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Korean cinema, Chinese characteristics

Korean cinema, Chinese characteristics

By Kevin Ma

Mon, 07 October 2013, 09:15 AM (HKT)

Production News

Since the late 1990s, the regional popularity of South Korean entertainment – particularly its music and television programmes – coincided with a major resurgence in its local cinema. Its film industry has since emerged as one of the most robust — and most professional — in Asia.

Though its domestic industry remains strong, South Korean film professionals are looking abroad for bigger opportunities. It is notably working more closely with China's film industry, which is growing so quickly that its production infrastructure cannot keep up with the demands of local film-makers and audiences.

Collaborations between the industries of China and South Korea range from investment, co-production and post-production services to the loan of technical crews so as to help create new genres and a new film language in an industry that has outgrown the size of the South Korean — and Japanese — market in recent years.


The modern era of collaboration between the South Korean and Greater China film industries began in 2001 when Peter CHAN 陳可辛's Applause Pictures Ltd 摩根陳影業有限公司 co-invested together with Japan's Shochiku Co Ltd 松竹 in HUR Jin-ho 허진호 | 許秦豪's One Fine Spring Day 봄날은 간다 (2001). That same year, Leon LAI 黎明, ZHANG Ziyi 章子怡 and Cecilia CHEUNG 張柏芝 starred in South Korea's Dream of a Warrior 천사몽 (2001), Musa 무사 (2001) and Failan 파이란 (2001) respectively.

The range of collaborations broadened in subsequent years. CHEN Kaige 陳凱歌 hired Korean cinematographer KIM Hyeong-gu 김형구 | 金炯求 (who had shot Spring Day and Musa) to work on his drama Together 和你在一起 (2002), which was co-produced by South Korea's Big Bang Creative Inc 빅뱅 크리에이티브. In 2003, Bill KONG 江志強's Edko Films Ltd 安樂影片有限公司 changed the direction of financing, co-investing in KWAK Jae-yong 곽재용 | 郭在容's Windstruck 내 여자친구를 소개합니다 (2004) after the box office success of the director's My Sassy Girl 엽기적인 그녀 (2001).

In 2007, for his war epic Assembly 集結號 (2007), FENG Xiaogang 馮小剛 recruited the team from South Korea's Taegukgi 태극기 휘날리며 (2003) – including sound editor KIM Seok-won 김석원 | 金石源 and special effects supervisor JEONG Do-an 정도안 – to handle the film's complex and explosive battle scenes. Feng worked with the same team — and South Korean make-up artists skilled in ageing actors — to realise earthquake drama Aftershock 唐山大地震 (2010), which was briefly China's highest grossing film.

South Korea's Digital Revolution

South Korea was one of the first countries in Asia to fully embrace the digital revolution in film-making. Its rapid rise in the global cinema scene gave its local film industry — and politicians — the motivation to create new infrastructure and technology. In just a few years, South Korea became a leader in digital film technology in Asia thanks to strong government support and state-of-the-art facilities.

Kinomotive 키노모티브 was one of the first to push into the Greater China region, creating special effects for Hong Kong director WONG Jing 王晶's I Corrupt All Cops 金錢帝國 (2009) and Future X-Cops 未來警察 (2010). Several South Korean special effects firms, including Macrograph Inc 매크로그래프, worked on US-China co-production The Forbidden Kingdom 功夫之王 (2008).

In 2010, director TSUI Hark 徐克 employed South Korea's AZworks Inc 에이지웍스, its sister company CJ PowerCast CJ파워캐스트, and Kinomotive for the ambitious VFX-heavy Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 狄仁杰之通天帝國 (2010). LEE Yong-gi 이용기 | 李庸基 and NAM Sang-u 남상우 | 南相宇 became the first Korean winners of the Best Visual Effects award at the Hong Kong Film Awards for their work on the hit period film.

Recognising that getting the right technicians is just as important as getting the right equipment, Beijing-based Lollol Creative Media Group 异彩映画(北京)文化传媒有限公司 – which has worked on NING Hao 寧浩's Guns and Roses 黃金大劫案 (2012), Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 龍門飛甲 (2011) and Wuershan 烏爾善's Painted Skin: The Resurrection 畫皮Ⅱ (2012) — employs a team of Korean technicians for special effects and other post-production duties.

True Co-Productions

With the rapid rise in film production and box office revenue, China is becoming an increasingly lucrative destination. According to the Korean Film Council (Kofic) 영화진흥위원회, there were 23 co-productions involving South Korea and China between 2005 and 2011, including Seven Swords 七劍 (2005), Battle of Wits 墨攻 (2006) and Sophie's Revenge 非常完美 (2009).

Since 2012, however, there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of South Korea-China co-productions with productions initiated by Korean producers starring Chinese cast that have had proven success at the China box office, if limited success — at this stage — on South Korean screens.

Co-produced by CJ Entertainment Inc CJ엔터테인먼트 and four China companies, A Wedding Invitation 分手合約 (2013) stars China's BAI Baihe 白百何 and Taiwan's Eddie PENG 彭于晏. The romantic drama was shot in China with a mostly Korean crew. CJ was involved from the market research stage making it one of the first South Korean productions explicitly produced for the China market. It made RMB192 million (US$31.4 million) at the China box office and ₩127 million (US$118,000) in South Korea.

