Korean budget mark soars on back of Shim's dragons

$70 mil 'D-War' price tag opens eyes

SEOUL -- It was not long ago in South Korea that a movie budget that topped $5 million was considered recklessly large. Only in 2003 did the most expensive films begin to pass the $10 million mark. But now, director Shim Hyung-rae is about to go where no Korean filmmaker has gone before with "D-War," a $70 million special-effects extravaganza about dragons running wild in Los Angeles.

Even more remarkable, director Shim does not have the kind of track record that inspires confidence. His last movie, a cheesy monster flick in 1999 called "Yonggary," was an infamous flop, with unconvincing special effects and even less convincing acting. Before that, Shim made a series of low-budget children's movies.

Despite such apparent negatives, the Korean movie studio Showbox jumped right in, choosing to invest more than $10 million in "D-War."

"I consider the complete lack of expectations to actually be a strong marketing point," said Jeong Tae-sung, chief operating officer of Showbox. "I committed to his project right after watching a video about the making of this film. Here's a director no one trusts, going to the U.S., hiring hundreds of people, building an effects house from scratch and everything. It was crazy, but I really am amazed by all he has done."

Immediately after "Yonggary," Shim regrouped and tried to figure out what went wrong. Even though that movie was incredibly expensive at the time, Shim decided that he needed to go even bigger -- professional actors, cutting edge special effects, everything top of the line.

And so "D-War" features an unusual combination of Korean and Hollywood talent, including a score from Steve Jablonsky ("The Island") and a mostly Western cast that includes Robert Forster and Jason Behr.

Editing and postproduction are being done in the U.S., while all computer graphics are being made in Seoul at Shim's own effects company, Younggu Art Entertainment. Shim insisted on learning how such elaborate effects are made, building his own company much like Peter Jackson did in New Zealand.

Showbox, however, already has some notable experience with monster hits. It was Showbox that invested in Bong Joon-ho's "The Host," the most successful Korean movie of all time, after other major movie companies had passed on the project. That $11 million monster movie has sold nearly 13 million tickets and earned more than $85 million at the Korean boxoffice alone.

According to Jeong, though the scale of "D-War" is unbelievable for a Korean production, that kind of ambition and vision will be needed in the future if the Korean movie industry is going to continue its successes of the past several years.

"I think people are getting bored by the same stuff, how we are getting more and more movies just like the last movies," Jeong said. "You can have a huge opening weekend with marketing. You can sell 3 million tickets with a strong target audience. But if you want over 10 million admissions, then you need a movie that can be popular with everyone."

But even a giant success at that level would not be enough to recoup "D-War's" cost, especially considering how anemic ancillary markets like DVD and television are in Korea. That means getting a Western partner to sign on is imperative for "D-War."

After delaying the Korea release of "D- War" several times, Jeong now says that the film will not hit screens domestically until an American company has signed on and everyone can coordinate the film's release (and prevent piracy from zapping the film's international potential).

Regardless of how the film turns out, the filmmakers say they are pleased with how much they have learned and the progress they have made. "I'm not even looking at the boxoffice," Jeong said. "I think it's a success already."