Monday, April 16, 2012

Korean Film Downunder 3: Longing for a Ko-production

This piece was included in the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Its more of my musings about Korea and Australian relations through film, though my bias in this clearly comes through! Hope you find it interesting.

The time has come for Australia to look to the powerhouse of the Asia Pacific region in regards to the entertainment industry. No longer can our focus simply be locked on to the lustrous billions of potential opportunities that China seems to hold over us. The real leader in the region, the real leader in the industry, is South Korea. 

We were close ...
Unfortunately Australia still does not have co- production agreements with key nations in Asia with respect to the film industry, namely Japan, Thailand & South Korea. With such a great focus placed on China, these other giants seem to have been left behind. After all this is the “Asian Century” and not the “Chinese Century”, so there is no reason that our focus should lie with the sleeping giant. Now the fact that Screen Australia and the Australian entertainment industry have acknowledged the potential with co-productions and distribution in China is fine, but it cannot be our sole entrance into partnering with the region. (Singapore, our only other partner in Asia, could not be classified as a powerhouse, and to date only 1 feature has resulted from that co-production agreement). There is such great potential for content to be exported in both directions, and Korea is the leader in this case. 

but not close enough
Numerous Korean television shows, movies and TV commercials continue to shoot in the beautiful locations of Australia (for a list check out Brian Yecies and Shim Aegyung’s article Hallyuwood Down Under), but the product is entirely Korean. Our endless lands and wide open golf courses are things Koreans crave, in a country that is mountainous, and space is hard to find. I believe that it needs to become a priority for Screen Australia, the Korean Film Council, and any other parties that could assist the establishment of such a co-production (such as the Australia Korea Foundation) to make a co-production a priority. 

The reason I so strongly believe this, is not just because the Korean industry is a leader in the region in film, TV and music in terms of revenue, exporting and sheer popularity, but because it is a very smart industry that adapts to demand and changing trends. Much could be learnt from such a partner. 

"Sydney in Love" short film starring Choi Jeong-won

From the late 90's we have seen the spread of Korean popular culture throughout South-East Asia, often referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’. The propelling force of this was Korean dramas (episodic TV shows, think Neighbours). Originally exported through the likes of NHK in Japan and Saigon BTN in Vietnam, the content is now easily available through satellite television, English-friendly DVDs or more recently as legal downloads. They have become massive hits, often overtaking local content in terms of popularity and viewership. Since the Korean wave we have also seen this with Korean Pop music, or K-Pop, spread throughout Asia and now the world. Recent performances in Europe, the US and Australia were major successes, often selling out. Now film is the final frontier in this aspect, and Korea is starting to correct this. 

While South Korea has limited official co-productions, including with New Zealand, it forms many more Ko-productions with its neighbours. Now a KO-PRODUCTION may refer to a company that supports meetings between directors or producers of outstanding co-produced projects and overseas film directors from countries such as China, Japan, and France where they meet and introduce each other's projects, and have mentoring, pitching, and business meetings with professionals. (Definition taken from the KOFIC website). These are essentially partnerships established for the benefits of both parties, providing an out let for talented individuals to learn from other artists with a different perspective. It is not just about the funding, crew and locations; it’s about the sharing of knowledge and ideas. (Ben Goldsmith writes a great piece on International Film Productions in the region taking a look at the benefits). 

Of course some partnerships need time to develop

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance of Australia MEAA, the body which represent the people working in Australia’s media and entertainment industries, has already expressed their opinion in supporting a Free Trade Agreement between Australia and South Korea. They argue, that both parties should maintain their individual right to support and foster their own audio-visual and cultural industries in a manner that each considers appropriate to their own needs. And that’s what it’s about, sharing knowledge and resources, to improve the product in your own backyard. Korea is a rare case where local content has managed to capture the majority of the box office, year on year. It is a thriving industry with more and more content being exported to nations around the world and with more and more acknowledgement being received at major international film festivals. 

