Asia’s monstrous showbiz push

South Korea's creative wave crosses globe

In terms of pop culture, perhaps no country in the world has ever experienced a greater renaissance than South Korea. In film, TV drama, rock music, cell phones and other areas, the nation has spread its imprint across Asia, with the U.S. its next major target.

All of which has led some media players to ask: Why South Korea?

The Korean film industry was nonexistent a decade ago. But the end of military rule in 1993 was followed by the lifting of onerous censorship laws in 1996. Like the artistic explosion in Spain after the fall of General Franco, Korea saw a slew of executives and filmmakers who were energized with the opportunities for self-expression.

They made up their own rules and learned to take chances, both artistically and financially. Korean films offered violence that was more graphic and action that was faster-paced. Audiences lapped it up.

“We love Korean directors,” says Jane Giles, head of acquisitions at U.K.-U.S. distrib Tartan Films. “They’re as sick as hell. They’re cool, and Quentin Tarantino is backing them all the way.”

The South Korean-financed “D-War,” targeted for a 2007 global launch, was budgeted at $70 million — cheap for a film with extensive CGI effects, but expensive considering the average Korean budget is $3 million. The plot concerns a dragon rampaging through Los Angeles, which serves as an apt metaphor: South Korea is ready to take over the world.

Global brands such as LG and Samsung have proven Korea can compete on the global stage. The country already dominates mobile technology and online vidgames throughout the world, and its pop-culture — TV drama, rock music and, of course, film — has made successful inroads throughout Asia.

The cultural expansion is now targeting U.S. shores. (Significantly, “D-War,” directed by Hyung-rae Shim, was shot in English with an American cast that includes Robert Forster and Jason Behr of “The Grudge”).

In the U.S., its pics are starting to be hip to the cognoscenti. According to Universal Focus senior VP Jason Resnick, who made his second trip to Pusan last week for the 11th annual film festival there: “The excitement and interest in South Korean films and filmmakers is not new. What’s new is that it is crossing into the North American mainstream.”

A Korean invasion won’t be easy. Foreign-language films account for less than 1% of the U.S. box office and, unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, Korea has never had a breakout hit in the States, even among action fans. But Korean filmmakers and technicians are suddenly in demand in the U.S. and American majors and indies alike are flirting with Korea for co-productions. Film execs in other Asian countries speak enviously about the vitality of the Korean biz.

Why Korea, when there are more populous Asian nations and more established Asian film industries? Perhaps the older, more mainstream industries have often been cranking out films that are safe and familiar — and stale.

Korean helmer Park Chan-wook’s gruesomely shocking 2004 “Oldboy,” with its scenes of live octopus eating, torture and incest, was one of the first pics to signal a new wave in Korean filmmaking.

“Oldboy” helped push Korean film into the consciousness of Americans, winning attention with its grand jury prize in Cannes. “That was big,” says Roy Lee, the Korea-born co-chief of Vertigo Entertainment, the Hollywood shingle that helped pioneer the boom in English-language remakes of Asian movies with reworkings such as 2002’s “The Ring.”

Lee was king of the U.S. box office on the weekend of Oct. 13; he was exec producer of the two top-grossing pics in the U.S., “The Grudge 2” and “The Departed,” both remakes of Asian films.

“Now everything is pulling in the right direction,” Lee says. “Even the North Korean political situation focuses media attention.”

However, it’s not clear that nuclear bomb testing is the kind of publicity that will help South Korea.

And the truth is, South Korea’s fast success could prove dangerous. As production costs rise, so does the differential between hit and miss. Although this year, two local movies (“King and the Clown” and “The Host”) broke the all-time B.O. record at home, more and more films have come to rely on the Japanese export market in order to recoup their costs.

Ominously, the hallyu, or Korean Wave in Japan, has melted away in the past year, and some fear the disinterest may continue.

A year ago, Korean movies, especially those fronted by Korean TV stars, were regularly licensed to Japan for prices close to or even exceeding their entire production budget. Such pricey deals were justified in cases like “April Snow,” featuring floppy-haired heartthrob Bae Yong-joon, which grossed a whopping $28 million, or about 10 times its pricetag.

Korea is now at a turning point, rethinking its business strategies and coming up with expansion plans. The biz has regrouped and pushed further into Asia, Latin America (where K-dramas increasingly rival telenovelas) and Europe.

The showbiz sector has financial backing unlike any other industry in Asia. Most showbiz companies are controlled by vertically integrated companies, meaning they have huge financial resources, workable alternative distribution platforms (VOD and mobile TV); and a government that sees the value of film.

In the tech sector, South Korea has all the technology the U.S. might want, and the country is styling itself as a laboratory for experiments in convergence. South Korea has more than 2 million subscribers to mobile TV services that launched last year and its theaters are installing digital cinema systems faster than any developed country.

“I’m here to learn,” said Steve Perrin, deputy head of distribution and exhibition at the U.K. Film Council, itself a European leader in D-cinema, who was making his first trip to Korea.

“The Korean (film) business may not be at its peak these days, but you still don’t see many bad movies. Korean films really deliver,” says San Fu Maltha, producer of Paul Verhoeven’s recent “Black Book,” and a long-time buyer of Korean movies for his former Benelux distribution label A Film.

Maltha and his business partners at Queen Imperial and exhibition group Blitz last week bought Indonesian rights to six Korean titles and will position them as the mainstream alternative to Hollywood fare in the massively populous Southeast Asian territory.

“Execs in the Korean industry are hot, energetic, globalized people, culturally and linguistically fluent in international contexts,” says Oi Leng Lui, acquisitions head at Singapore’s Cathay Organization.

The success in Asia in just one decade has been phenomenal. South Korea’s TV dramas occupy primetime from Hong Kong to Thailand and Vietnam. (China regulators worry that Korean series are becoming too popular and have banished them to minor timeslots.) Music stars BoA and Rain are huge around Asia.

But now comes a bigger challenge. Rain, named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, will reign again in the U.S. when he kicks off his next tour with a Dec. 22 debut in Las Vegas. He’s played Madison Square Garden twice already.

“Korean producers and directors now know they have to push beyond Japan and Asia. They are forward-thinking and they appeal to what works,” says Convergence Entertainment’s Tim Kwok, one of Hollywood’s most Asia-conscious execs.

At the Pusan Film Festival, one exec from another Asian country stated: “I learned two things at this market. First, Korea is increasingly going to be the missing element in those talked-about Asian film co-productions with China. Second, Korea wants to take over the world.”

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