Japan-Korea join forces to battle Hollywood

Co-productions point way to Asian opportunities

BUSAN, South Korea -- While China’s box office potential is the envy of producers around the world, the difficulties of navigating its prickly new market mean that the other two-thirds of Northeast Asia sometimes simply choose to stick together.

To discuss such cooperation, sans China, producers and directors from Japan, the world’s second largest movie market, and South Korea, its 10th, gathered at the Asian Film Market during the Pusan International Film Festival on Monday.

“China’s box office growth and size defies ranking,” said Korean Tcha Sungjai, chairman of the Korean Film Producers Assn. But China aside, Japan-Korea co-productions really are defined relative to a more established giant, he said: “Working together, we can develop a competitive edge against Hollywood.”

Tcha said 85% of the films Koreans watch these days are from Hollywood and that number is likely to rise as studios pour money and know-how only they have into popular 3D pictures.

Under this increased pressure, Japanese and Korean filmmakers must in the future team up more often to raise bigger budgets together to hedge risk and reach more viewers.

There currently are about 40 Japan-Korea co-prods in the works, and the key to their success is balancing what Tcha called “the nationality of capital with the nationality of culture.”

Putting aside their past cultural and political differences stemming from Japan’s WWII-era occupation of Korea, Japanese films started making inroads in there around 1999. Nowadays, filmmakers from both countries are sharing success in titles such as the romance “Sayonara Itsuka,” by Korean director John H. Lee, which grossed 1.2 billion yen ($14.6 million) in Japan this year.

“If you went to the theater to see this movie, you’d probably just think it’s a Japanese film by a Japanese director,” said producer Toshihiro Kitta, who also produced Korean director Kwak Jae-yong’s 2008 Japanese-language hit “My Girlfriend is a Cyborg.”

Panelist Japanese producer Shinya Kawai’s first co-production was in 1988, between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Fuji TV. “The Peacock King,” made for 700 million yen ($8.5 million) and shot from a Japanese script, was a hit in Japan, grossing 2 billion yen ($24.4 million), but was a disappointment in Hong Kong. “We were under the illusion that it had to be 50-50, or else, so there were complications,” Kawai said. “A 50-50 arrangement, with both sides standing stubborn can be tough to pull off.”

In order for any two-country co-prods to work, filmmakers must first define their audience. In the best-case scenario, two culturally different markets can appreciate the same story and tickets sell in both markets.

But, Kawai said, “People don’t go to the theater just because a film was co-produced. Audiences must think of the film as their own film. If you chase two rabbits at the same time, you may not catch either one.”

Beyond defining the target audience, getting funding is the next biggest challenge, one met nicely by the Korean Film Commission, said Kawai, producer of the 2004 Japan-Korea co-pro “Rikidozan,” about a the success of a Korean wrestler in Japan after WWII.

That film’s financing was originally intended to be 50-50, a co-prod in the truest sense, but Japan’s production committee system stalled and the film was financed from Korea.

“The recent prosperity in Korean cinema was made possible by KOFIC’s generosity. This is a subject of great envy for us in Japan,” said Kawai, suggesting that KOFIC ease the rules defining what constitutes a Korean film. “This will attract more investment from Japan.”
Kawai said that Japan must shed its introspective nature and “play on the Asian stage.” For now, that still won’t mean many Japanese co-productions in China, where subject matter can quickly dredge up painful history.

“When we’re planning to shoot in China these past problems become directly relevant to the business of shooting a film,” Kawai said.

-- Park Soo-mee contributed to this report.
comments powered by Disqus