Saturday, March 2, 2013

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: February 2013

This month, we take a look at the star system in Korea. February's roster of experts take a look at the many stars in the Korea film industry, many of them hailing from the realms of Kpop and Kdrama. This month's question:

How valuable are stars in the Korean film industry?

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

There can be little doubt that the Korean star system was an integral part of the Hallyu movement in the late 1990s, producing hard working and committed actors and actresses who had the ability to cross media forms including K-drama, K-pop and film. The most notable example is Rain, named the most influential person on the Time 100 list, appearing in Hollywood films and selling out concerts across the US. Further, while the success of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) is often accredited to Director Park’s exceptional aesthetic sensibility and style, arguably it is Choi Min-sik’s tour-de-force performance as the vengeful Oh Dae-su that elevated Oldboy to an international phenomenon. However Rain’s star power has waned and not even his considerable charisma could save Return to Base from being a commercial flop – although his presence guaranteed the film distribution in over 30 countries, plus a limited commercial run in the US.

Other stars such as Won Bin, who showed considerable promise in the past, seem to have faded from the scene with little cinematic output of note recently. While stars were a vital part of Korean cinema’s rise to prominence on the global stage, their presence in films is no longer a guarantee of commercial or critical success. Instead, Korean cinema has been perhaps pigeonholed as an auteur cinema in the eyes of the West as a result of the success of directors such as Bong Jong-ho, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. While it could be said that the success of Masquerade was due to the star power of Lee Byung-Hun, his international success is not guaranteed. It is evident that in terms of stars in Korean cinema, it is the male ones that command the most notice. Korean stars have more cultural capital within the domestic market than they do internationally, but their importance to the success of Korean cinema has arguably declined since the halcyon days of Hallyu with directors being the true international stars of contemporary Korean cinema.

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

Celebrity culture in Korea and the film industry in some ways go hand in hand, so stars do undoubtedly play a role in the industry, but stars don't necessarily guarantee a film's success. Stars such as Rain, Ha Ji-won, Jeon Ji-hyun, Cha Tae-hyun and even the reliable Kim Yoon-seok don't always attract mass audiences, but there is little doubt that as the local industry continues to make commercial films, stars have and will continue to play a part as celebrity culture in South Korea becomes increasingly prevalent.

Name: Phil Hoad
Occupation: Writer, After Hollywood blog, The Guardian
Location: London, United Kingdom

They're as important as they are in any national cinema - as a sign of the strength of the bounds of identification and affection between the audience and the films. Stars are what keep people coming back. And it's clear that Korean cinema is in a pretty vibrant state in that regard: with Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho, Jun Ji-Hyun sustaining long careers and, in Lee Byung-hun, a genuine crossover phenomenon who looks like he might be able to make the leap to global audiences. The importance of getting that kind of international publicity for the industry shouldn't be underestimated, and on that score, Korea also has a group of "star" directors who grab attention with their personal style from behind the camera, with Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho all making their English-language debuts this year. It's a mature, dynamic industry now, ever more commercial, ever more similar to Hollywood, so the importance of stars looks set only to increase, if last year's standouts Masquerade (a stage for Lee, if ever there was one) and The Thieves are any sign of the increase. But I hope Korea retains its fondness for stars with rough edges, that feel a little more human (maybe a bit more similar to early Hollywood). Would Song's dopey features be leading-man material in many other countries?

Name: Hong Bo Mi
Occupation: Partner, Acquisitions & Distribution, Seven by Two Pictures
Location: Seoul, South Korea

Very valuable. They can secure financing deals, make impact on box office, closes overseas sales, and most importantly can improve the quality of the pictures with their stunning performances. However, their growing power could also mean heavier burdens on budgets with ever higher fees. Sometimes, it does not just end up with forcing filmmakers to tighten the budget elsewhere and make compromises. Many production companies who could not afford to pay the top-notch-fees often decide to co-produce the film with the star actors’ agency. If well played out, it can be mutually beneficial, but it could also pose a danger of influencing artistic decisions for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, there is positive side to it too. Actors with bankability can bring more attention to lower budget or independent films, and thus their presence can make a big difference for films that would otherwise easily be over-looked. Many star actors, who are aware of what they can do, are beginning to join projects they believe in, rather than just for the numbers on the pay check. For them, the new trend of co-producing or “paid with a share”, can be a good solution.

