Filmart: Finecut CEO Suh Young-joo on South Korean Film Boom (Q&A)

The founder of the influential sales banner discusses her approach to picking projects, the necessity of international financing and why South Korea has one of the most vibrant film sectors in the world.

From Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon Ho to Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sangsoo,Finecut's CEO Suh Young-joo has played an integral role in bringing South Korean cinema to the world.

And yet, one of the company's first films to gain worldwide recognition wasn't even Korean.

In 2007, Suh saw Tuya's Marriage by Chinese filmmaker Wang Quan'an just two weeks before it screened in Berlin. There were other, bigger bidders angling to pick it up at the European Film Market — influential European ones at that — but Suh managed to secure it. The film soon went on to win the coveted Golden Bear.

Since stepping into the industry in the1990s, Suh now has over 120 internationally distributed titles under her belt. In 2000, she established Cineclick Asia and shortly after sold and co-financed Oldboy, The Host and Breath, among other milestones in the recent rise of Korean film. Her business, rebranded Finecut in 2008, continues to prosper.

The Hollywood Reporter caught the busy executive in her Daechi-dong office in Seoul to discuss her loyalty to trusted directors, the emerging market for Korean animation and how her industry has changed during a decade of unprecedented success for South Korean cinema.

How has the international interest in Korean cinema evolved during your tenure?

When I first began my work around 2000, there was no such thing as a “K-movie” in the international industry. It was only after Korean movies started debuting in Cannes and other important festivals that they gained recognition. Around that time, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area and My Wife Is a Gangster started to break domestic box office records, and Koreans were starting to watch homegrown fare, and some of these films went on to get foreign remakes.

I think I was really lucky because a lot of the movies I was involved with, either in investment, production or sales, did well at film festivals. This “Korean cinema renaissance” actually peaked somewhere around 2003 to 2006 — I suppose because people are always more interested in new things. The number of countries where our movies are distributed has actually decreased since then, mostly due to the economic decline in some of those overseas markets. But the demand is quite steady.

What has changed in the way you distribute Korean movies?

Before, distribution usually meant getting a minimum guarantee, but today it entails sharing revenue. Also, these days, foreign investment is really a must for Korean movies. It's the only way we can reduce risk, and it also brings more diversity to the industry and helps local films debut overseas.

Why do you think Finecut has been able to stand out from other boutique South Korea sales banners?

Finecut is not a big company like CJ Entertainment, and our main markets are outside of Korea. We don't have the resources to fund mega-budget projects. Finecut has benefited a lot from its partnership with [local production company New Entertainment World], with whom we've been working closely for several years.

I think we've been able to endure due to our focus on diversity, thinking outside of the box, and acting quickly. If I hear about a great concept, regardless of how short the scenario or treatment is, I keep an eye on it and ask for updates and then quickly propose ways to finance it. For example, we pursued the country's first ever co-production with Argentina.

In 2008 we co-financed and did sales for Pablo Trapero's Lion's Den, which competed at Cannes. We will be working with him on a future project as well.

In addition to Trapero, you've managed to sustain consistent long-term working relationships with Hong Sangsoo, Kim Ki-duk and others.

Yes, we really value trust and cooperation, and try to maintain lasting relationships with the directors we work with. With Kim, for example, we've been involved in 14 of his films. But while we're very fortunate to continue to represent such established directors, we don't rely on them to keep our business going.

How so?

Over the years we've been very engaged in supporting the work of young, upcoming directors. We often work with them from the early stages of developing a story. We've done this with younger filmmakers like Lee Don-ku (Fatal), Juhn Jai-hong (Poongsan), and Park Jeong-beom (The Journals of Musan) — and we'll also be working on their follow-up films. I think it's very important to create a partnership that works both ways, where you can help each other out.

You mentioned Finecut's focus on more modestly budgeted productions, but you were also behind Bong Joon-ho's The Host, which broke South Korean records at the time for how much it cost to make.

Yes, that's true. We are a company that values diversity and this does inevitably include bigger movies. I would have to say The Host remains the most difficult project I've worked on. I was very scared because the expectations were phenomenal; it was one of the country's first big CGI monster-horror films. But as challenging as it was, it was also very rewarding. I learned so much from it, especially about the importance of foreign investment.

What's your view on domestic animation? You've been in involved in some trailblazing projects, such as Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild (the first South Korean feature animation to be successful at the box office) and the more adult animation, The King of Pigs.

Korean animation can't yet compete with Japan, but Leafie and King do mark a promising start, and it'd be great if we saw at least one feature a year that stands out for quality and content. One thing we could learn from animations, however, is the promise of dubbing.

Currently most of our live action movies that are released in France and other parts of Europe are released with both subtitles and dubbing. I think looking into dubbing exclusively for live action films could really expand the breadth of the foreign audience for Korean cinema.