Pusan fest unites Korean, Chinese film sectors

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SEOUL/BEIJING -- Since South Korea sprouted what arguably has grown into the most advanced modern Asian entertainment industry, and China's population of consumers continues to mushroom, the increasingly chummy relationship between these neighbors is turning heads around the region.

With such recent developments as the Korean multiplex building boom in China (CGV, Megabox and MK Pictures all have construction under way), diversified conglomerate CJ's move into China through film investment and delicatessens (yes, delicatessens) and the shooting in West China of a spaghetti Western by up-and-coming Korean production house Barunson, there's a veritable creative bridge being constructed across the Yellow Sea.

To be sure, Korea's not the only neighbor trying to get into bed with China. After all, the most successful Chinese-language film on the mainland this year is the thriller "Confession of Pain," which features the bilingual, Taiwan-born Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro and funding and distribution help from Japan's Avex Entertainment.

But on Sept. 21, less than two weeks before Asia's biggest film festival kicks off on Oct. 4 in the South Korean beach-resort town of Pusan, Korea's CJ Entertainment entered into an agreement with the state-controlled China Film Group Corp. to work together to develop young Chinese filmmakers.

Details were scarce when the general agreement was initially announced in Beijing -- where earlier, spotty forays into the Middle Kingdom by Hollywood majors were often cloaked in secrecy due to fears of unwanted scrutiny from communist party officials. But the particulars of this new pact -- which also named two Hong Kong studios, Media Asia and Emperor Motion Pictures -- have since spilled forth from Seoul, where it could very well pull a sharper focus in the freewheeling market environment of the Pusan International Film Festival, which lasts through Oct. 12.

The partnership has been a long time in the making. Two years ago, Jonathan Shen, the man credited with bringing Academy Awards coverage to China Central Television, and Zhang Pimin, deputy director-general of China's Film Bureau, hosted a special China night in Pusan just as the so-called 'Korean wave' was swelling, with content crashing all across China's media shores.

Now, Korea's film industry -- the fifth largest in the world in terms of boxoffice dollars, generating $1.1 billion in 2006 -- has discovered there just aren't enough consumers on the Korean Peninsula to support growth.

"In the future, I think China will account for over 50% of the international demand for our content," says Teddy Hoon-tack Jung, founder, CEO and president of Korean talent-management company and production house iHQ.

Jump-starting iHQ's forays into China were its record Asian presales of the 2005 action-melodrama "Daisy," directed by Hong Kong's Andrew Lau. Earlier this year, with its parent company SK Telecom -- the largest wireless service provider in Korea -- iHQ set up its first foreign office in, where else? Beijing. iHQ now has two China-related features in the works.

Since getting imported films into theaters in China is complicated due to China Film Group's near monopoly on distribution, Koreans are hoping that by owning the bricks and mortar of the industry -- the screens themselves -- their films might fare better against the bulk of the imports China brings in from Hollywood.

Further proving that China is Korea's first target for growth, Megabox and parent company Mediaplex moved in quickly, opening one theater after another in the wake of Warner Bros.' exit from the exhibition market after a government rule change prevented them from gaining a promised majority share in the theaters they had built. Now, with money from the sale of Megabox to Australian banking group Macquarie in July, Mediaplex plans to expand its investment in Chinese theaters, opening another new property in January, six months after its last.


"The Good, the Bad, and the Weird"

Choi Jae-won, head of the film division at Barunson, is another of the Seoul-based film execs increasingly traveling to China. Choi took the shooting of "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," directed by Kim Ji-woon, to West China where it is expected to wrap in mid-October for theatrical release in February 2008.

Where many once saw working in China as daunting, Choi says it is now "reasonable to have Chinese producers as co-production partners."

Indeed, examples of Chinese-Korean filmic cooperation are becoming increasingly common. Korean VFX artists are aiding Jackie Chan and Jet Li as they battle it out in the Hollywood-China co-production "The Forbidden Kingdom." The Seoul-based firms Macrograph, DTI and Footage have been tapped to add visual effects to the action-fantasy based on Chinese lore.

Chinese lore is also at the center of another film in which Korean participation (read: investment) was key: Hong Kong auteur John Woo's "Battle of the Red Cliffs," which recounts a story known across China, Korea and Japan about a particularly spectacular battle in the third-century Three Kingdoms era.

"Koreans know this story from the popular comic book," says Christopher Chang, vp international business and development at Showbox Entertainment in Seoul, one of the $70 million-plus film's producers. "If you watch this film before the Olympics, you'll understand the history of China better."

It can't hurt that China's economy -- which has experienced double-digit growth for more than a decade, even as the government limits what its 1.3 billion citizens may consume legally -- is about to get yet another shot in the arm as Beijing hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"In 1988, the Seoul Olympics totally changed Korea, its economy and society. China now is just like that," Choi explains, adding that he may attempt to establish a joint venture in China next year. "I have started discussions with a high-profile group," he says.

Still, though filmmaking resources in China are cheap and expertise is abundant, corruption, censorship and limited market access are persistent concerns.

"People there know it and are trying to change," Choi avers. "They are trying to overcome those problems themselves. Even though China has a lot of people, the market is not very big yet. It will take time. For now, having production relations and building trust are most important."

To that end, PIFF is clearly doing its part. Korea's biggest film event will open with Beijing-based director Feng Xiaogang's antiwar movie "Assembly," for which Chinese production outfit Huayi Brothers hired a Korean crew to shoot pivotal battle scenes.

In another attempt to promote China-Korea relations at PIFF, the Korea Film Council (KOFIC), together with the Asian Film Market, will hold the "2007 China Biz-camp."

The event is a sequel to a November 2006 session held in Beijing at which distribution and production companies and the Chinese government shared tips on how to get Korean films either into or around the heavily restricted Chinese theatrical market.

This year, the Biz-camp will open its doors in Pusan's Grand Hotel on Oct. 9 with a conference in two parts: an assessment of Korean films' past successes in China and the viability of China's ancillary film market overall, with input from China's CCTV6 movie channel; and a discussion of Chinese copyright law as it affects the Internet.

The KOFIC Information Center at PIFF will then offer legal advice and help arrange meetings between pre-registered China experts and Korean filmmakers.

"PIFF is pushing forward several programs that will allow Korea and China's film institutions and professionals to better understand each other and create more co-production talks," says PIFF programmer Kim Ji-seok. "One thing is for sure: The Korean and Chinese film industries will keep cooperating with each other, growing together."


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