Whao, there is a possiblity that Fly Daddy Fly will be made into a Hollywood movie. This article was exploring the remakes of Korean movies and this movie was named. I am surprised that Hollywood may be drawing the remake from the Korean version and not the Japanese version. The Koreans are aggressive marketers indeed!ASIAN POP
Saving cinema's Seoul
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The resurgence of the Korean film industry has had Tinseltown moguls licking their chops for the past decade. Jeff Yang explores how Korea's biggest media conglomerate, CJ Entertainment, is connecting with ó and investing in ó Hollywood's power players, with an eye toward going global.
HONOLULU ó Studio exec Ted Kim is in Hawaii. Not on vacation, though his wife and three kids have come from Los Angeles for the weekend, catching a few spare hours of daddy-time before Kim's job bounces him back around the continent or across the ocean. No, Kim is in Honolulu for business, making the rounds at an event that, for his purposes, is at least as important as Sundance or Tribeca: the Hawaii International Film Festival.
That's because Kim heads up the budding American division of CJ Entertainment ó a company that, despite its blanket anonymity here in the States, is one of the most potent forces in Asia's rapidly shifting entertainment landscape. As Korea's largest integrated media conglomerate, CJ is a powerhouse in areas ranging from distribution and theatrical exhibition to production, new media, and cable broadcast. And with Korea's domestic film market rapidly reaching maturity, CJ is looking to opportunities abroad to keep its growth engine roaring.
And thus, Hawaii ó the most Asian of American states, whose demographic and geographical positioning makes it an ideal testbed for transplanted, transcultural media.
"This is where the crossovers begin," says Kim. "The whole phenomenon of Korean content being consumed by non-Korean people here in the U.S.; this is where it started. Put it this way: On local cable here, KBFD, the Korean-language TV station, is Channel 4 ó between Fox and NBC. You don't see that in any other market, not even L.A. It's a very cool development."
Given Hawaii's unique status, it's not surprising that CJ has a healthy representation at HIFF: It has no fewer than five works among the event's two-dozen-or-so strong feature lineup, making it by far the most prominent studio on the festival's schedule. In fact, perceptive viewers might recognize the array of films CJ is deploying at the event as a set of celluloid tea leaves that together offer a glimpse into the company's future, and that of the Korean film industry as a whole.
"The Korean film industry is now at a really critical stage," says Kim. "It may be early to say that we're at a 'make or break' moment, but we're getting pretty close. The run-up over this past decade has been amazing, but there's going to be a shakeup pretty soon ó something's going to happen. Something has to happen."
Our house, our rules
One of the truly startling things about the rise of the Korean film industry is the suddenness with which the industry emerged as a global cinematic force. Up until 1988, Korean cinema was publicly subsidized and largely government controlled; filmmakers were constrained by political censorship (when they weren't being coerced to produce works of outright propaganda), and this creative manipulation understandably depressed consumer appetite for domestic film product. By the early '90s, locally produced films made up just 16 percent of the Korean film market, with the vast majority of box office going toward Hollywood product instead.
But 1992 marked the first early milestone in a shift that would transform Korean cinema. That was the year that the diversified megacorp Samsung underwrote Kim Ui-seok's romantic comedy "Marriage Story," the first Korean film to be funded without government money. It proved to be a monster hit, generating the third highest box office ever for a Korean film, and prompting speculation among Korea's other leading conglomerates (what Koreans call the "chaebols") that locally produced entertainment might well be a potential new source of profit.
Those thoughts were underscored the following year, when Im Kwon-taek, the grand master of Korean cinema, released his lushly nostalgic "Sopyonje." Despite its esoteric narrative (it follows a trio of wandering p'ansori performers as they travel the land seeking to perfect their interpretation of that ur-traditional Korean musical art), "Sopyonje" became the first Korean film to sell over a million tickets ó all at one venue, Seoul's Danseong Theater, where it screened for over 196 uninterrupted days.
