SEOUL — Though clouds have started to gather once more over the South Korean economy, attendance at the nation’s multiplexes continues at a robust pace with domestic films taking top tickets.
Five homegrown films ranked among the top 10 last year, with the undisputed champion being “Joint Security Area,” a groundbreaking local production about illicit friendships between North and South Korean soldiers stationed along the DMZ.
Released last September, the critically acclaimed comedy-drama became the nation’s top box office draw in early January with approximately 5.5 million admissions nationwide. (The film becomes the second domestic blockbuster to top “Titanic” at the till; spy thriller “Swiri” (1999) being the first.)
Official foreign debut for “JSA” comes with competition at this winter’s Berlin Intl. Film Festival, though the film has already been acquired by Japan’s Amuse Pictures and Cine Quanon for a summer release. The pic’s Seoul-based distrib/sales agent CJ Entertainment hopes to drum up more international sales at the American Film Market.
This will be CJ’s second visit to AFM. But while Korean films and sales agents have made an impact on the fest circuit the past year, company rep Mark Yoon says: “You still need to go out and explain yourself.”
Yoon adds that when it comes to overseas film buyers, “a lot of people like Korean films, feel they are good films but have no idea how they would do in their country. As more (Korean) films are released, we get a different response. All those things are solved by time.”
Second and third slots at the Korean box office last year went to two big-budget Hollywood titans, “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Gladiator,” respectively. The fourth spot was taken by local black comedy “The Foul King,” which had local audiences howling last spring at its depiction of a meek banker who becomes a professional wrestler by night to relieve his stress. Like director Kim Jee-woon’s first work, 1998’s “The Quiet Family,” about a comically disastrous attempt to escape the evils of the city by opening a country lodge, the pic is ripe with remake possibilities for Hollywood or other markets.
Still, the “Foul King’s” sales agent, Mirovision, has not given up on selling the original to buyers at the AFM. (The film garnered a lot of laughs at the Toronto Intl. Film Fest in autumn and was invited to the Forum section of this year’s Berlin fest, but Hong Kong is the only prominent market to acquire the pic.)
Other imports to rank in the top 10 for 2000 include “Dinosaur,” No. 7, “The Perfect Storm,” 8, and “Charlie’s Angels,” 10.
At the other end of the scale, “The Grinch” warmed few hearts, with a take of less than 5% of “JSA’s.” Critical darling in the West, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a middling success with around a half-million admissions during its late-summer release here, with more than a few Koreans long exposed to Hong Kong-style martial-arts extravaganzas finding the flying sequences to be ridiculous.
Total nationwide admissions for 2000 were 60 million, up from 54 million in 1999, according to the Korea Film Commission. But local films’ good placement in the top 10 notwithstanding, market share for domestic pics actually declined to 32% from 36.5%.