilled to present this new feature where every month we will ask the top experts on Korean cinema a pressing question regarding the Korean film industry.

Without further ado, here is this month's question:

Given the enormous success of Korean cinema in 2012, is there any cause for concern over a rise in streamlined productions as quality gives way to financial interests?

Many to thanks to all the contributors for their time and insightful comments. Responses listed alphabetically, followed by the thoughts of MKC's teammembers.


Name: Colette Balmain
Occupation: Lecturer; Writer; Film Critic
Location: London, United Kingdom

While independent South Korean cinema is doing well on the festival circuit, there seems to be a discernible push towards producing mainstream narratives which are aimed at the global box-office. I found both The Thieves and Masquerade enjoyable, but both films seem to have traded cultural diversity for a pan-Asian aesthetic conforming to genre conventions in the process. Indeed, the need for South Korean cinema to be commercially successful outside of the domestic market was a topic that came up a number of times during the Festival and Masquerade was seen as marking the future potential of South Korean cinema to be successful abroad - although I have reservations.

The downside of this concerns me, as it may well affect independent film production which as it is, is struggling to compete with mainstream cinema. This is something that directors I spoke with repeatedly raised as an issue and expressed fears around the future of independent cinema and cinematic diversity. Yet as the success of Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta demonstrated, low-budget independent films can bring in considerable profits while at the same time, raising the profile of South Korean cinema. If Masquerade is not the global success that is envisaged, exporting a type of nostalgic national culture aimed at the cinematic ‘touristic’ gaze and thus leading to more of the same, perhaps South Korean cinema will return to its uncompromising best, eschewing generic conventions and producing films that cannot be neatly defined and challenging our conceptions of what cinema is. This is not a criticism of Masquerade itself, but a worry about the future diversity of South Korean cinema especially in relation to streamlining.

From a personal point of view, I have no issues with mainstream cinema and I understand the desire of a director for his/her film to be seen by the widest possible audience, but with the caveat that more interesting and personal/socially aware films are funded and given more opportunity to be screened for domestic audiences and not merely consigned to the festival circuit.

Name: Jason Bechervaise
Occupation: Film Reviewer, Screen International
Location: Ilsan, South Korea

The short answer to this question is yes, very much so. While it's great to see Korean audiences embracing local commercial cinema, a rise in streamlined productions will inevitably be to the the detriment of independent / low-budget cinema that by in large produces the best Korean cinema at the moment. Naturally studios are driven by profit, but taking a short-term view of maximizing box office revenue over quality will not help the industry in the long-term. Studios must instead take initiatives to actively invest in promising directors, scriptwriters etc.. as opposed to focusing on profit-driven projects. Directors such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have demonstrated in the past that they can remain artistic and innovative whilst also maintaining their commercial appeal, but if there is a focus on streamlined projects there is a real danger that promising projects from upcoming directors that demonstrate a great deal of talent both commercially and artistically are then overlooked.

Name: Mike Hostench
Occupation: Deputy Director, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia
Location: Barcelona, Spain

Success is obviously good for a local film industry if it can keep the balance between commercial appeal and quality. In the case of the Korean film industry, we are seeing in my opinion a fine balance between both, and the final outcome will depend more on the artistic quality than a prefabricated attitude (read business plan) from the major houses. Government support is also a key part of the equation in Korea. The problem is, these policies imply collateral hazard as they automatically generate a series of production companies focused on productions specifically designed to obtain the benefits of a public subsidy. The epitome of this is the case of Spain, where subsidy-tailored companies mushroomed in the wake of governmental aid a decade ago, causing a dramatic increase of mediocre productions. These production houses vanished the moment the new administration shut the money tap due to the economic downturn suffered by the country in recent years. I am sure Koreans will know better and the three sides of the triangle, industry/filmmakers/government, will find a way to combine, at least in most cases, a business-friendly approach to production that will encompass the necessary quality of its content.

Name: James Marsh
Occupation: Asian Editor, Twitch; Programmer, Fantastic Fest
Location: Hong Kong

I'm not sure that this is of any greater concern in 2013 than it has been for the last decade or so. As we saw 10 years ago, Korea (just like Hollywood, Hong Kong or a number of other markets) will happily piggyback off the success of one monster hit, and churn out a slew of inferior copycats until the "next big thing" arrives. It's not all bad, without Shiri we may not have gotten JSA. Without Oldboy there'd be no A Bittersweet Life. Of greater concern is that three of the country's biggest directors, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho all went West, so we won't be seeing anything new from them on home turf for a while. On the other hand, however, it's good to see Kim Ki-duk getting back to work and the very idea of a new Jang Joon-hwan film leaves me giddy. Sure, we'll see at least one knock-off thanks to the success of The Thieves - probably a sequel too - but I'm confident the year will still yield its fair share of legitimate hits and surprises.

