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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

Red-carpet rapture at Pusandiverts eyes from problems


Special to The Japan Times

PUSAN, South Korea — The opening ceremony of the Pusan International Film Festival is a big deal in South Korea since every movie star in the country shows up regardless of whether or not they have a film in the festival. Three presidential candidates even showed up to do some strutting on the red carpet — and dashing, too. There were intermittent rain showers, symbolically fitting since the South Korean film industry has been under a cloud lately.

News photo
Excited fans are held back by police as stars stroll down the red carpet at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea. PHOTO COURTESY OF PUSAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Domestic box office attendance has been dropping. Darcy Paquet, the South Korea correspondent for Variety says by itself the drop shouldn't spell disaster. "2006 was a record year, so it was bound to go down," he says. A bigger problem is that too many films were made in recent years, "and they all have to fit in Korean movie theaters." Many completed films still await release, and those that were released didn't make much profit because production costs have risen remarkably in recent years owing to higher star salaries and more powerful unions.

Another problem is that Japan, the biggest overseas market for South Korean films, is buying less. According to Kyoko Dan, who promotes Asian films in the Kansai region, the so-called Korean Wave was misread by Japanese film distributors. "In Asia, the Korean Wave started in places like Hong Kong and Singapore and was all about South Korean TV dramas. Japanese distributors seemed to think it was about Korean movies." Consequently, they bought lots of films from South Korea at very high prices, but only a few made money. As Dan sees it, Japanese distributors didn't know how to sell these films. "They promote them as they would Hollywood movies."

At PIFF, the Japan-South Korea symbiosis was represented by the hit Japanese movie "Hero." Its star, Takuya Kimura, showed up for the single screening, which sold out in minutes. "Hero" is being released in more than 250 South Korean theaters on Nov. 1, supposedly the widest opening ever for a Japanese film. Kimura's press conference at the Paradise Hotel was predictably packed, though there was a conspicuous lack of non-Asian reporters. One English interpreter was provided for the handful of Asian journalists in the room who couldn't understand Japanese or Korean.

"Hero" is expected to do well in other Asian markets, where Kimura is also popular, but it isn't slated for release in the West. The 21st century may belong to Asia, but its movies have yet to make the kind of impact outside the region that Hollywood makes inside it.

This is dynamic is apparent at PIFF, which sees itself as the year's most important film event in Asia. Its vague new slogan, "Beyond Frame," is meant as a gesture of openness to other countries in the region. However, PIFF can never be as big as Cannes or Berlin or Venice, which are seen as true international film festivals. This year's PIFF featured more than 270 movies from all over the world, 65 of which were world premieres, but if an Asian director had to choose between any of the big three or PIFF to launch a film, there's no question he'd choose the former. One publicist told me that PIFF's organizers are worried about the Toronto Film Festival, which is growing more influential every year and takes place just a month before PIFF. That means more competition for those big premieres that give a film festival its cachet of prestige.

Opening films are another way to gain prestige. This year's opener, "Assembly," is China's first attempt at a big-budget war movie and the perfect example of a regional blockbuster. Though it's already been sold to other Asian countries, the plot is such that it probably won't make sense to anyone but Chinese.

Still, there are a lot of Chinese and Western studios are eager to form partnerships. With South Korea as the model, more national film industries know that the route to success is making quality product for their own people. As Indian director Santosh Sivan told me, everyone wants a piece of the Bollywood pie but Westerners have yet to make a film that appeals to Indians. "A lot of attention is focused on India now, but Hollywood can't break into the market," he says. "They can only invest in it. Indian films are self-sufficient."



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