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[HanCinema's Feature] "The State of Korean Film - Part One (The KFMA)"

2015/12/05 | 482 views |  | Permalink

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Since its fairly modest beginnings fifteen years ago Korean Wave has become a cultural force to be reckoned with, especially in Asia. Korean music, dramas, webtoons, and even mobile app mascots have become major international fixtures. The one curious exception to this trend is Korean film. While originally the most artistically chic of the Korean Wave, over time the profile of Korean film has dwindled substantially. When a Korean film gets international press or a significant international release, it's typically because a certain actor or director happens to be involved in the production. I've always wondered why this is, and having worked in the Korean film industry full-time for the past two and a half years, I think I know the answer. Since its encouraging beginning near the turn of the century, Korean film culture has become increasingly insular. And several events I have personally observed this year are fairly good test cases.

These issues are not, I must emphasize, endemic to the international level. On the local level as well major companies related to Korean film have worked to stifle grassroots support. Let's start with the Korean Film Marketer's Association (KFMA). Here's a copy of their business card-

For those of you who can't read Korean, this card spells out the guidelines required for gaining access to KFMA screenings. They're actually pretty light restrictions- you just have to prove affiliation with an organization whose work constitutes film criticism. It explicitly states that affiliation with Naver or Daum portal sites is enough for entry, and those are practically blogs. Just contact them via e-mail, get on the list, and voila, access.

As it turns out, it's not that easy. The man whose picture appears the top of this article is Park Cheol-hoon, a critic affiliated with News Catalyst. His organization easily meets the stated qualifications printed on the KFMA's card. For reasons never explained, his petition was denied. Park Cheol-hoon protested at the Avengers: Age of Ultron Press Screening earlier this year. Eventually he was escorted out by security. Prior to Avengers: Age of Ultron very few press screenings bothered to hire security at all. Now nearly every single mainstream release hires them for exactly this reason- to prevent anyone from engaging KFMA employees in conversation. Note that the business card posted above contains no office address or telephone number, so it's only possible to talk to an actual person by going to one of the screenings. This is an intentional oversight. The KFMA is impossible to petition. If you have to ask to be a member of their club, you're not qualified.

What makes the KFMA's actions so alarming is that the stakes are so pitiful. The press screening for Age of Ultron was only two days before the public release- unusually late by industry standards. Park Cheol-hoon's protest was so ineffectual, and so little reported by anyone in the Korean film press, that by August the KFMA was one hundred percent comfortable using strong-arm tactics like this even for relatively low stakes releases like "Beauty Inside". Press screenings are now completely invitation only. It's only possible to gain access if you know someone inside the system- which rather eliminates the point of film criticism entirely, since the main reason for having movie reviews in the first place is that they're supposed to be objective.

There's no supply issue going on here. Speaking as someone who has attended countless press screenings throughout my career writing for HanCinema, even at major screenings the theaters are usually half empty. This entire effort is a deliberate attempt at controlling information on the KFMA's part and it has worked splendidly. They only need the cooperation of major institutions to run a media blitz.

The big irony is that, in terms of Korean films, this was entirely unnecessary. "The Assassination", the big success of the year, had such strong advertising it was unlikely to fail even if critics hated it. Most of the other big titles have been surprises that succeeded on the strength of word-of-mouth- "Veteran", "The Throne", "Northern Limit Line", "The Priests", and now "Inside Men". None of these movies were expected to to succeed at the box office the way they did. What's more, aside from "The Priests" all these films, and even "The Assassination" to some extent, were making a strong appeal based on social commentary. Those are exactly the kinds of movies that benefit from healthy competitive film journalism. Even panned movies of this nature gain a boost due to the whole "watch the controversy" effect.

Unfortunately the very fact that this year has been successful for Korean film is probably the main reason why these regulations aren't going away any time soon. The KFMA and related film companies will no doubt interpret these box office numbers as proof that their corporatization strategy is working, ignoring the fact that very few of these movies had much corporate backing. Indeed, "Northern Limit Line" was almost entirely crowdfunded. American imports are the main movies likely to benefit from this model, and their box office receipts have been underperforming.

That, of course, is just if we look at the situation cynically as a numbers game- and that really isn't the whole story. The KFMA is only one part of a larger problem within Korea's film culture. Even an apparently non-profit organization like the Korean Film Archive shows astonishingly little faith in the quality of its own products, as I will discuss in part two of this series.

Article by William Schwartz. He can be reached at william@hancinema.net.

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