Korean Film Newsletter #5 -- February 9, 2000

Welcome to the fifth edition of the Korean Film Newsletter. This letter will be distributed every 2-3 months, and will inform the reader of the latest events in the industry. If you signed up to receive this letter by email and have not received it, or if you have any questions about anything in this issue, send an email message to darcy@asia.com

NEW RELEASES (Nov. 1999 - Feb. 2000)

The Butcher's Wife ["Sam-yang-dong Jung-yook-jom"] Directed by Shin Jeong-kyun. A tale of love and violence set amidst the daily routine of a busy market. November 27.

Happy End ["He-p'i En-duh"] Directed by Jung Ji-woo. A husband discovers that his wife is having an affair with an old boyfriend. Read more about this film, starring Choi Min-shik and Jeon Do-yeon, on the '1999' film page. December 11. (http://www.thehappyend.com)

Fin de Siecle ["Sae-gi-mal"] Directed by Song Neung-han (No. 3). A film that weaves together fragments from the lives of a large number of characters into four episodes. Starring Lee Jae-eun and Cha Seung-won. December 11. (http://film1999.cracker.co.kr)

Memento Mori ["Yeo-go-kuei-dam Du-bon-jje I-ya-gi"] Directed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Gyu-dong. The 'sequel' to the 1998 film Whispering Corridors, with a completely different crew and cast. Read more about this wonderful film on the '1999' film page. December 24. (http://www.cine2k.co.kr)

The Flight of the Bee ["Bo-ri Nal-da"] Directed by Min Byung-hun and Jamshed Usmonov. Alternate title: Bee Fly. A village teacher becomes angry when his neighbor builds an outhouse next to his home, so he decides to get revenge. A Korean-Tajik co-production originally made in 1998, and finally released in Korean theaters. Read more about this film on the '1998' film page. December 24. (http://www.beefly.co.kr)

Peppermint Candy ["Pak-ha Sa-t'ang"] Directed by Lee Chang-dong. A trip backwards through twenty years of a man's life, from the director of Green Fish. Read more about this film on the '2000' film page. Starring Sul Kyung-gu, Kim Yeo-jin and Mun So-ri. January 1. (http://www.peppermintcandy.co.kr)

School Legend ["Hak-gyo jun-sul"] Directed by Kim Hyun-myung. A ghost tale set in a high school. January 1.

Lies ["Go-jit-mal"] Directed by Jang Sun-woo. The long-delayed film which portrays a sado-masochistic affair between a 38-year old sculptor and a high school girl. Read more about this film on the '2000' film page. Featuring new star Kim Tae-yeon and Lee Sang-hyun. January 8. (http://www.shincine.com)

The Happy Funeral Director ["Heng-bok-han Jang-ui-sa"] Directed by Jang Mun-il. An elderly mortician seeks to teach his trade to his sons in a small village where people hardly ever die. A comedy starring Lim Chang-jung and Kim Chang-wan. January 8. (http://www.bluescreen.co.kr/happy)

Love Bakery ["Ju-no-myung Be-i-k'o-ri"] Directed by Park Hun-soo. Literal title: Junomyung Bakery. A tale of love and tangled relations between a couple who runs a bakery and another couple who live in the same neighborhood. Starring Choi Min-soo, Hwang Shin-hye, Lee Mi-yeon, and Yeo Kyun-dong. January 15. (http://www.bbangzib.co.kr)

Chunhyang ["Chun-hyang-jun"] Directed by Im Kwon-taek. A new retelling of Korea's most popular folk tale, narrated with traditional pansori singing. Read more about this film on the '2000' film page. Starring Lee Hyo-jeong and Cho Seung-woo. January 29. (http://www.chunhyang21.com)

The Foul King ["Ban-ch'ik-wang"] Directed by Kim Jee-woon. A shy banker, feeling oppressed and belittled by his job and his tough-talking boss, discovers a sense of self worth in practicing WWF-style pro wrestling. Read more about this film on the '2000' web page. From the director of The Quiet Family, starring Song Kang-ho, Jang Jin-young and Park Sang-myun. February 4. (http://www.foul.co.kr)


The Ginkgo Bed II Directed by Park Jae-hyun. The sequel to the 1996 debut film of director Kang Jae-gyu, and the second film to be produced by Kang(Shiri)'s production company. This will be the debut effort by director Park, who worked as a screenwriter for the film Shiri. The film features different characters from the original film, but the setting and general atmosphere will be similar. Featuring a highly talented cast, including Sul Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy), Kim Yun-jin (Shiri), Kim Seok-hun (The Great Chef), Choi Jin-shil (The Letter), and Lee Mi-sook (An Affair). Shooting is scheduled to begin in late January, with a release scheduled for June.