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

For mid-sized projects and up bankable stars are the cornerstone of any above the line production budget in all national film industries, genre being (meaning mostly horror) the only exception. It is common knowledge that you need your local market to guarantee the returns that  investors and subsidizing public offices expect: big names are usually mandatory. This is quite common globally and Korea is no exception, and it can be proved by looking at the weekly B.O. charts. The difference between the territories lays in if your star system is exportable. In Asia, Hong Kong/China clearly leads the way with names which have become not only popular but definitely bankable such as Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Chi Wai, Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li. Other powerful territories in Asia such as Thailand haven't yet developed a star system that could be recognizable worldwide. Korea is probably in the middle of these two examples. Choi Min Sik, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun are names that sound familiar in Europe and America. It is quite possible that Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Yun-seok will join this select club soon after the mega-success of The Thieves. Considering that international sales are becoming more and more important in the business plans of Korea's distribution key players (who are also the producers of their line-ups in 90% of the cases) internationally bankable stars will be more and more relevant when developing a film project.

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

Since the dawn of the commercial industry, star power has been an important part of the film industry worldwide, particularly in nurturing a lasting relationship with the general public. Just think how quickly the question "Who's in it?" comes up when discussing a film with someone, and how it can so easily be taken as a negative when the answer is, "Nobody big". Korean fan culture has long-focused on the artists involved rather than the content, a sentiment which can be applied just as easily to the music industry and even sports as well as the movies.

For overseas fans, "star power" is almost solely responsible for a film's success in other markets. Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho, Jeon Ji-hyeon are far more likely to bring attention to a particular project rather than its plot. Also, The filmmakers themselves have also become "stars", with the pull of Park Chan-wook or Kim Ki-Duk perhaps even stronger than that of the actors.

Why is this the case? For overseas fans, a lack of information as much as anything else. Details can be very thin on the ground for new and upcoming features if you don't understand Korean, and so the cast and crew are often the only pieces of information readily available. It also helps as a familiar handle on a film culture that may otherwise prove alien and impenetrable.

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

The question begs the other question - what exactly does 'valuable' mean. On one hand Korean audiences are fiercely loyal. If actors such as Won Bin or Lee Byun-hun star are to star in a film, Korean audiences would go and see it even if my mother was directing. In that sense, these stars are valuable as they not only bring in huge audiences and potentially give young directors a break but also help a film get to the screen in the first place. This is because, generally, in the West (at least where I come from) a big budget needs a director, a screenplay and a big name attached to get that elusive funding. In Korea, it is not unusual that a film gets investment from any two of those combinations, providing the big name star is part of that combination.

On the other hand, actors themselves can be used as tools to bring their brand to the party. It sometimes feels as though this is a cynical attempt to bring in a certain market or a certain segment of the socioeconomic portion of the population - almost like an operation into the marketing of a deodorant or soft drink. Case in point is the amount of K-pop stars who have suddenly become actors overnight. Some of the 'actors' actually do a good job but it must be remembered, in the case of K-pop stars, their purpose is not to sell records, (the idea of selling records went out with the word 'record') their primary purpose is to sell goods and services. Faceless kids are dressed, branded, operated on, given a look, a sound, spend a few hours in the studio, even more in dance studios and the rest appearing in adverts from cars, to websites, phones, restaurants, you name it. In this sense, it feels that their inclusion in any movie is just an extension of this. To me personally, when so many resources goes into finding the right 'actor' who will bring in the right audience and not the right actor who suits the part, the 'brand' of the movie is ironically cheapened.

The word 'valuable' itself is also subjective and certainly hard to prove. It is a circular word in the sense that many of the pure movie stars (not K-pop stars) became stars because of movies and then go on to bring value to movies.

