Japan, Korea find common ground

'2009,' 'Bet the Night' among joint projects

The hard feelings Koreans still harbor toward Japan, particularly among the generation that remembers World War II, are beginning to be washed away in a spirit of cooperation between filmmakers in both countries — even as those feelings are fodder for such films.

For instance, “2009 Lost Memories,” an action pic in which Korea is still fighting to get out from under the yoke of an early 20th century Japanese occupation, is currently lensing in Seoul. The shooting schedule for the movie includes several days in both Japan and China. Pic’s one of myriad projects teaming Japanese and Korean filmmakers.

Post-war saga

“Bet the Night,” a co-production of Korea’s Seoul-based Sidus Entertainment and Japanese publishing company Artone, tells the story of a group of Koreans living in the western Japanese city of Osaka in the 1950s as they struggle to eke out an existence and deal with post-World War II prejudices.

And “Asako in Ruby Shoes,” a co-production with Japan’s Shochiku and released last December in Korea, features a Korean man infatuated with a Japanese girl he meets over the Internet.

The reverse situation would be hard for many Korean audiences to accept, admits the pic’s Seoul-based producer Koo Bon-han: Emotions still run strong about Korean females forced to serve as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

In fact, many Koreans (and Chinese for that matter) are not quite ready to forget the past. Only in recent years did the South Korean government loosen decades-long restrictions against Japanese films and other mass entertainment products.

Ready to reconcile

The young, however, are more than ready to move on. With the restrictions lifted, Japanese music, games and animation are immensely popular with Korean youth, while Korean films, led by the large turnout last year for the spy-thriller “Swiri,” are starting to gain a following in Japan.

And, Japanese university students, asked to look at the script of “2009” — which features heroic Korean freedom fighters triumphing over villainous Japanese — found the story entertaining, according to producer Kim Yoon-young.

Kim goes so far as to envision a Japan-Korea bloc that also includes China. “In the future,” he says, “it will be one market.”

Casts and crews for the various pics have found it easy to work together. On “2009,” Japanese co-star Toru Nakamura, a first-time visitor to Korea, shared dormitory space with the local talent during grueling action rehearsals, while “Asako’s” Korean director, Yi J-jong, had little difficulty leading an all-Japanese crew during the half of the film shot in Japan.

Nam Ju-gun, a Japanese citizen of Korean descent who served as “Asako’s” assistant director, admires the youthful energy of the Seoul movie biz, where the average age of directors is significantly lower than in Japan.

“They have very fresh ideas and style,” says Nam, a 25-year film vet who was also making his first visit to Korea.

Both “Asako” and “2009” will be released in Japan as well as Korea. And while just four actors in the latter pic are actually from Japan, 70% of the dialogue is in Japanese, which will appeal to the larger of the two markets.

“Bet the Night,” based on a novel by a Korean-Japanese writer, also will feature Japanese dialogue and a Japanese cast. Crew is Korean, and the movie will be subtitled in South Korea for a joint 2002 launch in the two markets.

The high cost — and regulatory difficulty — of shooting in Japan has made Korea an inviting location for co-productions. For “Bet the Night,” a film budgeted at $5 million, with 80% of the money coming from Japan, plans have been made for the elaborate recreation of an Osaka enclave in Korea.

“Asako’s” Nam bemoans the fact that in Japan, neighborhood groups have put a damper on the production of blockbusters due to objections over explosions or action sequences. “It’s very hard to find locations,” he says. By contrast, a longtime Korean producer says many citizens in his country are less demonstrative about such productions and that regulators or building owners will gladly look the other way for the right amount of money.

Seoul-based Sidus has two other projects with varying degrees of Japanese involvement, but perhaps most spectacular is its upcoming spring release, the China-filmed “Warrior.” Its $7 million budget ranks as the largest in Korean film history.

And with Japan and Korea set to co-host the World Cup soccer finals in 2002, Artone’s Kwak Choong-yang, an ethnic Korean born and raised in Japan, sees no end to the spirit of artistic cooperation between the two countries.

“We cannot copy the great entertainment of Hollywood movies, but Hollywood seems to be running out of themes,” Kwak says. “And there are so many great themes for movies in Japan and South Korea that can easily be understood by people in both countries.”