Name: Daniel Martin
Occupation: Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
Location: Daegu, South Korea

Korean cinema had a superb year in 2012, both in terms of financial success and creative achievement. However, there is indeed a disturbing trend for increasingly conservative investment patterns. Financial backers have far too much influence over creative decisions (just look at the appalling case of Lee Myung-se with Mr. K), and there seems to be a desire to avoid experimentation in favour of perfecting a formula for success and then never deviating from it. The industry is thriving, but I’d like to see the money spread around a little more – fewer massive blockbusters, more mid-budget flights of fancy.

Name: David Oxenbridge
Occupation: Film Journalist
Location: Seoul, South Korea

The question leads the reader to believe that quality 'will' drop which of course is subjective. Many would point to the fact that the kind of vertical integration which is more closely aligned system to Western production, distribution and funding systems has given rise to the idea of the 'well made film' (what ever that means). Arguably this focus on commerciality has given rise to more highly skilled workers, better post production skills and technology, production technology all feeding back into the rise of the 'well made film.' If anything, I think that certain companies (that will go unmentioned at this time) have long believed that if they throw enough money at a film, load it with stars, then the Korean audience would lap it up. However, we can see this idea has lead to very expensive flops such as My Way and Sector 7. If anything, I see 2012 as time of commercial realignment - where commercial films retained their commercial ethic yet aligned themselves well with the expectations of its audience. I think Masquerade is a good example of this. Although not (in my opinion) a classic it had the right mix of comedy, slapstick, action and melodrama to more than satisfy its multiplex-going audience.

Back to the original question: I see that in theory this concern could easily become a reality especially given that the aforenotmentioned film companies deck out most of their own multiplexes with their own films leaving others out in the cold. However, as of yet I see no evidence of this, especially given that 'quality' is such an abstract and subjective term.

Name: Darcy Paquet
Occupation: Founder, koreanfilm.org; Consultant; Udine Far East Film Festival
Location: Seoul, South Korea

2012 was by some measures the most commercially successful year ever for Korean cinema. But if you judge the year in terms of creativity, I don't think it was significantly stronger than other recent years. There's always a temptation when you experience success on this level to keep doing the same thing, or to try to identify the formula that worked so well. But in the film industry, this seldom works, and I hope film companies realize that they need to take more risks if they want to continue being successful in the future.

Name: Paul Quinn
Occupation: Independent Writer; Founder, HangulCelluloid.com
Location: London, United Kingdom

I think there is still cause for concern; perhaps more than ever. The fact that a number of the big Korean film successes of 2012 were ‘spectacle’ blockbusters makes me fear that the ‘money machine’ will assume they’re all that’s worth investing in and push film-makers producing quality narratives on a smaller scale even more to the sidelines. I’ve talked to many directors in the past couple of years, almost all of whom spoke of their frustration at the near-impossible task of gaining investment for their work and with mass-market colossi currently stealing the majority of the spotlight those difficulties look set to continue.

Name: Goran Topalovic
Occupation:  Executive Director, New York Asian Film Festival
Location: New York, USA

While Korea had a great 2012 at the box office, and has so far carried over that momentum into 2013, the streamlined production, domination of film financing and theatrical market by the big studios, and lack of viable alternative modes of production and distribution, are not leaving much room for diversity and experimentation in style and content. Young filmmakers are being forced to either adapt to the industry standards, or try their luck on the international festival circuit.

Name: Kieran Tully
Occupation: Artistic Director, Korean Film Festival in Australia
Location: Sydney, Australia

I think this trend for streamlined productions that focus on financial success is indeed something that we should be cautious of. While big successful films can be good for the industry as a whole, and can create a thriving production environment, the quality of the output must also be maintained. Thankfully in 2012 films such as Masquerade, The Thieves, A Werewolf Boy, Nameless Gangster, The Grand Heist, Architecture 101, Unbowed and All About My Wife, all of which were tremendously successful at the box office, had an overall quality that was commendable and are a positive representation of Korean cinema.

