Films from Greater China increasingly employ technical specialists from Korea - KIM Seong-hoon reports
For a long time, the film industry has evolved according to emergences of new technology and this has meant new opportunities for those working in the field. We all know how when "talkies" were invented, many silent movie actors lost their jobs and at the same time, many other people found work as synchronized sound technicians and post-sync supervisors. When things went digital from film, jobs were created in the field of digital intermediate and color calibration. In a similar vein, when 3D films became the trend, new kinds of specialists came to be in demand in post-production. We could perhaps begin to understand the emergence of Korean film makers in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in a same vein - technicians of VFX, special effects, and stunts who hail from Korea.
The first aspect that immediately grabs one's attention is their role in the VFX and special effects category. With 170 people on staff,Digital Idea is the first Korean company of its kind. It was responsible for the VFX work in "Wu Xia (Swordsmen)" by Peter CHAN Ho Sun who also directed "The Warlords" (2007).The company is currently working on TSUI Hark's first 3D project "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate".
Another Korean company, CJ Powercast, was responsible for the post-production work for "Sophie's Revenge
" (2009) produced by andstarring ZHANG Ziyiand "Reign of Assassins" (2010) produced by John WOO. CJ Powercast's recent activities include VFX work for"Wind Blast" director GAO Qunshu's upcoming film and directorWU Ershan's "Painted Skin 2".
Next Visual Studio is another Korean firm active in this field. The company was in charge of the VFX work in "14 Blades" starring Donnie YEN, director CHING Siu-tung's "The Sorcerer and the White Snake" with Jet LI and also "White Vengeance" starring Leon LAI, William FENG and Crystal LIU. Mofac Studio, which was in charge of post-production for "Haeundae"
and "Sector 7
" is also finalizing a contract for s big-budget film from Greater China.
In special effects, the hottest company right now is Demolition run by JEONG Do-an. Responsible for the special effects in "Taegukgi"
(2004), the company went on to explode realistic bombs and create earthquakes in director FENG Xiaogeng's "Assembly"
(2007) and "Aftershock"(2010), as well as in director John Woo's "Red Cliff" (2008). Demolition has been chosen to work on "1942" thereby working once again with Feng.
In stunt co-ordination, the definitive leader would be YANG Kil-young who is currently active in Taiwan. The infamous hammer action scene in "Old Boy"
left a deep impression on director Doze NIU who then put Yang in charge of the action scenes in hit Taiwan gangster film"Monga" (2010). After this, Yang went on to work on the stunt scenes of "Seediq Bale", "Jump Ashin!" and "The Next Magic" as well as the 40-part TV drama "My Chief and My Regiment". He's been picked to choreograph stunts in director NING Hao's latest film and, along with Donnie Yen, Yang is also one of the candidates for the Best Action Choreography category at this year's Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan which will be held Nov. 26.
It would be wrong to assume that Korean film professionals have only recently ventured into Greater China. Korean actor Hwang Jung-ri, a.k.a. Jang Lee HWANG, played thevillains who antagonized Jackie Chan
in "Drunken Master" (1978) and "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" (1978). The star whose explosive last scenefighting with YEN Shi-Kwan in Golden Harvest's"The Master Strikes" (1980) was Korea's Yong-ho KIM, a.k.a. Casanova WONG and WANG Ho, who was renowned for his brilliant kicking skills. It was also a Korean actor KIM Tai Jong (a.k.a. Tong Lung) who substituted for Bruce Lee after he died while filming "Game of Death" (1978). The difference between now and those days is that it used to be actionactors back then and now it's the turn of technical crews.
Why Korean specialists are popular with Chinese productions
So why do Chinese production companies favor Korean technicians? Many in the Korean industry say it's because Korean technicians can provide Hollywood-level quality at competitive prices. Kang Jong-ik, chief operating officer at Digital Idea says "Korean post-production companies are of course more expensive compared to their Chinese counterparts, but they're much more inexpensive compared to Hollywood-based firms and offer similar standards of work.Korean post-production companies are happy with the demand from Chinese filmmakers. Kang adds, "The cost of CGI work is mostly about wages. In order to pay some 170 staff members, we have to keep getting projects. But, there isn't big enough demand here in Korea. There are only a couple big-scale blockbusters like "Haeundae"
in a year, maybe three at most. That's why we need the demand from Greater China. Director Tsui Hark's "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate", which we're working on now, is very important for Digital Idea. It's not going to be shot in 2D and converted into 3D, but shot in 3D from the outset. It's also Tsui Hark's first 3D film. Whereas CGI work used to play a supporting role, this project will be a great opportunity to publicize Digital Idea in Greater China.
Demolition CEO Jeong Do-an agrees with Kang. He says, "Demolition's fees are not cheap at all for Chinese filmmakers. I would say we're about five times more expensive compared to our Chinese counterparts, but the reason why they come to us is because Chinese film technicians are only used to doing historical dramas. They've hardly ever done any war films, so there aren't any Chinese special effects houses able to explode bombs and deal with firearms-related scenes. When we were working on director John Woo's "Red Cliff", we worked with another firm from China as the scale of the film was so massive, but that company caused a fire and people were injured as a result. So Chinese producers end up turning to Demolition instead of going to Chinese companies".
