South Korea is home to one of the world cinema's most artistically vibrant and commercially successful film industries. The bustling Asian economy generally draws between 50% and 60% of its box office admittances from local releases, a phenomenal figure when you consider how Australia by comparison dwells around 5%.
South Korea has a complete infrastructure of idolised stars, admired filmmakers, production infrastructure and a supportive media. Yet Korean cinema has long been one of the gaps in the otherwise extensive patchwork of film festivals that dot the Australia movie calendar, and it's only just begun to change.
“I do ask myself why there was 14 years of the Japanese Film Festival before there was a Korean one,” admits Kieran Tully, who is the Festival manager of the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA), which is about to undertake its second year of screenings.
Tully is in the final week of preparations before the event kicks off in Sydney, where it runs from Wednesday 24 August until Monday 29 August, and then heads to Melbourne for a season that spans Saturday 10 to Tuesday 13 September. He's awaiting the final shipment of prints, preparing press conferences and keeping an eye on the information booth outside the Sydney venue, Dendy Circular Quay, that's helping address a growing public interest in the series of exhibitions.
“It's good to be busy,” notes Tully with a good-natured laugh. “I've worked at 15 to 20 different film festivals, and this has been a different experience – and it was different last year to how it is this year. Instead of me contacting people, this time people are contacting me; we're getting a lot more coverage.”
Australia has a large Korean population of immigrants and expatriates, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with Sydney the primary hub, followed by Brisbane and then Melbourne. Previous attempts to bring Korean pictures to this country have been focused on bringing that audience out, even though there are distribution networks that bring them South Korea's many hits on DVD. KOFFIA is focused on bringing the expatriates films they might not have seen, as well as spotlighting the visceral breadth of Korean cinema to the general public.
“There had previously been various exhibitions of Korean cinema, but it was mainly aimed at the expatriate community,” notes Tully. “That's why starting last year we targeted the Australian audience as someone we could bring back each year.”
The first KOFFIA, held in Sydney in October 2010, had an audience that was roughly 40% Korean and 60% non-Korean, and the ticket totals were strong enough that the festival has almost doubled in size in Sydney this year, as well as adding a Melbourne season (at Federation Square's Australian Centre for the Moving Image). In 10 months KOFFIA has basically tripled in size.
“It was so difficult to choose just eight films last year,” Tully admits. “People would say, 'Why didn't you choose that one?' and we'd just have explain that space was limited. We've expanded to 13 titles in Sydney this year, which allows us to cover different films and more genres.”
The opening night film is Ryoo Seung-wan's The Unjust, a multi-layered crime thriller with an eye for social structures that expands on the director's former penchant for action cinema. The crime and gangster genre has become an international talking point for the Korean film industry through movies such as Na Hong-jin's The Chaser and Kim Ji-woon's A Bittersweet Life.
South Korea makes crime films that come with both a moral and physical imperative, and as Kieran Tully suggests, the hierarchical nature of crime organisations makes an ideal reflective surface for the hierarchical nature of Korean society. Koffia also has Lee Jeong-beom's explosive revenge flick, The Man From Nowhere, which topped the South Korean box-office in 2010, but the festival looks to be more expansive in its programming, also bring in comedy, romances and arthouse titles.
“We're really happy to bring more films and have a greater selection for people to choose from,” says Tully, and one of the of the interesting features of KOFFIA this year is the breadth of add-on events that have the stated aim of encouraging dialogue about Korean cinema culture.
Ryoo Seung-wan is a guest of honour, as well as The Unjust's producer Kang Hye-jung, but beyond that there is a myriad of forums and question and answer sessions. Issues examined include how Korean cinema is received in Australia, the importance of the recurring theme of the Korean War within South Korean cinema, and how the country's films are perceived by Australian audiences.
The latter, a session in Melbourne on Sunday 11 September that features noted film critic and academic Adrian Martin, distribution executive Christian Were and Melbourne International Film Festival programmer Al Cossar, takes place after a screening of Park Chan-wook's landmark 2000 mystery Joint Security Area.
Park, whose 2003 feature Oldboy remains a close-fisted calling card to international audiences from the vibrant Korean cinema, is currently shooting his first American production, Stoker, in Nashville, Tennessee. The cast includes three Australian actors, Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Jackie Weaver, but unlike our talent, who move on relatively quickly to Hollywood's embrace, Park has been successfully working in his homeland for almost two decades.
That consistency of presence and success has helped make film a vital element of South Korea's national character, and with the belated but welcome rise of the Korean Film Festival in Australia audiences here can thankfully now share in that.
For further information and the complete program see www.koffia.com.au