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Cinemas Showcase Heroes, American- and Korean-Style

2006/07/13 Source

May and June were a time for all-American heroes in the nation's movie theaters. Every kind has been represented: from super secret agent Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible III" (Tom Cruise), via Storm, who can kick up a Typhoon in "X-Men: The Last Stand" (Halle Berry), to the triumphal return of Superman (Brandon Routh). With their super- or at least preternatural powers, they saved the world and made a killing at the box office in the process. But in the first week of July with the release of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest", the Hollywood superheroes handed the baton to the homegrown variety. "Hanbando (The Korean Peninsula)" signaled the entry of the more ordinary Korean heroes, with their more human flaws. The outsider historian Minjae (Cho Jae-hyun) in "Handbando", monster-battling Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho) and family in The Host, to Ga-pil (Lee Moon-shik) from the film "Fly Daddy" who endures special ops training and the violent gang lifestyle for his family.

From left: scenes from 'Superman Returns', 'X-Men: The Last Stand', 'Hanbando' and The Host.

Korea's species of hero has no amazing abilities and may not even be very good in combat. Often timid and lazy characters, they lack the traditional heroic qualities but once they set their mind on something, they stick with it till the end. Gang-doo from The Host is an unattractive fellow discarded by his wife and living at his father's house, but he risks life and limb to rescue the daughter he loves, dashing madly into the waters of the Han River. Minjae in "Handbando" has been fired numerous times for his stubbornness, but he risks everything to find the Seal of State.

Why are Korean heroes all too human? For one thing, there is the lack of technology and money for special effects. "The individual capabilities of the nation's film industry workers is not lagging behind Hollywood. But we lack the system and experience to realize our abilities. In the end, it's a money problem", the head of Tube Pictures Hwang Woo-hyeon said. With the budget for domestic films not even reaching the W20 billion (US$=W949) mark, the maximum that can be used on visual effects is around W5 billion. The budget for "Mission: Impossible III" was about $150 million (W140 billion), while and "Superman Returns" cost about US$260 million (W250 billion) to make. Even Korea's super production The Host cost around W10 billion, as did "Handbando": around 15-20 times less than the U.S. blockbusters. But there is another reason. "Think about what it would be like if Korea tried to make a hero like Superman. There is a high likelihood that it would turn out like a comedy", film critic Lee Sang-yong said.

The differences between the heroic traditions in the two countries also play a part. The two giants of the comic book industry in the U.S., Marvel Comics and DC Comics, have spent years steadily developing the superhuman characters of Superman, Batman and Spiderman. Korea's traditional heroes like Hong Gil-dong and Chang Gil-san are more benevolent, Robin Hood figures. For these characters, their entire history is important. Thus when Chumong, the founder of the ancient Koguryo kingdom and the legendary General Yeongaesomun are to make appearances, they are easier to incorporate in the longer TV drama series format.

The fact that Korea has had fewer heroic figures in recent history is another reason they would seem strange on the screen. Koreans' distrust of heroic figures has something to do with years of distrust in strong leaders. "Superheroes provide audiences with vicarious satisfaction and a sense of inferiority at the same time, but heroes that have to struggle for their successes provide people with will and hopes for their own reality", movie critic Shim Young-seop says. "There is no need for Chungmuro to imitate the superhero genre".

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