How to Take On Hollywood in 5 Easy Steps

New Zealand Korean Film Festival 2004
Volume 8, Issue 12 (December 31, 2004)

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In October 2004 New Zealand held its first ever Korean Film Festival in Auckland, not only revealing that Asians have other pastimes than boy racing, kidnapping, and pouring their money into the NZ education system, but also showing how one small country has turned its film industry into a force to be reckoned with on the global scene.

The protagonist of Sympathy for Mister Vengeance, green-haired deaf-mute Ryu is a kind-hearted guy who gets everything wrong. After getting the sack at his factory job, he sells his own kidney to pay for his sister’s operation. But when the deal goes bad he turns to kidnapping a rich man’s neglected daughter, and it only gets worse from there.

One of the twelve films at Auckland’s inaugural Korean Film Festival, Sympathy for Mister Vengeance cleverly combines politics and commercialism in a film which made virtually every top ten list in one of the worlds few countries with enough domestic production (eighty films/year) to have its own top ten lists. Perhaps just as interestingly, it offers some clues to how the South Korean film industry has gone from unknown to unstoppable in the past five years.

The characters of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance all feel like the collateral damage of the 1997 economic disaster that more and more South Koreans are calling the IMF crisis. Democracy, industrialization and the ‘free’ market have hit Korea at light speed, and so have the side effects. So in a film from a country where 78% of homes have broadband Internet, comes a story about unemployment, the organ trade, and robbing the rich to pay the poor’s medical bills.

After living under a series of repressive presidents put into power by contested elections and frequent coups, South Korea was opening up by the 1990s and relaxing censorship. After the 1997 crisis, a lot of big corporations began investing in films and also demanding more profits from them. By 1999, Korea was making its own blockbusters.

Another of this festival’s features that couldn’t have been made until recently is Untold Scandal—a steamy costume drama based on the French novel, Dangerous Liaisons. The film’s Casanova, Bae Yong-jun gets mobbed by teenage fans anywhere he goes in Asia. And it’s easy to see what they get excited about with Hollywood and Western TV options for Asian men still require mainly buck teeth, submissiveness and inscrutability.

Of course art house hits like Untold Scandal don’t make up the bulk of Korean production, which despite liberalization (Reganomics), still keeps the 40% local content quota introduced in 1966. At present, the quota doesn’t even come into the picture with homegrown films accounting for 56% of the box office last year.

To find out why, look no further than My Sassy Girl, a shamelessly commercial romantic comedy that looks and feels like a paint by numbers exercise where younger versions of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have been cut and pasted into a film that could just as easily have been in New York or any other American city with a subway. The American government is lobbying Korea to reduce its quota to 20% and allow more foreign (US) content on its screens. It seems that Homeland Insecurity has located one tiny corner of the universe that has not been taught the full meaning of freedom by the governor of California, and Uncle Sam is eager to bring it into line.

In 2003, eight of the top ten films in the Korean box office were homegrown. The same year was a bumper crop in NZ where we had two in our own top ten.  That’s if you include the story about the Dark Lord and his armies of doom destroying Middle Earth in search of the weapons of mass destruction, I mean, one ring, to be a New Zealand film.  In the US, barring LOTR, you have to go down to number fifty on the 2003 box office list to get something as vaguely foreign as the US/UK co-production, Love Actually. Of course if you can’t beat them, you can always remake them in your own image.

If My Sassy Girl wasn’t Hollywood enough already, Dreamworks has a remake scheduled for release in 2006. Another of the festival’s offerings, My Wife is a Gangster, has been picked up for a remake by Miramax.

While Korea remains one of the most developed countries outside the West, it’s still the only country in the world living in the Cold War. Just across the border from 78% broadband coverage, North Koreans are starving, victims of a war that has officially been going since 1950.

While the Cold War still makes box office gold fifteen years after it ended in Hollywood, Koreans are living it today, and a few are doing very well off it. Brotherhood is the story of two brothers drafted into the South Korean army at the beginning of the Korean War and the biggest hit in Korea ever, having brought in eleven million viewers and over US$56million in receipts. Brotherhood is also the biggest Korean film ever in the US box office.

While Brotherhood looks and feels a lot like Saving Private Ryan, it distinguishes itself from most war movies and American movies in general in developing morally ambiguous characters that don’t fit into Emperor Bush’s doctrine of “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

The shocking suggestion that North Koreans might actually be human beings rather than axioms of evil has become increasingly common in South Korean films from the last five years, like Double Agent, which takes two North Korean spies as its protagonists.

Perhaps in the interest of convincing Winston Peters and his fans that Koreans (20,000 of whom are also New Zealanders) may also be human beings, the festival was accompanied by a delegation from the Korean film industry, including directors Kang Je-gyu (Brotherhood), and Kwak Jae-yong (My Sassy Girl).

As Asian films are increasingly gaining popularity in their own countries, across Asia, and around the world, so the number of Asian co-productions is shooting up, with notable Korean examples like Musa (Korea/China, Incredible Film Festival 2002), and Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring (Korea/Germany, New Zealand International Film Festival 2004).

This first ever Korean Film Festival was inaugurated by none other than Minister for the Arts (and Prime Minister) Helen Clarke, after her visit to Korea last year with a delegation including Asia Down Under’s Melissa Lee, who the PM later asked to make the festival happen. With so much contact between the two countries and a regional pan-Asian climate becoming more and more of a cinematic standard, it may not be long before we start seeing our first NZ/Korean co-productions.

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