Blood was in the water, and a frenzy of investment was unleashed. The chaebols launched movie divisions nearly in unison, and swarmed to fund new projects by journeyman local directors like Jang Sun-woo, Park Kwang-soo, and Lee Myung-Se ó the so-called "Korean New Wave." ("I think it's hilarious that these filmmakers were instantly dubbed the 'New Wave,'" laughs Kim. "Korean film had essentially just been invented. What was the 'Old Wave' ó Im Kwon-taek? That's pretty much it.")
While the film bug was running epidemic among the chaebols, none made as big or as splashy a move as the company then known as Cheil Jedang. A large and somewhat boring food combine spun off from the Samsung mothership in 1994 when that chaebol decided to focus on technology, its leadership had been turned over to a pair of enterprising siblings ó Samsung founder Byung-chul Lee's grandkids, Jay and Miky Lee.
Just months after being handed the reins, the duo decided to steer Cheil Jedang toward a brave new course, by placing a mammoth bet on an ambitious startup being launched by a trio of notable silver screen titans, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. DreamWorks SKG was Hollywood's first new full-service studio in a generation, and thus offered both unique opportunity and considerable risk. But the Lees didn't flinch: Laying down $300 million, an almost inconceivable sum for a pair of untried thirtysomethings, they turned the newly formed CJ Entertainment into DreamWorks' second largest outside investor.
The investment got them entree into a world to which Korean cinema had never had access, and which sister Miky in particular had always adored ó the glittery parallel dimension known as Hollywood. But it wasn't Tinseltown's flash and glamour that appealed to Miky, but rather its craft and sophistication, its proven ability to create truly globe-spanning works of art and commerce. A cinephile since her youth, Miky longed to share that passion with her countrymen. To her, the real prize in the DreamWorks deal was exclusive rights to distribute the studio's works in Asia, providing a creative pipeline to fuel her dream ó the launch of Korea's first chain of modern, high-end multiplex cinemas. "Our investment in DreamWorks isn't a destination," she confidently explained to the New York Times in 1996. "It's the departing point."
Though the financial community slammed the DreamWorks deal at its outset, in hindsight it proved to be a game-changer. 1997's financial meltdown forced Samsung and most of the major chaebols to sell off or shut down their entertainment divisions, but CJ's massive investment and long-term obligations would have forced them to stay the course even if Miky weren't a true believer in her cause.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the chaebols' film operations inadvertently led to projects being put in the hands of young (and cheap) filmmakers, most of whom had skipped or cut short the lengthy, mandatory apprenticeship that preceded directorship in the traditional "Chungmuro" system (named for "Korean Hollywood," the Seoul neighborhood where the offices of studios and production companies cluster like mushrooms). And because the moneymen of the chaebols were focused on far bigger problems, this generation of novice directors got the opportunity to make their first movies, unattended and mostly unfettered, just so long as their budgets stayed low enough to fly beneath the corporate radar.
"They pretty much got to do whatever they wanted to," says CJ's Kim. "There were no rules about structure ó none of this Syd Field three-act stuff. Tonally, subject-matter-wise, they were able to go wild. They were given complete freedom to just make great movies."
The result was a creative efflorescence, as an unruly set of artists whose sensibilities were shaped by Western genre flicks rather than Korea's tradition of formalist melodrama got their hands on the tools and resources to craft strikingly original ó and commercial ó films; movies like Kang Je-gyu's "Shiri," a leather-taut spy thriller that set a new box office record in 1999, selling over 2 million tickets and surpassing even Hollywood blockbusters like "Titanic" and "The Matrix."
Other breakouts quickly followed: The chilling slasher flick "Tell Me Something," the addictively perky romantic comedy "My Sassy Girl," and Park Chan-wook's military thriller "Joint Security Area." Soon more and more of CJ's multiplex screens turned from showing the likes of "Gladiator" and "Shrek" to showing this fresh wave of domestically produced cinema ó and audiences were lining up to watch. By 2001, over half of Korea's domestic box office was being generated by locally produced works. By 2005, the percentage had risen to nearly two-thirds, and some local films had surpassed $50 million gross. By 2006, films like "The Host" and "The King and the Clown" were flirting with the magical number of $100 million ó the universal breakpoint for blockbuster status.
