Top 10 Korean Films of 2016

Slightly later than originally intended (!), Hanguk Yeonghwa’s analysis of Korean cinema in 2016 is finally here.

2016 was quite a year for K-cinema, and a noticeable improvement over 2015 in terms of consistency and quality. This was largely due to the return of celebrated auteurs Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Na Hong-jin in the mainstream, while in the ever-reliable independent realm a selection of poignant and lovingly crafted films were released to much acclaim.

The release of such tentpole genre offerings meant that, ‘South Korean film industry exports increased by 82% to total $101m in 2016, according to an analysis report from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC)’ (Jean Noh; Screen Daily).

However while there were certainly events to celebrate, the K-film industry still suffered from the same criticisms that have been circulating for the past few years. Despite the increase in production values, the narratives are often formulaic and repetitive, resulting in, ‘Movie audiences have dwindled for the first time in seven years […] [o]nly one Korean film, the zombie extravaganza “Train to Busan,” managed to draw more than 10 million viewers’ (Lee Tae-hoon; The Chosun Ilbo).

From the Korean Film Council’s ‘Korean Film Report 2016’

The Korean film industry was also rocked by the news, ‘over allegations that [former] president Park Geun-hye’s office created a blacklist of artists to be denied government support’ (Jean Noh; Screen Daily), which ‘contained some of South Korea’s most beloved filmmakers, actors and writers, including the director of “Oldboy,” Park Chan-wook, and the “Snowpiercer” actor Song Kang-ho’ (Choe Sang-hun; The New York Times).

As such, 2016 has been a particularly tumultuous year for the Korean cinema industry, yet for film fans there was much to enjoy. Here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten Korean Films of 2016 – click on the link to begin.

Top 10 Films of 2016 – IntroNo. 10~6No. 5~2No. 1

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Top 10 Korean Films of 2015

Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 – Most Memorable Moments of 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013 – Most Memorable Moments of 2013

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Top Ten Korean Films of 2015

2015 in review

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s the perfect time to review the highs and lows the Korean film industry experienced over the past 12 months.

As the final figures roll in it’s clear that, commercially speaking, 2015 has been a stellar year with much to celebrate. In early December the Korean Film Council announced admissions had hit over 200 million whilst stating total sales of over KRW 1.58 trillion (USD 1.34 billion); two films achieved over 10 million admissions, while six now feature in the top 50 highest grossing Korean film of all time (source: KoBiz). Furthermore, the year still isn’t over as the figures for Himalaya, The Tiger, and The Joseon Magician still haven’t been finalised and look set to add more gains to already impressive figures.

However in terms of quality output 2015 was an especially weak year for Korean cinema. In Hanguk Yeonghwa’s review of 2014 I stated the year had been a lackluster one for K-film and, as much as it pains me to say it, 2015 was worse.

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

In fact, the first six months of 2015 were so woeful for the industry that media outlets were forced to acknowledge that, “only 40.7 percent, or 35.46 million cinemagoers saw a Korean film this year, a record low since statistics began in 2004.” (source: Chosun Ilbo, June 19). Many spectators blamed the low attendance on the dominance of big Hollywood films including Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, yet critics were also keen to point out that while production values in K-films were significantly improving, Korean output was generally becoming increasingly generic and made for profit which turned local audiences towards international fare.

The year began with the continued dominance of historical epic Ode to My Father, which ultimately went on to become the second highest grossing film in K-cinema history. While critics were upset with the film’s continued presence in multiplexes, there also weren’t any strong new releases to topple it as despite a slew of high profile titles appearing in cinemas from January to June – including Gangnam Blues, C’est Si Bon, Detective K 2, Empire of Lust, Twenty, The Treacherous, The Silenced and many more – they were met largely with audience indifference.

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

During this period however, K-cinema saw international success as four titles – Coin Locker Girl, The Shameless, Madonna and Office – were selected to represent Korea at the Cannes International Film Festival in May. While their selection is cause to celebrate, these films too were met with a muted response by critics and audiences alike when released across the peninsula, although Coin Locker Girl notably exceeded expectations.

