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[YEAR-END REVIEW] Korean film industry continues to produce major hits

2005/12/19 Source

This is the first part of a series of articles reviewing Korea's culture scene this year. - Ed.

By Yang Sung-jin

This year began on an upbeat note for Korea's movie industry. "Running Boy" (Marathon), directed by Chung Yoon-chul, featured a moving story about a 20-year-old autistic man who pursues long-distance running, defying prejudices and handicaps.

Starring top actor Cho Seung-woo, the movie became the biggest hit movie in the first quarter of this year, sending optimism to the country's film sector which yearned for a hit that could boost morale and capture the imagination of sophisticated Korean moviegoers.

Then came the tragic news in February: Lee Eun-joo, a top actress well known for her supporting role in the 2004 Korean blockbuster film "Taegukgi" committed suicide, leaving speculation and a number of rumors about the reason.

The 25-year-old actress was known to have suffered much stress from the sexually explicit role in her last film "The Scarlet Letter" but exactly what drove her to suicide at the peak of her career remains unknown.

The death of Lee, one of the top actresses credited for outstanding performances, sent shock waves to the entire movie industry, while her fans were deeply saddened by the tragedy.

Korean hit movies such as "Welcome to Dongmakgol" (left) and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" helped the domestic film industry maintain its 55-percent share in 2005.

The first half of 2005 saw box-office performances sagging amid the dearth of major hits comparable to the blockbusters like "Taegukgi" in 2004. But sales firmed up in the second half, helped by several hit movies.

According to IM Pictures, 303 movies were introduced to the Korean market this year, up from 265 movies last year. As for the Seoul market - the most important and biggest segment in the nation - the number of tickets sold reached 46 million, up 0.2 percent from last year.

The market share of Korean movies stood at 55.1 percent, little changed from last year's 55.2 percent. But the number of Korean flicks went up to 87 this year, from 75 last year, suggesting active filmmaking trend among local producers.

The trouble, however, is that the average ticket sales per movie, both Korean and imports, slipped by 12.4 percent to 151,937, IM Pictures data showed, indicating that studios and distributors suffered poor profitability.

Showbox, one of the country's biggest film distributors, dominated the box office, sending three of its films - "Running Boy" - "Marathon", "Welcome to Dongmakgol", "Marrying the Mafia II: Monster-in-Law" to the top rankings.

The most prominent success came from "Welcome to Dongmakgol", directed by Bae Jong. The film offers a utopian place in which soldiers from two Koreas and the United States are intertwined in a happy-go-lucky fashion during the Korean War.

It is set in November 1950, when the war was at its peak. A U.S. pilot named Smith crashes in Dongmakgol, a small village in the eastern part of the country, while North and South Korean soldiers end up staying at the village together.

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, offering plenty of humorous scenes in a refreshing fashion that eventually won the hearts of mainstream moviegoers.

The comic drama sold more than 8 million tickets across the nation, capturing the No. 1 place in the box office this year and becoming the fourth biggest Korean hit movie ever.

The No. 2 slot went to "Marrying the Mafia II: Monster-in-Law", a hilarious comedy featuring the son of a gang boss who tries to find an intelligent wife in order to upgrade the family bloodline.

The mafia comedy - a trite yet still favored subject among Korean filmmakers - sold more than 5.6 million tickets, a respectable score considering the movie's simple storyline and heavy reliance on comic relief.

Also notable is director Park Chan-wook's latest film "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" (Chinjeolhan Geum-jassi) which belongs clearly to the art-house category and yet has strongly appealed to mainstream moviegoers.

The strong box-office performance of "Sympathy" is largely due to the rising popularity and fame of Park who grabbed international attention with his previous hit "Oldboy".

"Sympathy", released in late July, features Geum-ja, the main character played by Lee Young-ae, one of Korea's top actresses, and it is also the last installment of Park's "Vengeance Trilogy" - the first was "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", the second "Old Boy".

Meanwhile, Chungmuro, the center of filmmaking in Korea, witnessed nasty infighting over the so-called star system. 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 row began on June 24 when Kang Woo-seok, one of the most influential filmmakers in Korea, known for the 2004 blockbuster spy flick "Silmido" publicly criticized some star agencies and actors for demanding excessive fees and profit sharing that, he alleged, led to overblown production costs and placed an unfair burden on producers.

Kang's remark shook up the entire film industry, especially as he made public the names of two actors, Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho, in citing the problem. The heart of the issue is that producers and filmmakers face surging production costs partly fueled by a sharp increase in fees for actors and blame the so-called star system for the troubles plaguing the entire industry.

While top actors rake in on average 470 million won per movie, production staff members receive some 530,000 won per month, which is below the minimum wage - a serious gap in income that is said to distort the movie industry.

The Korean Wave also proved its power again. A melodrama "April Snow", directed by Heo Jin-ho, stars Bae Yong-joon, also known as Yonsama in Japan. Although the flick failed to post any meaningful box-office record here, it became a huge hit in Japan, reflecting Bae's continued charm among Japanese fans.

Jang Dong-gun, one of the top Korean Wave stars, is also testing his potential by playing a sad-eyed pirate who attempts to destroy the entire Korean Peninsula in "Typhoon", a $14 million blockbuster by director Kwak Gyeong-taek that was released nationwide on Dec. 14. Critics and fans are debating whether this big-budget flick will break director Kwak's previous 2001 box-office record of Friend, which sold more than 8.1 million tickets.

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