Korean pix lose luster in Japan

'Shiri,' 'Joint Security Area' set off the K-film trend

TOKYO — Less than two years ago, it seemed as if Korean films would finally conquer their first major overseas market: Japan. A pair of hits in 2000 and last year seemed to solidify that notion. But then came Korean blockbuster “Friend,” which flopped at the Japanese wickets, and other, more recent failure. Now local distribs are thinking twice about paying high prices based on Korean box office results.

The crossover fireworks started with action-packed smash hit “Shiri,” a watershed production that broke Korean box office records in 1999, and was Korea’s first movie with a wide release in Japan. The gamble for joint distributors Amuse Pictures and Cinequanon paid off handsomely with receipts close to $20 million.

Less than a year later, they unspooled the North-South Korea suspense drama “Joint Security Area” and netted more than $10 million.

“The first two films were such a success that anything from Korea seemed welcome,” remembers Cinequanon’s acquisition head Naoko Kunioka. This view was shared by Korean production and sales companies, which saw in Japan the best entry into a world market still cool to product from an only recently booming film industry. “Asking prices reached ridiculous levels,” recalls another Japanese buyer who didn’t take the bait.

Last summer came the news that a consortium under the umbrella of veteran distributor Toho-Towa had bought Korea’s mega-blockbuster “Friend” for a reported $1.3 million, the highest sum paid so far for a Korean production.

But, after 2½ months in release, the picture didn’t even reach the $1.5 million mark. Bored Japanese viewers never warmed to the sentimental gangster film.

“It’s a lesson that not everything Korean works here,” admits Amuse Pictures’ Emi Izuka. “We have to be careful to choose films which can move Japanese audiences.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s giant Toho Co. invested in and distributed the co-production “Seoul.” The police action drama had a mediocre run before being pulled off screens earlier than planned.

Similarly, Cinequanon co-produced the political thriller “KT” with Korea. Based on real events surrounding the 1973 kidnapping of Kim Dae Jung, now president of his country, from a Tokyo hotel, the film disappointed its Japanese producer and distributor, and was practically ignored by the Korean audience.

Now that the short-lived Korean film bubble has burst in Japan, both Japanese distribs and Korean sales companies attempt to find more reasonable common ground. For one, prices have come down, with the Korean medieval warrior saga “Mussa” bought by Gaga Communications for a fraction of the original asking price.

Meanwhile Amuse has acquired two other Korean 2001 hits in a package deal, which makes much more financial sense than the single purchases of the past.

“We are committed to Korea and will continue to distribute their films, but with the necessary care,” says Izuka, who also confirms that Amuse is working on further co-productions across the Sea of Japan.

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