Lawrie Zion on the strengths of the South Korean filmmaking scene.
The very idea that there is a vibrant film industry pumping out blockbuster after blockbuster in South Korea is a recent novelty to even the most ardent film observer. For several years, a growing range of historical dramas and often violent action thrillers from Seoul have created a growing sense of intrigue at film festivals, and prolific director Kim Ki-duk was even the subject of an eye-opening retrospective at Melbourne a couple of years ago.
But nothing quite prepares you for just how strong the local filmmaking scene appears to have become. As part of a recent delegation for a media forum organised by the Australia-Korea Foundation, I was as startled as any of my other compatriots to learn that more than half of all tickets sold at South Korean cinemas this year have been for locally made films, and that the two most popular movies, Taeguku and Silmido, were home-grown blockbusters. The comparison is especially striking for a journalist whose summations of the Australian industry have routinely chronicled the sorry event that the comparable local figure now struggles to reach one tenth of that percentage.
What has made Korea's industry one of the world's most successful, and one of the most resilient to Hollywood's onslaught? Certainly not government funding. Although active in the marketing of local product through its Korea Film Council development, assistance and film funding simply isn't available through government agencies in Seoul to anything like the extent that it is in Australia.
Nor, on paper at least, would there appear to be real opportunities to fashion a vibrant overseas sales market for local fare, although in recent years Japan has emerged as a keen buyer for South Korean product.
And while Australian private investment in films remains at terrifyingly low levels, Korea's corporate sector seems only too keen to get behind the current film boom to an extent that Australian producers would envy. In late November, one production company even decided to source funding by opening up a website for potential investors.
How has Korea's industry grown so quickly? After all, a decade ago, local films were only attracting a modest 10-15 per cent of the box office pie - a figure not all that much at variance with the Australian film industry in some of its better years.
Where Korean films have been able to harness a structural advantage over their Australian counterparts is through rules governing the exhibition sector. While there are no quotas in place to ensure that Australian movies get shown on the big screen, Korean cinemas are obliged to reserve up to 40 per cent of their session times for local content. This arrangement is augmented by a network of a dozen arthouse cinemas, which screen around 60 per cent Korean arthouse content.
Although there are in-built flexibilities - cinemas can decide, for the most part, when to schedule local product, the reality is that it is not difficult for Korean cinema-goers to find their own stories on the screen - a striking contrast to the situation in Australia, where there are sometimes no local films in cinemas at all during the summer period, which - as everyone knows - is the time of greatest audience availability.
How important is the screen quota when it comes to the domestic boom in Korean movies? It's hard to say; and it would certainly be simplistic to suggest this has been the primary reason for the rise in the quality and quantity of local product. The real answer will no doubt become clearer if current moves to have the quota reduced succeed. Both the Americans - with whom the Koreans are negotiating a bilateral trade deal - and Korea's Fair Trade Commission recently said it violates competitiveness.
Backing up the quota system is an investor-friendly environment that means companies such as Samsung get behind new productions, providing a substantial share of the budget. And while Australia's so called star system is diluted by the dispersal of so many of our biggest names to the international arena, it was clear at the recent Pusan International Film Festival that most of Korea's big name actors and directors can attract an almost overwhelming degree of paparazzi excitement.
Colliding with such frenetic displays of enthusiasm for local stars at Pusan, I was constantly reminded in the best possible way of the fact that I was in an environment that, for all its familiar trappings (multiplex cinemas, nice hotels, long queues at festival offices), was still profoundly foreign. Just days earlier, I had arrived in a country which, despite being Australia's third-largest trading partner, is all too rarely discussed in our media.
With Korean films now beginning to move beyond the festival circuit and into our arthouse cinemas, audiences will have unprecedented opportunities to experience Korean cinema. Let's also hope that industry conferences such as SPAA also seize the moment and invite Korean producers to share their insights with us later in 2005. It might be that the specifics of that country's success are hard to replicate elsewhere. But we need to find out more.
Lawrie Zion is the film writer with 'The Australian'. He was part of a recent Australia-Korea Foundation delegation that attended a media forum in Seoul, and the Pusan International Film Festival.