Martial arts director Yang Kil-young says, "Chinese filmmakers turn to Korean companies when they want to go for a different style of action as Koreans are closer to them in terms of cultural sensibilities but have a completely different style cinematically. As many people know, there are countless martial arts directors and stunt teams in China but none of them do the kind of'realist action' scenesthat we do. Chinese filmmakers are not able to make films about gangs because of censorship.That's one of the reasons why they focus more on historical dramasand martial arts films. But they've recently started making gang-related films so they need people that can create realistic action scenes. Hollywood is unable to help them as they have a totally different culture and sensibility. That's why they're turning to Korean martial arts teams".
So, this is why Chinese projects turn to Korean companies with their competitive rates compared to Hollywoodand different action styles compared to Chinese teams.
Issues of concern
There are difficulties and problems arising from Korean crews working on Chinese projects with their differences in systems. But the most serious problem is that of Korean companies competing too heavily against each other thereby increasingly lowering their fees. Kang says, "We're all competing against each other, it's true. We're all trying to lower costs, but we need to keep to minimum guidelines so that we won't lose out at the end of the day. If you lower prices too much,a particular firm can get this reputation of being cheap in Greater China. That will mean that the company would not be compensated adequately should they get a big scale project later on.
Korean Film Council (KOFIC) Chairman Kim Eui-suk
has a similar view. He says, "Chinese filmmakers will want to work with Korean film technicians for the time being as they haven't sent up their own post-production infrastructure yet. What I'm worried about is that China will gain the necessary financial means to scout able Korean technical crew members or they might want to take over Korean companies through mergers and acquisitions".
What about technology leaking to China? Demolition's Jung says, "If you get lazy, you will be left behind.But I'm still confident. They could have the same materials but we have our own know-how. It's not something you can learn merely by observation. But one thing is that Chinese laws still keep the barrier high for foreigners. They dictate that only Chinese can own and use gunpowder. So we have to maintain a separate Chinese workforce. Yang says "Our own action know-how is all in our heads. That's something the Chinese would not be able to copy. But of course young Chinese technicians will at some point push ahead".
There mustalso be inconveniences that arise from having different languages and cultures. Kang says "There are interpreters going between theChinese directors and Korean technical supervisors.So it's not so much language that is really the issue. What's important is when misunderstandings occur due to subtle miscommunications or nuances. We recently worked on director Tsui Hark's "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" and were getting approval on the CGI. The producer and assistant director conveyedsomething that the Korean technicians thought'as a matter of course'came from the director. But later on he asked why this part had been changed when he hadn't said anything. Since then, it has become a habit of mine that when anyone other than the director says something, I will keep it in mind, but I won't make any changes".
Working on a Chinese shoot
Korean filmmakersvoice the same opinion that there is a lot more energy to try different things and an eye to detail on a Chinese shoot compared to a Korean one. Kang says, "In the case of director Tsui Hark, he was very knowledgeable about the technical side and his direction was very detailed and delicate. Thanks to that, we were able to recreate what he had in mind without too many problems".
Yang says, "In Korea, the film workforce tends to be getting younger so they also prefer to work with younger people. In that regard, China means another opportunity for someone like me. Many Korean technicians are satisfied with a certain level of success, but once you start taking on projects from abroad, you have to constantly try harder and learn new things to keep your clients happy. I'm studying Chinese these days and that's a great help in my line of work.
An anonymous source at CJ Powercast says, "For instance, when a project drags on longer than expected in Korea, they just say'sorry the schedule has been extended but please understand'.But in Greater China, they explain exactly why it's going to take longer and what they want you to do in addition and that they will pay you accordingly. That's how it naturally should be and they calculate it as a matter of fact, and that created a sense of trust".
Co-productions moving forward
Many Korean technicians are getting involved in projects from Greater China. Many say that in order to see this trend continue, there should be more co-productions between the two sides rather than a mere exchange of individual technicians. Kim Eui-suk says, "We need more international co-productions that can also share investment and distribution on both sides. We would be able to create a synergy effect with China's financial power coupled with Korea's creativity and technical skills. We're planning to sign an agreement on co-productions with China next year".
Yang says, "Individual technicians and directors are flying to China to work these days but we need to come up with a long-term plan, an alternative plan for co-productions. The rest of Asia is not far away. It only takes about two and a half hours to fly to Beijing, Shanghai, [and not much more to] Bangkok or Taiwan. We need to think of Asia as one place and come together to create one big market".
As Kim and Yang say, it takes time to create co-production systems. But if we can lessen the differences in understanding each other's policies, cultures and industries, Korea-China co-production could offer an alternative to isolated growth and saturation in our respective markets.