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

While I certainly believe that stars and star power still have their part to play, I feel that access to an ever-increasing plethora of information on virtually any film has gradually caused the overall balance at play to change; with audiences able to far more easily make informed decisions as to what narrative subjects they want to watch as much as who they want to see. In fact, over the past year I have personally received almost as many messages and questions regarding small independent films without ‘name’ actors as queries about a star’s next project. When I interviewed Lee Byung-hun in November, I asked him the very same question and he noted the trend for pairing star actors with newcomers - as was the case in Eungyo - to cover all bases, if you like, and let’s face it, in that instance it was the incredible debut film performance of Kim Go-eun as the titular character that received the majority of actor accolades; thereby drawing yet more people to see the beautifully moving film.

Of course, there are always going to be instances where star power once again grabs the limelight; the furore in numerous countries regarding the international films of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon (star directors in their own right) being a current case in point.

Name: Marc Raymond
Occupation: International Scholar, College of Communication, Kwangwoon University
Location: Seoul, South Korea

Stars are of course crucial to Korean cinema, and most if not all cinemas in the world, so the more interesting question is how important are they in relative terms. The best comparison is probably with Korean films biggest competitor, Hollywood. In the past decade, there has definitely been discussion of stars diminishing in power. The huge success of Avatar is one example, and there seems to be more and more of these. In this respect, stars in Korean cinema do not seem to be losing in importance, and thus may be relatively more important than in the past couple of decades when compared to their American counterparts.

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

As film production budgets continue to get higher, stars in the Korean film industry play the ever important role of reducing the risk of box office failure from the investment perspective, by commanding major media and audience attention for the projects they are involved with. However, stars alone aren't enough to guarantee success, as demonstrated by underperformance of My Way, Sector 7, A Company Man, Howling, Hindsight, etc. These days, Korean audiences respond well to domestic films with interesting stories and characters even if they don’t have major stars (such as Miracle in Cell No.7), but it’s the combination of strong screenplays and A-list casts that most often results in big mainstream hits. This was especially evident in 2012 with The Thieves, Masquerade, The Grand Heist, and Nameless Gangster.

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

As someone who has to promote a Korean film to an overseas audience on a weekly basis, I am always looking for how to best connect a film with the local community. Sometimes this can be achieved through the cult of the director (such as for Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon, Bong Joon-ho), the controversial nature of the story (Jiseul, 26 Years, The King of Pigs), or the international acclaim of the film itself (Arirang, Pieta, Oldboy). But the leading factor that seems to connect with people is simply who the film stars.

Stars seem to be leading the way in providing exposure to Korean films both locally and internationally. We have seen recent examples of this, with the all-star casts in The Thieves and The Berlin File, and through individual star power seen in the likes of The Man From Nowhere (Won Bin). Many a time have I had an interview with prospective interns or festival volunteers, and when I ask what their favourite film is, they say “Ajeossi” (Note they don’t ever say The Man from Nowhere).

Those that would shy away from The Front Line instead adore the T.O.P starring 71: Into the Fire. Stars transcend genre limitations. A screening of A Frozen Flower in Sydney earlier this year drew one of the largest audiences in our history; a film that has sexual content that would normally turn away those accustomed to watching restrained TV dramas, but instead had girls screaming at the screen every time a young Song Joong-ki appeared in the background. I have even felt the phenomenon of Song Joong-ki's drawcard myself at the Korean premiere of A Werewolf Boy in Busan last year, which saw 5,000 individuals rush the stage.

The fact that people are making cinematic viewing decisions based purely on their favourite idols or stars is not something I encourage. I try with my programming to acknowledge star power, but not allow it to become the be all and end all. However, the explosive force of the Korean star system cannot be underestimated. Thus, in terms of an analysis of value, stars are indeed invaluable. With Korean pop culture developing an even shorter and shorter lifespan for those at the top, banking on these individuals may soon prove just as tricky as films without a shining light.

Name: Tom Vick
Occupation: Curator of Film, Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution; author, Asian Cinema: A Field Guide
Location: Washington DC, USA

My first impulse is to say that I’m not really qualified to answer this question because stars play little, if any, role in how Korean movies are promoted by their American distributors. But this phenomenon itself is probably worth examining. The Korean movies that receive commercial release here tend to be roughly divided between genre movies (the more “extreme” the better), and the auteur-driven cinema of the likes of Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sangsoo and Kim Ki-duk. In both cases, the movies are marketed for their content rather than their cast.

