Busan: Korean Cinema Struggles With Diversity As Conglomerates Dominate

From the outside at least, Korean cinema looks to be doing great. Two Korean films, “Assassination” and “Veteran” have this year crossed the 10 million ticket sales mark. And last year total theatrical revenues swelled to $1.6 billion, making Korea the sixth largest box office territory in the world. But within the industry the emphasis on mega hits is highly controversial. Many point to the influence of the vertically-integrated conglomerates as the reason for the hit-driven industry and as the root of deeper problems.

“The Korean film market is quite commercialized,” says Nam Dong-chul, the Busan Intl. Film Festival’s Korean selector. “Since the production industry is led by conglomerates, formulaic films are prioritized and diversity is rarely noticed.”

While the club of 10 million admissions keeps celebrating new entries, it has become increasingly harder for independent films to survive if they are not handled by major companies.

Director, Kim Tae-yung last year told the National Assembly forum that he was unable to get backing for his film “Another Promise” about Samsung semiconductor employees who contracted leukemia, as all the companies he approached decided it was too sensitive. Kim was eventually able to raise the monies through crowd-funding.

The exhibition arms of the vertically-integrated conglomerates were fined last year for favoring the films handled by their own distribution companies. Smaller films are often given partial runs and consigned to early morning or midnight slots.

“Good films enjoying success is of course something that I can be happy about. But I feel sorry that films like ‘The Unfair,’ that were supposed to be more successful, end up unattended,” said “Veteran” director Ryoo Seung-wan recently at a press event in Seoul. Ryoo also told Variety that political interference is the biggest problem faced by Korean cinema today.

“We have a cycle where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” says Nam. “There are still many diversity films, but exhibitors have no room for them.”

Critics say that nationalistic and commercially-driven is also leading to fewer Korean films in the competition sections of major international festivals such as Berlin, Cannes or Venice, where creativity and innovation are at a premium. “We can be grateful for the low-budget titles, such as ‘Madonna,’ ‘Office,’ and ‘Collective Invention,’ which are still being discovered and recognized by those festivals,” says Nam.

“And, there are still some newcomers’ indie productions like ‘Midsummer’s Fantasia’ and ‘Socialphobia’ which achieve moderate box office success despite the odds.”

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