By Andrew Salmon
With a mix of gangster thrillers, cold war morality tales, quirky comedies and art house flicks, South Korean films are garnering critical acclaim and commercial success at home, across Asia and, increasingly, around the world.
But behind the scenes a bitter struggle is being waged.
In recent years, local producers have been battling to maintain a system that reserves 40 percent of South Korean screens for domestic productions. They say the system protects the domestic film industry from the Hollywood juggernaut, but the U.S. film industry says it is a violation of fair trade practices.
Now, with South Korea actively pursuing an investment treaty with the United States, a showdown is approaching. Many, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Hill, have publicly asked why the system is necessary, given the recent strength of Korean movies.
This year, the director Park Chan-Wook
's Tarantino-esque thriller "Old Boy" won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, while the art house director Kim Ki-Duk
garnered best director awards at both the Venice and Berlin film festivals.
Film Director Kim Ki-Duck shows his statue of Silver Lion prior to his press conference in Koreana Hotel in downtown Seoul on Spet. 14, 2004. He won the best director award for Bin Jib (Empty House) in the recently held Venice Film Festival, one of world's three major international film festivals.
In a nation of 48 million, the Cold War thriller "Silmido", based on the true story of a commando unit trained to assassinate the North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, this year became the first domestic movie to crack the 10 million viewer mark. Its record was broken months later by "Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War", a melodrama submitted to the U.S. Academy Awards.
The industry's renaissance dates to the mid-1990s.
"In the early 1990s, Koreans were first allowed to travel abroad, so by the late 1990s, you had these filmmakers coming back from film schools in the United States, with a sense of world cinema and world-class production values", said Mark Russell, who covers Korean film for The Hollywood Reporter. During the 1997-98 financial crisis, "a lot of film production companies exited the market, so to fill the void, you had younger people trying different things".
Local films' share of the South Korean box office rose from 48 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2003 and to 62 percent for the first half of 2004, according to the Korean Film Council. Domestically, Korean films' earnings at the box office last year were $644 million, the council said, while revenue from local films screened abroad was also on the rise, hitting $32 million for the first six months of 2004, compared with $31 million for all of 2003.
But despite recent successes, the so-called screen quota system, introduced in 1966, continues to mandate the showing of South Korean films for 146 days a year in local theaters. With foreign films' market share falling, Hollywood has taken notice.
"Screen quotas harm local cinema owners by forcing them to play to empty theaters without helping local film producers, since no quota can force audiences to buy tickets to films they don't find attractive", said Bonnie Richardson, vice president for trade and federal affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America. The association wants the quota reduced and has been lobbying the U.S. Congress, the U.S. trade representative and the U.S. State and Commerce departments to that effect since 1996.
So far, Hollywood has made little progress. Since Hill arrived as ambassador in August, however, trade issues have come to the fore, and the U.S. side insists that the screen quota issue be resolved before free trade negotiations can begin in earnest.
A new free trade deal "is on everyone's agenda now", said Tami Overby, executive vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.
"I know President Roh has said the quota must go, key ministers are in favor, and the polls I have seen suggest 60 percent of the public are in favor of its reduction or elimination".
Many in the South Korean film industry, however, are not budging.
"We are afraid the current success of our industry could be temporary", said Jonathan Kim, chairman of the Korea Film Producers Association and president of the film production company Hanmac, which made "Silmido".
"We don't want to be like Hong Kong, where they had a boom and are now in a bust", Kim said. When asked why the industry could not now stand on its own two feet, he used this comparison: "If you have a road crossing where there are a lot of accidents, you put a stop light there. If accidents are reduced, do you take the light away?"
Kim's views are not shared by the government, which wants more U.S. investment.
"The domestic film industry has improved, and homegrown films need to start competing with Hollywood films", the Korea Fair Trade Commission said in October.
Even the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism, a champion of the sector, sees change as inevitable. "Since September, we have been talking with the industry", said Lee Jung Woo of the ministry's film division. "The timing has not yet been decided, but we will try to suggest a plan within this year", he said. Past moves to adjust the quota have faced fierce resistance, with famed directors shaving their heads and stars protesting in the streets. This may not work again.
"It's hard to get people fired up when the industry is so successful", Russell of The Hollywood Reporter said.
This time, the film industry seems likely to take a more thoughtful approach to the battle.
"Korea's screen quota system bears international significance in that it sets a good example to other countries by proving the benefits one good cultural policy can bring to a country", the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images, a South Korean industry-financed group established in 1993, said in June.
The stance of South Korean filmmakers indicates that they now see themselves as the inheritor of the mantle of cultural protectionism, a mantle worn first - and most prominently - by the French film industry, which, in global trade negotiations in the early 1990s, pioneered the concept of a "cultural exception" for arts products.
"There is symbolism involved: we are the leading country keeping culture out of trade talks, so if we give up the quota, the United States will go to other countries and say, 'Look, they gave up"', added Kim of the film producers' group. "The shaved-head days are over. We need to educate people. We don't think a free trade agreement would help our economy, and we need to keep our culture. Culture is sovereignty".
A battle scene of "Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War"
This argument does not wash with Hollywood. "We understand that film is a reflection of the societies and cultures that create them", Richardson said. "However, we encourage societies to choose policy tools that encourage the competitiveness of their local industry, such as support for training or tax incentives, rather than protectionist tools that restrict our access to the market but do little to boost the competitiveness of the local industry".
Kim, however, refuses to give ground.
"I don't think the quota will ever be ready to be cut", he said. "This fight will go on to the next generation".
The above article is from The International Herald Tribune.