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2009/09/25 09:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) For better or worse, Korean cinema audience is changing

By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, Sept. 25 (Yonhap) -- There were two surprising incidents in South Korean cinema this year, indicating slow but clear changes in the trends of South Korea's moviegoers.

   First, works of two of the most popular and powerful directors in the country drew lackluster responses from local fans, in contrast to the rave reviews they garnered from professional critics at home and abroad.

   On the other hand, some rather more straightforward movies, clearly belonging to the entertainment category, recorded huge ticket sales, surprising cinema experts who were convinced South Korean audiences are somewhat highbrow and sophisticated.

   "From mid-1990s through early 2000s, Korean cinema was dominated by so-called 'populace vanity' with people keen to try understanding even the most abstruse films. Strictly 'for festival' movies, I call them," film critic Lee Dong-jin said. "But audiences nowadays clearly know what they want and no longer rave over a film just for the director's brand power. They are just too tired to do that anymore."

   Koreans have long been noted for their special affection and pride for their own cinema. Unlike some other countries, they have regarded domestic movies as "first-grade products" and defended the country's controversial screen quota system which is largely disadvantageous to foreign movies.

   More importantly, they were passionate and willing enough to appreciate creations of some of the most esoteric filmmakers in the country, an aspect that many overseas filmmakers and experts envied. As a result, the country's film industry expanded both in quantity and quality at an overwhelming speed, nurturing several top name filmmakers whose fame reached far and wide outside the country.

   "In many countries, Hollywood is (regarded) the best and national product is way below in people's minds, but Korean audiences will go to Korean films and don't think of them as second-grade product," Australian film critic Adrian Martin said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency earlier this year. "In that sense, Korean cinema is ahead of a lot of cinemas in the world."

This spring, "Thirst" and "Mother," works of two of the most influential South Korean auteurs Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, respectively, were released in high anticipation.

   Both films recorded rather meager ticket sales however -- 2.3 million for "Thirst" and 3 million for "Mother" -- a startling result especially considering the directors' name power. Bong's previous feature "The Host (2006)" had topped the 10 million viewer mark, considered a milestone in the country with a population of 48 million.

   "The movie left me with an unpleasant feeling," said one blogger after watching "Thirst," which received the third-highest award at the Cannes film festival in May. "I am frankly worn out from trying to understand the director's intentions."

   "I think I can no longer call myself a Park Chan-wook fan," the blogger on naver.com, one of South Korea's largest web portals, went on. "I am craving something lighter and easier to comprehend."

   The incident indicates a critical shift that movie directors and producers will inevitably have to pay attention to, film critic Heo Mun-yeong said.

   "What personally surprised me was the fact that both directors chose not to compromise with the audience and created works that most strongly represent their characters and genres," he said. "Mega-hit directors who have, until now, been relatively successful in the box office with films that stand in between the boundaries of art and entertainment cinema will now be forced to make some adjustments."

   "The current environment can be said to be more hostile to directors with clear color," he added.

   In the summer, two domestic movies stormed the box office despite the flood of blockbusters from Hollywood.

Mixing drama with a right amount of comedy and tragedy, the two movies "Haeundae" and "Take Off" dominated the local box office for months, with the former becoming the first South Korean movie to exceed the 10 million viewer mark in three years. As a result, domestic movies took up 67 percent of the domestic film market last month, an overwhelming increase of 15.9 percentage points from July.

   "I was laughing and crying at the same time watching it," blogger IMURS said after watching "Haeundae." "It was better than any Hollywood disaster movies I have seen."

   Most professional film reviewers, however, were reluctant to laud the two, mostly criticizing the lack of logic and depth in their respective plots.

   Others focused on "why" South Korean moviegoers, once touted for their sophisticated cinematic taste, had been drawn to movies that were entertaining enough but shallow compared to past box office successes.

   "The success of these movies shows audiences will no longer follow the cue of the movie itself. It is now the filmmakers who have to obey the audience's taste for success," critic Lee said. "The increased audience power is fine enough, but what worries me is the fact that while people might want some lighter fun now, that will bore them very soon."

   Critic Yoon Young-il also raised concerns about the missing "essence" in the two movies.

   "They are without doubt very clever and entertaining, but also very quasi-Hollywood and pro-commercial. Frankly speaking, I could not see the director's ambition in the movies," he said.

   Romantic comedies "My Girlfriend is an Agent," "Scandal Makers" and "Running Turtle" also did well in the box office, by "keeping to the new rules," an expression used by critics.

   Films that Korean fans currently appear to favor are those based on somewhat corny and easy-to-comprehend plots, feature "good people," are light enough to watch with children and mix several different genres with a touch of comedy.

   Film experts, including Darcy Paquet, a U.S. film critic who has been running the Korean film site koreanfilm.org since 1999, worried that the current audience propensity may ruin the diversity of Korean cinema, one of its key elements of strength.

   For example, some of the "best works of the year" were being cold-shouldered by local fans, Paquet said.

   Critic Yoon agreed.

   "The real issue here is not whether the two films are high quality or not, but what it really means to the future of Korean film industry," he said. "Should all directors choose to go the easy way...Let's just say it will deal a very blow to our cinema."

   Critics added filmmakers must not overlook the small successes low-budget independent movies "Old Partner," "Breathless" and "Daytime Drinking" made this year.

   The fact that these indie films did better than high-budget creations by some of the most well-known directors in the country shows that at least some people are seeking new names and new genres, Yoon said.

   "This tells us that the audience could just be tired of seeing works by the same big name directors over and over again, but still crave for something different," he added.