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Deluge of foreign films drowning Korean releases

2008/03/05 Source

One of the intriguing (or disturbing) signs about where Korean movies are headed is the near absence of press previews this month. For instance, except for a screening of Yoo Ji-tae's short titled "Out of My Intention" on Tuesday, there's nothing going on this week. No screenings yet either next week.

The declining number of domestic film releases is in sharp contrast to the surging demand for foreign films. According to the Korean Film Council, the Korean cinema imported 404 films from abroad in 2007, up from 289 in 2006 and 253 in 2005.

The rating agency handled as many as 72 foreign films in the first two months of this year, up 36.8 percent from the same period last year. The momentum comes not only from the major Hollywood distributors but also from small film importers, encouraged chiefly by the unexpectedly respectable box-office success of "Once" and "Lust, Caution".

The foreign movie boom is setting off alarms in the domestic film industry, which is already finding itself in a rut due to rising production costs and a dearth of box-office hits.

In fact, the March-April period is traditionally a slow movie season as the key audience -- college students -- is largely busy taking care of back-to-school affairs.

Exacerbating the problem is the reluctance of local production houses who want to push back the release date of their forthcoming movies in order to avoid the slow season. For the March-April period, only seven local movies are scheduled to hit theaters, significantly down from 16 in the same period last year.

For March, only three Korean titles are expected to fill up the slots. "My New Partner", a sort of buddy-and-detective movie featuring Ahn Sung-ki and Jo Han-sun is being released today nationwide, while "Humming", a romantic flick staring Lee Chun-hee and Han Ji-hye, is slated for March 13 and "Fate", a tale of betrayal where Song Seung-heon and kwon Sang-woo compete for the spotlight, is set to be released on March 20.

Meanwhile, the producers of a host of Korean movies, including "Girl Scout" and "Kill Me", have decided to wait until May or June.

The only relief at the box office now is the trailblazing performance of "The Chaser" (Chugyeokja), a Korean thriller directed by Na Hong-jin. Ticket sales have surpassed the 3 million mark.

Since its Feb. 14 release, the film has maintained its lead at the box office, even outsmarting other Hollywood flicks.

The box-office performance of "The Chaser" is regarded as a surprise because it is after all a small-budget film and its main actors are low profile compared with those in other Korean movies released in recent months. Even the lengthy running time of 123 minutes was deemed a negative factor. But despite all the bad press, the movie has solidified its position as a "must-see" for mainstream audiences.

However, the euphoria sparked by "The Chaser" is limited as prospects for Korean film releases are unlikely to brighten for a while. In recent years, about three to four Korean movies were released per week. But the figure steadily declined to two in mid-February, and is now standing at the much-feared one or zero.

Many of the foreign films imported in 2007 are waiting to secure theater slots. In March alone, about 30 foreign movies, big and small, are getting ready to be released. Oscar-winning films such as "There Will be Blood" as well as small-budget titles are expected to dominate theater schedules.

Last weekend, foreign films led by "Vantage Point" and "Jumper" clashed with "The Chaser" and "BA:BO", a Korean film based on a popular online comic book of the same name that was released on Feb. 28.

By Yang Sung-jin

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