Thankfully, the doom and gloom was lifted in summer. The release of uber-patriotic Northern Limit Line in June was a big success hauling $38.9 million, while a month later ever-reliable director Choi Dong-hoon’s blockbuster Assassination scored over $84 million to become the filmmaker’s biggest ever opening, and currently sits comfortably in seventh place on the list of highest grossing Koreans films of all time. Expectations of the spy-thriller’s longevity turned out to be somewhat exaggerated however as a week later Tom Cruise vehicle Mission Impossible 5 went straight to the top spot, but early August saw the release of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran which became a huge hit with audiences and, thanks to positive word of mouth, surpassed predictions to scoop up the lion’s share of audience revenue to become the biggest film of the year and the third biggest film in K-cinema history securing $89.8 million.

The Himalayas (히말라야)

The Himalayas (히말라야)

Such positivity was continued in November as The Priests and Inside Men defied predictions and became sleeper hits with $36.2 million and $46.8 million, respectively, and helped to propel actor Lee Byung-hun back into some positive limelight.

December saw The Himalayas and The Tiger appear in cinemas a day before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The face-off was widely publicised as a victory for the Korean Wave as, “The Himalayas grossed $8.7 million from Thursday to Sunday, topping The Force Awakens‘ $7.9 million performance over the same period” (source: The Hollywood Reporter). While such articles generally failed to take into account the difference in screen share between the films involved, the Korean film industry took the final figures as a triumphant way to end the year.

Ultimately, 2015 was a highly lucrative year for the industry with cinema attendance hitting yet another record high and Korean films attaining around 52% of the market share (source: Chosun Ilbo).

Now that the year is over, here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s top ten Korean films of 2015.

INTRO – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

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Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 – Most Memorable Moments of 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013 – Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Film News

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

2014 FinalWith the end of the year almost upon us, it’s time to revisit the films released over the past 12 months in order to discern the best offerings from the Korean film industry for 2014.

First, however, a quick review of the year is in order to chart the highs and lows from the peninsula, as it was a tumultuous time for Korean cinema indeed.

For those who cannot wait, please scroll down to find the top ten of 2014.

2014 – In Review

2014 was, by all accounts, a rather lacklustre year for Korean cinema.

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

The beginning of the year was undoubtedly dominated by Hollywood. While the release of several high profile Korean films including Plan Man, Man in Love, Hot Young Bloods and Venus Talk occurred, none of them performed particularly well, especially when faced with the gargantuan success of Disney’s Frozen. Things changed at the end of January with the release of Miss Granny, thanks largely to positive word of mouth. Starring Shim Eun-kyeong as an elderly woman transformed into twenties, the mild-mannered comedy was a fairly big success scoring over 8.6 million admissions. Controversial independent film Another Promise also performed impressively. Concerned with people stricken with cancer after working at a Samsung factory, the film was all but rejected from multiplexes causing outrage from critics as well as accusations of insider suppression, even prompting an article from UK outlet The Guardian.

For the next few months, Korean cinema continued to stagnate until things went from bad to worse in the wake of the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster on the 16th of April. With the entire nation reeling from the loss of so many lives – mostly high school students – cinemas, understandably, largely remained empty. For the next few months, with the population still in a collective state of mourning, attendance and revenue was considerably down compared to the year prior, with audiences also tending to stay away from violent films such as No Tears For The Dead and Man On High Heels.

Indie success came in the form of Han Gong-ju. Released in April, the film scored over 60,000 admissions during its first four days, and eventually surpassed 160,000 during its box office run to become one of the most successful independent films in the history of Korean cinema. Han Gong-ju was also an enormous hit on the international film festival circuit, achieving several top honours as well as acclaim from cinema maestro Martin Scorsese.

Internationally, good news also came in May as A Girl At My Door, A Hard Day, and The Target all gained invitations to the Cannes Film Festival.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

Things turned around considerably in late July. Upon release, KUNDO: Age of the Rampant broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into the industry…until that record, and virtually every achievement in Korean cinema, was decimated by historical naval epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Shortly thereafter the final two tentpole summer films – The Pirates and Haemoo – also graced screens to moderate success. Fears that the blockbusters would fail due to narratives that contain deaths at sea, and thus touching on the still sensitive issue of the Sewol tragedy, luckily proved to be unfounded.

