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(Yonhap Feature) Korean film industry finds new path to reach out to overseas markets

All Headlines 09:00 April 21, 2016

(Editor's note: This story is the ninth of our feature series on the global boom of Korean pop culture, known as "hallyu" in Korean.)
By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, April 21 (Yonhap) -- Movie theaters have become part of Koreans' everyday lives with the annual number of moviegoers reaching 200 million for three years in a row from 2013. Korean films have claimed about half the tickets sold in local theaters since 2011.

South Korea is also home to the Busan International Film Festival, which has grown into Asia's largest film festival.

But in overseas markets, Korean films have long struggled to find a way to clinch a share in the global market largely dominated by big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

What they found as a solution was remaking South Korean films into co-productions with local film studios, employing local filmmakers, actors and actresses, and adapting screenplays in a way that can best suit the tastes of local moviegoers.

The first case of success came when "A Wedding Invitation," a Chinese remake of Korean director Oh Ki-hwan's debut film "Last Present," opened in 2013. Also directed by Oh, the remake changed everything from the original version, except for the main frame that the female lead dies. It then became the top-selling South Korean-Chinese co-produced film, earning more than 32 billion won (US$26.8 million) in China.

In 2015, CJ E&M, a Korean media company that co-produced the film, broke the record set by itself with "20 Once Again." It is a Chinese remake of local hit "Miss Granny" about a 70-something grandmother who suddenly regains the physical appearance of her 20s after visiting a mysterious photo studio.

The Chinese-language film logged 65.7 billion won in ticket sales from some 5,500 theaters across China.

In Vietnam, the localized version of the same Korean film became the highest grossing local film of all time in February. The remake "Sweet 20", co-produced with Vietnam's HK Film, earned US$4.85 million in total.

It stayed on top of the local box office for weeks from December, beating Hollywood blockbuster "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Previously, CJ's earlier Vietnamese film co-production, "Let Hoi Decide" was the biggest-grossing local film of all time.

Miss Granny's Japanese version came out early this month and has performed well amid favorable reviews from the audience, according to media reports.

"With a strong global distribution network built for the past century, Hollywood probably didn't have to study how to localize their products. But we're in a different situation," Yoon In-ho, chief of CJ E&M's public relations team, said. "If we export homegrown films tailored to meet the tastes of Korean moviegoers in their original state to foreign countries, the films can hardly succeed because of cultural differences."

He said he thinks the success of "Miss Granny" in Vietnam, China and Japan might be an answer to the film industry's years-long question on how to reach out to world markets.

Last month, CJ unveiled a plan for the film's Thai remake.

It said CJ Major Entertainment, a joint movie investment-production company between CJ E&M and Thailand's No. 1 cinema chain Major Cineplex, will start filming the Thai version in May for possible release at the year's end. The new film will be directed by Joey Araya of Thailand, CJ added.

The Korean movie is also expected to be remade in Spanish and Indonesian in the near future.

"20 Once Again," the Chinese remake, focused on melodrama, to meet the tastes of the Chinese audience who favor that type of drama, according to CJ.

It also changed many details to draw empathy from Chinese viewers, inserting a song by the popular Taiwanese singer Deng Li Jun and changing the place where the main character suddenly regains her youth from a public bath in the original plot to a park so the actress can joyfully dance in public.

Most of the film's major cast were from Chinese-speaking countries. It also has rising Chinese star Yang Zishan, veteran actress Kuei Ya-lei, Taiwanese heartthrob Chen Bolin and Luhan, an estranged Chinese member of one of the hottest K-pop boy bands, EXO, among its cast.

On the contrary, the Vietnamese version has more comical elements than the original Korean film. It hired actual Vietnamese comedians as assisting actors so they could deliver localized humor such as slapstick stunts and wordplay.

The Vietnamese film also emphasized the family bond, which the Vietnamese people value, by strengthening the relationship between the elderly woman and her grandson.

With the recent success, more and more Korean film studios are expected to follow suit.

Next Entertainment World (NEW), also a key film investor-distributor, set up a Beijing-based joint venture "Huace & NEW" last year with 53.5 billion won in investment from China's Huace Media Group. The two companies announced their first three projects -- "The Witch," "Beauty Inside" and "The Phone" -- during last year's Busan International Film Festival in South Korea's southern port city of Busan.

The last two will be the Chinese remakes of Korean films of the same name starring Han Hyo-joo and Sohn Hyun-joo, respectively, while "The Witch" will be produced into two different versions -- Korean and Chinese at the same time, according to NEW.

"The Witch," a film based on Kang Full's hit webtoon series, is the first time intellectual property has been acquired from the beginning with the intent of making two films for two different territories in mind.

They will be directed by Kim Dae-woo, known for "The Servant" (2010) and "Obsessed" (2014), in South Korea and Leste Chen of "20 Once Again" in China.

CJ E&M says four films are under preparation with Chinese film studios for release over several years in the Chinese market.

The four are "Final Recipe," "Pyeongan Province," "Kang Ho's Childbirth Story" and "Sunny."

"Final Recipe," starring Michelle Yeoh and Henry Lau, is the 2013 foodie film by Kim Gina which has not yet secured a chance to be screened in South Korea. Chang Yoon-hyun of the 1997 Korean hit film "The Contact" will direct "Pyeongan Province," a thriller about a team of marine explorers who witness death from an unknown cause after accidentally drifting away to a deserted island, according to CJ.

"Kang Ho's Childbirth Story" is about a cop who becomes pregnant as a man while "Sunny" is the remake of the namesake Korean movie that attracted more than 7 million viewers to local theaters in 2011.

But CJ says it is unclear whether the first three films will later be made in Korean.

Showbox/Media Inc. signed an exclusive partnership deal with China's Huayi Brothers in March last year to co-produce at least six films over three years. Showbox is the studio behind such Korean box-office smashes as "Taegukgi," "The Host," "The Thieves" and "The Throne."

Yang Kyung-mi, a movie critic who leads the Korea Institute for Film & Media Industry, said that Korean films need to expand their localization strategy to include the American continent to reach to broader audiences in the world.

She cited Japan's Sony Entertainment as a good model case of success in advancing into overseas markets.

Sony was an electronic goods manufacturer. But in 1989, it took over American film studios Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures as it advanced to the movie market. It now is sweeping the global movie market as a leading Hollywood film studio, combining Japanese capital with assets in the American film industry -- leading filmmakers and movie stars.

"The Korean film industry should not stick to exporting Korean-language films to successfully make inroads in foreign markets," Yang said in a recent newspaper column. "It needs to set up a new strategy so it can reach to broader audiences through capital investment as well as the co-production of foreign-language remakes of homemade films," she added.


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