Remarkably, Korea had evolved into a market that could not only support its own indigenous cinema, but defend it against Hollywood incursion. A testament to this can be seen in the fact that three of the industry's top 10 all-time biggest box office hits are "Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War" (2004), "Silmido" (2003) and "Welcome to Dongmakgol" (2005) ó works so rooted in Korea's unique historical and social circumstances that they could never have been conceived of by Hollywood, nor would they have much crossover potential in other markets.
"A lot of these works were made out of passion," says Kim. "The filmmakers had no other way to say what they wanted to say. They couldn't have even made these films 10, 20 years ago" ó stories about the Korean War, about the partition of a people, about the corruption and injustice that followed in its wake. And Koreans have responded to the telling of these powerfully personal stories with packed houses.
At this year's HIFF, CJ is offering the U.S. premiere of Kim Ji-hoon's "May 18," a film dramatization of the events of 1980's 10-day Kwangju Uprising, the popular movement against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan that was brutally crushed by the regime, leading to the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of citizens. Though few people outside of the nation have heard of the Kwangju massacre, it was a critical moment in Korean history that ultimately led to the return of the nation to civilian rule. As novelist Hwang Sok-yong has said, ""The Kwangju Uprising lit the fuse of the dynamite stick of democracy."
"May 18" has earned some $50 million at the Korean box office, and is 2007's second-highest-grossing local film. "These films, being made by directors who 20 or 30 years ago actually went through these tough times, they're a unique part of what makes up our national cinema," says Kim. "I mean, just the fact that you can even say 'Korean cinema' now with a straight face is amazing, but it's absolutely incredible that a convergence of factors have created an environment where stories like this can finally be told."
Hallyu like me now
But if one dimension of the rise of Korean cinema has been the commercial validation of intensely "Korean" Korean films, the story that the rest of the world knows is that of the globalization of Korean popular culture ó "Hallyu," the so-called Korean Wave. Since the late '90s, Korea has emerged as the reigning pop engine of greater East Asia, with films like "My Sassy Girl," musicians like Rain, and especially, TV melodramas like "Winter Sonata" captivating hundreds of millions in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia.
In Japan, the popularity of Hallyu has led to a sharp spike in travel to Korea (with some statistics showing a rise of 30 percent per year since 2003) and the successful launch of services like Rakuen Korea, a matchmaking firm that offers to set Tokyo women up with their Seoul mates; In China, Korean series take up more airtime on government TV channels than all other imported programming combined, and even President Hu Jintao has admitted to being a fan of the ultrapopular K-drama "Jewel in the Palace." In Vietnam, Korean shows have become so prevalent that at one point the government threatened a ban or quota system unless Korean broadcasters corrected the "imbalance" by airing Vietnamese shows as well.
"Somewhere along the line, Korean content became exportable throughout Asia," says Kim. "You had a situation where Hong Kong and Japan's content markets were in decline, and Korea kind of stepped in to fill that void."
Like other Korean content creators, CJ has benefited from the burgeoning of Hallyu; CJ-distributed films like "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "My Tutor Friend," and "My Boss, My Hero" have done well across Asia. But Kim notes that CJ has long been concerned about the long-term sustainability of Hallyu ó and signs have already emerged that the phenomenon is plateauing, if not fading away. "The Host," a clever 2006 monster flick that rose to become the No. 1 highest-grossing film in Korean history, did relatively poorly elsewhere in East Asia. And even the K-drama phenomenon has flagged somewhat, as no other series has caught fire with international fans the way "Winter Sonata" and "Jewel in the Palace" did.