The next big news to hit the industry came in the form of controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol. Premiering at the Busan International Film Festival, Sewol depicted the ineptitude of the government in failing to save so many lives during the disaster. Park Geun-hye’s administration responded by demanding the withdrawal of the film from the festival, as well as threats of funding cuts. BIFF refused, and it remains to be seen what ramifications the decision will have on subsequent festivals.

The year ended on a high note, particularly for independent cinema, as positive word of mouth led to documentary My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) attracting over 1 million viewers and knocking Hollywood films Interstellar and Exodus from the top spots at the box office. It currently stands as the second most successful documentary in Korean cinema history.

The Best of 2014

Honourary Mention – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Before beginning the top ten countdown, it would be impossible to exclude any discussion of Han Gong-ju. Rated in joint first place in last year’s ratings (due to its premiere at BIFF), director Lee Su-jin’s directorial debut is bold, powerful, and emotionally resonating. Featuring an outstanding performance by Chun Woo-hee – who won Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Film AwardsHan Gong-ju is based on the true story of a high school girl who is forced to relocate to a new area following an horrific event. As she attempts to rebuild her life, Gong-ju discovers that she cannot outrun her past however much she tries. Appearing at over 15 international film festivals and receiving acclaim from Martin Scorsese himself, Hang Gong-ju is not to be missed.

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

No. 10 – Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits is a beautifully stylised, wonderfully constructed documentary that is emblematic of the new artistic approach being employed to genre. Directed by artist/filmmaker Park Chan-kyong, Manshin presents the life and times of renowned shaman Kim Keum-hwa through a startling array of storytelling devices, all in the aesthetic of traditional Korean culture. Periods from shaman Kim’s life are gorgeously reconstructed featuring three prominent actresses – Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong and Moon So-ri – which, while interesting in itself, is also a story that explores the cultural identity of Korea in the rapid transition from one of the poorest nations in Asia to the economic powerhouse it is today.

No. 9 – Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Amalgamating several real life stories that have transpired over the years, Korea’s most prominent queer director, Lee Song Hee-il, released arguably his most compelling film to date in the form of Night Flight. Poignantly depicting the relationship of two teenage gay Seoulites and their desire to escape their oppressive environment, director Lee Song goes beyond focusing primarily on the romance by profoundly developing the world they inhabit. The harsh education system, the class divide, single parent families and social injustice all feature, and as such homosexuality is naturalized as simply another facet of identity that youths struggle with, resulting in an insightful and compelling drama.

No. 8 – Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let's Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Documentary Let’s Dance is concerned with the topic of abortion in Korea. Director Jo Se-young brilliantly interviews a variety a women who have undergone the procedure, inquiring about their thoughts, reasons and feelings about the controversial subject matter. Yet the film is far from bleak; in fact it’s quite the opposite. During the refreshingly frank conversations the women laugh, joke and cry about their experiences, while dramatic recreations of comical events are interlaced within, making the documentary a genuinely funny, enlightening, and empowering film. The film also hilariously pokes fun at male ignorance on the subject, including lack of awareness regarding contraception and even the length of pregnancy. Inspirational viewing.

No. 7 – Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Director Boo Ji-young’s insightful second feature film Cart premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, and for good reason. Based on the true story of unfairly dismissed supermarket employees who began strike action to be reinstated, Cart is a consistently impressive exploration of worker’s rights, women’s issues, and single parent families in contemporary Korea. The provocative drama explores each facet from several distinct perspectives and never fails to be engaging. It also has the distinction of being almost entirely female-centered to great effect, with acting duties from a host of incredibly talented actresses of all ages, combining to produce a moving, courageous and provocative socially-conscious drama.

No. 6 – Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

South Korea has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD. Thread of Lies tackles such difficult subject matter by exploring the lives of those effected in the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide, and is a powerfully provocative film in that the story not only depicts bullying and depression, but also delves into the problematic realm of accountability. Driven by the need for answers, Man-ji begins investigating her younger sister’s suicide, with the conclusions proving to be a painful experience. Thread of Lies is also notable for having a stellar all-female cast, a real rarity these days, with the array of talent combining to produce an understated yet deeply resonating examination of an important social issue.

