Is Korean cinema’s heyday over?

Darcy has a thoughtful piece on his “What’s New” page, sensing a lack of dynamism in mainstream Korean cinema. While noting that Korean films in September took 83% of local box office, and Hollywood was beaten into third place by Japan,

But you’ll have to forgive me if, despite the numbers, I feel a lack of energy in mainstream Korean cinema these days. November has been a particularly blah month.

No RegretOn the contrary, it’s Korean independent films that are looking up these days. There were plenty of great new low-budget features at Pusan this year, and some of them are even doing okay at the box office. Leesong Hee-il’s debut No Regrets opened on 6 screens and did amazingly well, selling 12,000 tickets in four days. The film’s production company says that no low-budget Korean film has ever sold so many tickets so quickly. Meanwhile, Lee Chang-jae’s Between has set a new record for local documentaries with 24,000 tickets sold. As a whole, both Korean and other Asian arthouse releases are doing better this year than they have for a long time.

In Between
In Between – a documentary about Korean shamanism

Although part of it has to do with the Korean Film Council’s financial support for arthouse theaters, which gives more opportunities to small films, the main reason is that committed cinephiles are starting to turn away from mainstream Korean films. In the past, viewers who would read up on the new films at Cannes and Venice, and would occasionally catch a retrospective screening, would also find time to watch the higher-profile Korean films that came out. Now my impression is, except for true event films like The Host or Tazza, they aren’t bothering. More and more cinephiles are telling me, “I don’t watch Korean films these days.”

One thing he notices is that

things are looking up for film diversity in Korea — more and more people are taking an interest in small foreign or independent films.

A lot of what Darcy says resonates with me. Of the films that have been released this year, there have been very few mainstream ones of which I’ve thought “I’ve got to get that on DVD right now” — which is a good thing for the bank balance. My deliveries from YesAsia this year have been much less frequent and have been mainly back catalogue.

But I’m also encouraged by his tentative observation on film diversity. One thing that Kim Chang-nam noted in his talk at SOAS earlier this year is that in order for Korean film and content to succeed there needs to be greater diversity and creativity. In order for this to happen there needs to be both the demand for interesting, “different” films — which Darcy seems to indicate may be there — and the supply — and that is what KOFIC’s funding (which Darcy mentions) and the proposed 640 billion Won funding package seems in part geared to ensure. So maybe it’s not all doom and gloom.

Update 25 November 2006: Atom over at the koreanfilm.org forum links to a Twitch post in similar vein.

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