S. Korean cinematic ‘Harvest’ offers rich rewards

Homegrown fare finally gaining ground on U.S. pix

TORONTO — Auds will have a rare opportunity to enjoy the fruits of what has been a boom time in South Korean cinema, as that country becomes the subject of this year’s National Cinema spotlight at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival in a program of 10 films titled Harvest: South Korean Renaissance.

“Asia is one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic centers for cinema nowadays and South Korea is emerging as one of the most important and strongest countries of national cinema,” says Giovanna Fulvi, who along with Dimitri Eipides programmed Harvest.

Since the commercial success at home of films such as “Shiri” in 1999, followed a year later by the Korean suspense drama “Joint Security Area,” homegrown film has been gaining ground in a market that has traditionally feasted on foreign fare — led by U.S. films. This year, however, local audiences have been flocking to S. Korean films, leaving American titles behind at the box office.

Fulvi credits production budget increases for the emergence of South Korean cinema, both at home and internationally. In 1995, the average budget of a South Korean film was $760,000; by 2000, it had more than doubled to $1.6 million.

“They are really investing money and energy on promotion and on bringing up and nurturing local filmmakers,” she says.

This is not Toronto’s first visit to South Korea, as the fest has in previous years featured filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo and Park Kwang-su, as well as “Chunhyang” by Im Kwon-taek, the first South Korean film distributed in North America.

The festival’s affiliate Cinemateque Ontario in fall 1999 took 18 South Korean films on tour in North America. “We discovered there was an audience that supports South Korean cinema,” says Fulvi. “And this year, there were a number of new voices coming up, a number of new filmmakers and strong films coming out, so we decided that this was the time to have South Korea as a national focus.”

Manager of festival programming Steve Gravestock believes the lineup offers something to appeal to everyone on some level. There is fairly traditional gangster fare, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” and the more sentimental “The Way Home,” a “really nice film about a kid from the city who winds up with his mute grandmother,” he says.

And then there are urban alienation- and loneliness-themed movies “Take Care of My Cat,” and “Camel(s),” which Gravestock describes as “a tiny and carefully modulated art film,” shot in black-and-white digital video. “It is very much about alienation,” he says. “It ‘s a very smart movie, very demanding.”

Based on the true story of the Korean lightweight who fought Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini for the world title, “Champion” is an epic tale. And, like Im’s “Chihwaseon,” itself the subject of a Gala presentation at Toronto and winner of the director’s prize at Cannes (shared with Paul Thomas Anderson for “Punch- Drunk Love”), is about working-class characters who overcome hardships by their determination.

“Too Young to Die” is an unscripted film about the relationship between an older couple. “It’s quite open in its presentation of what two 70-year-olds are likely to do. They have sex a lot, basically,” says Gravestock.

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