SEOUL — Even as the Korean film industry is battling the United States to hold onto its screen quota, a system designed to protect the local industry by requiring theaters to fill 40% of programs with homegrown movies, it owes a lot to Hollywood.
U.S. movies, after all, have for decades provided entertainment for the Koreans, and American studios fund many prominent cinema projects. But now Hollywood also is providing a large percentage of story ideas.
“Copywood” is a popular buzzword among film buffs and critics in Korea today. The “copywood” coinage refers to the growing practice of explicitly imitating Hollywood movies, and it’s currently at the center of a cultural debate about the future direction of Korean cinema.
“They may be better described as Hollywood movies featuring Korean faces and Korean food for the purpose of localization, barely a step above dubbing or inserting subtitles,” says film critic Kim Jin. Some only duplicate segments or basic storylines, while others lift the entire plot. “Tube,” currently playing in theaters, has a scene where a man handcuffs a woman’s hand to a steel post on a subway, leading to the inevitable climax of her awaiting a crash with screams. Ever seen “Speed”? The film proved disappointing at the box office, though attracting only 500,000 nationwide.
“Table for Four,” is about a man who can see ghost children — a clear reference to “The Sixth Sense.”
Other movies have been more shameless. “The Horror Movie Game” (2001) has been severely attacked for lifting parts of its story from a dozen titles: the setting from “Urban Legends,” suspense from “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” ghost images from Japan’s “The Ring” and the digital-camera feel from “The Blair Witch Project.” “The scariest thing about the movie is that it takes itself completely seriously,” one critic said.
Last year’s most notable Copywood pic was “R U Ready?” directed by Yun Sang-ho, featuring the vehicular mishap in a theme park seen in “Jurassic Park” and the archeological chambers and tablets of the “Indiana Jones” series and “The Mummy.” Also reminding Koreans of past U.S. hits were “Africa,” a story about four young women robbing banks along the lines of “Set It Off,” “Funny Movie” in the same vein as Hollywood’s “The Scary Movie” and “Baby Diaries” about three men raising an infant under odd circumstances.
“The Copywood phenomenon cannot be separated from a discussion of the screen quota system and the market share it protects,” Kim says. “Korean films have been very successful in stemming the tide of Hollywood movies.”
Korean movies recorded over 45% market share last year. Defenders of the practice argue that Korean cinema has no choice but to duplicate the scale and entertainment value of Hollywood movies if it wants to boost box office competitiveness and maintain market share. Some believe such products also may have greater potential for export to other Asian countries.