The rise of K-cinema
South Korean cinema is not just unusual. It is downright odd, in both its content and the freakish rise of the K-film industry in the last 15 years.
South Korean cinema is not just unusual. It is downright odd, in both its content and the freakish rise of the K-film industry in the last 15 years. There are lessons for Australia in this madness.
Two stories to illustrate: in 1993, the Korean film industry’s domestic market share was 16 per cent, a new low. In 2006, it hit 64 per cent. In 2013, nine out of the top ten films at the Korean box office were Korean. On average, every South Korean saw 4.25 films per year. That’s the highest average in the world, according to their own evaluation report of the state of the industry in 2013. Where did this success come from, in just over ten years?
The second story is a little more troubling. The story of film in South Korea is dominated by two factors – rampant censorship and rampant protectionism. Harsh censorship reigned after the military coup in 1961. Every script and finished film was scrutinised by the Korean CIA for a whiff of pro-communist ideology, which was ruthlessly put down. Film-makers were sometimes blacklisted and imprisoned.
That changed in the 1990s, when democracy emerged after years of dictatorship. The Motion Picture Law, in force since 1973, had restricted foreign films, but with limited effect. Even so, the American studios lobbied against it. In 1988, import restrictions were lifted – sort of. The major American studios were now allowed to set up shop and distribute their films directly. Korean film-makers took to the streets in protest. Korean newspapers refused to carry ads for major Hollywood films. And in May 1989, someone released poisonous snakes in theatres showing American films. Vipers in the bleechers. You really had to want to see that American movie…
A similar extremism distinguishes modern Korean cinema, which is full of violence, sex, death and heroically loud outbursts of passionate emotion. There is also a counter-balancing force of sentimental melodrama, and large doses of martial patriotism, a natural by-product of 60 years of political tension and war. The mix is volatile.
The snake story does not explain the spectacular rise in both the quality and popularity of Koreans films, but it does suggest two ideas. First, that post-dictatorship Koreans are more interested in their own stories than the superheroes that Big Hollywood wants to sell them, and two, they don’t like being bullied.
In 1993, the Korean government put some force behind their determination to grow the industry, requiring all Korean cinemas to screen Korean films on at least 146 days per year. The American studios were apoplectic (again). US pressure succeeded in having this quota reduced from 146 days to 73, as part of a US-Korea free trade agreement signed in 2006. More street protests. In that same year, the domestic market share of K-films hit an all-time high of 64 per cent.
Let’s put that into local perspective. In 2015, six of the top ten films in the Korean box office were Korean. In fact, there was only one American film in the top six – Avengers: Age of Ultron was third. Assassination, which is part of the Korean Film Festival running in Sydney next week (August 10-18, Melbourne Sept 1-8) beat it into second place. Those six K-films took in a combined $US 353 million at the Korean box office. In Australia in 2015, box office rose by more than 14 per cent, but there were no Australian films in the top ten. None.
Even so, it was a great year for Australian-made films, with Mad Max: Fury Road leading the bunch. The top five Aussie films brought in more than $A70 million, or about $US 53 million. Only $US300 million behind the amount that Korean films made in their home market in the same year. Of course, South Korea has twice as many people as Australia, so let’s look at percentages.
Screen Australia’s figures for 2015 show that ‘films under Australian or shared creative control’ accounted for 7.2 per cent of the total Australian box office. That was up on 2014, when the share was 2.4 per cent. The ten-year average is 4.3 per cent. Even in its worst year, Korean domestic film share only got down as low as 16 per cent. That was before they decided to grow their industry. As Sally said to Harry, ‘I want what she’s having ‘– but what exactly is that?
That’s hard to pin down. The quotas may have kept the American studios at bay for long enough that K-audiences never became hooked on studio product; the censorship and repression produced a generation of new writers and directors who were not just ready but bursting to tell their stories once the rules were relaxed, and they had plenty of stories to tell in a country divided by war and political lines. This happened in China took when the Cultural Revolution ended.
There was also money. In the 1990’s, the powerful ‘chaebol’ conglomerates began to invest in films. Korean movies had decent budgets, especially the action films. A turning point was the Samsung-backed film Shiri, from 1999, directed by Kang Je-Gyu – the story of two South Korean special agents trying to recover bomb material stolen by northerners. Shiri was one of the first films to address the once-taboo question of political reunification. It attracted 6.2 million Korean viewers. Titanic got 4.3 million.
The Korean appetite for home-grown product appears to be much stronger than in most other countries – and since 2000, their directors have stepped up, creating a powerful and pungent body of work that is moving out into the wider world.
Beyond box office, the record of awards in the high-art stakes of the major film festivals is astonishing. Veteran Im Kwon-taek won best director at Cannes in 2002; two years later, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy won the Cannes Grand Jury prize. In that same year, the idiosyncratic Kim Ki-duk won best director at both Berlin and Venice for two different films, 3-Iron and Samaritan Girl. His film Pieta won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2012. American studios have started buying remake rights – the ultimate compliment. Foreign sales are booming.
The Korean Film Festival in Australia is further evidence of the burgeoning self-confidence of their industry. Now in its sixth year, under the auspices of the Korean Cultural Centre, this year’s festival showcases 20 new films in a range of styles and genres in six major cities through August and September. Such an event would have been impossible 20 years ago, but Australian audiences now embrace various Asian cinemas as never before. Australian film bureaucrats could follow their lead.
Three films to watch in the festival
Assassination (2015). The gorgeous Jun Ji-hyun plays identical twin sisters separated as babies. In 1933, one has become a freedom fighter, the other is the spoiled daughter of a Korean collaborator with the Japanese. This is a lush, full-scale action melodrama, stunningly photographed, full of action and violence and no holds-barred criticism of the former colonial power.
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) By way of total contrast, a sort of love story by the great minimalist director Hong Sang-soo. A famous film director meets a young woman, a painter, when he visits a provincial city for a festival screening. The film is in two chapters covering their one night together. The second chapter repeats the first, but with a different outcome. Minute observations of character replace conventional plot. Nothing much happens, but it’s a lot. Winner of the top prize at Locarno last year.
Crossroads of Youth – A rare screening of a recently rediscovered teenage melodrama from 1934, the oldest surviving Korean silent film, presented in spectacular fashion a with live orchestra, actors on stage as well as on screen, and a live narrator. Not to be missed.