Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thought Leaders' Corner: The value of Stars

Another month, another thought leaders corner thanks to the team over at Modern Korean Cinema. The contributors has expanded this month which is great to see, having so many people involved in a discussion around Korean film. 

You can read the full February thoughts here, or my personal mumbling are following the image below. Once again  I invite anyone that has an opinion on the question posed to contribute in the comments section. This also marks the 50th blog post on Tully's Recall, so thanks for reading and I will try and keep the content coming. 

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: February 2013

How valuable are stars in the Korean film industry?

"As someone who has to promote a Korean film to an overseas audience on a weekly basis, something I am always looking for is how to best connect a film with the local community by using  the least amount of time, money and effort possible. Sometimes this connection can be achieved through the cult of the director (such as for Park Chanwook, Kim Jiwoon, Bong Joonho), sometimes through the controversial nature of the story (“Jiseul”, “26 Years”, “The King of Pigs”), and sometimes through the international acclaim of the film itself (“Arirang”, “Pieta”, “Oldboy”). But primarily the leading factor that seems to connect with people, and the number 1 thing a large percentage of our audience is looking for, is simply, who the film stars.

Stars indeed seem to be leading the way in providing exposure to Korean films both locally and internationally. We have seen recent examples of this, with the all-star casts in “The Thieves” and “The Berlin File”, and through individual star power seen in the likes of “Ajeossi” (Won Bin) and “200 Pounds Beauty” (Kim Ah-jung). Many a time have I had an interview with prospective interns or festival volunteers, and when I ask what their favourite film is, they say “Ajeossi” (Note they don’t ever say “The Man from Nowhere”). I ask why, simple answer … Won Bin. Young Asian females who have never seen “Nameless Gangster”, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, “The Yellow Sea” or any other Korean crime thriller, and would never see them, but cherish “Ajeossi” purely for the Won and only.
Those that would shy away from “The Frontline” instead adore the T.O.P starring “71 Into the Fire”. Stars transcend genre limitations. A screening of “A Frozen Flower” in Sydney earlier this year drew one of the largest audiences in our history; a film that has sexual content that would normally turn away those accustomed to watching restrained TV dramas, but instead had girls screaming at the screen every time a young Song Joongki appeared just in the background. I have even felt the phenomenon of Song Joongki's drawcard myself at the world premiere of “A Werewolf Boy” in Busan last year, which saw 5,000 individuals rush the stage. No surprise right? Except it wasn’t just screaming teenage girls, but everyone from halmeoni's and haraboji's to toddlers and poodles who erupted into a crazed roar when Song appeared. No joke!

Casting a star with name value can make a huge difference for a smaller indie production, evident to some extent with “Juvenile Offender” (starring Techno Queen Lee Junghyun). Those that would never have watched the likes of a “Breathless” will readily re-watch “Pained” due to Kwon Sangwoo’s looks. Even the cult status of Kim Kiduk cannot secure him local box office success, yet his 2 films that did manage to reach a wider audience were backed by star power ("Bad Guy" propelled by Cho Jaehyun while "Pieta" gained exposure through Lee Jungjin). Stars transcend the viewing boundaries that independent cinema usually faces.
As a film purist who doesn’t watch dramas or variety shows and thus keep my distance from the focus on the star system, the fact that people are making cinematic viewing decisions based purely on their favourite idols or stars is not something I encourage. I try with my programming to acknowledge this power that stars contain, but not allow it to become the be all and end all. However, the explosive force of the Korean star system cannot be underestimated. Thus, in terms of an analysis of value, stars are indeed invaluable, as they can act as a sure fire selling angle for a film and make marketing them 10 times simpler.

Where this leaves us then is back to last month’s Thought Leaders question about the streamlining of big scale productions, which are themselves often entwined with star power, and whether or not this is a good thing for the industry, is a question for another day. What I would say though is with Korean pop culture developing an even shorter and shorter lifespan for those at the top, banking on these individuals may soon prove just as tricky as films without a shining light."

Kieran Tully
Artistic Director, KOFFIA Korean Film Festival in Australia
Programmer, Cinema on the Park Korean Film Night Sydney

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