"Look, if Korea were completely identified by (pop star) Rain, ("Winter Sonata" dreamboat) Bae Yong-jun, and ("The Host" director) Bong Jun-ho ó if they were the only name brands out there, we'd just have to hope their planes don't go down," says CJ's Kim. "That's a terrifying proposition if we're in it for the long term. You can't build a business around that. We've been spending our time trying to build systems, not just stars."
A big part of that effort has been leveraging CJ's stockpile of intellectual property through remakes and adaptations ó taking small stories and amplifying them for global consumption with bigger budgets and stellar casts. While past remakes have provoked controversy, primarily because of concerns about questionable casting ("The Lake House," anyone?) and drastically altered story lines, CJ's establishment of its American office has given it a means to exert greater control over the course of development.
"Past remakes have been the result of producers just selling off rights to American studios," says Kim. "We're doing something different. We're actually producing ó we're going out there, taking stories, and packaging stars and directors around them, ensuring that there's some integrity. We have 'My Sassy Girl,' starring Elisha Cuthbert; that'll go out sometime next year. We're doing 'A Bittersweet Life' with Fox Atomic. We're currently packaging 'A Dirty Carnival' ó I can't talk about who's involved with that, but we're really excited. And you'll be reading soon about the remake of 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,' which I'm really excited about ó it's a passion piece for me, so we've been really patient about getting the right people in the right places."
Though a few of these films, like "Sassy Girl" and "Lady Vengeance," were breakout hits in Asia, the gang-noir flicks "Bittersweet Life" and "Dirty Carnival" were middling commercial successes at best ó but garnered critical acclaim for their tight plotting and wickedly sophisticated narratives. The right remake offers these stories a new lease on life, before an expanded, global audience; two of the films that CJ has brought to Hawaii, the identity-swap thriller "Soo" (a young gangster goes undercover as his dead twin, a cop, in order to try to find his brother's murderer) and the high-school fight comedy "Fly Daddy Fly" (a father takes boxing lessons from a high school thug to avenge his daughter's humiliation) offer similar ripe-for-adaptation conceits.
"Our goal ultimately is to be known as more than just purveyors of Korean entertainment," says Kim. "We aim to be a world-class entertainment company. We have local businesses in China, Thailand, Vietnam ó we're investing in productions in those territories, and we're continuing to look at other markets to step into. Hollywood is just one part of the strategy that we're developing. Our overall aim is to establish an interconnection, an ongoing conversation, between Korea and the other film markets of the world."
One of the interesting rationales behind CJ's decision to package, rather than raffle off, its remake rights has been a conscious effort to incorporate Asian American talent wherever possible. Several of the key players in its ongoing development projects, including writers and directors, are drawn from the rising ranks of young, independent Korean American creators.
"We really feel like there's a terrific resource here, and that we need to nurture that resource," says Kim. "It's not just a matter of doing a socially responsible thing as a company ó it's part of our strategy. We think it's important for people in Asia to know that Asian Americans are a big deal. We're committed to establishing a talent and information flow, a dialogue, between the U.S. and Asia."
An emblem of that commitment can be seen in CJ's production of Michael Kang's "West 32nd," also screening at HIFF this year. The company staked a reported $3 million on an original script from a young and mostly unknown director, despite knowing the challenging economics of independent cinema. "We know what the numbers look like for indie film, and there isn't a business model in the world that can make those numbers financially rational," says Kim. "But funding a movie like 'West 32nd' allows us to support and nurture Asian American talent ó so we can legitimately have a discussion around where our Spike Lee, our Tyler Perry is going to come from. If we're going to succeed long-term, we need to have those guys."
Kim's dedication to the development of Asian American filmmakers is deep-rooted. Growing up in Seattle and going to college at UC Berkeley, he originally dreamed of being a writer ó "but my dad told me I was crazy and that I had to do something else," he laughs. Despite heading off to law school at the University of Arizona, he maintained connections to the creative community, and soon found himself reviewing contracts and negotiating deals for friends who were emerging as artists and multimedia developers. This eventually led him to become executive producer on a film called "Yellow," directed by Chris Chan Lee ó a movie that proved to be a seminal one for Asian American cinema.
