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World Cinema as 'Cultural Hand Grenade'

2005/09/22 Source

Tartan Films' Tony Borg says Korean films should remain true to themselves despite U.S. success

Jason Hahn (woowhee)

Tartan Films is a U.K. based film distributor to both theaters and home video. Its U.S. branch was launched in 2004 and is based in Los Angeles, California. Tartan seeks to release provoking, unique films that range from independents to international cinema.

The following is an OhmyNews email interview with the president of Tartan Video, Tony Borg.

What is your favorite Korean film?

I know I'm biased but "Old Boy" and "A Tale of Two Sisters" are my favorite films. You can't get much better in terms of unbelievable bodies of work that represent the new wave of Korean cinema. If you can't appreciate either of these films and their styles, I don't think you can appreciate film in general.

What do you look for in a potential film that Tartan will distribute and promote?

Our owner, Hamish McAlpine, likes to refer to films that we release as "cultural hand grenades". We want to entertain people but we also want to push their buttons, so that even if they don't like the film they still have to talk about it the next day. Those kinds of films are being made all over the world and that's why we look not only to Asia but also Europe, Mexico and all parts of the world.

What films that Tartan has supported have been best received in America? Why have they been so popular?

"A Tale of Two Sisters" and "Old Boy" have certainly found a huge following on DVD in a short amount of time. Tetsuo, which is an older Japanese film, has such a strong cult following that was waiting for a good DVD release of the film that our release has been very popular as well.

What advantages do you think foreign and independent films have over mainstream cinema in America?

In America, there's a fine line between artistic expression and the financial bottom-line. That distinction doesn't seem to exist or at least be as obvious in Asian films as it is here. You hear the complaint all the time about big budget films with no soul or romantic comedies without any heart. We have the luxury of releasing films that might be the "blockbusters" of Korea that also happen to be very nuanced, well-crafted films. You can have your cake and eat it too.

What would you say to those who say that the quality of Korean films is still inferior to those produced by China and Japan?

I don't think anyone who has been following the popularity of Asian films in America over the last few years could honestly say that. Surely Japan is the country most people think of when it comes to Asian cinema, and most of the horror films released in the U.S. are improperly named "J-Horror" even when they are Korean. Korean cinema has the most complete body of work out there today of all those countries. Horror, action, drama, comedy ... all dramas have been equally represented by directors such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Jee-woon, three of the most respected directors the world over today.

Do you expect Korean cinema to one day match the popularity of Chinese and Japanese films?

I don't know if Korean cinema will ever have a hook like Kung Fu cinema or J-Horror that will be all to itself, but as long as Korea continues to produce such a steady, eclectic mix of films, Korean cinema could end up becoming the most stable market in Asia.

What genre do you think Korean movies are strongest in?

Like in any market, horror and thriller are the most lucrative genres and that's what Korea is most known for. The ingratiation of folklore and cultural tales, the fact that their culture is more spiritual than elsewhere and certainly the after-effects and ongoing status of the Korean conflict all factor into the way their filmmakers craft their messages. And it's only a natural fit that horror films and espionage thrillers and dramas will be very rich with subtext.

Do you see any trends in Korean films?

We've seen a few films come our way that deal with the South Korean-North Korean conflict and its been personally fascinating to learn more about it from a Korean perspective instead of the American perspective we only usually hear about. Films like "The Coast Guard", "JSA - Joint Security Area" and "Address Unknown" give a keen insight into what that situation has done to the peninsula and its people, and I look forward to seeing more expression of those effects from filmmakers.

As Korean cinema is more widely accepted and appreciated, I hope that they do not try to conform to the tastes of America and other markets. Instead, keep making the kind of films they are making, a filmmaking style that runs counter to the U.S. mainstream filmmaking style.

Are there any Korean films coming to America that audiences should anticipate?

Certainly, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", Park Chan-wook's final film in the Vengeance Trilogy (along with "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Old Boy") will be most anticipated Korean film of 2006. That will be in theaters in the early spring. The buzz on that film out of the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival has been amazing.

Is there anything you would like to change about American cinema?

Considering that I'm working for a company that gets to release provoking Asian and World cinema that gives movie audiences the perfect antidote for repetitive and predictable American fare, I wouldn't change a thing.

Thanks to the director of publicity for Tartan Video, Sean Keeley, for referring me to Mr. Borg.

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