Korean pic exceeds expectations, heads for Stateside bow

Nobody in the Korean film industry believed in the potential of helmer Shim Hyung-rae’s “The Last Godfather.”

He announced the project when releasing “D-War” in 2007, saying that his next film would be a Hollywood movie featuring his famous comedic character, Young-gu, in the gangster genre. To the public, the idea that Young-gu was a hidden son of New York mafia looked like nonsense.

Nonetheless, “The Last Godfather” topped the Korean B.O. two weeks consecutively and had grossed $17.6 million from 2.55 million viewers through January 25.

Young-gu was a character that stimulated Korean people’s nostalgia, ever since it had appeared on a big hit TV melodrama in the early 1970s. The crippled and mentally challenged young man was a byproduct of Korea’s impoverished post-Korean War history, which aroused tearful sympathy of the audiences.

Shim, who started his career as a TV comedian in the early 1980s, became a big star by taking the character into his slapstick comedy. He made a caricature of the original character to be seen almost as an idiot by adding impressive gestures and puns.

Despite the apparent silliness, Young-gu was loved and imitated a lot particularly by young audiences, due to his good, kind and heroic nature.

Based on the popularity, Shim starred in more than 30 B movies from mid-1980s to mid-1990s, made with low budgets and crude special effects that appealed to young children. In 1989, a kids’ comedy titled “Young-gu and Daeng-chiri” enjoyed huge success at the box office, and since then more than 10 sequels have been produced as a series under the name of Young-gu.

Encouraged, Shim set up his own production company, Younggu Art Movie, in 1993, and directed a few low budget sci-fi movies and comedies by himself. In the mainstream film industry, his movies were not received seriously at all, and few trusted his ability as a film director. But he wanted to make sci-fi blockbusters that could be distributed worldwide, particularly in the North American market, so he arranged for a computer graphics team in his own company and prepared projects independently from the mainstream.

Then, after he made “D-War” in Los Angeles, nobody believed that Shim would go into the U.S. market, despite its local success in passing more than 8 million in ticket sales. But he never gave up his Hollywood dream.

Based on knowhow gleaned from “D-War,” Shim proceeded with pre-production of “The Last Godfather” in Hollywood. Harvey Keitel became attached, and Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow (“Toy Story”) revised the script. He wanted to produce a warm family movie while putting Young-gu into some familiar genre conventions.

The project gained momentum when CJ Entertainment came on board. The company had been looking for opportunities to advance into the American market. They pacted with Roadside Attractions to release the comedy in 12 cities across the U.S. and Canada on April 1.

Last year, other completed Korean projects connected to Hollywood studios included “The Warrior’s Way” and “The Yellow Sea,” but they received only lukewarm responses from local audiences. “The Last Godfather” was more successful than those films at the local box office, but soon it will be time to see how it works in the U.S. market. It is scheduled for a U.S. release, not inappropriately, on April Fool’s Day.

More from the Berlin Daily Spotlight: Korea:
‘Last Godfather’ looks for last laugh | Ten Korean titles to keep your eye on | 3D shifts course in Korea

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