The phenomenal success of “Gangnam Style” is just the start of a new surge of attention for Korean entertainment, according to the man responsible for some of South Korea’s biggest films.
“When you look at Korean music or Korean films they are very Hollywood-like in terms of production standards,” said producer Jonathan H. Kim, speaking on the sidelines of last week’s Busan International Film Festival.
“There’s also a degree of people from other countries looking at Korean movies and saying ‘Wow: their values are similar to ours’.”
A 30-year veteran of the Korean film industry, Kim has been behind five of his country’s 50 biggest box office hits. Among them is war epic “Silmido” (2003), the first film to attract more than 10 million viewers in South Korea.
As well as producing films, Kim is a business advisor to the sprawling CJ Entertainment & Media group, South Korea’s largest in terms of film production, investment and distribution.
He also hosts seminars on investing in its entertainment industry and its potential for growth at home and beyond.
“These films travel well because production values are very high,” Kim said. “But it is also about Korean people’s passion and their impatience. If the movies aren’t great, people just leave the theatre.”
Kim believes the current strength of Korean cinema — and the global appeal of Korean entertainment in general — had its beginnings in 2003, with the emergence of film directors such as Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy”) and wildly successful TV dramas such as the drama “Winter Sonata”.
“A lot of territories saw Korean films as an alternative to B-grade Hollywood movies as they were cheaper and artistically we were getting a lot of awards from festivals,” said Kim.
Attention has been renewed, helped by the box-office success of heist-thriller “The Thieves” and the dance moves of 34-year-old rapper Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” has amassed more than 450 million YouTube hits.
South Korea’s K-pop has in the past 10 years defied language barriers to entice fans around the world, but glossy products such as Super Junior and Girls’ Generation have not won Psy’s level of global recognition.
The rapper has performed his unique horse-riding dance at the MTV awards in Los Angeles and appeared in a cameo on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”.
“The surprise with Psy is that he didn’t try to look Hollywood. It’s pure Korean,” said Kim. “That is making a lot of people re-evaluate the Korean wave and cinema is at the forefront of that.”
The Busan festival program was loaded with acclaimed contemporary Korean cinema, including politically edged thriller “National Security”, “A Werewolf Boy” and the recent local box office hit “Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time”.
Maverick director Kim Ki-Duk’s gritty revenge thriller “Pieta” also played in Busan, a month after taking the major prize at the Venice International Film Festival – the first time the Golden Lion had gone to a Korean production.
Festival goers packed out a special outdoor screening of the country’s new box office champion “The Thieves” which has now been seen by more than 13 million people in South Korea, reaping more than 93 billion won (US$84 million). “I think the wave is just getting started,” said Choi Dong-Hoon, the director of the smash-hit heist thriller.
The Thieves Official Trailer
“Korean commercial films have their conventional characteristics but if you study them one-by-one, each of them is unique. It’s hard to compare with other countries,” he said.
“The story is usually very powerful and each character has complicated issues. I think this relates to the nature of Korean people.”
Korean cinema itself is on target for a record-breaking year.
The Korean Film Council recently announced around 120 million cinema tickets had been sold across the country by the end of the second quarter of 2012, a year-on-year rise of around 20 per cent.
“I think Korean movies are becoming more exciting and vigorous,” said Choi. “Filmmakers have put a lot of effort into finding different themes to work on. As a director, I love how the cinema is doing right now and I think audiences share the same view.”
Alongside established names, the festival also showcased the works of younger talent hoping to ride the Korean wave.
Lee Donku might have only spent US$3,000 on putting together his tense thriller “Fatal” but the film was selected in the Busan festival’s main New Currents award, which offers two prizes of US$30,000 for first- or second-time Asian filmmakers.
While the cash went to Thailand’s Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (“36”) and Iran’s Maryam Najafi (“Kayan”), Lee said he was honored to have his first film nominated and is grateful to Psy for capturing so much attention.
“I really like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and so do Koreans,” he said. “And as other countries like his song so much, having such a passion for it, the growing interest in Korean culture is helping to attract more attention to our movies.
“As Korean culture gets more popular, it helps me as well.”