JSA: Joint Security Area Directed by Park Chan-wook. A "mystery/human-drama" centering around the deaths of two North Korean soldiers on the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, and a half-Korean Swiss Army Intelligence officer who is sent to investigate. This is the third feature by Park Chan-wook, whose previous work includes Trio (1997), and the short film Judgement (1999). Starring Song Kang-ho (Shiri, The Foul King) and Lee Byung-hun (Harmonium in My Memory). Scheduled to be released in June.

The Anarchists Directed by Yoo Young-shik. An epic-style film shot on location in Shanghai about five terrorists from the 1920s. This film could potentially turn actor Chang Dong-gun (Nowhere to Hide), already quite popular throughout parts of Asia for his TV roles, into a top star. Shooting is reportedly complete, and a release is expected in late May.


Domestic films capture close to 40% market share

1999 turned out to be a phenomenal success story for the local film industry, with Korean films carving out close to a 40% market share in box-office receipts (compared to 25.1% last year). Led by the success of Shiri, but backed up by strong performances from blockbusters Attack the Gas Station, Tell Me Something, Nowhere to Hide, and Happy End, the Korean film industry enjoyed its most successful year in the past three decades. Faced with such strong competition from Korean features, local distributors of Hollywood films have reportedly begun to time their openings so as to avoid head-to-head competition with the big domestic releases.

Only a handful of film industries around the world have been able to capture such a large percentage of their local market without severely curtailing the import of Hollywood features. France and Japan, generally world leaders among film industries with a primarily local distribution, typically take in about a 30% market share each year.

In the past three years, Korea has quietly transformed itself into one of the healthiest film industries in the world. Korea produces every kind of movie, from big-budget blockbusters to art films to creative hybrids of different genres. Without becoming overly dependent on any particular style, director or star, local films have achieved a high level of economic and artistic clout. In addition to the success enjoyed by feature films, Korean short films are rapidly improving their technical capabilities and winning the praise of film critics around the world.

Despite its success at home, Korean cinema remains virtually unknown outside its borders, except for recent inroads made into Hong Kong and Japan. Some feel that this may change in the future, however. Much will depend on whether local production companies can learn to more effectively market their films abroad, although Korean cinema will also have to struggle with a general Western tendency to think of East Asia in terms of only China and Japan. It is becoming clear, however, that anyone interested in world cinema would be ill-advised to ignore the current work being produced in Korea.

Japanese films invade Korea, and vice-versa

This winter marks the first real influx of Japanese films into Korean theaters, in keeping with a gradual opening of the Korean market to Japanese popular culture. In November, the underground favorite Love Letter (1995) by Iwai Shunji was released on the big screen to rave reviews and a groundswell of popular interest. The film would go on to draw close to 700,000 viewers in the capital, making it the tenth best selling film of the year.

A large number of Japanese films are scheduled for release in the coming year, including the best-grossing film in Japan in 1999: Poppoya: Railroad Man by Furuhata Yasuo; Samurai Fiction (1998) by Nakano Hiroyuki, which took home the top prize at the second Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival; Village of Dreams (1995) by Higashi Yoichi; and April Story (1998) by Iwai Shunji.

In return, Korean films are in the process of making a major debut in Japan, led by Kang Jae-gyu's Shiri, which was released on January 22 to become an instant #1 box-office hit. Shiri's success heightens the possibility that Korean and Japanese film cultures will begin to interact in a large-scale, significant fashion. A great number of films are scheduled for a Japanese release in the coming months, including Girls' Night Out (Jan. 29), Whispering Corridors (Feb. 26), The Quiet Family, Art Museum by the Zoo, and Lies.

Reshuffling at KOFIC

For the third time in the past year, the Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) has undergone a change in leadership. After replacing the former Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (KMPPC) in the summer of 1999, the board of commissioners at KOFIC fell victim to a battle between older and younger generations within the film community, and in autumn the chairman, vice chairman, and a large number of commissioners submitted their resignations (see newsletters #2 and #3). A new chairman, Park Jong-guk, was chosen at that time, but in late December he too resigned under pressure from the film community.

