Korea: making hay while Cannes sun still shines

Cannes saw three Korean films screening in competition this year, two of them picking up prizes. All received theatrical releases in Korea the same week they screened in Cannes, an unusual move for fe
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Cannes saw three Korean films screening in competition this year, two of them picking up prizes. All received theatrical releases in Korea the same week they screened in Cannes, an unusual move for festival films, particularly winning ones, which often spend several months on the festival circuit before domestic release.

The Housemaid, Poetry and Hahaha all screened in competition in Cannes, the first two in the main programme, Hahaha in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Hahaha won Best Film in Un Certain Regard. Poetry won best screenplay for writer (and director) Lee Chang-dong.

The release gamble, partly a response to the piracy problem that has all but removed the video market in Korea, paid off best for one film – ironically not the award winner.

IM Sang-soo’s The Housemaid, a remake of the 1960 Hanyo by KIM Ki-Young (who himself twice remade the film as Woman of Fire in 1971 and The Woman of Fire ’82 in 1982) garnered decent reviews from its screening at Cannes.

Essentially a story of adultery between a rich businessman and – surprise surprise – his housemaid, the black and white original was received by audiences yelling “Kill the bitch!” at the screen. It also successfully put an end to the career of the actress who played the eponymous role, with no producer prepared to gamble that audiences would take any more kindly to her in a different role.

YOUN Yuh-jung, who played in KIM’s first remake of Hanyo returned to the story forty years on, this time playing the most complex role, that of the conflicted housekeeper.

The film is explicitly sexual in a way that few Asian films made for mainstream markets are, although that is not unfamiliar territory for the director. Three of IM’s previous features, Girls’ Night Out, Tears and A Good Lawyer’s Wife have dealt explicitly with sexual material beyond socially-accepted norms.

At the box office, The Housemaid is tracking to be one of Korea’s top performers of the year. Screening on 400 screens (a wide release in Korea) and three weeks into release, it sits 2nd (after opening in top spot). It has taken over 15.6BN won ($19M), already placing it third in the year’s takings for local films, behind Secret Reunion and Harmony. It is expected to pass Harmony’s earnings within the next 2 weeks.

In a testament to the current popularity of IM’s reimagining of the story, KIM Ki-Young’s original (1960) Hanyo, which got its first DVD release in Korea last year, will this week return to Korean cinema screens.

Poetry is currently sitting on 1.1BN won ($1.3M) of box office and 8th in the rankings, chasing an older demographic. Built around another of Korea’s well-known senior actresses, YUN Jung-hee, it received less generous notices at Cannes, but still came away with the Best Screenplay prize.

Described as “over-discursive and dramatically slack” and “a movie for film critics and literary intelligentsia rather than average audiences” by one reviewer, it was also criticised for its length (140 minutes).

Asian audiences, however, seem to be blessed with greater attention spans than their Western counterparts; films that run two hours or more, rather than closer to 90 minutes, are still very common.

The story of an elderly woman finding solace in a poetry class while the rest of her world disintegrates around her, in the form of the onset of Alzheimers, caring for a disabled man who makes sexual advances, a grandson who rapes a girl who then kills herself, it’s hardly easy material or easy viewing.

While it has achieved overseas sales, completing deals for five territories during Cannes, its local box office has so far been disappointing, given the filmmaker”s stature in his home country.

Of the three Cannes films, the one which garnered best reviews, and won the Best Film prize in Un Certain Regard, Hahaha is performing least well at the box office, although it has had a much smaller release domestically.

Simultaneously deceptively simple and hellishly complicated in its structure, according to reviews, everything about it is layered, even its title which suggests amusement but also summer (ha being the Korean word for summer) and repetition, which is an integral part of the film’s construction.

Writer and director HONG Sang-soo also makes use of the talents of veteran Housemaid actress YOUN Yuh-jung, this time in a more comedic role.

The film, according to one review, “takes the scenic route”, which is apparently not uncommon for the director. Hahaha is Hong’s tenth film, six of which have been selected for Cannes, two of them (Woman is the Future of Man and Tale of Cinema) nominated for the Palme d’Or.

Despite a soft start at the box office, expectations are that Hahaha”s earnings will also take the scenic route and get there slowly. HONG’s films travel well and he works with very small budgets. Last year’s Like you Know It All was made for US$100,000. Three weeks into release, Hahaha has taken 2.8M won ($3.4M), already around 1.5 times its reported budget.

Overall, the immediate release strategy is paying off. In Korea, as in many non-English speaking territories, local-language fare is popular with audiences and traditionally performs better than locally-made films in English-speaking territories.

In 2009, six of the top ten grossing films were locally made, led by disaster epic Haeundae/Tidal Wave, which took $95M and was only kept off the top spot by Avatar.

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