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The Korean film industry’s global ascendancy has been driven by its long list of wildly influential auteurs — Bong Joon Ho, Park Chan- wook, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo and others. But it’s also been aided by less visible industry figures, like Jerry Ko.
The head of South Korean content giant CJ ENM’s international film business division, Ko is responsible for introducing the company’s in-demand Korean features to the global marketplace and oversees its vast local-language productions, which spans markets including the U.S., China, Southeast Asia and Turkey.
But long before he went corporate, Ko began his career as a film lover and critic, writing reviews and features on the Korean film industry during its glory days of the early 2000s, when many of Korea’s master filmmakers of today were first exploding onto the scene. He edited prominent film and culture magazines in Seoul before decamping to Cornell to earn an MBA. He then served stints at Accenture and Samsung in strategy and marketing before settling back in the film sector at CJ ENM. During his nine years at CJ, Ko has executive produced more than 30 features while heading up the global distribution and promotion of major Korean hits, including Bong’s Oscar-winning Parasite.
Following Parasite’s Palme d’Or victory in 2019, CJ is back in Cannes in a big way, with two films in the main competition: Park’s romantic melodrama Decision to Leave and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Korean debut, Broker, starring Parasite lead Song Kang-ho and K-pop superstar IU (aka Lee Ji-eun).
Ahead of Cannes, THR talked with Ko about the ongoing boom in Korean entertainment and how the country’s top studio is working to capitalize on the moment while staying true to the trail- blazing spirit of the Korean filmmaking.
Congratulations on having two films in competition. I don’t really remember that happening anytime recently for an Asian studio. How are you feeling about these two projects?
Well, thank you. The last time an Asian company had two films invited for competition was in the mid 1950s, I believe, and it was one of the Japanese studios. This is the first time since then, and the first time for a Korean company.
I’m really excited for CJ to introduce these two unique films. It’s a great honor. In some ways, Broker has a lot of what you would expect from Hirokazu Kore-eda, whereas Decision to Leave is totally different from Park Chan-wook’s early films. But both are masterful.
With Decision to Leave, you will witness Park Chan-wook’s complete transformation in terms of style, depth and emotion. It’s like watching the Maestro move into another dimension. From before Oldboy and all the way to The Handmaiden, we always saw some hardcore style from his films, but this film is a totally different kind of melodrama. Korean films have always been famous for their hybrid genre style, and that’s still true for this title — although it’s an entirely new kind of hybrid for Park.
As for Broker, you get to see a representative Japanese master — Hirokazu Kore-eda, with his distinctive personal style — come together with top-tier Korean actors and actresses. Song Kang-ho from Parasite is one of our most authentic Korean actors, representing the face of ordinary Korean people. Gang Dong-won is one of the most commercially successful actors in Korea right now, and he’s especially popular among young audiences. Lee Ji-eun is a top musician in Korea and she brings a unique rhythm and texture as an actress. So, in this film, you witness a special chemical reaction that occurs when all of these talents, each with their own aura and energy, come together. It’s a really enjoyable experience. And still, Kore-eda maintains his own special style throughout, although it all takes place in a totally new environment for him: Korea.
In a post-Parasite world, it feels like almost anything is possible for Asian cinema. What are you forecasting for these films commercially?
Our hope is that the artistic value of these two films can be properly communicated and appreciated by critics, journalists and the audience at Cannes. Secondly, I hope these films from two of Asia’s great maestros can refresh and inspire the film industry, as Parasite did three years ago. Cannes is one of the best artistic platforms in the world, so during the festival our team needs to do its work to help these films be properly understood — so that their essential values and virtues can be well grasped by the global audience later. If we achieve that, commercial success will be a natural byproduct.
It’s crazy to think that just a few years ago, no Korean film had ever won the Palme d’Or or even been shortlisted for an Oscar. What do you make of the sudden, overdue awards and commercial recognition of Korean cinema, and what does it mean for a company like CJ?
Basically, for the past few years there were two things that have worked in our favor. One is the influence of social media on the global content landscape, especially among young people who are now able to tap into what’s happening on the opposite side of the word, sharing and enjoying Korean content. Then there is the growing knowledge of and access to high-quality Korean content itself. Parasite, with the help of Cannes and the Oscars, created much greater awareness among ordinary people everywhere about how high-quality Korean content tends to be. And then, especially during the pandemic, the global streamers started to distribute a lot more Korean content all over the world, breaking down the language and geographic barriers between countries even further. But these are the more recent, superficial reasons.
More fundamentally, I think there are two factors — somewhat opposite traits — that have led to this moment. One is that Korea has remained open to foreign culture over the course of its history, so today’s accomplished Korean directors were able to spend their youth watching the great works of European, Japanese and American cinema. Korea has stayed receptive to the world’s cultural assets. At the same time, Korea is a homogeneous, mono-ethnicity country that has maintained its own cultural identity throughout its long history. When you combine these two factors, you get a Korean cinema that is universal in its forms of expression, so it can be easily digested everywhere; but at the same time, it’s culturally unique and provides a fresh creative perspective for the global audience. This is the more fundamental reason that the global audience is finding such interest in Korean content today.
In my opinion, this trend will not perish soon. The Korean content industry has established a solid ecosystem, where each part of the whole value chain is stable and healthy — from abundant story sources, such as webtoons, to a rich talent pool, high-quality physical production capacity and efficient distribution channels.
