A frenzy of activity seems to have taken over South Korea's production sector. After a record 49% market share for 2001 that proved local films can make big money, more and more projects, many from the best known names in the Korean industry, are getting underway.
"At the moment there's plenty of money available, to the point where we're seeing a shortage in available manpower," says Hwang Dong-Mee of the Korean Film Commission's Research and Development Department. "Although current production levels are low historically, at around 55 films a year, this will probably rise significantly in the near future."
If excitement is the ruling emotion in the industry these days, there is nonetheless increasing concern over the fate of medium-sized and smaller features. "With so much competition, many films will have a hard time securing a release," says Hwang. "Space will always be available for big-budget productions, but mid-sized artistic films like Take Care Of My Cat will find it harder and harder to find an audience."
Indeed, current trends seem to bear this out. Despite an ever-increasing number of screens (expected to reach 900-plus by the end of the year, up from 497 in 1997), the move towards wide releases has resulted in a fewer overall number of films being screened. The year 2001 saw only 263 features released in theatres, a ten-year low and a 20% drop from the year before.
At the moment, however, the bull market in production continues. While 2001 was largely ruled by breakout hits from younger or less-established directors, 2002 should bring new works from some of the best-known names in the industry.
Veteran director Im Kwon-taek is following up his Cannes contender Chunhyang with an ambitious biopic of Jang Seung-eop, an accomplished 19th-century painter with a penchant for alcohol. Tentatively titled Drunken Painting Master, the film is Korea's best hope for a competition slot at this year's Cannes festival. In addition, auteur Hong Sang-soo, who has received multiple invitations to Cannes' Un Certain Regard section with The Power Of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, has readied the lightly comic On The Occasion Of Remembering The Turning Gate in time for this year's event.
Although Lee Chang-dong's much-anticipated Oasis will likely not be ready in time for Cannes, it continues to draw major interest internationally and at home. A dark melodrama about the love between a social outcast and a woman with cerebral palsy, the film reunites the talented leads from Lee's previous film Peppermint Candy.
Also in the works are a number of intriguing films by debut directors. The White Room is being directed by Lim Chang-jae, an enterprising filmmaker whose experimental works have been the subject of local retrospectives. A horror film about the ghost of a foetus which dies before birth, The White Room features rising star actress Lee Eun-ju from Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. Meanwhile, female filmmaker Park Chan-ok, renowned for her challenging short films, has assembled strong acting talent for her debut Jealousy Is My Middle Name, currently in mid-shoot. Already an expectant group of fans has organised a grassroots effort to promote the film, mindful of the tough market conditions that such mid-budget artistic films face in Korea.
Three upcoming films by major directors look to mix artistic sensibilities with potentially huge box-office returns. Director Kwak Kyung-taek, following up the highest-grossing Korean film of all time (last year's Friend) is currently in L.A. shooting Champion, a portrait of Korean boxer Kim Dukgoo who died from injuries sustained during a match with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. With Yoo Oh-sung, one of the stars from Friend in the lead role, backer Korea Pictures is expecting massive returns.
Maverick director Jang Sun-woo, who caused controversy in 1999 with his explicit Lies, is in post-production on his first action film, Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl, with the highest budget of any live-action Korean feature in history at $8m. Also nearing release is the latest from director Park Chan-wook, a noirish kidnapping drama titled Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance which is rumoured to have a spot in Cannes' Directors Fortnight section. Although much darker and less commercial than his 2000 smash hit Joint Security Area, Park's latest is hotly anticipated by audiences, partly due to its top-notch cast of Song Kang-ho, Bae Doona and Shin Ha-kyun.
Korea's current cinematic output features a refreshing diversity in mood and genre, which many in the industry are keen to preserve. As big budget films explore new genres and special effects, influential voices in the industry are also calling for support of smaller films.
Government funding and new initiatives like the CJ-CGV Independent Film Fund look to help provide finance for such works, but many consider screen time to be the weak link in the system. With this in mind, look for Korean filmmakers to aggressively defend the nation's Screen Quota system as the government considers a weaker version later this month.