Busan 2012: Can Korean Film Go Global on Psy's Coattails?

The Thieves film still - H

From "Gangnam Style" to the recent blockbuster "The Thieves," Korea's popular culture is everywhere. But can it last?

With the rise of pop star Psy and his U.K. and U.S. chart-topping "Gangnam Style" number, Korean popular culture is again on the cusp of an international breakthrough – and the country’s filmmakers are now hoping for a similar westward shift in the export of their works.

Among the movies in position to capitalize on Psy-mania is The Thieves, which will open in the U.S. and Canada on Oct. 12, with its producers hoping to repeat the box-office success the film attained at home, where it generated $13 million in ticket sales and became the most-watched domestic film in Korea.

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“The fact that The Thieves did very well at the box office in Korea and received good reviews overseas, helped us close deals in Toronto for foreign markets,” says Sonya Kim, international business general manager of Showbox, the film’s distributor.

Kim added the buzz at home had also led to inquiries from European buyers. “We have to see the reaction at the American Film Market and at festivals around Europe,” she said.

Elsewhere, films by festival darlings Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have secured a foothold in Europe with their take of genre films, albeit as niche products branded “extreme cinema.”

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The U.S. release on March 1 next year of Park’s first Hollywood foray, the Nicole Kidman-starrer Stoker, might lift Korean cinema’s profile, but for the time being the North American market has been comparatively slow in the uptake, according to Kim.

Nearly alone in this pursuit at present is Well Go USA Entertainment, which secured the North American distribution rights for both The Thieves and Hur Jin-ho’s Korean-Chinese collaboration Dangerous Liaisons. The company also distributed The Front Line, South Korea’s entry to the Foreign-Language Oscar last year, and the war film My Way.

“Good South Korean films are very well-received here in North America – today as well as in the past,” said Well Go’s president Doris Pfardrescher. “With the help of the internet and social media, we have been able to create even more awareness and generate more fans today.”

Pfardrescher admitted theatrical releases of her Korean catalogue mostly serve as a precursor to DVD sales and online streaming.

The Korean producers’ aspirations for American release stems from a need to diversify beyond Asian markets which have outgrown their initial fascination with the Korean Wave. For instance, Japan’s interest in Korean films has waned, with no remarkable breakthroughs in recent years.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the three-week gross for The Thieves was only HK$2.7 million, despite the presence of local actors in the cast, a comparatively wide release (it opened on 30 screens) and a full-scale publicity blitz featuring an appearance in Hong Kong by star Gianna Jun, still one of the most well-known Korean actresses in the city.

“I think one of the major reasons [Thieves struggled in Hong Kong] is the popularity of Korean television dramas shown on free terrestrial TV stations in Hong Kong has changed the view of the audience,” said Hong Kong-based Edko Films’ head of acquisition Audrey Lee, who brought the Korean Wave films to Hong Kong with the distribution of hits such as as Hur’s Christmas in August (1998) and Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (2001).

“If they can get Korean TV dramas for free, they’re less likely to pay for a film in a cinema, no matter how well-known and popular the cast is, or how high the production value,” Lee noted.

That said, the distributor still has hopes for Korean films in Hong Kong, with its acquisition of director Kim Ji-hun’s disaster pic The Tower, scheduled for release at the end of 2012.

So can the Korean wave continue to have an impact beyond its local market?

"It's too early to predict," said Yun Jeong Kim, Director of International Sales at Finecut, a Seoul-based sales company. "Often the audiences' reaction comes first and then the industry reacts. It's also hard to say how this trend will impact the overall film industry. But who knows? Before Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, not many Korean audiences even knew that Thai film had existed."