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Art and Commerce of Korean Films

2004/10/24 Source

Film Industry Finds Success at Both Local Box Office and Int'l Festivals

By Joon Soh
Staff Reporter

More than any other film, there were two that defined the success enjoyed by the local film industry this year. One showed the growing commercial strength of homegrown films, while the other was representative of the artistic recognition being received by domestic art films abroad.

It seems fitting, then, that the same two films would recently wage a small but symbolic struggle between art and commerce. Kang Je-gyu's Korean War epic "TaeGukGi" and Kim Ki-duk's small-budget art film "Binjip (3-Iron)" did this when they went head-to-head late last month to receive the honor of representing Korea at the Oscars.

After a few behind-the-doors lobbying and protests, "TaeGukGi" was eventually chosen over "3-Iron" by the Korea Film Commission and was submitted as the South Korean applicant for the foreign-language Oscars. (As of yet, no Korean film has ever been selected as one of the final four candidates for the Academy Award.)

The commission's decision partly had to do with the commercial power of "Tae Guk Gi" both home and abroad; the film also played in Japan and did very well on its opening weekend in the United States in early September, where it was released as "Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War".

But "Tae Guk Gi", of course, made even bigger news earlier in the year, when it, along with the film "Silmido", broke nearly all existing local box-office records.

Though their takes on the subject were quite different, the two films struck a chord with audiences with stories dealing with Korea's military past. The Cold War film "Silmido" vividly dealt with the true story of a suicide commando unit secretly created by the South Korean government to assassinate Kim Il-sung in the late 1960s.

"Tae Guk Gi" went back even further in time to deal with the Korean War. Through a fictional account of two brothers forced to become soldiers, the film presented a mixture of gritty battle scenes and sentimental drama.

No one, however, expected these two films to do quite as well as they did, shattering the previous box office record set by Friend and going on to eventually reach the 11-million-viewer mark. "Tae Guk Gi" ended up inching just ahead of "Silmido" for the official crown of top box office film ever.

Due to the two film's massive success, Korean films took a record-breaking share of nearly 62 percent of the overall film market in the first half of the year, and an amazing 82 percent of the market in February.

"3-Iron", on the other hand, brought Kim Ki-duk a best director's prize at the Venice Film Festival last month, his second director's prize at a major European film festival this year. Kim also garnered the award at Berlin earlier in the year for his film "Samaria (Samaritan Girl)".

But his amazing feat on the festival circuit did not translate into commercial success at home. "Samaria" was seen by only 64,000 when it screened in March, while "3 -ron" opened in local theaters on Oct. 15 and brought in some 49,000 viewers on its opening weekend.

Though his films have steadily been met with positive reviews both here and abroad, Kim has never experienced great box-office numbers. His films "Nabbun Namja (Bad Guy)" and "Haeansun (Coast Guard)" fared the best, bringing in about 700,000 viewers each.

Kim's film from last year, "Pom, Yorum, Kaul, Kyoul...Kurigo Pom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring)" fared better abroad. The film was released in April in the U.S. and made about $2.5 million, a record for a Korean movie.

Local films that have done well at festivals abroad have not had their critical success translate to a commercial one. Films like "Chigurul Chikyora (Save the Green Planet)" "Chiltunun Naui Him (Jealousy Is My Middle Name)" struggled to bring audience into theaters last year when they returned home after garnering accolades in Europe and North America.

The lone exception to the rule is "Old Boy", a film by Park Chan-wook that received the runner-up prize at this year's Cannes and was one of the big commercial hits of last year. The prizes received by "Old Boy" and Kim Ki-duk's two films meant that local films won major awards at all three of the top European film festivals.

Successful Year at Box Office

Though it may not have seemed like it in the first half of the year, there were other local films besides "Tae Guk Gi" and "Silmido" that did well at the box office. With the exception of the summer months of June through August, when Hollywood blockbusters traditionally dominate, mainstream Korean films have maintained their strong presence in theaters. These film were able to take well-established genres and bring to them an original twist.

Directed by Ryu Seung-won, "Arahan", was perhaps the Korean answer to Hollywood superhero movies, mixing Taoism and a healthy sense of humor with the comic book format. "Pomjoeui Chaekusong (The Big Swindle)" followed in the tradition of heists-gone-wrong films like "The Usual Suspects", but won over audiences with its clever storyline and a great ensemble cast.

Even romances got into the act of going against the grain. "Ino Kongju (My Mother, the Mermaid)", helped by a strong performance by Jeon Do-yeon, took a unique approach to time travel while telling of a love story between an island diver and a postal worker on Cheju Island, while "Anun Yoja (Someone Special)" was a hilarious take on the romantic comedy genre, bordering on satire.

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