It appears that the naming of this new group of commissioners, made up almost exclusively of the 'younger generation', marks the end of the struggle for power. Actress Kim Ji-mi and former KMPPC President Yoon Il-bong, seen as the leaders of the 'older generation,' resigned from the commission in late January when seven new members were named to the commission. These seven people are:

Yoo Gil-chon (59), former president of the MBC Art Center
Lee Yong-kwan (44), Chungang University film professor and programmer for PIFF
Lee Yun-ho (38), journalist and editor at Kino magazine
Lee Eun (38), producer (The Contact, The Quiet Family) and director (If the Sun Rises in the West)
Kim Seung-bum (36), of Tube Entertainment, a finance and distribution company
Kim Hong-jun (43), director of Jungle Story (1996) and La Vie en Rose (1994)
Lee Yong-bae, film professor and specialist in animation

Yoo Gil-chon has been chosen to act as chairman of the new commission. The only member of the former commission to join this group will be Cho Hee-moon (41), film professor and member of Korea's Ratings Board, who will retain his position as vice chairman. The eight members will meet periodically to discuss issues and vote on courses of action, with five votes required to pass a measure.

Multiplexes making inroads

The multiplex has been slow in coming to Korea; a few years ago, Western-style multiplexes did not exist in the country. Recently, however, a large number of new theaters have opened and plans are in the works for many more. Originally several American investors stood poised to enter the market and establish a chain of theaters, however they have refused to do so until Korea lifts its Screen Quota System, put in place to protect local films. In their absence, three major companies have emerged and now they are engaged in a fierce competition.

Thus far, the most successful of the competing firms has been CJ Entertainment in a partnership with Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest and Village Roadshow from Australia. After the success of CGV11 in Seoul and the new, hugely-popular 1600-seat CGV14 in Inchon, the partnership is planning to open a 12-screen deluxe "Gold Class" theater in Pusan this coming April. Two other local firms have also established themselves as strong players in the market. Tong Yang Group, founded in the mid-fifties and a leader in the domestic food and cement industries, plans to open a 16-screen theater in southern Seoul this spring, among its other projects. Lotte Group, a conglomerate with a strong presence in the tourism and food industries, is currently building multiplexes in its chain of deluxe department stores.

Seoul's latest new multiplex opened on January 29 in Tongdaemun Market, one of the biggest wholesale markets in Asia and the hottest new center for youth culture after the construction of two new fashion complexes. MMC (My Megaplex Cinema) runs 24 hours a day with ten screens (1800 seats) and a host of user-friendly features such as free choice of seats, large screens, an advanced sound system, "star seats" printed with the names of local actors, and optional "couple-seating".

Multiplexes ranging in size from 6 to 16 screens are currently being planned or constructed in Seoul (Kangnam-gu and Chongnyangni), various satellite cities around the capital (Pundang, Ilsan, Suwon), and regional cities Kwangju, Taegu, and Pusan (Nampo-dong and Haeundae). The new theaters are expected to be quite profitable, given Korea's low number of screens per capita and the novelty of the new venues.

[Note on terminology: a multiplex is loosely defined as a theater containing fifteen screens or less. A true megaplex, containing 16-30 screens, has yet to make its debut in Korea.]

Lies opens in Korea, Europe

After months of delays, Jang Sun-woo's feature Lies has finally opened in Korean theaters (see newsletters #3 and #4). In early January, roughly coinciding with the film's release, a citizens' group took the director, the production company Shincine and Korea's ratings board to court on charges of distributing pornographic material.

Over the past several months the film has also been given a general release in France, Germany, England, Italy, Austria, Spain, and the Netherlands to mixed reviews. Jang is currently preparing to start work on a new feature, which is expected to differ considerably in style and content from his recent work.