"It was such an important thing to me personally to be part of something that was helping to create a definition of Asian Americana, so to speak," says Kim. "'Yellow' showed how Asian American pop culture could be woven into the fabric of mainstream pop culture. Historically, there hasn't been a vibrant marketplace for our product, but Chris's film demonstrated that the talent is there ó the ideas are there. When I was a lawyer, I had clients who were African American filmmakers, writers, and directors, and they'd complain to me, 'It's ridiculous that there are only eight African American films per year.' And I'd just look at them and say, 'Eight films? That's a dream. We Asian Americans are lucky if we get two!'"
Making a market
In a sense, the conundrum facing CJ boils down to a chicken and egg scenario. For the company to be successful long-term, it needs to find a way to translate its talent and content into forms that mainstream consumers ó in the United States and internationally ó can embrace. But for them to get that opportunity, they need to put stakes down in the mainstream. Part of their strategy lies in empowering Asian American creators, in the hope that this talent can eventually serve as a bridge into the bigger media market; they're also seeking to establish connections with Asian American consumers, breaking ground on their first CJ-branded multiplex in Los Angeles' Koreatown and seeking out other viable locations for theaters.
But CJ is investigating other ways of establishing a mainstream beachhead as well. The closing film of the Hawaii International Film Festival is a movie called "August Rush," a midbudget drama from Warner Bros. about a boy who uses his inborn musical talents to seek out the parents ó both musicians ó who were forced to give him up at birth. It stars Robin Williams, Keri Russell, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as well as child phenom Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"); early buzz on the film taps it as an irresistible holiday sleeper. CJ is one of the major financing partners on the film.
"The movie business in the U.S. is changing," says Kim. "At one point, studios like Disney used to make 40-something films a year. Last year, they made eight. You're seeing this sharp contraction, where studios are focusing on the upper end of the movie business ó the franchise films, which used to be budgeted at $100 million and are now $150 million. And then on the low end, they're going for cheap genre stuff, horror films, action films, that are pegged at under $20 million. You don't see them playing in that big middle space ó and that's created opportunities for companies like Summit ("Babel," "Michael Clayton") and the Weinstein Co. to step in, to operate in the middle."
"August Rush" is CJ's first investment in a Hollywood production, and, like its bet on "West 32nd," it's a key learning experience for the company; can it find a way to play a role in the emerging opportunity of midmarket cinema, and can it perhaps use a foothold in the middle to "graduate" talented Asian and Asian American artists from low-budget indie fare into a bigger arena and a brighter spotlight?
"I like to think that the difference in how films are made in Asia versus the U.S. is actually an advantage for us, not a liability," says Kim. "In Korea, directors are given the resources they need to make the films they want to make, and their fingerprints are all over the finished product. And we think we can translate that experience to the U.S., if we can find the right opportunities, and bring our infrastructure in where needed. Think of what a great young Asian American director could do if they didn't have to worry about their next film ó if they could just focus on the movie in front of them."
The tea leaves have started to cluster, and the picture they're forming is ... interesting. In Korea in the late '90s, CJ benefited from being the only enterprise available to take a chance on a generation of fresh, untested talent. Now, a decade later and with growth in the Korean domestic market tapering off, CJ seems ready to double down on that bet ó positioning itself as the platform of choice for a new cohort of young guns, Asian and American by birth and culture, and capable, perhaps, of bringing the company success at a global level.
"That's ultimately where we want to be," says Kim. "We aren't going away, and we have absolutely the support we need from a corporate standpoint to do this. And yes, we need to be shrewd and disciplined, but we have a large appetite for growth and success."
Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for the market research company Iconoculture (www.iconoculture.com). He is the author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop culture news. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?.../10/24/apop.DTL