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Korea revamps after wave of success

Enthusiasm for country's product wanes

SEOUL — In some ways, the Korean Wave seemed to come out of nowhere.

Korea’s film and TV industries had undoubtedly made major strides in the early part of this decade, but few observers expected the rest of Asia to become so enthusiastic about Korean stars and content.

By 2005, exports had surged, tourism was booming, and viewers throughout Asia had developed an entirely new image of Korea as a young, trendy and modern nation. To people working in the film and TV industries back in Seoul, it seemed too good to be true.

And it was.

It’s perhaps unfair to say the Korean Wave (hallyu) has crashed. Success stories continue to emerge, such as a strong performance by comedy “200 Pound Beauty” in Singapore, or a rousing run by monster movie “The Host” in China and home-grown blockbuster “Dragon Wars.” However, with export numbers plunging and Asian viewers’ enthusiasm for Korean product starting to wane, expectations have certainly fallen back to earth. Once again, Korea is pondering its future.

Whereas in the past few years, content industries have relied heavily on the local star system, Korea’s plans going forward are likely to be more nuanced.

The technological savvy of local firms is helping to give Korea a leg up in certain sectors like special effects and new media. Korean animators, who have gained technical expertise through years of outsourced U.S. work, are becoming strong contributors of original fare. Film commissions in Seoul and Busan are becoming more aggressive at establishing Korea as a viable shooting location.

The film industry also is increasingly looking beyond the region, like sales company Cineclick Asia, which used to sell only local films, but which is now repping titles from as far away as Afghanistan and Argentina.

There is new attention as well being focused on the challenging U.S. market, either by pursing co-productions with Korean-American talent or by developing relations with the Hollywood studios.

Major distributor Showbox recently signed a cooperation pact with 20th Century Fox, while rival CJ Entertainment has set up a branch in the U.S., producing Michael Kang’s New York-set “West 32nd” as its first title.

Nonetheless, these ambitions are developing against the backdrop of a sharp downturn in the local film and, to a lesser extent, TV industries. Most immediately, the subsiding of the wave has changed the economics of filmmaking in Korea.

Gone are the days when the casting of a major star like Lee Byung-heon or Jang Dong-gun could guarantee a multimillion-dollar presale to Japan. As a result, the number of star-centered, big-budget productions has declined, and producers are no longer likely to structure a film around the perceived tastes of other Asian viewers.

But there also are growing hopes that Korea has developed the potential to step beyond Asia and produce truly global projects. The success of Mexican helmers Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has not gone unnoticed in Korea, and it’s not hard to imagine directors such as “Oldboy’s” Park Chan-wook, “The Host’s” Bong Joon-ho or “A Bittersweet Life’s” Kim Jee-woon someday taking a similar path.

Indeed, Bong and Kim are now signed with CAA.

It is more than just directorial talent that Korea is banking on.

This was demonstrated in a spectacular way with the debut of English-language monster movie “Dragon Wars” (local title: “D-War”) on Aug. 1, racking up some $40 million-plus by month’s end.

Although panned by critics for its script and overall direction, the film’s impressive CG effects were produced entirely by local f/x house Younggu Art, owned by “Wars” director Shim Hyeung-rae. Local investors also ponied up a stunning $75 million upfront to produce the film (about half that amount went into training and equipment for Younggu Art).

“I cultivated all of the talent and proprietary technology of Younggu Art for the sake of my long-term vision,” says Shim. “Younggu Art will be where we continue to do the special effects and the CGI work, and the Los Angeles branch is where we will develop and produce the films going forward.”

Distributor Showbox has set its sights on an ambitious Sept. 14 release in North America via Freestyle Releasing.

The Korean government, for its part, hopes to encourage the content industries’ push into global markets.

Support for the animation industry has been at high levels for several years now, and a range of different promotional bodies, such as the Korea Culture and Content Agency and the Institute of Hallyu Culture, help to train new talent, encourage exchange and promote exports for industries ranging from mobile contents to character design.

The government-supported, independently run Korean Film Council recently established its first overseas branch office in Los Angeles, with the aim of encouraging Korean talent to cross over into Hollywood.

The post-Korean Wave era will surely offer many challenges for the content industries, as the days of easy money fade into memory. However, the continued integration of Korea’s content and talent into the global marketplace is likely to produce a number of surprises as well. The wave may have passed, but the trends that follow may prove to be more enduring.

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