It’s possible that there’s some unintentional racism involved here. American distributors likely don’t trust audiences to recognize Korean actors (let alone their names) from movie to movie, but that very distrust tends to perpetuate their relative anonymity. American critics, of course, have heaped deserved praise over the years on actors like Jeon Do-yeon, Choi Min-sik, and especially Song Kang-ho, but I wonder if casual moviegoers even recognize them from movie to movie. If this sounds dire, the bright side is that Korean movies have developed as healthy a cult following as it’s possible for foreign films to get here, and among aficionados these and other performers are well-known (when Choi appeared at the New York Asian Film Festival last year he was deluged with autograph-seekers).

Can a Korean star break through in the United States? Maybe Snowpiercer, in which Song Kang-ho rubs shoulders with John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris in a high profile international production, will be the test.

MKC Team

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

While stars are hugely important in Korea their involvement in a film will not always guarantee returns. There seem to be two kinds of stars in Korea. On the one hand there are the actors who have connected with audiences and on the other you find the young idols that have made their fortunes on sponsorship deals. Fads are prevalent in Korea and just like everything else, these idol stars don't shine bright for very long. However, real thespians seem to have a longer shelf life. The title for most bankable actor in Korea has only belonged to four actors (Park Joon-hoon, Han Suk-kyu, Song Kang-ho and Kim Yun-seok) in the past 25 years.

A few years ago budgets spun out of control as stars and their agencies commanded ever-increasing fees. Though K-pop stars generate a lot of press inches they seem better suited to Kdramas, Rain (R2B: Return to Base) being a good example. Other idols like Won Bin (The Man From Nowhere) and Song Joong-ki (A Werewolf Boy) have fared better but there fame is not likely to extend to a string of hits. If anything, these days studios seem to recognize (most of the time) both the value of stars and the importance of a strong script. This has led to a number of ensemble productions (The Thieves, The Berlin File) marketed on the promise of story and spectacle as well as diversified star appeal designed to hit every quadrant. 

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

My answer to this very broad question is that stars did play a very important role in the Korean film industry, especially in regards to the proliferation of Korean films and dramas outside of South Korea’s borders, but currently I don’t believe that a producer or director needs to depend on a big name star to carry a film. Of course, hiring a proven name doesn’t hurt a property, films like Masquerade or The Thieves definitely proved this, but the list of highest grossing domestic films in South Korea shows that audiences prefer reliable genre pictures populated with competent actors to keep them entertained. And as far as foreign audiences are concerned though many Korean films do make the rounds in the festival circuit the average filmgoer isn’t going to know their names.

Though in the case of K-pop and K-dramas fans, many have their own bands and actors that they support. These rabid and loyal consumers will purchase anything and everything that features their favorite idols but the only thing this affects is the talent’s asking price when companies come knocking on their door for sponsorships. Especially since the K-pop scene is a very fickle and transient industry where bands can easily fall out of favor.

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

To make it short, the stars in Korea are in my humble opinion highly valuable. By premonition I had already addressed the subject in my answer last month, because I believe it is since the beginning of the so-called “New Korean Cinema” one of the main engines, if not the most important one, in the Korean film industry. The Thieves would not have been such an important success without its incredible combo of stars. The recent The Berlin File and New World are based primarily on their actors.

South Korea is fortunate enough to have a strong and diverse entertainment industry that provides new celebrities every year. More and more often, producers pick among K-pop singers and "talents" (actors of Korean soap operas) to attract different fringes of the population. The cult of celebrity can sometimes reach alarming dimensions, especially in the world of music, and television production companies didn’t wait long to exploit this, generating many reality-shows claiming to reveal the stars in their natural state.

But it is in the case of more intimate films that the phenomenon becomes interesting, with some well-known actors playing their role, spotting interesting scenarios and thus allowing a project to provide guarantees to hypothetical investors. These are still rare but it seems that this is increasing, and now it can happen that an actor appears in both an independent film and the latest blockbuster. Of course, in a society as connected to internet portals and social networks as Korea, a bad movie or a movie too difficult to access will rarely be saved by its actors. But these celebrities are able to give the necessary lighting for a film to get noticed among the mass of new releases.

1 comment:

  1. Really appreciated the inclusion of Hong Bo Mi on the production side of the discussion. It's good to have an inside the industry perspective on it all.