No. 5 – The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Easily the most controversial Korean film of the year, documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol premiered at the Busan International Film Festival to uproar. Under pressure from government officials and the mayor of Busan/Festival Chairman Seo Byung-soo himself to remove it from the schedule, BIFF ultimately refused and screened it anyway to reveal a highly emotional and courageously critical exploration of the administration’s disastrous rescue efforts following the Sewol tragedy. Through the investigative approach of director Ahn Hye-ryong and journalist/director Lee Sang-ho, the documentary is a powerful tribute to not only the victims of the event but also the ongoing debate of accountability, and the collusion between the state and mass media.

No. 4 – A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

If there’s one genre synonymous with Korea cinema, it’s the thriller. Yet over recent years thriller films have tended to fall a little flat, a result of over-saturation combined with a lack of ingenuity. Not so with director Kim Seong-hoon’s A Hard Day. Premiering at Cannes Film Festival, the action extravaganza is perpetually riveting entertainment and a wonderful example of great popcorn cinema, so much so that the 2 hour 30 minute running time simply flies by. Featuring an exciting array of set pieces throughout, A Hard Day is a constant mix of excitement and tension that serves to keep the audience guessing – due in no small part to the phenomenal editing – while the ironic dark humour laced within the story always hits the mark.

No. 3 – Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Nominated as Korea’s official entry for the Academy Awards, Haemoo – or Sea Fog – is based on the horrific true story of illegal immigration gone wrong. Director Shim Seong-bo’s directorial debut is a thrilling visual tour de force, expertly capturing the fraught claustrophobia of life on a small fishing vessel and the abject horrors that occur. Produced by Bong Joon-ho and featuring cinematography from Hong Kyeong-pyo (Snowpiercer), the drama expresses a profound and distinctive aesthetic throughout, as well as great performances from the stellar cast and particularly from up-and-comers Han Ye-ri and Kpop star Park Yoochun. As such, Haemoo is certainly one of the best Korean thrillers in recent years.

No. 2 – Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

After seemingly years of performing authoritarian cameo-esque roles, Ahn Sung-gi once again revealed why he’s considered one of the best in the business with an outstanding return to form in Revivre. Veteran director Im Kwon-taek‘s 102nd film, Revivre explores the life of a middle-aged vice president whose wife is stricken by a terminal illness, yet while he struggles to balance his responsibilities a beautiful new deputy manager begins working in the office who captivates him. What could easily be yet another typical male fantasy is given extraordinary emotional depth due to director Im’s and Ahn Sung-gi’s seasoned hands, both of whom combine to depict a man torn between duty and desire with striking sincerity.

No. 1 – A Girl At My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Director July Jung’s directorial debut A Girl At My Door premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, which in itself states the incredible power of the film. Produced by famed brothers Lee Chang-dong and Lee Jun-dong, the drama beautifully explores the themes of alienation and discrimination in contemporary Korea, featuring phenomenally understated performances by Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron, as well as accompanied by some of the most exquisite cinematography seen all year. The sensitive and poignant story wonderfully captures the issues faced by those on the fringes of Korean society with incredible sincerity, and as such occupies the top spot in the list. Highly recommended and essential viewing.

Film News
Hope (소원)

Promotion Gears Up For Director Lee Joon-ik’s ‘So-won’ (소원)

Wish (소원)

Wish (소원)

Despite directing an producing an array of impression films including The King and the Clown, Radio Star, and Sunny, director Lee Joon-ik (이준익) announced his retirement from commercial film making in 2010 due to the box office failure of Battlefield Heroes.

Luckily for audiences however the key word is ‘commercial’, as director Lee has finished filming his comeback film, the modestly budgeted So-won (소원). The film tells the story of youngster So-won – which also means ‘wish’ in Korean – who is violently assaulted, and how her and her family struggle to overcome the trauma together.

It’s extremely potent and sensitive material, joining the ranks of Silenced, Azooma, and Don’t Cry Mommy as another high profile exploration of crimes against children.

So-won, which also features the incredibly talented Sol Kyeong-gu as the girl’s father, will arrive in cinemas in early October. Please see below for the trailer.