 Did you know Castaway on the Moon's Jung Ryeo-won grew up in Australia?
 Check out her Australian accent in this clip!

America is finally taking notice, with numerous films being picked up for distribution in the states, CJ Entertainment has established CJ America, and many plans are in place for US Remakes of Korean classics (namely “Castaway on the Moon”, “Old Boy” etc.). Just a few weeks ago it was announced that 20th Century Fox would be directly investing in the Korean film industry, in a bid to produce 5 feature films a year. With other major foreign film companies expected to follow, Australia should take note. Korea itself isn’t sitting back, they realise the potential that has been opened up to them. Major Korean directors are now producing films in the US or in English Language to capture such a market, these include Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy”) making a film with Australia’s own Nicole Kidman and Jackie Weaver, Kim Ji-woon (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”) is filming Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the screen, not to mention Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sang-soo and Ryoo Seung-wan are all currently filming outside of Korea. 

Kidman and Park, a perfect match?

Another recent initiative is for dramas from South East Asian nations to be shot in Korea as part of a shooting incentive from KOFIC, which in turn brings increased levels of tourism to the country amongst other benefits, and has proven successful. Examples include Malaysian dramas "Green Rose" and "Unmarked Grave", and the primary film example being the Thai hit romantic comedy "Hello Stranger". The Thai industry has long modelled itself on the successes of Korea, and this was the next progressive step. The film received huge audiences, primarily of South East Asian origin, when it was released in Sydney and Melbourne earlier this year, not to mention the US$5 million it earned in Thailand itself. It is South East Asian Korean drama obsession summed up in one film, and was an expert decision by the Korean Film Council. A reverse example is the co-production “The Kick”, directed by Prachya Pinkaew (“Ong Bak”) and focuses on a family of Korean taekwondo experts who immigrate to Thailand.  Insert a popular Korean drama actress and you have a sure fire hit. 

Korean report about The Kick

Now the fandom for such shows and casts are not as established in Australia, outside of the Asian communities who embrace them, but it’s a further example of Korea being a savvy industry, knowing where to capitalize on opportunities. Tens of Thousands of Korean international students and working holiday travellers come to Australia each year, often visiting the same tourist sites and doing the same activities, surely a film could capitalize on this market. (“A Million”, a Korean film about a survivor type kill or be killed game show, shot in the Australian dessert, was simply not the answer). Our Kiwi neighbours realised the potential to partner with this giant, and took an opportunity we were not ready for. Now we are and Australia must push for such a partnership, official or not. With plans for a co-production deal between Korea and China in the works, three-way joint ventures could be an option. Co-productions usually cost more to make but they open up more financing and multi-territory distribution opportunities, so that should not be an issue. 


I would like to bring up one final example, Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst”, which picked up the Jury Price at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. When that prize was announced little coverage was given to it in the press, yet the film was shot in Australia. A Cannes winning film, from one of the world’s leading directors, and no one would even have known about it down-under. It could have been a major opportunity that has passed us by. The Australia Korea Year of Friendship website has a piece that delves deeper into the productions of "Shadowless Sword" and "Musa The Warrior" in Behind the Scenes of Hallyu Downunder, but again no official alliance resulted. Let’s not let it happen again. 

With Kim Yang-il (far right), who worked on the post production of 
A Single Spark, Musa The Warrior and many others.

Now is the time for the Asian century, and focus towards developing Australia’s place in the region must take place. A partnership with one such giant could be a great step forward. There are many opportunities there to capture markets previously untapped, to provide unique locations for either party, to share knowledge, information and resources. Just this week Screen Australia and the Korean Creative Content Agency KOCCA announced support for an Asian Animation Summit, in part of a 4 way partnership with Korea, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, which is great to see and let’s hope it develops animation in the region. 

An Australian-South Korean co-production agreement will be a key moment in the Asian Century, let’s just hope that’s this century!

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