KIM Ki-duk

Korean director Kim Ki-duk is celebrated as he is announced the winner of the Golden Lion for best movie for his film 'Pieta' at the 69th edition of the Venice Film Festival. Pic: AP.

2012 was a year of awards and success, but corporate control and lack of government funding threaten to hold Korean cinema back

Amongst the expected big names such as Day-Lewis, Tarantino, and Hathaway announced among this year’s Oscar nominees few will have noticed or recognized the name Lee Min-Kyu. But the 27-year-old Koreans’ self-funded short film Adam and Dog is shortlisted for the ‘Best Animated Short’ award. It may not be one of the major accolades, but the story of a group of part-timers and volunteers making it to the Oscars is a heartwarming one.

It also caps what has been a pretty successful year all-round for Korean Cinema. In Another Country and The Taste of Money were both nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes, and the undoubted highlight of the year was the victory of Venice’s prestigious Golden Lion award by Kim Ki-Duk’s Pieta.

Kim Kang-woo, Kim Hyo-jin

Actors Kim Kang-woo, left, and Kim Hyo-jin pose for photographers during a photo call for The Taste of Money at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes. Pic: AP.

So what does 2013 have in store for K-cinema and can it reach for even greater success? The early signs are positive. So far this year Korean films The Tower and Man on the Edge have continued the domestic hold on the Box Office top spot, and Nobody’s Daughter is already a frontrunner for the Berlin Festival in February. Korean directors are also making the big jump into Hollywood: Kim Ji-Woon and Park Chan-Wook will take the lead of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand and Nicole Kidman’s Stoker respectively. The numbers are also clearly promising; Koreans watching domestically produced films reached the 100 million mark for the first time in 2012, The Thieves broke domestic records as over 13 million flocked to see it, and Korean productions spent a total of 34 weeks on top of the Box Office.

But Korean cinema has had false dawns before and several times over the past decade it has been heralded as on the crest of success. The message as far back as 2001 was “pour your money into the cinema,” but this only succeeded in creating a bubble that deflated, if not burst, around 2003. Movies such as The Host in 2006 broke domestic records and Old Boy in 2003 brought cult success and foreign eyes to K-cinema, but each time cinephile world’s attention soon waned.

The problems that plagued these previous successes are still there. As is common in all areas of Korean business, the power in the movie industry is held by a few big Chaebols (conglomerates), namely CJ, and Lotte. Their grip is tightening. They now control around 80% of the screens in Korea, and showings of independent movies have more than halved in all of Korea’s main four cinema chains since 2009.

Competition and choice are decreasing, and it seems an inevitable drop in quality will follow. Paul Quinn from Hangul Celluloid explains:

“While the success Korean Cinema achieved in 2012, both domestically and internationally, is without question incredibly positive news, the fact that a number of the biggest box office hits of the year were huge budget ‘spectacle’ blockbusters raises, yet again, the debate of where the balance between high impact entertainment for entertainment’s sake and insightful quality storytelling lays.”

The problems are best articulated by those involved. Kim Ki-Duk is quoted as saying: “There are countless films out there that won’t get a chance to screen due to politics at multiplex theater chains.” Fellow director Min Byung-hun added: “Corporate behemoths owning distribution and multiplex chains have absolute control. Whether a movie is backed by the large companies is a key factor in how many theaters will screen the movie.”

These are not idle complaints. Both directors took the bold step to withdraw their movies from theaters this year. More may follow in 2013. Not all directors have taken such measures, but that does not mean they do not agree with that there are problems. Once again, from Hangul Celluloid,

“I have spoken to numerous Independent Korean film directors who have, almost without exception, talked at length about their frustrations at the almost impossible task of securing investment for their projects – with several even having to resort to crowd-sourcing (Kickstarter etc) to get even a micro budget together – positively screams of an ongoing and even increasing tendency for the Korean film industry to invest in high-octane productions at the expense of smaller films; regardless of narrative quality.”

K-Cinema also faces a very different problem, being left out of the ‘Korean Wave’. Hallyu, with heavy government support, has been spreading Korean culture across Asia and the world.  The forefront of this PR push is, and has always been, K-Pop. K-history, K-drama, K-food, and the Korean language have also been supported. Movies, despite the money invested, do not seem to be at the heart of the Government’s K-Wave plans. A quick glance at the KTO’s ‘Hallyu Today’ page lists 27 stories about K-Pop or K-drama before we find any movie news. With the success of Gangnam Style there is little reason to suspect movies will depose K-Pop at the crest of the wave in 2013, and Korean cinema will have to fight for its audience separate from its national cultural allies.”

K-Cinema is clearly in the midst of a renaissance, and there seems to be no reason for this to stop in 2013, but whether it can make the next step up to wider international appeal remains a much more difficult question.