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Word of Mouth Triumphs over Blockbuster Hype

2006/02/09 Source

By Nigel D'Sa
Editor / Staff Writer
"The King and the Clown"

January saw local Korean films enjoying one of their best months in history, taking in box office receipts of over 78 percent despite the presence of US heavyweights including "King Kong" and the "Chronicles of Narnia". The winning streak was second only to February 2004 when, thanks largely to Korean War blockbuster "Taegugki", domestic films peaked at an 82 percent market share.

There are two ironies surrounding the current success. The first is that many in the film industry feel beleaguered rather than emboldened by this strong showing, as it coincided with the government's announcement that Korea's "Screen Quota" system would be halved, cutting the required annual screen time for Korean films from 40 percent to 20 percent. In the light of local fare dominating nearly 80 percent of the box-office, it is hard to argue for the preservation of protectionist measures, and finance ministers timed the decision well.

The second irony is that unlike "Taegugki" the star-fueled blockbuster of two years ago this year's first box-office champion was a modestly budgeted film with no major star-power to draw audiences. Based on the stage-play Yi, about a Jeoseon- (Chosun-) era king and his jester, "The King and the Clown" cost only 4 million US dollars to make, and has sold almost 10 million tickets since its release six weeks ago, already making it the third most successful film in Korean history.

By contrast, the 15-million-dollar "Typhoon", focusing on the North-South divide, is the most expensive Korean film ever made, with a stellar cast including Jang Dong-gun, Lee Jeong-Jae and Lee Mi-Yeon. Yet it drew only 4.2 million admissions, 2 million short of what it needed to break even. Relying more on special effects and a sensational plot, the film lacked detailed and compelling characters and failed to reach Korean audiences on a personal level.

An even greater bomb was the 10-million-dollar "Blue Swallow" starring Jang Jin-Yeong. Set during the period of Japanese occupation (1910-45) and purportedly recounting the tale of Korea's first female pilot, this aerial hopeful plummeted, barely drawing 600,000 viewers. Korean audiences may have been disappointed that the film did not come out strongly enough against imperial Japan.

Like many successful Korean films, word of mouth was a tremendous factor in the popularity of "The King and the Clown". The question "Have you seen that movie?" has a snowball effect on ticket sales here. Based on the true story of a mad king, it is well scripted and performance-driven, with a bit of homoerotic controversy thrown in. While Koreans are a far cry from accepting homosexuality in their own society, it does seem to have market potential. The minor hit "A Bungee jumping of their own" broached the issue, albeit in a way that gave it an underlying heterosexual context. In "The King and the Clown", it is the gender-bending jester Konggil, played by Lee Joon-Ki, who fascinates both his wealthy patrons and Korean film-going audiences alike.

Feminized men are a growing trend in Korea, with high-school girls apparently going giddy for men who could conceivably pass as women. Last year Korea debuted the world's first manufactured transgender pop group, "Lady". Lee Joon-Ki, who has become famous overnight for his graceful portrayal of Konggil and his girlish good looks, is one of the chief reasons for the film's popularity. Though we cannot say this is simply a case of the lady-boy trend triumphing over big-budget muscle. Much of the film's delight issues from the energetic play-acting and witty sparring of the two clowns.

Some critics account for the big draw of "The King and the Clown" by proposing that Korean audiences have evolved and refined their movie-going tastes, falling prey less and less to the glossy, hyped, often ridiculous plots of commercial productions, and instead favoring the subtle textures of unique personal dramas. This seems doubtful, if the success of the appallingly asinine sequel, "My Boss, My Teacher", which currently holds the No. 1 position at the box-office, is any indication.

There is no single reason for "The King and the Clown"'s popularity, however a mix of the right ingredients and the power of word of mouth in a dense city like Seoul helped it go a long way. It is also worth noting that Koreans go to the movies a lot more often than they used to. Attendance has more than tripled in the last eight years, making Korea the fifth largest movie-going audience in the world. As for "The King and the Clown", there is already a stage musical spin-off of in the works.

Nigel D'Sa, who serves as editor and writer for The Seoul Times, was born in London. After moving to Toronto at age 8 he earned his BA in English Literature at the University of Ottawa. He completed a second degree in Film Production at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He also teaches at Hanyang University in Seoul. He also contributes to various publications as film journalist.

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