20th Chungryong Awards Ceremony

The 20th Chungryong Awards, one of two major domestic awards ceremonies, was held at the National Theater in Seoul on December 14. Hosted by actors Moon Seung-keun and Kim Hye-soo, the stars of this year's event were unquestionably Best Actress Jeon Do-yeon and surprise winner Lee Jung-jae for Best Actor. A complete list of awards follows:

Best picture: Nowhere to Hide; Best director: Kang Jae-gyu, Shiri; Best Actress: Jeon Do-yeon, Harmonium in My Memory; Best Actor: Lee Jung-jae, City of the Rising Sun; Best Supporting Actress: Lee Mi-yeon, Harmonium in My Memory; Best Supporting Actor: Chang Dong-gun, Nowhere to Hide; New Director Award: Lee Young-jae, Harmonium in My Memory; New Actress Award: Lee Jae-eun, Yellow Hair; New Actor Award: Lee Sung-jae, Attack the Gas Station; Art Direction: Jung Yong-hun, Phantom the Submarine; Cinematography: Jung Kwang-seok and Song Heng-ki, Nowhere to Hide; Best Screenplay: Lee Jeong-hyang, Art Museum by the Zoo.

The Grand Bell Awards, Korea's other major awards ceremony, will be held in early spring.

The best films of the year?

In their Dec.28 issue (#233), Cine21 magazine published the results of a survey of 17 journalists and film critics to determine the most critically-acclaimed films of the year. The results of their tally are listed below:

1. Nowhere to Hide by Lee Myung-se. (68 points, with 9 first place votes)
2. Happy End by Jung Ji-woo. (38 points, with 2 first place votes)
3. Memento Mori by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong. (33 points, with 4 first place votes)
4. The Spy by Jang Jin. (28 points, with 2 first place votes)
5. City of the Rising Sun (literally: No Sun) by Kim Song-soo. (14 points, with 0 first place votes)

[As for myself, I usually find myself disagreeing with the opinions of domestic critics. This year, however, my choices are pretty similar; I would probably rank them (1) Memento Mori, (2) Nowhere to Hide, (3) Happy End, with a special mention to Harmonium in My Memory.]


International film festival news

*** In November, the short film A Day by Park Heung-shik won Best Short Film at the 17th Torino International Film Festival in Torino, Italy. This is the second year in a row that a Korean film has won a major prize at this festival, with Min Byung-hun and Jamshed Usmonov's Flight of the Bee winning the grand prize in 1998. A Day (1999, 20 min., color) recounts the struggles of an unemployed man to find work. The jury praised the film for "representing solitude with an audiovisual purity and a poetic synthesis."

*** Three short films have been invited to the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in France, referred to by some as the "Cannes of Short Film": Baby by Yim Phil-sung, The Refrigerator by Ahn Young-seok, and Hibernation by Jung Yoon-chul. Both Baby and The Refrigerator also competed in the 1999 Venice International Film Festival.

*** Finally, the Berlin International Film Festival did not select any Korean feature or short films for their upcoming festival, which came as a disappointment to many in the Korean film industry. Two Korean documentaries will screen at the festival: Making Sun-dried Red Peppers by Jang Hee-Sun and Shoot the Sun by Lyric: The Fight to Protect Korea's Screen Quota by Cho Jai-hong. Several films will also be screened in the festival's film market, including Attack the Gas Station and Memento Mori.

New releases with English subtitles

The following are the latest releases of Korean films with English subtitles. For information about how to order these films online, see the 'Links' section of the Korean Film Page. Note that English subtitles are often available in one format (e.g. DVD) but not in others (Video CD, videocassette).

The Ring Virus (1999) starring Shin Eun-kyung. On DVD with English and Japanese subtitles. Compatible with all regional codes.

Shiri (1999) by Kang Jae-gyu (Jacky Kang). A VCD release from Hong Kong with English and Chinese subtitles. The soundtrack is dubbed Chinese on the left speaker, original Korean on the right speaker, and so one can choose which soundtrack to listen to by adjusting the balance on the volume controls.

New websites on Korean Film


A magnificent website dedicated to the work of Kim Ki-young ("Mr. Monster") from film professors Kim Soyoung, Chris Berry, and their students at the Korean National University of the Arts. Contains a biography, filmography, bibliography, interviews, list of film sources, and thirty wonderful essays about the late director's style, reception, and relation to history and society.

Check the 'Links' page for more new websites, including a comprehensive website on Asian film, a free weekly bulletin on the Asian film industry, a review of Jang Sun-woo's early feature Age of Success and a new German-language website on Asian film.

Final note

Freeview, the new film magazine discussed in the previous newsletter, appears to have stopped publication.

Thanks to Hanna Lee (KOFIC) and Stephen Cremin (Asian Film Library) for their help in compiling this newsletter.

February 9, 2000
Number of subscribers: 259

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Darcy Paquet/ darcy@koreanfilm.org /Posted February 10, 2000