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Few share spoils of Korean film revival

‘Masquerade’ hits 10 million mark, but once again raises the issue of corporate dominance in movies

A scene from “Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King (Masquerade)” (CJ Entertainment)
A scene from “Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King (Masquerade)” (CJ Entertainment)
On Saturday, local period film “Gwanghae: the Man Who Became the King” (Masquerade) surpassed the 10 million mark in attendance, becoming the second Korean film this year to reach the milestone.

The film reached the mark in just 38 days, only about two months after director Choi Dong-hun’s star-studded heist film “The Thieves” achieved the same feat. Only five other local films, including Bong Jun-ho’s 2006 monster flick “The Host” and Yoon Je-kyoon’s disaster film “Haeundae,” have ever passed the 10 million mark.

The Korean Film Council is calling this year “the renaissance” or heyday of Korean films, as it is the first time that two local films have broken the 10 million milestone in the same year. Local auteur Kim Ki-duk also made the headlines by winning the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival for his bleak morality tale “Pieta” ― becoming the first Korean filmmaker to win the award.

However, both “The Thieves” and “Gwanghae” are products of two of the three biggest local film distributors ― CJ E&M, Lotte Entertainment and Showbox/Mediaplex ― which are often criticized for their hold on theaters in the country. CJ CGV, the largest multiplex chain in Korea is a division of CJ E&M. Lotte Cinema and Lotte Entertainment belong to Lotte Confectionary Co., Ltd. Showbox/Mediaplex is tied to to MegaBox, another multiplex chain in Korea.

“Gwanghae,” especially, was a three-year project for CJ E&M ― the company invested in the film as well as producing and distributing it. CJ E&M spent some 3 billion won just on the marketing of the film, on top of 6 billion won spent on production. Meanwhile, Kim Ki-duk could only afford 700 million won to market his Venice-winning “Pieta.”

“Gwanghae” does have its merits. Directed by Choo Chang-min and starring hallyu mega star Lee Byung-hun, the film tells the engaging story of King Gwanghae, the 15th ruler of Joseon (1392-1910). Lee plays dual roles as the king and the fictional Ha-sun, a street actor who ends up standing in for the ruler when he is poisoned and taken ill.

An entertaining yet moving account of a stand-in ruler who strives to serve the people and their interests, the film was calculatedly released just a few months ahead the upcoming presidential election. Democratic United Party presidential candidate Moon Jae-in watched the film and met with director Choo and its producer Won Dong-yeon after many viewers suggested the role of Ha-sun reminded them of late President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon served as the former chief of staff to late Roh.

However, many still criticize the big distributors. Director Kim Ki-duk famously criticized the distributor of “The Thieves” during a press meeting last month. “Some movies dominate the local theaters simply because they want to hit the 10 million mark,” he told reporters. “Now that’s very much like real thieves.”

A film producer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said it’s always been difficult for small-scale distributors to secure theaters.

“It’s not a fair game to begin with,” he said. “Of course, more people will see your film if they are screened all day, everyday, 24/7, in every single theater in the country.”

“We gave about 200 theaters out of 800 we have for ‘Gwanghae,’” Kim Dae-hee from CJ CGV told The Korea Herald. “And we normally give about 330 theaters to Hollywood blockbusters, so ‘Gwanghae’ isn’t actually dominating the screens.”

Lee Yong-sun, a researcher at KOFIC, said the state-run organization has been working on a number of projects to support independent and small-scale films.

“It’s a systemic problem,” he said. “We know it’s difficult for them to secure theaters to screen their works. We’ve been working on a number of projects to support them, including an official contract which requires the theaters to screen their works for the duration of the contracted time.”

By Claire Lee