Film News
The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

PiFan 2013: Vision Express

The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

With the 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival gearing up to start on July 18th, one of the more interesting categories within the program arrives in the form of ‘Vision Express’.

‘Vision Express’ highlights some of the new emerging talent from around the world, and as such features documentaries and fiction films that are more independent in nature compared to other offerings in the program. If there’s one category that has the potential to hold some surprising new creativity, then ‘Vision Express’ certainly fits the bill.

There are four Korean films with ‘Vision Express’, featuring the work of seven directors, all of which are profiled below.

For the listings of Korean films within the Opening/Closing ceremonies, Puchon Choice, and World Fantastic Cinema, please click on the links.

Love Scene (러브씬)

Love Scene (러브씬)

Love Scene (러브씬)

Director: Lee Jeong-won (이정원), Kim Du-heon (김두헌), Moon In-dae (문인대)

Synopsis: In this 88 minute fiction, several short stories explore romantic and sexual relationships with supernatural/mystical elements.

Sunshine Love (썬샤인 러브)

Sunshine Love (썬샤인 러브)

Sunshine Love (썬샤인 러브)

Director: Jo Eun-seong (조은성)

Synopsis: A more traditional romantic tale of a couple brought together and separated by fate is offered by director Jo, as the lovers fight the odds to be reunited.

Young Artists (젊은 예술가들)

Young Artists (젊은 예술가들)

Young Artists (젊은 예술가들)

Directors: Kang Tae-woo (강태우)

Synopsis: Young Artists depicts the lives of  students at Konkuk Art High School as they prepare for  big graduation performance at Christmas. Yet with their unique styles, will they be able to work as a team?

Incomplete Life: Prequel (미생 프리퀄)

Incomplete Life: Prequel (미생 프리퀄)

Incomplete Life: Prequel (미생 프리퀄)

Director: Son Tae-gyum (손태겸), Kim Tae-hui (김태희)

Synopsis: The lives and histories of six quite different characters are explored in this 60 minute film, examining the events and psychological traumas  of the past and how they manifest in the present.

For the full list of films playing in the ‘Vision Express’ category, please check out the official PiFan site by clicking on this link.

Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (제17회 부천국제판타스틱영화제)
Minch & Films (민치 앤 필름)

Interview With Documentary Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) – Part 2

Producer Kim Min-chul

Producer Kim Min-chul

For Part 1 of the interview with documentary producer Kim Min-chul (김민철), please click on the link. In this second part, producer Kim discusses his company Minch & Films, the current environment for Korean documentaries, and his acclaimed and powerfully moving filmography.

Q) Throughout your filmography you seem to be attracted to stories about vulnerable people who find strength despite adversity. Iron Crows (아이언 크로우즈), My Barefoot Friend (오래된 인력거), Planet of Snail and Captain Kang all display this. What is it about these kinds of stories that attracts your interest? Why do you want to make documentaries about these subjects?

A) To be cynically honest with you, I don’t believe that documentaries can change the world. I am also not interested in a “Let’s change the world” type of documentary let alone making documentaries about vulnerable people in unfair world. I also try to avoid the word ‘despite’ in any synopsis or treatment I write. As a producer, what counts for me the most in selecting a project is the ‘chemistry’ I have with the director. The same rule is applied for scouting production crews. I trust my gut feeling or intuition over a profile or CV. As every other producer does, I also make mistakes in selecting projects or scouting crews and it’s usually because I ignored my gut feeling and made decisions based on conditions and situations.

Having recalled how I got involved in those films, I can only say that it’s really a series of coincidences that my filmography looks like this. I want to work with only good people because I don’t separate my professional life from private life. I am not selective about a subject but about filmmakers. I don’t care much about the subject but how a director deals with the subject. To my understanding, documentary is a form of cinema after all so it must be cinematically entertaining.

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

Maybe I can put it this way; it’s not me who found the subjects but the directors who share certain values in life, and their tendency of filmmaking, and found me.

