Superheroes in Asia


SEOUL -- In 1967, the same year American TV audiences were enjoying the debut of the first animated "Spider-Man" series on ABC, Korea's first full-color animated feature, "A Story of Hong Gil-dong," bowed in local movie theaters. In just four days, the film, which chronicles the exploits of a Robin Hood-like figure with supernatural powers, attracted 100,000 moviegoers.

The phenomenon was Korea's contribution to a decades-long era of enormous popularity for superhero films throughout Asia, so it makes sense that the Pusan International Film Festival will kick off a spotlight on the genre with a screening of a refurbished 35mm print of "Hong Gil-dong."

Featuring 11 movies from eight Asian countries made between the 1950s and the present, Superheroes in Asia is an ambitious attempt to reintroduce a new generation -- as well as an international audience -- to a little-known niche in Asian popular culture that has long been overshadowed by America.

"These are what we call classic B-rated films today," says Kim Ji-seok, the festival's chief programmer. "It's an interesting program just to see how a superhero genre which has ultimately flown in from the West has transformed in Asia to fit the local context."

"You would think these films would be terribly out of date if you see them now because of the poor (special effects)," says "Hong Gil-dong" director Shin Dong-heon. "But I was surprised myself when I recently saw my film in a theater. It still had a timeless value that was distinctively Korean. Luckily, I wasn't too embarrassed by the quality."

Perhaps not surprisingly, due to its appeal to a public already obsessed with manga, Japan ultimately led the superhero surge in Asia. One of the earliest Asian superhero films is 1958's "Gekko Kamen," which was later remade into "Masked Rider: The First" by Takao Nagaishi in 2005. The original black-and-white film by Tsuneo Kobayashi is based on a hugely popular TV series featuring a turbaned main character whose white horn-rimmed sunglasses and mask covered his face. Eclectic costumes aside, the film, which centers on a righteous knight from a moon who fights against evil, is perhaps best known for an oft-recited catchphrase you won't hear Batman utter anytime soon: "Do not hate. Do not kill. Let's be forgiving."

Given the fact that this summer saw Hollywood blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" continue the comic book stranglehold on the global boxoffice, Kim says the timing couldn't be better for a look at how the other half of the world approaches subject matter that clearly has a unique ability to transcend cultures.

"It will be the first attempt in a festival situation to gather Asian superhero movies in one place," Kim says. "Already we're getting lot of calls from festival organizers overseas who are interested in running the same program in their venue."