Korea's Booming Studio System Could Stifle Filmmakers' Indie Spirit

How Korea's Rigid Studio System Discourages Creative Risk-Taking - photo illo -H 2019
Courtesy of IFC Films; Neon; CJ Entertainment; TIFF

Despite overdue recognition for South Korean films like Bong Joon-ho's acclaimed 'Parasite,' insiders say the industry's creative risk-taking has been sapped by what some see as corporate ethos.

Thanks to a Palme d'Or win and Oscar buzz for Bong Joon-ho's acclaimed thriller Parasite, South Korean cinema is finally getting some overdue awards recognition in the West. But just as Academy voters are belatedly waking up to the long-rolling "Korean Wave," industry figures in Seoul are growing concerned over a troubling new tendency toward less creative risk-taking. Driven by what some see as corporate ethos within the country's major studios, it's a pattern that threatens to stifle the very same storytelling daring that has made Korean filmmaking so beloved by international cinephiles over the past two decades.

To some extent, the reality of this trend has been masked by South Korea's impressive collection of master auteurs, most of whom arrived on the scene during the late 1990s and continue to produce some of their finest work. With Bong, Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, The Handmaiden), Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Burning) and other industry elder statesmen still very active, it's hard to feel too concerned about South Korea's overall creative output. After all, Korean studio execs are still willing to grant the established major names the creative sway they always have enjoyed — but younger talents are being forced into a much more cookie-cutter mode of moviemaking.

"If Bong Joon-ho were a new director today, and he took that same script for Parasite to any of the major studios, he most likely would have been turned down," says Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based American film scholar and festival programmer who also translated the English subtitles for Parasite. "What concerns a lot of local critics is that it's becoming more and more difficult for young directors, or new directors, to establish a distinct style in their works because of the compromises they are forced to make in the process of getting financed."

The Korean industry is partly becoming a victim of its own success, according to observers. As Korean film flourished creatively over the past 20 years, it also boomed financially, growing into a major business (the country's box office totaled $1.61 billion in 2018, making it the fourth-biggest theatrical market in the world, despite ranking 28th among nations in terms of population size). As the stakes have grown, the logic of business and the imperatives of risk reduction have permeated an industry that was once much more auteur-driven.

"The current production orientation of major Korean studios is to develop [what is thought to be] audience-friendly material and then to seek out a director to hire as a technician," says Jung Hanseok, the Busan International Film Festival's head Korean cinema programmer. "Talented and ambitious new directors may not be able to find their place, or perform to the best of his or her own ability, under such a system."

It's not just Korean critics and cineastes who have taken notice of the studio's increasingly conventional approach. "We're starting to see some signs that the [local] audience is getting a bit frustrated and that they're not supporting Korean cinema to the same degree that they used to," Paquet says. Just three local films — Extreme Job, Parasite and Exit (all distributed by local production giant CJ Entertainment) — rank among the Korean box office's top 10 this year, with Hollywood holding the rest of the spots and the lower ranks littered with high-profile local flops.

This reality is reflected in the Busan festival's Korean Cinema Today — Panorama section, which always used to feature the year's finest major commercial movies, along with a selection of top indie titles. The section's 2019 lineup, however, is weighted far more heavily toward independent cinema, which programmer Jung describes as a "natural corollary" to the fact that he simply didn't find most of the latest studio titles "to be great films." (Elsewhere in its programming, Busan will screen a range of recent festival favorites from Asia, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth and Wayne Wang's Coming Home Again.)

If there's hope for the endurance of the "New Korean Cinema," as scholars often refer to the industry's recent golden age (which is no longer exactly new), it most likely resides in the collective sense of discernment that so far appears to be holding up within the Korean filmgoing public.

"The audience is still open to challenging cinema, and we see that to a certain extent in their embrace of Parasite," says Paquet. "There were obviously many factors at play there, including that it was the country's first Palme d'Or winner. But it's a very challenging film nonetheless, and it sold 10 million tickets — which is 20 percent of the entire South Korean populace."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.