So far it seems that while productions are becoming more streamlined and focused on an end product, this has been achieved by compiling together a solid story, talented director and all-star cast that can achieve both financial success and a quality result. Hopefully this balance of financial interests vs. quality product is maintained for future years, and Korea will remain known as the Hollywood of Asia, rather than Hollywood 2.0.

MKC Team

Name: Pierce Conran
Occupation: Editor, KoBiz, Korean Film Council/Modern Korean Cinema; Korea Correspondent, Twitchfilm
Location: Seoul, South Korea

I'm both elated and terrified by last year's success. A healthy Korean film industry will keep producing works of a high technical standard but that special something that drew me to the industry some ten years ago cannot be fabricated as part of a studio's moviemaking blueprint. The big guns (Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon) have hit the global stage and replacing them has become an elusive task. A wealth of talent does exist in the independent sector (which is responsible for the best Korean films of the past few years) but if given a commercial project, will these filmmakers be afforded the freedom necessary to match those great works of the past? Given the current boom, from a studio head's perspective it's hard to see why the model should change. If anything, more aggressive streamlining seems like the logical path to maintaining success. However, in the longterm it will turn off local viewers and foreign festival programmers and audiences as they gradually tire of the commercial industry's solid but safe productions. In the absence of an ace in the hole, what the industry needs is a few wildcards.

Name: Rex Baylon
Occupation: Writer, Modern Korean Cinema/VCinema
Location: Sangpoom, South Korea

It is difficult to say with any certainty what the effects will be to Korea’s film industry as it grows in both critical and commercial popularity. In fact, no one is certain whether this spiked interest in Korean popular culture, from k-dramas to k-pop's soft power increase in the past decade now, will last longer than a few fleeting years and then burn out. Yet for any industry to grow there must first of all be money and invested people.

As many critics have written, in the last year alone the South Korean box office has proven more than a match for Hollywood blockbuster fare. As more and more investors, be they foreign or domestic, corporate juggernauts or mom and pop production companies pour more money, I optimistically believe that in the end this is a good thing.

Though struggle may make those with artistic inclinations fight harder for their visions, poverty and a lack of resources has never been the primary ingredient for great art or entertaining stories. The influx of cash does mean the specificity and flavor of Korean films must be diluted to appease the many investors who’ve got their finger in the pie but I don’t believe the Korean film industry will become a homogenous blob.

Arthouse and commercial fare have done quite well in their respective markets and will continue to do so as long as Korean filmmakers, screenwriters and artists don’t shy away from telling the stories they want to tell in the ways they want to tell them. The streamlining of Korea’s production methods just means those with the drive to create have far shinier toys to play with. Whether they make masterpieces or flops is a matter for the viewing public and history to decide.

Name: Fabien Schneider
Occupation: Master in Cinema Studies; Founder and Editor, Kimchipopcorn; Writer, Modern Korean Cinema; Editor, Cinemasie.com
Location: Lausanne, Switzerland

The vintage 2012 of Korean cinema was particularly exciting for me to discover. What struck me was the amazing vitality of the market, with what seems to be a good balance between large, medium and small productions. If I look at the box office of Korean movies, it seems that the market is still divided between CJ, Showbox and NEW, while in reality the majority of films this year were produced by independent studios and only distributed by these majors. Successes were varied and sometimes completely unexpected. The star system is becoming increasingly important in the success of a film, as evidenced by The Thieves, Masquerade, Architecture 101, Dancing Queen or Unbowed. A new trend that could emerge in the future could be actors using their celebrity to carry ambitious projects as it has now become common in the USA.

The topics covered also appear more varied, the recipes that were working yesterday are today obsolete, resulting in major failures both qualitatively and economically (My Way, R2B: Return to Base, Sector 7 and also probably The Host 2). New trends that became clear included retrospection, as well as the occasional tint of nostalgia, and politically sensitive topics. It seems that producers are now becoming more cautious towards blockbusters projects and would rather aim for medium-budget productions that can ensure profitability. I don’t think we will read about admissions numbers as impressive as those of 2012, but rather a comparable diversity of medium-budget movies.

Obviously, this does not suggest the quality of these films, but it at least allows for greater risk-taking in topics and form, and, perhaps, greater freedom granted to directors. But what I can say with certainty is that Korean cinema maintains a better dialogue with its audience, becoming increasingly more sensitive to social issues, and that can only make me more excited for the months to come.

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