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Korea cinema boom continues amid concerns on sluggish growth

2005/08/24 Source

Chungmuro, Korea's Tinseltown, finally has something to celebrate in August. Three well-made Korean flicks are going strong in ticket sales, offering some much-awaited momentum to an industry that is struggling with sluggish growth and infighting.

The first six months of this year saw the share of Korean movies shrink. But the trend showed a sign of change this month with the release of the three films - "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", "Welcome to Dongmakgol" and "The Big Scene".

It is still too early to say that the slump is over, but in all fairness the three movies showcase what local filmmakers can do with their talent and vision in their efforts to strengthen positions against Hollywood blockbusters.

Three recent Korean films - "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", "Welcome to Dongmakgol" and "The Big Scene" - are infusing fresh energy into a domestic movie industry saddled with sluggish growth and internal disputes
"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", directed by Park Chan-wook, attracted some 3.5 million moviegoers as of last Sunday. Given that it was released on July 29 and its sophisticated filmmaking style is not entirely targeted at mainstream viewers, ticket sales are encouraging. "Welcome to Dongmakgol", directed by Kim Kwang-hyeon, has sold more than 4.5 million tickets since its nationwide release on Aug. 4. Ticket sales continue to go up, beating expectations.

"The Big Scene", which hit theaters on Aug. 11, lured in more than 1.6 million viewers, a surprisingly strong performance that is in sharp contrast with other Korean flicks in the first of this year.

The optimistic sentiment fueled by the three movies is significant for the movie industry which has recently come under fire for some internal feud over outsize fees paid for top-rated actors.

Observers note that the three movies prove the diverse taste of local moviegoers, while highlighting the great potential of talented filmmakers and actors. These pictures come with refined storytelling and thought-provoking themes. And all of them have strong entertainment factors that can please movie buffs.

A prime example is "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", which is the last installment of Park's "Vengeance Trilogy". The first was "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", the second "Old Boy".

Award-winning director Park has replaced his trademark outsize pouring of violence with smiles and kindness of Geum-ja, played by Lee Young-ae, one of Korea's top actresses.

Geum-ja has served 13 years in prison for kidnapping and killing a child. The heinous crime was committed when she was just 20. The public is likely to be shocked, first of all, at the brutality of her method, and, second, at her stifling beauty. The duality of Geum-ja, inevitably, throws the crucial question for both the fictional public in 1991 and the real audiences in 2005: "Is Geum-ja an angel, or a devil in disguise?"

Geum-ja, who is extremely kind to every prison mate, is determined to get revenge on Mr. Baek, an English teacher played by Choi Min-sik, known for his impressive role in "Oldboy". With his playfulness tucked underneath the serious theme, director Park also constantly raises the question of what revenge really means for sinful human beings.

Yet the film is rated for those aged 18 or older, and its unusual theme and style do not fit in well with the mainstream taste of Korean viewers. Previously, it was predicted that it might not hit the 3 million ticket sales mark. But the forecast turned out to be too pessimistic. After all, director Park's charismatic filmmaking style appeals to local viewers and actress Lee plays an important role in jazzing up the marketing blitz for the film.

When it comes to the potential of Korean films, "Welcome to Dongmakgol" is more than welcomed by film critics and production officials. "Compared with other big-budget movies, Dongmakgol does not have prominent stars and yet it is well received because it's primarily a well-made film", said Cho Ok-kyung, chief director at Younghwain, a PR agency promoting the movie.

The film is also a successful and impressive debut work of director Kim, who did a stint in CF production before jumping into the filmmaking field. "Welcome to Dongmakgol" offers a utopian place in which soldiers from the two Koreas and the United States are intertwined in a happy-go-lucky fashion during the Korean War.

In November 1950, when the war was at its peak, the U.S. pilot named Smith crashes in Dongmakgol, a small village in the eastern part of the country. And Lee Su-hwa (Jung Jae-young) and other North Korean soldiers end up staying at the village, while Pyo Hyun-chul (Shin Ha-kyun) and another South Korean soldier broke away from the troops led by a villager and come to Dongmakgol.

Since Dongmakgol is located in such a remote area, the villagers do not have any idea about the war that is ravaging the entire peninsula. What's more, they "welcome" any stranger regardless of their nationality, which confuses both South and North Korean soldiers. And the story revolves around the changes that eventually engulf the soldiers of different identities.

The $8 million movie is regarded as one of the best heart-warming comic dramas by moviegoers, and ticket sales are now expected to hit the 5 million mark within this month.

"The Big Scene" by Jang Jin, a versatile film and drama director, also proves that local viewers are willing to pay for quality movies. The movie is not a Korean blockbuster. Nor does it have any special effects or eye-popping action scenes that can differ from other mainstream movies. Yet it stands out largely because of its intricate and intriguing storytelling that captures the imagination of the audience.

The fifth feature film by director Jang starts with a plausible murder case. A beautiful copywriter named Jung Yoo-jung is found brutally murdered in a posh hotel room in Seoul, and police arrest prime suspect, Kim Young-hoon (Shin Ha-kyun), near the hotel.

Prosecutor Choi Yeon-hee (Cha Seung-won), known for his ruthless and relentless ability to nab criminals, takes up the case and interrogates Kim. But it's not a usual homicide case - a local TV station decides to broadcast the entire process live for 48 hours.

With a campy take on the ratings-obsessed media a la "The Truman Show", director Jang steers the storyline in a way that defies expectations, faithful to the "whodunit" genre.

For all the encouraging signs sparked by the three well-made movies, the Korean film industry is trying to shake off a sense of crisis. The pressing issue is the declining trend in overall ticket sales. The first-half ticket sales in Seoul went down 9.5 percent compared with the year-earlier period, reflecting the troubling tendency of people who diversify their entertainment channels.

Movie theaters are now competing with the Internet, video games and DVDs. Korea is also at the forefront of digital entertainment thanks to the ubiquitous broadband connection. Young people routinely download films, many of which are pirated, off the Internet and watch them at home instead of going to the theaters.

Furthermore, the share of Korean films in the local market slumped 27.7 percent in the first six months of this year, while foreign movies jacked up their share by 21.7 percent, according to film distributor IM Pictures.

Internal discord is also a serious problem. In late June, a dramatic dispute between film directors and film stars in Korea damaged Korea's film industry, tainting the image of the Korean Wave, an Asia-wide surge in the popularity of Korean culture.

The heart of the matter is that producers and filmmakers face surging production cost partly fueled by a sharp increase of fees for actors and blame the so-called star system for the troubles plaguing the entire industry. According to government data, the average production cost, including marketing, has been on the rise: from 1.5 billion won in 1998 to 4.17 billion won in 2003 to 4.3 billion won in 2004.

But actors claimed that producers are just passing the buck. In interviews with local media, a host of leading Korean actors argued that a surge in actors' fees has been decided by the market, not their "greed" to seek excessive income.

Observers say the local movie industry, which pulled off impressive growth in recent years, is now required to resolve the dispute and drum up broader support for a unified effort to produce high-quality films and bolster the share of local films.

By Yang Sung-jin

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