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Sunday, March 31, 2013

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: March 2013

This month, the experts chime in on what various things they're noticing in the current Korean film industry. This month's question:

Are you noticing any trends in Korean films these days?

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

2013 so far seems marked by a trend towards globalization on the part of South Korean cinema with the English Language premieres of both Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand, and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker and co-productions including Bong Jong-ho’s Snowpiercer and Mr. Go (Kim Yong-hwa), while the second highest grossing film of the year so far is Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Berlin File, which is mainly located in Berlin (even though it deals with localised issues around the continuing division and tension between North and South Korea). However, social-issue melodramas, populated by socially inept, physically disabled and/or intellectually disabled characters, are also in evidence including Sea of Butterfly (Park Bae-Il) about a couple who both suffer from brain lesions, and Miracle in Cell No. 7 (Lee Hwan-Kyung) – the highest grossing South Korean film to be released in 2013 to date – based around an intellectually disabled man who is wrongly convicted for a murder and whose daughter takes it upon herself to prove his innocence. The failure of either The Last Stand or the critically lauded Stoker to produce the type of domestic box office receipts associated with their directors’ Korean features, however, signals the home audience’s desire for locally produced and culturally inflected films. This in itself is a good sign for South Korean cinema, in that it may curb the drive towards globalization and internalisation which reduces difference to sameness constituting a cosmopolitan identity which is only available for those who can afford it.

Name: Christopher Bourne
Occupation: Film Critic, Twitch, Meniscus Magazine, The Bourne Cinema Conspiracy
Location: New York, USA

One trend I've noticed is polyglot, multinational productions – two recent examples are the blockbusters The Thieves and The Berlin File. It used to be that it was considered the ultimate goal of many international directors to enter Hollywood, but as Hollywood box-office becomes less a decisive factor in the financial success of films, this seems to be less the case. Despite Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon's high profile forays into US productions, it seems that Korea, as well as other Asian countries, are looking more toward pan-Asian models of production and distribution, especially with the Mainland Chinese market.

Name:  Chocoshrek
Occupation:  Founder and Editor of Word From The ROK,
Independent Writer and Film Reviewer
Location:  Goyang, South Korea

There are a few trends that have crept in to Korean film these days. Some for the better, others, not so.

With continual interest from overseas, it wasn't going to be long before we got a look at the "Hollywoodization" of Korean film. Money talks and if you can't conform to the demands of the big studios, you had better walk or at least go make an indie. Highlighting this is Kim Ji-hoon (The Tower), who stated that he didn't have enough time to complete the CG scenes on Sector 7. Product placement is creeping into Korean films and is it a co-incidence that the big production houses pump out more films now than ever? It’s certainly arguable that quality has been sacrificed for gloss. Thank god for film’s like Jiseul and Touch.

Noticeable to fans of the romance genre is a retreat from the melodrama of the 90s and early 2000s. Films such as Architecture 101, Love 911 and All About My Wife exemplify this. These films tend toward a more realistic subtlety, which works for me and seems to be working for fans.

Perhaps not so new but certainly more evident is the amount of Kpop stars going into film, such as Juni of Bella Mafia (Love 911), Lim Seul-ong of 2AM (26 years) and Bae Suzy in (Architecture 101). T.O.P of Big Bang will also star in the upcoming spy thriller Alumni.

Webtoon’s adapted for the big screen continue to grow in number with last year's Neighbors and 26 Years written by Kang Pool. Next month's Fist of Legend is based on a webtoon by Lee Jong-kyoo and With God directed by Kim Tae-young will come out later this year.

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

I could say I detect some new lines of thought within Korean industry players, mostly a result of the strong profits produced in 2012 by Korean films in different fields (local and international sales) and concepts (blockbusters, strong indies and arthouse). The boldest one would probably be the increasing ambition of the mini-majors:

I would put Finecut and their New World as the example of the production business plans that will become recurrent in Korea during the next months. Middle-sized companies like them will start playing in the major league alongside the Showboxs and CJs, using the succesful track record of their previous strong art-house entries from the already bankable Hong Sangsoo and Kim Ki-duk (both with one leg on the art-house and another in the mainstream) to enter the star-studded productions such as Park Hoon-jeong's new film. This, combined with their solid knowledge in international sales, will definitely see these contenders getting closer to The Thieves production scenario, a paradise of any film exec on the Peninsula. I am sure M-Line, Daisy & Cinergy et al are already cooking projects in the same vein.

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

Aside from the seemingly growing focus on spectacle blockbusters and the resultant facilitation of ensemble cast appearances, one trend that repeatedly catches my eye is the continuing shift in industry perceptions of sexual content within Korean cinema and the, some might say ever-increasing, tendency to label and market films as 'erotic' simply because they contain adult-oriented references, visuals and scenes. While that description isn't necessarily inaccurate per se in the majority of cases, and even though the focusing on a film's graphic elements is an understandable attempt by the industry to draw in audiences, the fact that films are regularly tagged as erotic thrillers, erotic dramas, or erotic comedies, regardless of the context in which sexual content appears, does, I feel, rather a disservice to narratives attempting to be more than simply excuses for exploitative titillation. Granted, this isn't a particularly new issue but to my mind the ease with which this blanket description is attached to virtually any Korean film featuring nudity and/or sexual liaisons seems to increase almost exponentially year on year, nonetheless.

