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[HanCinema's Feature] Local Popularity of Independent Korean Film (Part 1)

2016/09/10 | 814 views | Permalink

I promised to discuss crowdfunding this week, I know, but Willa Schitz had a really good question in the comments section last week that I felt warranted a full explanation. Here's her post, the first part being a quote from last week's article-

"The Korean Film Council relentlessly tries to promote South Korean films at international film festivals, and the payoff for this is a lot of free advertising anytime one actually gets serious attention. This is why "The Wailing" and "The Handmaiden" did so well".

"Then why is it that the award-winning films of Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong et al have done so indifferently at the Korean box office?"

I'll deal with Kim Ki-duk first, because a few years back he was one of the first big beneficiaries of KOFICs policy when "Pieta" won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. All of a sudden mainstream theater chains that would never touch a Kim Ki-duk film under normal circumstances saw that there was sincere demand for his movies, and accomodated screens accordingly.

Counter-intuitive though this may sound, Kim Ki-duk was not happy with this. Independent film professionals in general are upset with the way major Korean theater chains explicitly favor mainstream films from major studios when making screen allotments. Kim Ki-duk saw his box office success as implicitly selling out, and so pulled "Pieta" out of circulation to protest these practices.

Kim Ki-duk's next movie, "Moebius", was explicitly about genital mutilation and masturbation. So, um, even if it had won a major festival prize there was no way anyone was distributing it locally. "One on One" marked the beginning of what most film critics would call Kim Ki-duk's current slump. Not me, though. In my opinion Kim Ki-duk lost interest in shocking audiences when he realized that whatever weird creepy stuff he shoved into his movies would be met with near universal praise, so he started focusing more on politics and less on shock value.

In the modern film environment this stance has not earned Kim Ki-duk very many powerful friends. The corporations were irritated because they saw the "Pieta" screenings as a public service. KOFIC, by contrast, likes to trot out big name directors as major international successes, and it's become very clear that Kim Ki-duk can't be relied on in that role.

Which brings me to Hong Sang-soo. Compared to most independent Korean film directors, Hong Sang-soo actually does quite well for himself. His films have a floor of thirty thousand seats sold and a ceiling of eighty thousand. That's not terribly impressive compared to a record-holder like "My Love, Don't Cross That River", which nearly hit five million, but it's good for the independent market.

All the same, one would expect Hong Sang-soo to do even better than that thanks to his sheer name recognition. So why doesn't he? Well...as I've mentioned before, it's because he pretty much remakes the same movie once a year with mild storytelling gimmicks. This doesn't make them bad movies by any stretch of the imagination, but at this point, if you've seen one Hong Sang-soo movie in the past several years you've pretty much seen them all. So there's no reason to shell out a ticket unless you're a Hong Sang-soo fan to begin with.

Another problem with Hong Sang-soo films is simply what they're about- pathetic middle-aged men begging women to have sex with them. That's not really the kind of thing people go to the movies to see. And the whole Kim Min-hee scandal has only made that worse. Until news of that broke I always thought Hong Sang-soo was making fun of the characters in his movies. Now I'm coming to realize to my mild horror that these were actually sincere personal emotional pleas. When you consider that plenty of people have likely watched a Hong Sang-soo film and simply made that assumption from the beginning, his inability to set the Korean box office on fire makes a lot of sense.

As for Lee Chang-dong ... the last movie he made was "Poetry" back in 2010. As far as I can tell its admissions were roughly on par with those of a Hong Sang-soo film. But you have to understand that Korean film is constantly changing, and had "Poetry" come out a few years later it might have achieved "Pieta" level popularity.

Additionally, going back that far is speculative on my part. Much of my analysis when it comes to the Korean film industry is based on firsthand observation, and I was not in the country when "Poetry" premiered in Korean theaters. Unfortunately, even in the Korean language there simply isn't that much good writing explaining these trends, for much the same reason that most English language writing about the movies can't get at the kernel of Hollywood. A focus on film theory and film personalities largely obscures the market forces which are ever so important to how film industries have always functioned.

Hope that was a satisfying answer. It does, of course, beg for more specifics as to which South Korean independent films have been succeeding lately and why. I'll address that question next week.

- Article by William Schwartz

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