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August 20, 2007

Korea, Beyond the Blockbusters

Sixth annual NY Korean Film Fest looks closer at underrepresented national cinema

A scene from Tazza: The High Rollers, a featured selection of this year's NY Korean Film Festival (Photo: CJ Entertainment)

No one loves movies the way South Koreans do. To American audiences, it seems extraordinary for a new film to approach the figures of national box office record-holders like Star Wars or Spiderman. And yet since 1999, at least one film per year has breached the South Korea's all-time top-10 gross list. Successes in 2006 looked to make it a red-letter year as Bong Joon-ho's The Host, the current highest grossing film in
South Korean history, led a handful of domestic blockbusters including Kim Yong-hwa's 200 Hundred Pounds Beauty (#9) and
Lee Jun-ik's The King and the Clown (#2). However, according to an article from The Hankyoreh, a noted South Korean
newspaper, only about 13 of the 108 Korean films released last year enjoyed such returns, while Variety reports that the rate of exports this
year has plummeted to two-thirds of last year's number.

With the exception of The Host, however, box-office successes like Voice of a
Murderer
and Miracle on 1st Street have been released in America only for limited engagements at art houses that cater to
specific foreign niche markets (like New York's Imaginasian Theater, whose repertory schedule is mostly made up of Indian and Korean films). Not a moment too soon, then, comes a possible antidote to that trend: From Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, the Korea Society's sixth annual New York Korean Film Festival will bring Korean film to an international audience -- specifically Gothamites -- with a line-up that goes out of its way to include a little bit of everything. Spanning three different locations (BAM, IFC Center and Cinema Village), the festival boasts gangster films, romantic comedies, short films, documentaries, political melodramas, an Im Kwon-taek retrospective, a Tartan Horror sidebar, a period piece and a biopic.

Despite the festival's new upscale digs, festival programmer Yuni Cho is still under pressure from anxious distributors. Cho confessed that the The King and the Clown was included in this year's line-up at distributor CJ Entertainment's request. A huge word-of-mouth hit in South Korea in late 2005, it feels a little like leftovers in an otherwise fresh line-up. "CJ planned to release (it) nationally this fall," Cho told The Reeler recently, "and in order to boost the word of mouth before the releasing, they thought our film festival was at the right moment."

The festival has found itself at the mercy of circumstance in other respects as well: The New York Post's Vincent Musetto chose eight films for the Tartan
Horror sidebar but either overlooked or ignored the fact that Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not a horror film. And with a decrease in the international demand for Korean films, pioneering programs like NYKFF suffer big
time. Deciding what does and doesn't make the cut is always a difficult decision for Cho, especially when it comes to presenting a balanced line-up. "In terms of curating films, I've tried to keep the balance between artistic and highly entertaining films," Cho said. "The goal of a Korean film festival in New York, since 2001, was to introduce various genres of Korean movies to New Yorkers. At the beginning, there was high acclaim for Korean films internationally, (but) inevitably we had to compete with lots of other film festivals, universities and cultural organizations. So it's getting hard to have the films that we really want."

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This year, the festival tried to stay as true to its mission as possible. The Im Kwon-taek retrospective features the 120-minute cut of his massive-budget Chunhyang (omitting 16 minutes of footage released in the original Korean release). Unfortunately, the impetus for the retrospective itself is conspicuously absent. "Honestly speaking," Cho said, "the whole reason we planned to have an Im Kwon-taek retrospective was to celebrate his latest movie, Beyond the Years. But to make a long story short, we couldn't get the film." Cho went on to say that the films in the retrospective, with the exception of The General's Son, focus on traditional Korean traditions, including 'pansori,' which are traditional Korean folk songs.

The festival programmers chose "universality" as the theme for their short film program, stressing the importance of attracting a diverse audience. The festival is at once a rallying point for Korean-American citizens and a chance for the international community to celebrate Korean cinema. Our School, a featured documentary about the struggle of Korean-Japanese immigrants to adapt to life in Hokkaido, documents a community's struggle against indifference and the looming threat of cultural assimilation.

For New York-based Korean-Americans, the students' uphill struggle may be a painfully familiar one. In Manhattan, Koreatown has never experienced the high volume of foot traffic Chinatown's Canal Street enjoys. In Queens, the budding Korean population has faced its own share of difficulty. Thanks to thriving businesses like the Gateaux Bakery and Bon Chon Chicken chains, a distinctly Korean presence has appeared seemingly overnight, unsettling a handful of xenophobic residents. About a year ago, residents of Douglaston, a suburb of Queens with a Korean population second only to Flushing, witnessed a vicious attack on three Chinese-American students by Kevin Brown, a drunken Caucasian who, apparently unaware of the difference between the two nationalities, screamed Korean racial slurs as he assaulted the trio.

While a film festival cannot heal such ugly wounds, it can build bridges between communities by offering a cultural exchange that transcends its expansive line-up's minor compromises. "Most Korean-Americans can't speak or read Korean well, so this is a rare chance for them to enjoy their own culture," Cho said. "I have found very often parents bring their children, and it makes me feel really good. Being an immigrant myself in New York, I want to show their feeling of being alien and the way they live in overseas to other people. We try to open a new gate and provide more opportunities [for New Yorkers] to access Korean films."

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