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Virtual Reality Comes to Mainstream Cinema in South Korea

Some theaters add touch, smell and feel for an all-encompassing VR experience

As virtual reality becomes recognized as a viable film technology internationally, the Korean film industry is not hesitating to join the trend: film tech labs and visual effects houses are producing VR content more aggressively than ever, while major exhibitors are developing new technologies to screen this material.

Until quite recently, VR content was rarely available in cinemas as most VR productions have been designed for theme parks and experiential games. But now South Korea is catching up the global trend – a movement in which VR animation such as Eugene Chung’s “Arden’s Wake” draw wide attention and leading film festivals launch competition sections specifically for VR films.

South Korea has showcased quite a few notable VR film projects: in 2017, Gina Kim’s VR documentary “Bloodless” competed in the Venice film festival’s VR competition and won the best VR Story Award. Based on a true event in 1992, the film is about the murder of a Korean sex worker by an American soldier.

More recently, VR romance drama “Stay With Me” opened in the immersive 4DX format at the CJ-CGV cinema chain. Directed by Bryan Ku, “Stay” revolves around the relationship between a boy who dreams of becoming a musician but is too afraid to go on stage, and a girl who aspires to become an actress.

“When you think about VR, most of the time it would be either adventure, action or horror films,” Ku said at a press event for “Stay.” “I believe the greatest quality of VR lies in its capacity to let the audiences relate to the film emotionally, and romance drama is the genre that corresponds the most to this quality,” he continued.

The world’s first film production that was both shot in VR and screened in 4DX format, “Stay” was specifically designed for 4DX screening from the beginning and was shot in 360 degrees, for which CGV’s 4DX effect team joined the project from the development stage.

“4DX effects for VR should be different from those for other movies,” says Yoo Young-gun of CGV. “Visual elements are not enough to accomplish what VR is up to, which is to expand to a form of storytelling with its immersive characteristics maximized. With 4DX technology, the audiences can touch, smell and feel the films, meaning that virtual reality in its literal sense can be achieved.”

CJ CGV is aiming to globally introduce 4DX VR by applying VR technology to its 500 4DX theaters across the world.

“We are planning a VR add-on package, which allows exhibitors to show VR films, and are offering it to the 500 4DX theaters across the globe,” says Yoo.

On the other hand, Lotte Cinema, South Korea’s second-largest exhibition chain, arranged a special program dedicated to VR content earlier this year. The program’s selection included Patrick Kwon’s “Nine Days,” South Korea’s first VR movie designed for theatrical release.

“For this event we collaborated with Samsung and could use its HMDs and smartphones, but if we start regular VR screenings, it will be a lot costlier,” says Lotte’s Kang Seung-hyuk. “We will need to determine whether there’s enough content in VR that can cover these costs.”

Since VR is still at an early stage and barely has a stable market, most VR productions rely on support funds. The Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism and institutes such as Korea Creative Content Agency and National IT Industry Promotion Industry are funding VR projects. Also, the Korean Academy of Film Arts launched a special course for VR production.

At the same time, companies in the private sector are also making investments. Leading visual-effects house Dexter Studios is running a digital human virtual reality research lab and is working on a string of VR films that are set for theatrical releases at CGV within this year. The studio’s lineup includes sci-fi animation “From the Earth” and live-action horror picture “Trapped.”

(Pictured above: Viewers undergo an immersive experience at a CJ-CGV theater.)

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