One of the Korean film industry’s greatest assets has always been how passionate the Korean public is about filmgoing. The country has enjoyed one of the world’s very highest rates of per capita cinema-going. But Korea’s theatrical market has been much slower to recover from the pandemic than other major territories like North America, the U.K. or Japan. Some have suggested that there may have been a fundamental shift towards online video consumption in Korea. What are your thoughts on the current state of the Korean theatrical market?
You make a good point, but I think things will be much better in the second half of the year. Eventually, strong content will bring the audience back to our theaters. CJ and other top companies are ready to introduce big titles in the second half of the year. So as long as another strong COVID variant doesn’t emerge, things will get better. At the same time, I do think consumer habits have changed during the pandemic. Some of these changes will be irreversible. But in film history, there have been a lot of crises for the cinema — the invention of TV and home video, obviously. But at each moment, cinema has evolved and been reborn. So the pandemic is providing the latest opportunity and momentum for cinema to evolve into a new form that retains its essential elements but meets the needs of the moment. At the same time, as a content provider, we have to consider more distribution models with diverse formats optimized for each medium. Right now, CJ is thinking about those two sides. We’re trying to fill our slate with strong titles that maximize the cinematic experience to bring the audience back to theaters. At the same time, we are diversifying our portfolio with more diverse formats for various channels.
When I talk to writers and directors in the Korean industry, it often comes up that Korean cinema has become much more of a streamlined business than it used to be in the early 2000s, when there was an explosion of creativity and experimentation among the new generation of directors who became today’s masters. Now, some say, unless you’re already one of the big names with the industry sway to do whatever you want, you’re going to be far more constrained by the big studios than in the old days — that you’ll be pushed to take fewer creative risks, to follow more established formats, especially if you’re a younger, emerging director. Do you think that’s a fair assessment and does this concern you? Or is it just a byproduct of an industry that’s maturing?
I think it’s fair in some ways and unfair in others. As the overall production costs have increased during the past 20 years, the checklist for greenlighting may have somewhat changed. But our basic stance and direction at CJ don’t seem to have changed to me. We are still desperately looking for talented creators and cinematically appealing scripts.
In this sense, what you asked about seems more related to the tectonic movements of the whole media and entertainment industry landscape, which has been profoundly influenced by new media and technology. The position of cinema in the whole media landscape, as well as in our perception at CJ, has been changing constantly for well over 10 years. I believe you find some of the same phenomenon in other territories, such as in the U.S. or the French film industry, because we’re all under the same technological influences.
I believe there is a similar number of talented creators producing content today as there were making films 20 years ago in Korea. But the formats and media they work in has diversified, and so their impact on the film industry is naturally different. Some of them are directing Netflix series and others are coming up with webtoon stories. Their presence is being felt differently from 20 year ago, when many worked exclusively in the film industry. Consumers also have changed accordingly. For example, the talented creator Hwang Dong-hyuk directed an artistically elevated work, The Fortress, in 2017. But it is not known well enough, considering its creative value — instead, he is better known as the creator and director of Squid Game.
In that sense, the question of asking why films like Oldboy (2003), Memories of Murder (2003) or A Bittersweet Life (2005) don’t emerge anymore from the new generations might not be fair. We may have to have a different perspective and standard of measuring artistic value in different circumstances, in the same way that we shouldn’t expect the same artistic value of 1960s nouvelle vague films to be found in French cinema of the 1980s-1990s, when talented creators such as Leos Carax or Luc Besson introduced new styles.
These days, I am contemplating what we should pursue and expect from cinema and how we should evaluate each work differently in this rapidly changing environment. And I believe this question is directly related to how cinema can evolve to meet the demands of our moment.
CJ has been a real pioneer in local-language international filmmaking. You remade your Korean-language hit Miss Granny — also directed by Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, incidentally — into nine different languages, including Turkish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and others. And most of those remakes were very successful. At the same time, the world has embraced Korean-language storytelling to such an extent that I wonder whether you still feel the need to put so much effort into localizing your content into other languages and cultures.
CJ will continue working in both ways. We will continue to produce local-language content with unique cultural texture and introduce this to both local and global markets. Fortunately, the global film industry has been becoming more favorable to this kind of project during the past several years, so some of the content we make with a more local feel in mind may in fact go global. At the same time, CJ is expanding its horizon into the global mainstream by creating content targeted at a global audience in the first place. So, we are pursuing two seemingly opposite directions, but CJ can contribute to the diversity of the global content industry in this way.
So, I have to bring up Netflix, which, again, saw the Korean series Squid Game become its most widely watched title ever. CJ also has done a lot of business with Netflix via Studio Dragon, your K-drama subsidiary. But they’re also competing with you for top talent, and I’ve heard prices have been skyrocketing, as Disney+, HBO Max and others enter the fray. At this moment, is Netflix more of an ally or a competitor?
Well, I should talk about all of the streamers, not just Netflix. Definitely, the spread of the global streaming platforms, such as Netflix, has provided beneficial momentum for Korean content in terms of lowering cultural and geographical barriers, as well as efficiently distributing Korean content to the global market.
Prices certainly have gone up, but ultimately the market is a market, and it will do what markets do. The dynamics around supply and demand, competition among players, and the profits or losses that follow will soon fix any unreasonable distortions in the business, leading to a more balanced situation.
The more important thing, though, rather than just pursuing profit and worrying about prices, is generating authentic content and maintaining close relationships with talented creators. Sticking to that principle will help us continue to do well, whatever the temporary fluctuations in the marketplace.
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