When Seung-Jun first pitched Planet of Snail – originally it was titled Hazy Journey of the Illuminating Tree – in April 2009, I showed my clear disinterest by saying, “Good luck,” because I was already depressed to hear how miserable life is for the deaf blind man and his crippled wife. I am not interested in making films I don’t want to watch. I didn’t see any charm in the character description or the subject of disability in the two-page proposal written by Seung-Jun in the very beginning of the project. What convinced me to board the project was the director’s vision I saw in the 10 minutes short film he made of the same protagonists he presented a couple of months after his first pitch. Seung-Jun somehow managed to depict the world of a deaf and blind poet without showing any pitifulness towards the characters. I watched his first feature The Children of God in the very evening of the same day at a film festival and I could almost visualize the film Seung-Jun was going to make.

As for Iron Crows, I was fascinated by the dignity of the characters deliberately depicted as heroes, then I realized that the director Bong-Nam Park’s own experience of living as a gas cutter for 3 years really made him see them as colleagues and working class heroes more than pitiful documentary subjects.

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Captain Kang is a film that I put most efforts and am most proud of even though it’s probably not the most successful film. What impressed me the most besides his distinctive cinematography when the director Ho-Yeon pitched his story was his attitude toward the subject. I admire his dignity and humbleness as a filmmaker very much. When I decided to produce it, I was joking to the director that soon the industry would brand me as a disability specialized producer.

Q) There are an incredible amount of Korean documentaries being produced in the industry today, mostly by independent companies. These documentaries are often successful at film festivals, yet fail to reach mainstream audiences. What do you think about the role of Korean documentaries in contemporary cinema? Why do they struggle to become ‘mainstream’?

A) I am not sure what you mean by an incredible amount of Korean documentaries. In my opinion, there are far too little documentaries produced in Korea for the size of the population or the industry and compared to the number of fiction films. I am also not sure if you can say that these documentaries are “successful” in film festival circuit. Can you name 10 successful Korean documentaries in the entire history of Korean cinema without looking up your database? Despite the significant rise of current documentaries, I don’t think there are enough documentaries produced to make any meaningful market analysis in my opinion. And the documentaries are not diverse enough compared to the documentaries that are introduced at international documentary markets and festivals. It seems that most Korean documentaries come from either activism-oriented filmmaker groups or human-interest documentary groups who are often associated with TV documentary production.

Jeju Prayer (비념) mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Jeju Prayer (비념), by Indiestory, mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Activism-oriented documentaries often try to convey political agendas directly whereas most human-interest documentaries search for touching, often tear-jerking, human stories of vulnerable, and often pitiful, characters. Knowing how documentary has developed in Korea it’s more than understandable. Knowing how badly freedom of speech is practiced in Korea, I very much appreciate the role of activism-oriented documentaries that fill a niche in the mainstream media. However, I am missing ‘diversity’ here. Why are all the documentaries dealing with serious subjects almost always in a monotonously serious and direct fashion? Why is it hard to see cinematic documentaries? At film festivals and cinemas in Europe and North America I am seeing many diverse styles of documentaries screened and they are often successful these days. Many of them are highly entertaining yet still dealing with serious subjects such as social justice, war or human rights. Personally I would love to see comedy, musical, action noir genre of documentaries made in Korea by Korean filmmakers.

Poor production quality is another thing that makes Korean documentaries invisible in mainstream cinema. Audiences don’t seem to care much whether it’s documentary or fiction when making decisions to watch films in cinema. You can’t force or beg audiences to watch a documentary despite poor production quality while the ticket prices are more or less the same, and it’s their decision which film they choose to spend their leisure time on. We filmmakers need to work on diversity and production quality of the film we make but I also think there is a serious need for more subsidies from the public sector, not only because of its value for the public good but also because documentary is too weak to freely compete in the market. The government needs to have a long-term investment plan on documentaries in order to make it sustainable. Korean cinema is one of the strongest in the international film market and Korean filmmakers really make good films, but they take time and effort. I don’t believe documentary should be an exception.

Q) You have stated in prior interviews that you have co-producers in Europe, America, and Asia. What are the benefits of having international co-productions? Why are they important/significant?

