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Korean Films Left Out of Global Power Games

2006/08/13 Source

By Paolo Bertolin
Contributing Writer

While Bong Joon-ho's "The Host" was effortlessly munching one record after another at the domestic box office, the Korean film world has been badly hit by two consecutive blows on the foreign front.

First, figures of Korean films exported registered a drop of 58 percent in the first half of the year from a year ago, according to the Korean Film Council.

Second, for the first time since 1998 no Korean film made it to the Grand Slam of competitive film festivals, for example Berlin, Cannes and Venice.

"Is the world falling out of love with Korean films?" many are now asking. Such questions are especially disquieting, as they are rising at a point when national production has reached new heights in both output and expenditures.

Certainly, there is a connection between decreased sales and lack of festival exposure. Such linkage obviously does not affect core markets such as Japan and East Asia, where Korea mostly caters to mainstream entertainment. Yet, participation (and possibly prizes) at A-list festivals still remain the best picklock to unhinge the doors of Western markets.

Unfortunately, this year Korean films failed to impress selecting committees. Director Kim Ki-duk, who two years ago collected Best Director nods in both Venice and Berlin with "3-Iron" and "Samaritan Girl" ("Samaria"), faced a Reversal of Fortune in 2006, as Cannes and Venice both said no to his latest "Time".

Nevertheless, thanks to Kim's reputation, "Time" scored distribution deals for more than twenty countries. Hong Sang-soo, whose two most recent creations played in Cannes, had been touted as a sure-fire contender for Venice with his "Woman on the Beach", yet he was eventually rejected. Even "The Host" flunked with Cannes and Venice selectors, and premiered in Cannes' independently organized Directors' Fortnight.

Judging from the string of rejections, one might infer that the debacle was determined by the lower quality of films vying for a place in the sun this year. Maybe, yet one can look at other reasons as well.

Generally speaking, the major European festivals are still relatively tight when it comes to East Asian fare, although they are considerably more open than they used to be. Arguably Venice now is, since Director Marco Muller is a respected Sinologue, who for 2006 invited to Lido (the island where the festival takes place) 16 East Asian features.

Korean postulants knocking at Muller's door were many, yet he let in only one, Ryoo Seung-wan's "The City of Violence", playing on a midnight screening. The disproportion in favour of Chinese-lingo (seven) and Japanese (six) films seems to betray a Sino-Japanese inclination, already testified to by last year's retrospective, intriguingly titled "Secret History of Asian Cinema", yet showing only films from China and Japan.

In the case of Berlin and Cannes, however, Korean films face an even tougher struggle. Appointed in May 2001, Director Dieter Kosslick has since invited two sole Korean films (both by Kim Ki-duk) to the Berlinale competition. When it comes to films from East Asia, both Kosslick and Cannes' Thierry Fremaux seem to be very receptive to the advices of sales companies. Sales companies are playing an increasing role in the film business, as they manage promotion and sales to international distributors.

Since the mid-90s, the most established among them are said to exert some kind of influence over the major festivals' line-ups by means of negotiation over much-coveted titles, traded along with weaker ones.

Unfortunately, Korean films are left out of these power games, since they are primarily and solely sold by domestic companies, such as Cineclick Asia or CJ Entertainment, trading only in Korean films. "Korean productions tend to rely on domestic sales companies because they can internalize costs, as CJ does", says Darcy Paquet, Variety's correspondent from South Korea, "or simply because they feel more confident in dealing with people who speak Korean". The Chinese, Thais and Japanese have long overcome the linguistic impediment, and often sell their films through international companies, to their great advantage.

The writing is on the wall: the sole East Asian film competing in Cannes 2006 was Chinese "Summer Palace" sold by Wild Bunch, a company accountable for seven out of the twenty-one Cannes competitors; in Berlin, the Thai-Japanese contestant "Invisible Waves" had the Fortissimo Films label, as did the Panorama section entry "Little Red Flowers" from China.

With new films from acclaimed directors Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook and Im Kwon-taek scheduled for completion in 2007, though, the burning exclusions of Korean films from the festival circuit in 2006 may soon be left behind. However, in order to strengthen the visibility of their products and possibly increase the opportunities for sales, Korean companies could be advised to reconsider their promotional and sale strategies.

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