Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Decline in Western Interest for Korean Cinema?

See my companion piece: Decline in Domestic Interest in Korean Cinema?

It is my impression that of late, there has been a lack of enthusiasm for Korean cinema in the west. While I Saw the Devil was recently released in the US and is gaining in popularity, the exposure it is receiving pales in comparison to those which preceded it, like The Host and Oldboy. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this happened and to be honest the recognition that Korean cinema receives now is still far greater than anything it experienced prior to the new millenium.

However some high profile directors are transitioning to making films in the US, we can expect Hollywood debuts from:

Park Chan-wook - He is directing the Wentworth Miller's blacklisted Stocker starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mia Wasikowski.

Kim Ji-woon - Attached to helm Lionsgate's The Last Stand, another blacklisted script starring Liam Neeson.

*UPDATE* Bong Joon-ho - I've heard that after he completes Snow Piercer, Bong will embark on his first US film with J.J. Abrams on board to produce. This will not start until he finishes Snow Piercer, which is said to be in production until 2012.

These directors, as well as Bong Joon-ho, are established but I worry that it will be difficult for other Korean filmmakers to make a similar mark on the international scene. Na Hong-jin made some strides with The Chaser and one hopes that his new effort, The Yellow Sea, can bolster his reputation but I doubt that he will become as popular as the aforementioned filmmakers.

The question though, is why are Korean films losing steam? There has been a decline in attendance in Korea lately but the quality of the work is still very strong. Modern western audiences have notoriously short attention spans and it is quite possible that they have moved on to the new thing. The wow factor of the Asia Extreme branding (an invention courtesy of western distribution companies) has worn off and audiences may have moved on for there sensory thrills. Kim's I Saw the Devil is a case in point, it is very violent, original, and certainly depraved, all prerequisites of this supposed subgenre, but coming after films such as Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, and Save the Green Planet, which are all surpassed by it in terms of brutality, it lacks novelty.

I think this was the problem to begin with, Korean cinema had so much more to offer than violent revenge thrillers, but everything else was peppered underneath them. Had audiences been exposed to the larger, more substantive Korean industry as a whole, perhaps this could have ensured for longevity. Instead it seems that some mid-level distribution companies (such as Tartan) capitalized on the visceral thrill of the new and unknown and sailed on this short wind of popularity.

As I said I still believe that Korean cinema has a lot to offer and it is only a matter of time before another film can have a significant impact on the international market. I just hope that when this does happen a few perspicacious people will be able to foster a culture of growth and enrich themselves and our viewing habits in the process.


  1. I was beginning to suspect that Koreans like their revenge thrillers. And I agree with your point about US audiences getting bored.

    You've shocked them once, it's going to be difficult to shock them again with something similar.

    I do think that Korean films have so much more to offer though.

  2. Korea should push to show more of their historical movies. They are so painfully beautiful and some of the stories are so intriguing (Kind and the Clown, A Frozen flower).

  3. I definitely think that historical movies out of Korea could do fairly well. Mind you, the war films, such as Taegukgi, Silmido, etc. are already quite popular, as are some historical action films, like Musa: the Warrior.

    Their historical drams are great but I don't know how popular we can expect them to be in the west. Period dramas normally don't travel too well, although this could have a lot to do with language, since such films from the UK or US play well in each.

    I think that Untold Scandal, Chunhyang and The King and the Clown were given an opportunity and were appreciated but not necessarily able to gain a wider audience, again this could be because distributors would certainly be cautious about acquiring these films.

    Korean romance films could potentially do very well. K-Drama is a well documented phenomenon in Asia and while this doesn't mean that they would play as well in the western world, I think the general paucity of quality in US indicates that there is an opening. It would be a risk to try and fill it this way but I will point out the huge success of My Sassy Girl.