Four films, “Decision to Leave,” “Broker,” “The Hunt” and “No Return” selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival shed rays of hope for a positive uptake in the Korean film industry, severely damaged due to the COVID pandemic. Juxtaposed against a fruitful run in 2019, the year Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or, the massive slow down of the industry saw box office sales plummeting, sizable shrinking of the business, theater closures and a backlog of unreleased films
At last year’s Busan Film Festival’s Asian Contents & Film Market veteran film director Park Chan Wook said the release date for “Decision to Leave” was uncertain and as no one is rushing, the team is constantly retouching parts of the film. Now with a paradigm shift in consumer habits, what does the road to recovery look like?
Park Giyong, chairman of the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), says: “The model where moviegoers watch films at scheduled times at a cinema has collapsed. The COVID era has changed habits in a way where people now watch anywhere, at any time.”
He adds that while losses are heaviest for conventional players who stuck with traditional business models, the clear winners are platforms and creators.
Eugene Kim, co-executive producer for “The Hunt’’ says, “I believe it was most important to create good content consistently without giving up in spite of the market conditions.”
Productions proved to be arduous globally but Korean producers remained resilient in the challenging landscape.
Since the pandemic, KOFIC established the COVID-19 special support funds in a bid to revive the film industry. Resources were distributed among independent arthouses, theaters and film distributors. More recently, salary support and training were offered to less-experienced film crew and staff. Funds capped at 30 billion won ($23.6 million) in 2020, but increased to a whopping $45 million in 2022 after pic professionals cried out for more financial aid. KOFIC has requested for fresh urgent funds to restart the film circulation process.
There are more than a hundred unreleased titles since Korean movie circulation came to a screeching halt. “Filmmakers held the fear that movie releases during the pandemic were expected to flop and chose to wait it out,” Park says.
Due to slow releases, South Korea has lost market dominance to Hollywood for the first time in over a decade. On the flip side, over-the-top platforms became consumers’ convenient choice for content and shifted filmmakers’ focus to profitable TV series.
“Theatrical release has become exceedingly difficult. Most film production companies are moving their focus to TV series rather than feature-length movies,” says independent writer and film director, Noh Doyeon. “Producers are turning their eyes on webtoons to secure IP. They are not looking for new directors but only new source materials and screenplays that can easily turn into profitable TV series.”
As filmmakers shuffle between film and TV series creation with OTT platforms in the mix, Noh says feature-film budgets and production will remain the same, but independent art cinema might gradually disappear.
“The style of cinema and storytelling will change,” he says. “The cuts will be more fast paced and the audience will pay less attention to details. Instead of going to the theaters and sitting there for two hours, people will watch content in their living room or mobile phones.”
Jérémy Segay, Korean cinema expert and former Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight programmer, offers an alternate perspective, “The presence of four Korea-set or Korean-speaking films at this year’s Official Selection in Cannes is very much business as usual for Korean cinema. It is also not surprising to witness two Korean directors competing at Cannes the same year.”
Segay looks back at the festival prior to the pandemic, “After the historical breakout in 2000, it has almost been a yearly routine to find a Korean film in competition at Cannes. One could even argue that Korean cinema has a reserved slot for the Cannes Midnight shows with a continuous presence since 2014.”
Strong interests in collaborating in the peninsula proves to be an after-effect of Korean content’s string of successive runs all over the world. Segay adds, “With the current footprint and achievement of Korean culture over the last two decades, it’s natural for directors from all corners of the world to seek cooperation with talents from the peninsula or wanting to tell Korea-set stories [as with Davy Chou’s “No Return”].
More or less the same fare as in yesteryears when any filmmaker had the desire to make an “American” film at some stage in his or her career.”
Besides experienced actors making directorial debuts as “Squid Game” lead Lee Jung-jae did with “The Hunt,” international co-production and cultural mixing among directors, cast and the production crew, though not a new concept, will likely persist in the Korean film industry’s road to recovery.
Chinese actor Tang Wei, who stars in Park Chan Wook’s “Decision to Leave” and “Broker,” directed by Japanese director Hirokazu Kor-eeda with a Korean cast, are clear recent examples.
“These creators are brave to make these films and I’m looking forward to seeing the international audience’s responses,” says KOFIC’s Park.
Selected films are expected for a summer release. Further details yet to be confirmed.
Park also predicts it’ll take another two years for the film industry to adapt to new content consumption behaviors, navigate this “post-COVID” ecosystem, and re-create the once special experience every moviegoer had.