By Kim Tae-jong
With the unprecedented commercial success of local films in recent years, international studios are showing more and more interest in co-production projects with Korean movie companies.
"The number of co-productions is definitely on the increase", said Soh Eun-sook, staff at the international promotion department of the Korean Film Council, a government agency for promoting local movies. "Thanks to improvements in the quality of Korean movies and `Hallyu (Korean Wave)', many international film companies want to work with domestic movie makers".
Foreign companies want not only to invest money but also actively participate in the actual production of movies, but the types of co-production vary from one film to another, and are becoming much more complicated compared to those of the past, Soh said.
According to Cho Young-jung, programmer at the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), the history of co-productions in Korea started right after the dawn of the local movie industry.
"The local movie industry once considered co-productions an alternative when it had a poor infrastructure in the 1950s", said Cho, who worked last year for PIFF in a section illustrating the history of co-productions between Hong Kong and South Korea. "When Hong Kong movies were very popular, the two countries co-produced many films as a way to share resources".
The system of co-production was later abused for avoiding regulations concerning foreign films, and most contracts between the two countries tended to be unfair for Korean companies, but now film co-productions are totally different from the past, Cho explained.
Film companies not only from Asian countries but also from various other nations are finding ways to work with local film companies on a different scope and scale. In particular, European firms are especially interested in local artistic films and their directors.
French film company MK2 invested $150,000 and attracted 100,000 euro for the movie "Yojanun Namjaui Miraeda (Woman is the Future of Man)" directed by Hong Sang-soo
. When the movie was completed, the French company participated in the sale of the movie outside Asia.
Asian firms such as those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, where Korean stars are popular, have more actively taken part in the making of films with local film studios.
Arranged by the Hong Kong-based production and distribution company EDKO Film Ltd., all the production costs of "Nae Yojachingu-rul Sogaehapnida (Windstruck)" were funded by foreign investors. This film was the first in Korean movie history to open at theaters in both countries almost simultaneously.
"Korea has produced well-made films worth sharing with international audiences", Bill Kong, producer of EDKO Film Ltd, told reporters in Seoul in 2003. "The combination of a well written screenplay, talented director and popular actors is the main reason we decided to co-produce the movie", explained the producer, well-known for the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
Through the system of co-production, local film companies can receive funding and support for the distribution of their films in other countries, while also learning about the advanced technologies of their counterparts.
Character Plan found this out when the local company cooperated with a Japanese animation studio to produce "Sinamhaengosa (Phantom Master _ Dark Hero From Ruined Empire - New Royal Secret Commissioner)". "While we were making the animation with a Japanese company, we were able to learn their skills and technologies, which Japanese animations have maintained and developed in their long history" said Yang Jee-hye, president of Character Plan.
Based on a local comic book series popular in South Korea and Japan, "Phantom Master" was directed by Joji Shimura of Japan with about 70 percent of the work done by Japanese staff.
Despite the numerous advantages of co-productions, many have also pointed out that there are also many risky elements since co-productions are still in a beginning stage, struggling to find an appropriate way to develop a systematic base.
"I think most co-productions have failed to attract enough audiences to reach the break-even point", said Noh Jong-yun, Korean producer of "Yokdosan (Rikidozan)", the first large-scale co-production between South Korean and Japan. "When two film companies from different countries make a movie together, they need to prepare for the project much longer than when they work separately".
"Since there are no precedents or systems to support co-productions, everything needs to be done from scratch. From drawing up a contract to moving equipment abroad in the beginning and understanding the different cultural backgrounds of the staff members and audiences, everything is challenging", Noh said.
"Rikidozan", a story about a legendary Korean wrestler in Japan, starred Japanese and Korean actors to portray the life of a historical figure as realistically as possible. It is now being screened locally with Korean subtitles, and will open this summer in Japan.
"Even though we thought the legendary hero had appeal for international audiences, especially Koreans and Japanese, there were still many difficulties and problems, including the language barrier, as the main Korean actor had to speak Japanese fluently", Noh said.
Noh believes that a successful co-production can satisfy international audiences with quality regardless of nationality.