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Why Korean Films Are a Fixture at Cannes but Never Win the Palme d’Or

With three films in Official Selection at Cannes, South Korea will be one of the nations most present on the Croisette this year. That’s three more than supposed film powerhouses China or India.

It should come as little surprise to observers of the Korean film scene – even though no Korean picture has yet won the Palme d’Or.

“The overall level of production values and filmmaking know-how is extremely high in Korea, and that may help to push some films into competition,” says Darcy Paquet, a former Variety correspondent who now lectures on film and curates the Wildflower Film Awards.

“Korean film makers are trying to appeal simultaneously to a very robust local market and also the international festival circuit and art house market, which may handicap them somewhat when it comes to actually winning the Palme d’Or. It will happen someday, but the local market is both a help and a hindrance in this regard.”

Though there was certainly a film industry before the watershed, Korea’s film industry exploded into new life in the late 1990s as a belated reaction to the end of years of military rule. The twin catalysts for the outpouring of creativity were the establishment of the Busan film festival in 1996 and the building of the country’s first multiplexes a couple of years later.

Busan represented a challenge to old norms, especially censorship and self-restraint. And it quickly became a Korean production showcase that was closely watched by international producers, sales agents and festival programmers.

The cinema-building program hailed the growing involvement of corporate and industrial powers in the system. Vertically-integrated conglomerates, private equity funds and end users provided finance and support.

They largely complemented a support structure that had already been established by the Korean Film Council (aka KOFIC.) Partially modelled on centralized, French lines, the system stretched from taxes on tickets through to training programs, and from discretionary subsidies through to a data collection and publishing nexus that has no parallel anywhere in Asia.

Many of the early Korean films that found their way into Western festivals were of the shock genre – think Kim Ki-duk’s “The Isle” in 2000 – while others such as those by Lee Chang-dong were more lyrical, but no less brutal.

Since then Korean cinema has become the epitome of diversity. Production numbers have risen, and large scale commercial movies (which rarely play at festivals) are produced alongside art-house, indie and experimental titles. Korea’s success may have lessons for others.

Today Korea has some of the best screen writers and cinematographers anywhere in the world, a strong special effects industry that is a supplier to the Asian region, and industrial giants that are now busily extending their reach across Asia and the rest of the world. (CJ Entertainment’s exhibition arm CGV recently announced a deal to become the largest cinema chain in Turkey – a feat it has already achieved in Vietnam.)

Success has largely bred success. Audience numbers have swelled to give Korea some of the highest cinema attendance figures anywhere in the world. Audiences are knowledgeable and demanding, and put a premium on quality, especially acting performances.

Korea’s gross box office ranks fifth in the world – ahead of France, the birthplace of cinema and home of the Cannes festival, and ahead of bigger countries such as Germany or Russia — with home-grown titles usually accounting for about half the total. Once that had become the norm, Korea was able to slash its protectionist ‘Screen Quotas’ in 2007 – albeit under American trade pressure.

For all Korea’s polish, modernity and respect for hierarchy, the Korean psyche has a dark side that provokes crises of confidence and bitter infighting. Independent film makers still fear extinction under the weight of industrialization. And Korean film festivals are notorious for political and destructive rows. The Busan festival is now experiencing just such a whirlpool, and is in danger of collapsing in on itself without the 21st edition taking place.

That dark, self-destructive edge, however painful, may be part of what makes Korean cinema so enduringly inventive and watchable.

The trio of Korean directors at Cannes this year are pure products of a Korean system in which the studios (mostly) trust directors and their craft. Money and means are available to support talent.

Park Chan-wook, best known for a revenge trilogy which included the international breakout “Old Boy,” is far more than a genre-meister. He is a painstaking, team-working, screenwriter and also produced Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” the same year as making his own quirky U.S. directorial debut “Stoker.”

Na Hong-jin was better known as a cinematographer and screenwriter, before he blasted on to the scene in 2008 with pulsating thriller “The Chaser,” which debuted at Cannes. His follow up “The Yellow Sea,” included an action scene that brought Cannes’ Salle Lumiere audiences to their feet midway through the projection.

And Yeon Sang-ho, whose “Train to Busan” shows in Cannes as a midnight screening, is no less rounded and interesting. He is better known as an animation film director. Yeon previously made the dark, adult cartoons “King of Pigs,” and “Fake.” “Train to Busan” is both Yeon’s first live-action film and a sequel to his recent “Seoul Station,” a zombie actioner that recently won the Silver Crow award at the Brussels Animation festival.

There is one notable Korean absentee from the 2016 Cannes line-up, the country’s leading minimalist dramatist, Hong Sang-soo (“Right Now, Wrong Then,” “Woman is the Future of Man”.) His latest musing “Yourself And Yours” was expected to make a debut in Cannes – and it still could do if Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week see fit.

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