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren't always easy

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren’t always easy

A) I like to work with international crews with diverse backgrounds. This is one my strengths as a producer and I very much enjoy seeing how the collaboration between filmmakers with different cultural backgrounds creates chemistry and influences the end result of the film. Providing that filmmaking is teamwork, I feel like a great alchemist when intended collaborations work out. I finance part of my films by international co-production in return for working with production crews from the country of co-production. Planet of Snail is one of the successful cases of international co-production as the collaboration with Finnish sound team definitely added a lot to the production quality of the film, and my Finnish co-producer raised the whole expenses spent in Finland. However international co-production is a double-edged sword when it comes to the conditions for spending. The budget raised by international co-production needs to be spent according to the regulations set by each funder. Usually the money needs to be spent in the country of co-production and often they ask to hire local creative talent. It can be very good if there is room for the talent and your co-producer has the right creative talent for your film to work with. What if there is no more room for creative talents? What if you don’t know how to communicate or work with international film crews? Nowadays I see many producers and film professionals who tend to believe that international co-production is a cure for all and blindly jump into the trap of bad co-production. What’s the use of raising international funds if there is no creative talent who can contribute to the film, or you don’t know how to work together?

Q) You have created your own company Minch & Films. What do you hope to achieve through the company? Does having offices in Seoul and Holland benefit Minch & Films in any way?

Minch & Film was established in 2011

Minch & Film was established in 2011

A)  Since 2011, I founded and own my own company Minch & Films currently based in Seoul.

I established Minch & Films to be a true story based production. Currently Minch & Films is based only in Seoul while collaborating with post-production talents in Belgrade (Serbia) and multiple co-production partners in Europe and North America.

Currently Minch & Films (or better as producer Min-Chul Kim) is more known internationally than domestically but we are not only making documentaries for international audiences but also for Korean audiences. We are not sticking to the documentary genre or film as platform but cross over genres and media such as game and comics.

(Please follow this link for Minch & Films facebook page)

Q) Can you give any details about any future documentaries and collaborations you are involved in? Will you use Minch & Films to help promote them?

A) State of Play is a feature documentary about what it takes to be a pro-gamer featuring the e-sports champion Lee Jae-Dong. This is a minor co-production with Visualantics, a emerging documentary production in Belgium. I brought Korean Communication Committee and Seoul Film Commission on board and it’s currently in the final post- production to be released in the summer. (See below for the trailer).

MotoSeoul is a feature documentary about young people living on the edge of Seoul dependent on the speed of motorcycle such as quick service rider, Chinese deliveryman and high school bikey gang in the style of Hong Kong noir movie. It has been developed with Seoul Film Commission’s international co-production development support in 2011 although I have been developing this project since 2006. I am expecting to start production in the summer with Ho-Yeon Won as director (Captain Kang’s director).

Scream For Me Sarajevo is a music documentary about heavy metal legend Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden’s frontman) and his band’s journey to war torn Sarajevo during the siege in 1994, and what a music concert meant to the people in the least humane living condition. It’s a music film, a road movie and a documentary about war, bravery and human dignity. I am currently visiting London for the pre-production meeting with Bruce and forming the production team. It’s in the early stage of pre-production.

Q) Finally, what do you think about the current environment of Korean documentaries on the global stage? Are they well received, or are there limitations? For example, how do you promote your films internationally to achieve a high profile?

Producer Kim discusses his projects

Producer Kim discusses his projects

A) Relatively more Korean documentaries are introduced to the international market since some of the documentaries achieved some level of international success. However global documentary markets are heavily dominated by European and North American productions while documentaries not only about China as subject but also directed and produced by Chinese are growing significantly in numbers as well as in quality. To promote my films internationally, I participate in pitch forums, film markets and festivals and work with international partners such as sales agent, co-producers, and publicists. I also experiment with multimedia platform. For example, I produced an educational app for learning finger braille language to promote social engagement of Planet of Snail. You can download the app simply by opening the site www.planetofsnail.com on any tablet device such as iPad.

In order for Korean documentaries to be better received, we need more supports from Kofic and other public sector. There are always supporters behind successful documentaries.

Hanguk Yeonghwa is incredibly grateful for Producer Kim for taking the time for this interview, and be sure to look out for his future documentaries on the film festival circuit.

Interviews/Q&As Producers