The Forum took place at the Korean Cultural Centre in London and what follows is a short write-up of the main points of discussion. I would have to say how useful I found the forum, especially in light of the range of South Korean film experts who were on the panel.
Tony RAYNS – World renowned East Asian Cinema expert, writer and director of The Jang Sun-woo Variations.
OH, Dongjin – chairman of Jecheon International Music and Film Festival (JIMFF).
KIM, Youngjin – Professor at MyongJi University, writer and film critic.
JEON, Chan-il – Film critic and programmer for Busan Film Festival.
RA, Jegy – Film journalist for Hankook Ilbo (a Korean daily newspaper) who has served on the Jury for both the 5th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival and the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.
KIM, Hye-ri – Film journalist, writer and contributor to Cine 21 (a Korean weekly film magazine).
CHOI, Jinhee – Lecturer in Film Studies at Kings College, London and author of The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
The Forum was chaired by Tony Rayns and moderated by Dr Jin-hee Choi.
One of the topics discussed was the role of film festivals in promoting South Korean cinema. Traditionally festivals are associated with providing a platform for low-budget independent cinema/art cinema and as a consequence have played a very small part in the promotion of commercial cinema. In 2011 two films, Unbowed (부러진 화살 , Chung Ji-Young) and Punch ( 완득이 , Lee Han) premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (Busan, South Korea). As a result Punch became the 3rd highest grossing South Korean film of 2011, with over 5 million admissions at the domestic box-office, having only accounted for half a million admissions before the premiere – and went on to a limited release in the U.S.
Similarly Unbowed also saw a surge in popularity after its screening at Busan with well over 3 million admissions at the domestic box-office, a substantial leap for a film that cost £300,000 to make and marking a successful return to directing for Director Chung after 13 years.
While the closing film of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Masquerade was not officially invited to Busan, the Director and cast visited the festival in order to promote the film, marking the increasing importance of film festivals in helping to increase the visibility of commercial cinema.
There followed some discussion of the monopolization of the film industry in South Korea by a few corporations, which impact the diversity of production and the opportunities for exhibition for non-commercial films. In these terms, the film festival circuit continues to be extremely important for the promotion of non-mainstream cinema, as demonstrated by the success of Kim ki-duk’s Pieta(피에타) and Jeon Kyu-hwan’s The Weight (무게) at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
With film festivals, low-budget non-commercial cinema would be easily ignored and/or forgotten. In these terms, Busan continues to lead the way in the promotion of the diversity of South Korean cinema.
These was also a discussion of The Thieves, which broke box-office records in South Korea this year, a record which had previously been held by Bong Joon-ho’s The Host ( 괴물) and whether its success was due to the localization of elements of Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema. This localization is shown by the insertion of a sad ending to what is typically a light-hearted genre. It was also suggested that the Korean audience identified with the thieves of the title, as the South Korea’s economic miracle was made possible by the oppression of the rights and needs of the working classes on whom this miracle was built. In addition, The Thieves’ impressive and spectacular action scenes were comparable to those in Hong Kong action cinema, even though the cost of the production was significantly smaller. There followed a short analysis of the relationship between the needs of localized and global audiences. Whether the success of The Thieves and/or Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자, Choo Chang-Min) will open the door to larger audiences outside of South Korea is still to be seen.
The panel agreed that overall 2012 had been a great year for South Korean cinema with audiences reaching 100 million, the highest since 1969.
Two trends in contemporary South Korean cinema were distinguished:
Firstly: Films such as Silenced (도가니, Hwang Dong-HyukL 2011) and Unbowed, which are based on ‘true’ stories and create a sense of moral indignation around events in the past.
Secondly: The increasing age of the demographic for South Korean cinema domestically. While in the past the target audience were women in their early twenties, this audience is now in their 30s/40s and continues to be the main demographic, explaining the popularity of nostalgic films such as Dancing Queen (댄싱퀸, Lee Suk-Hoon: 2012) and films based upon true events from the recent past.
These trends are perhaps problematic as they deal with the recent past, and have nothing to say about either present-day of future South Korea. The success of both The Thieves and Masquerade was addressed, and the possibility of whether the success was done to the current political climate in South Korea. It was suggested that both films spoke to a collective anxiety about the outcome of the forthcoming elections and contained a political message about the need to be a humane and caring society. There was also some concern expressed over the separation of aesthetics and narrative in contemporary South Korean cinema as opposed to cinema of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The final part of the panel discussion revolved around what the South Korean Government and KOFIC can do to increase the visibility of South Korean cinema in the global marketplace where it tends to be associated with a few directors such as Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. While these directors have an established and ardent fanbase, it is more difficult for other directors, including those who make commercial cinema, to find success. One way that was put forward, which returns us to the beginning of the discussion, was making a wider variety of films visible on the global stage. One way discussed was through co-productions as is the case with Bong Joon-ho’s Snow Piercer (설국열차: 2013). Snow Piercer is a collaboration between the US, France and South Korea and has a multi-national cast including Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-Ho to name but a few. Snow Piercer is a South Korean film based upon a French manga, and with universal themes that should appeal to Western audiences.
This raised interesting questions, which have been going on since the beginning of Korean cinema, about what makes a ‘South Korean film’: is it the nationality of the Director? the nationality of the cast? or contained within the locations? This is particularly interesting as in the pre-screening messages that showed before films at the London Korean Film Festival, both Park Chan-wook (Stoker: 2013) and Kim Ji-woon (The Last Stand: 2013) spoke of hoping to show their films at next year’s festival, even though both films are being made in the US, and in English.
The panel concluded with some dire statistics regarding World cinema in the West, with Tony Rayns pointing out that subtitled films represent between 1% and 2% of all films shown in the West and that things have in fact got worse over the last 10 years or so. It is unfortunately the case that on television, most films screened are English language films, and subtitled or World Cinema is relegated to the early hours of schedules therefore limiting the potential audience. Personally I hope this will change, although I share the concerns expressed at the Forum about the dominance of US cinema both at the box-office and on television. Perhaps the opening and closing films of this year’s London Korean Film Festival – The Thieves and Masquerade – can lead the way.