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'The Host' breaks 10-million mark

2006/08/17 Source

Besides popcorn and soda pop, there is something ubiquitous in every Korean theater this summer - the monster of the Han River.

The Host by Bong Joon-ho broke the 10-million viewer mark in a country of 48 million people yesterday, data from its distributor ShowBox showed. With its box-office receipts still on the rapid rise three weeks after its release, the monster movie is expected to set a new audience record in a matter of days.

Many agree Bong's film attests to the maturation of the Korean movie market and the marketing strategy, having rewritten a series of film records - the box office record for a day, the record screen number and the record sales overseas.

Audiences at theater screens laughed and screamed at its political satire of the U.S. Forces in Korea and applauded the Korean-style monster that broke the conventions of Hollywood monster movies.

Beside such encouraging signs, however, there is a growing debate among fans and experts over how a movie's phenomenal success affects the entire market. The 11 billion won ($11.3 million) movie has taken away screens from small-budget, less conspicuous movies and has negatively affected market variety, many say.

"It topped the 10 million viewer mark in just three weeks, the shortest time in Korean film history, which shows a more powerful market system", Yu Hyeong-jin, a movie policy researcher with the public Korean Film Council, said.

"But there's a problem with how it's going to impact the movie market. It has invaded screens that other movies might have taken".

The Host debuted with 620 screens nationwide, a record-high screen occupancy rate of 38 percent. Three weeks later it still holds 560 screens.

Bong's megahit edged out small-budget movies.

"Don't Look Back" by Kim Young-nam, a portrait of young people living in Korea, was shown on just three screens at home after winning two awards at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.

The screen monopolization has become a sensitive issue since the Korean government reduced a theater quota for domestic films in July. Korean theaters are now required to show homegrown movies for at least 73 days a year, instead of 146 days. The reduction was a years-long demand by the United States under lobbying from U.S. major studios seeking to enlarge their share in the sizzling Korean market.

Under the new quota scheme, most theaters have no more need to show Korean movies, having already filled the 73-day quota with "The King and the Clown", which set the current viewer record of 12.3 million in March.

Against the polarization of the movie market, prize-winning director Kim Ki-duk candidly expressed his discomfort.

"Whatever meaning my movie may have in Korean society, I won't have it released here nor present it to any of the film festivals here, including the Pusan International Film Festival", he declared in a recent press conference of his new film Time.

But many agree the lack of a legal safeguard for small-budget movies is to blame rather than the success of The Host. Movie workers support setting up a "minority quota", which will require multiplex theater chains to be equipped with a screen for independent movies.

"Some try to damage the success of The Host, but I don't think that is the case. It became successful because it was a fun and good movie", Lee Chun-yeon, representative of the Korean Association of Film and Art Industry, a non-governmental body of filmmakers, actors, staffers and scholars, said.

Lee said his organization is calling for a minority quota as a way to ensure variety in the film market.

The Host, Bong's third film, revolves around a five-member family running a kiosk along Seoul's Han River, whose life is changed when a monster shatters the tranquility of the riverside and takes away the family's only daughter.

The monster was created by toxic fluid poured into Seoul's Han River on the orders of a U.S. Army boss. The idea for the monster originated from the case of Albert McFarland, a civilian mortician of the U.S. Forces Korea who ordered the dumping of formaldehyde into the river in 2000, but was later released on bail.

The movie earned $5.5 million overseas, the highest-ever earnings for a Korean film abroad. It also set a viewer record for a day with 790,000.

The Host is the fourth Korean movie to break the 10 million viewer mark following "The King and the Clown" by Lee Joon-ik, which drew 12.3 million in March and "Taegukgi" by Kang Je-gyu that had 11.7 million as of April 2004 and "Silmido" by Kang Woo-seok with 11 million as of February 2004. (Yonhap News)

By Kim Hyun

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