Of course, as Korean cinema has gradually become more open to depictions of sex and sexuality – allowing adult content to be seen more as a legitimate film element than simply deemed to be overly controversial, unwholesome or even pernicious, as was largely the case historically – the opportunities for the narrative inclusion of sex for the sake of sex have increased in tandem; as have the aforementioned lowest common denominator descriptions focusing on films' graphic nature. However, as such, intelligent cinematic works that are nuanced, multi-layered and even beautiful regardless of their adult content and which use sexuality to enable insightful social commentary (such as Eungyo or The Concubine) are descriptively lumped together with stories so lacklustre that they positively need to use their graphic nature as a selling point (Natalie).

Already in 2013, the release of comedy Horny Family and thriller An Ethics Lesson – both again tagged as 'erotic' in their respective genres – would seem to suggest that this descriptive trend is likely to continue. I, for one, sincerely hope those films are more worthy than that tagline tends to imply.

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

In recent years I have noticed a steady increase in the presence of 'foreigners' in Korean films. English speakers have popped up in Korean cinema for years, often playing English teachers, crazed European travellers or AWOL American soldiers, but this trend is beginning to expand to include non-English speaking foreigners as the film industry reflects the current state of Korean society.

From it being a major plot device in the likes of  Papa,  Hanaan,  He's on Duty, Haunters, The Taste of Money, Bandhobi, Ashock, From Seoul to Varanasi, A Barefoot Dream and Jeon Kyu-hwan's Town Trilogy, to just simply having a physical presence or background role, this 'multicultural Korea' is starting to get more airtime. The likes of Punch, Mai Ratima and short film A Glaring Night are also reflecting an increase in mixed race families or couples, which was probably made most famous in Kim Ki-duk's Address Unknown (2001). Despite that there is still some xenophobia against this social status, something that still seems very taboo, and is thus often used as a plot twist by Korean filmmakers.

The likes of Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and various African nations are being represented quite frequently in modern Korean cinema, and rather intriguingly, often as fluent Korean speakers. This appears to be because the Korean film industry is becoming more aware of its global status, but also to represent the changing face of Korean society and the presence of migrant workers.

While the big news headlines were made by the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon making films in English, and the likes of Hong Sangsoo bringing English speakers to Korea, there has been just an intriguing change to the face of Korean cinema on the homefront itself.

MKC Team

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

Korean cinema has never been shy to represent its traumatic history and social problems on screen. While the amalgamation of these concerns with excellent commercial filmmaking was largely responsible for the films that drew many eyes to the industry a decade ago, rarely has it been so pointed in its critique of contemporary society as it has in the past 18 months.

Recent hits such as Silenced, Unbowed and 26 Years have connected with audiences for the same reason that films like Memories of Murder did 10 years ago, but with far less subtlety. On the one hand, this demonstrates an increased willingness to challenge the status quo. I can't imagine an earlier time when a filmmaker (Chung Ji-young) would have timed the release of a politically sensitive torture expose (National Security) with the presidential elections and then had the gal to invite every candidate to a special screening. My one concern is that by being more overt in their critiques of society, directors are foregoing the exquisite filmmaking that drew me in the first place.

Pursuant to this vein, there has been a marked increase in films detailing sexual abuse. The last few months alone have brought us Dirty Blood, Don't Cry Mommy, Azooma and Fatal, as well as the upcoming Norigae (which I'm cautiously optimistic about). Upsetting though these works are, I'm very glad to see filmmakers championing womens' rights in Korea. Though once again, while admirable in their intent, save for the impressive Fatal, these are far too morally righteous and aesthetically tame to connect with viewers.

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

Aside from the Hollywoodization of Korean cinema I can’t really say that I see any other current trends within the film industry. Although, as many critics and fans alike have stated on this website, the influx of money has caused a trend where many films that are released in Korea tend to be very “watered down” now and lack a lot of the genre experimentation that South Korean cinema was famous for.

Besides that, there is a growing trend as the industry seems to dip more and more into the K-pop pool for new talent; Bae Suzy, Rain, T.O.P, the boys from B2ST, and many more young musicians have been tapped by directors, indie and commercial, to star in their movies. Now of course, in Asia an actor pulling triple duty working on film, television, and music is not really unusual. In the past, the film industry here culled it’s rising stars from television and theater. Actors like Choi Min-shik, Jeon Do-yeon, and Song Kang-ho all paid their dues with years of working small time parts in forgettable dramas.

Also, due to those earlier actors having worked for so long in the industry they were far more mature in age and also boasted more unique physical characteristics. The new crop of stars eschew this and though all of them are attractive, a cinephile would be hard-pressed to tell one pretty boy from the next.

With the spotlight shining ever brighter on Korean cinema it is obvious that the commercial imperative has trumped all other demands, but hopefully a far more balanced outlook will keep things in check.

1 comment:

  1. Still concerned over North America's two-fisted attack. We'll steal your actors to steal the box office receipts, or we'll steal your directors. Obviously anyone can say no, but it's difficult when you see the difference in money poured all over you. In most Asian countries, their highest budget may equal the money spent on an expensive "indie".

    How many good Jackie Chan films might we have seen if we hadn't coated him in CGI and misunderstandings? Kim Ji-woon admitted he wasn't making a Korean film with Schwarzenegger and the actor's age and controversies may have been enough to never launch enough interest in the states. I just hope each director takes their paycheck and lessons back to their countries and invests in making more of the most exciting films any country has ever produced. I'll stick with South Korea, I hope the stolen actors and directors do too.

    -Nekrobomb Jones