Based on a South Korean comic series about a gorilla that can play baseball, 3-D fantasy Mr. Go 미스터 고 (2013) was made with a South Korean crew, South Korean special effects and a Chinese actress, Josie XU 徐嬌. In a co-production agreement that South Korea's Showbox/Mediaplex Inc 쇼박스 미디어플렉스 described as "the first step in a new global project model", China's Huayi Brothers Media Corporation 華誼兄弟傳媒股份有限公司 put in approximately 20% of the US$25 million budget and guaranteed the film a wide release in China.

The big-budget fantasy opened day-and-date in China and South Korea, a first for a co-production between the countries. It made ₩9.3 billion (US$8.57 million) in South Korea but more than double that in China, with RMB112 million (US$18.4 million). In China it was marketed as a children's film. Another factor in the film's Mainland success may be its exclusive 3-D engagement, since audiences are still prepared to pay a premium on already expensive cinema tickets.

South Korean films in China

Due to the quota on imported films, not many non-Chinese Asian films are able to secure a theatrical release in China. In 2006, Daisy 데이지 (2006) and The Restless 중천 (2006) became the first South Korean films to be distributed in China, but Korean-language films remained a rare thing in China cinemas.

Between 2009 and 2012, nine Korean-language films were released in Chinese cinemas: Haeundae 해운대 (2009) (RMB16.7 million), Scandal Makers 과속스캔들 (2008) (RMB14.3 million), My Girlfriend is an Agent 7급 공무원 (2008) (RMB18.7 million), The Man from Nowhere 아저씨 (2010) (RMB22 million), Leafie 마당을 나온 암탉 (2011) (RMB4.6 million), Hello Ghost 헬로우 고스트 (2010) (RMB3.7 million), Sector 7 7광구 (2011) (RMB12.1 million), Deranged 연가시 (2012) (RMB7.43 million) and The Righteous Thief 홍길동의 후예 (2009) (RMB3.75 million).

In just the first nine months of 2013, three Korean-language films received wide releases in China. The Thieves 도둑들 (2012) (RMB22.2 million), Pororo: The Racing Adventure 3D 뽀로로 극장판 슈퍼썰매 대모험 (2013) (RMB$12.2 million) and Mr. Go. While the box office grosses of the first two films were high for Korean releases, Mr. Go was the outlier, shattering The Thieves' China box office record with RMB112 million, suggesting that localisation may be the key to success in China.

Going Chinese

After turning his lost segment of Chengdu, I Love You 成都,我愛你 (2009) into the feature film A Good Rain Knows 호우시절 (2009), director Hur Jin-ho returned to China two years later to direct a Chinese-language remake of Dangerous Liaisons 危險關係 (2012), starring South Korea's JANG Dong-geon 장동건 | 張東健, China's Zhang Ziyi and Hong Kong's Cecilia Cheung. The lavish costume drama – produced by China's Beijing Zonbo Century Media Co Ltd 北京中博世紀影視傳媒有限公司 — made RMB62.3 million (US$10.2 million) during 2012's October National Day holiday.

Horror director AN Byung-ki 안병기 | 安兵基 has co-founded his own production office in China with Beijing Yoshow Film & TV Co Ltd 北京永旭良辰文化發展有限公司 and South Korean special effects firm MONEFF 모네프. Their first film was Bunshinsaba 筆仙 (2012), a psychological horror-thriller that only shared the title of An's 2004 original. Made with a mixed Chinese and South Korean crew at a relatively low budget (even for a Chinese film), Bunshinsaba became the most successful local horror in 2012. Bunshinsaba II 筆仙Ⅱ (2013) – released this summer – set a new opening weekend record for a Chinese horror.

MONEFF CEO HAM Seong-won 함성원 spoke in an interview about the obstacles he ran into during production of the two horror films. "A lot of the equipment we rented was outdated. It's not that there's no good equipment in China, it's just that all the good equipment had already been supplied to big-budget films and we had to rent what was left. The Bunshinsaba films were both low-budget, so we had a lot of problems with equipment."

Things aren't necessary less problematic on a big-budget film, as proven by director Kwak Jae-yong. In 2011, the My Sassy Girl director was hired to direct Lady of the Dynasty 王朝的女人 楊貴妃, a US$10 million China-Japan production about the legendary beauty starring FAN Bingbing 范冰冰 and WANG Lee-hom 王力宏. Kwak and the two stars appeared on the red carpet at the Busan festival where the project was first announced.

Soon after shooting began, Kwak quit and returned to South Korea. The China production company issued a letter announcing Kwak's departure, citing Kwak's refusal to heed the advice of the Chinese crew and "deviating from traditional Chinese values". The film has since resumed production with a new script and China's SHI Qing 十慶 as director (with assistance from TIAN Zhuangzhuang 田壯壯 and ZHANG Yimou 張藝謀).

Looking Forward

Successful collaborations between the Greater China and South Korean film industries can create win-win situations for both sides: Chinese filmmakers can realise ambitious visions with technical expertise from South Korea, while professionals working in the South Korean film industry can tap into the huge potential of the China market.

South Korean companies can also attract financial support from Chinese companies for ambitious productions that also target their domestic Korean market and its relatively limited population. There are new opportunities for a new generation of producers who can bridge the two countries' film industries.

KOFIC, which has launched a business centre in Beijing to support co-productions and other collaboration in China, recently produced a brochure, in Chinese for local producers, listing dozens of South Korean directors who are willing to work in China. Even if there are bumps on the road, it looks like the Korea-China co-productions are here to stay.

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