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Give 'em less art, more action

The same South Korean films that receive praise abroad have found disdain at home, where Hollywood-style fare is preferred.

August 22, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

Seoul — The entire film takes place in a Buddhist monastery. The cast pretty much consists of a monk and his disciple, with a love interest flitting through briefly, as well as a cat, a snake, a frog and a fish.

If it hardly sounds like blockbuster material, well, it wasn't.

South Korean audiences as a whole hated "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring." Fewer than 28,000 people saw the movie when it played on its home turf last year, and it was whisked out of the theaters as quickly as spilled popcorn. But in the United States, "Spring, Summer" has been playing since April, bringing in $2,259,717 -- and setting a record for a Korean film in the U.S. market.

The director, 43-year-old Kim Ki-Duk, considers himself something of a prophet without honor in his own land. And he's not the only South Korean filmmaker who has garnered kudos abroad and scorn at home. Films that are praised by foreign critics as entrancing, exquisite, gripping, delightful, stunning, timeless (among the adjectives applied to "Spring, Summer") are considered duds by Koreans.

"People here can't understand why I have such success abroad. If I win an award, they're surprised and a little defensive, asking, 'Why should this big foreign prize be going to Kim Ki-Duk?' " said Kim, whose "Samaritan Girl," about a teenage prostitute, won him the best director award this year at the Berlin Film Festival.

South Korean films have been on a roll on the film festival circuit of late, but most of the award winners have flopped at the box office here. Just a few of the more notable examples are Lee Chang-Dong's "Oasis," which won the special director award in 2002 at the Venice Film Festival; Im Kwon-Taek's "Chi-hwa-seon," which shared a best director award the same year in Cannes; and Jang Jun-Hwan's sci-fi comedy "Save the Green Planet," a prizewinner last year at the Moscow film festival.

This year's recipient of the Cannes Grand Prix, "Old Boy," an intricate film noir of revenge by director Park Chan-wook, is an exception -- having been a modest though not runaway success on the domestic market.

It is not that South Koreans don't appreciate their own filmmakers. During the first five months of this year, Korean films took in 62% of the domestic box office -- up from just about 35% in 2000, according to the Korean Film Commission. In fact, domestic films are so popular among South Koreans these days that the government is considering lifting screen quotas, which require domestic product on each theater's screens 40% of the time.

But the films that do well at home don't necessarily export well, and vice versa.

The runaway hits of late deal with uniquely Korean themes. "Taegukgi," the melodramatic saga of two brothers separated by the Korean War, ranks as the biggest blockbuster of all time here, having attracted 10 million moviegoers -- about one-third of the adult population. (The film is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters in late September, and its producers hope that Americans are sufficiently cognizant of the Korean War to get the message.)

Although it is not uncommon for films that do well on the festival and art-house circuit to disappoint commercially, the disconnect is greater in South Korea than in the United States or Europe. With too many films chasing too few screens, it's hard for anything eclectic to be seen. Audiences here are also much younger, and there isn't a well-developed art-house scene.

"After people get married, they don't go to movie theaters. It's more for lovers and friends," said Ahn Soo Hyun of B.O.M. Film Productions in Seoul. "In Korea, we don't have real movie buffs like in New York. Koreans like Hollywood-style films, not French art films or independent films."

Mark Yoon, international business head for KangJeGyu Films in Seoul, says the phenomenon is not limited to South Korea.

"Japan is a little more upscale, but everywhere in Asia, people like action. They like horror," Yoon said. "Some of the dramas do well."

In fact, the top export markets for South Korean films are in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

"In Asia, Korean films can compete head to head with U.S. films," Yoon said, adding that the diversity of the films emerging from South Korea lately is making its films more competitive internationally. "In Hong Kong, people were doing just one genre. They did martial arts, then they went to comedy, and then everybody got tired of it. But we have a creative variety of films that make our market healthy and interesting."

Nevertheless, Shin Yang Seop, a lecturer in film at Seoul's Yonsei University, said he sees a lot in common among the South Korean films that have been successful abroad, particularly in the United States and Europe.

"They have all been very stylized, hard-edged, cynical," Shin said. "They keep a critical distance from the issues."

"Spring, Summer" director Kim said, "There is a difference in perspective between what Europeans and South Koreans think of as honest human expression."

For the time being, Kim has found a way around the problem of his unpopularity in the home market. The film he's shooting, called "Three Iron," has been financed entirely in Japan and will most likely open there and in Europe before it reaches screens in South Korea.

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