Saturday, March 10, 2012

Korean film down under: accessibility for Australian audiences

This article was originally published in Edition 12 of Peril Magazine: 'Asian-Australian Film Forum and Network Special Issue’. You can find the original version here. Thanks to Lian Low, Tseen Khoo, Owen Leong, Hoa Pham and the PERIL Team and everyone from the AAFFN

'On The Screen Scene – Getting AA Stories Seen’ at AAFFN (L-R Amadeo Marquez-Perez, Kieran Tully, Jiao Chen, Maria Tran and Heng Tang). 
Photo by Mayu Kanamori

"Kieran Tully set out about 2 years ago to establish his own Korean film festival as an idea for a screen culture project that he had. At the time he had been working at around 15 different film festivals in Sydney gradually learning all there is to know about festival management. It was during his work as Assistant Coordinator that he realised how big and popular the Japanese Film Festival was having been around for 13 years; and he started to question the absence of a Korean film festival. From his observations, Korean cinema on the world stage is arguably bigger than Japanese cinema, and this was an impetus for him in starting a Korean film festival.

A collaboration with the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea resulted in KOFFIA, the first Korean Film Festival in Australia, which debut in October 2010. Kieran worked with 2 other main staff members for over a year; one a former Korean Film Industry professional and the other was a staff member of the Korean Film Council on study leave in Australia. All staff gave their work voluntarily without pay; they often found themselves working from early morning till late at night, but all were driven by a passion for Korean film and they all wanted to get the festival off the ground. During this time, Kieran was Marketing Director, currently he holds the position of Artistic Director of KOFFIA. KOFFIA runs as an event from the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney, which opened in April 2011. With its construction it has given KOFFIA a solid support base to expand the festival even further, and widening its national reach as well. KOFFIA takes place annually in August / September."

Following on from my participation in a cinema forum of the 1st Asian Australian Film Forum (AAFF), which looked at how Australian audiences related to films with Asian diasporas, I thought it would be interesting to look further at how Australians have embraced or not embraced Korean film. Since the level of exposure of Korean stories is rather minimal down-under – even at the AAFF they were quite under-represented – I thought I would try to get to the heart of this. Based from the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification) reports, I believe “Lies” was the first ever Korean film released by Madman Entertainment in July 2003, just 9 years ago.

By the end of 2011 there would have been around 55 Korean films released on DVD down-under (here are some examples). Not too shabby. But when you look at the fact that hundreds of Japanese and Chinese films have been released in the same time frame (not necessarily all on DVD but in some form of distribution or exhibition), there seems to be a large discrepancy. Yes, Japanese culture is more widely embraced than that of Korean culture, but given the Korean industry is arguably larger and more influential worldwide, then the discrepancy should not just be accepted without further analysis. 

From the late 90′s we have seen the spread of Korean popular culture throughout South-East Asia, often referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’. The propelling force of this was Korean dramas (episodic tv shows, think Neighbours). Korean content became enormously popular throughout China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other territories. But this melodrama and comedy craze, which the dramas almost solely focus on, has not been reflected through the film content available in Australia. If we take Lies for example, a film that centres on a S&M relationship between a 38 year old sculptor and an 18 year old high school girl, a film that would fit into your general Asia Extreme [1] range, this is where the connection between genre and distribution comes into play.

The theme of Xtreme Korea at Cinema on the Park represents this genre cinema 
that has become so popular around the world. 

By my records 81% of Korean dvds in Australia fit into genres of action, thriller, crime and other genre-specific (horror, war, sci-fi, martial arts) movies. This is rather common across all Asian release patterns, such as Thai films being purely horror or martial arts based. Looking at this and the few screenings on TV or pay-per-view, and rare events such as the Art Gallery of NSW ‘Seoul Searching’ and films at festivals (for eg Sydney Film Festivals ‘Freak Me Out’ section), around 95% of the films shown on those various platforms would have an OFLC classification that would not allow the average drama or K-pop fan to even watch them. I am not claiming the only people to watch dramas are teenagers, definitely not, but it is an age where people develop an interest in the medium. So this drama audience is not being developed, because they are not being acknowledged. (There are differences between the states, for instance MIFF have a Accent on Asia section, thus showcasing a much wider variety of Asian cinema).

Now forgetting about the quality of the shows or the appeal of their gorgeous casts, there is one simple fact that made them popular and successful: they were readily available and accessible to watch. Originally exported through the likes of NHK in Japan and Saigon BTN in Vietnam, the content is now easily available through satellite television, English-friendly DVDs or more recently as legal downloads. For content that generally appeals to young teens who may not be tech savvy but are extremely passionate about watching new content as soon as its available, these sites have been a fantastic distribution (or exhibition in terms of streaming services) for Korean dramas. 

The content of them also features accessible ratings, by featuring limited or soft nudity, violence and coarse language. The intriguing part of this is that the most popular films at KOFFIA 2010 (1st: 200 Pounds Beauty, 2nd: Like A Virgin) and KOFFIA 2011 (1st overall: A Barefoot Dream) were in fact comedies. Asian comedies do have the limitation of often being around 2 hours in length, but there is a clear interest in this genre that has been ignored and could be capitalised on.

What draws people to KOFFIA? And who has been attending?

Steps that are hopefully going to improve both availability and interest are projects such as the school specific session at KOFFIA, and Im Soon-rye’s terrific Fly Penguin being added to the resources of NSW School syllabus for Korean studies. Japan has had similar success with this educational approach, with The Japan Foundation’s language resource DVD Happy Family Plan, a film that would fit into the melodrama title. It is a project that has been successful enough in Australia, it now has plans to be released worldwide.

Interestingly Fly Penguin is very similar to Happy Family Plan, in terms of it being more a film about culture, society and family, than any specific genre. 

What I have discovered through the course of my research is that there are four distinct audiences in Australia with respect to Korean content. All of which is linked back to genre and distribution. The four main groups of viewers seem to be attracted to different types of film. 
  • The avid DVD collecting crowd attracted to hard-core crime, action and horror genres 
  • The drama obsessed Asian-Australian community which also embraces comedies and romantic tales 
  • The film festival going audience accustomed to indie and art-house cinema 
  • The Australian-based community of a particular nationality (ie: Korean-Australian community, international students from Korea and Korean working holiday travellers) 
At KOFFIA we have tried to satisfy all of these groups, for example The Unjust and Bedevilled for the hard-core DVD crowd, 200 Pounds Beauty and Shim's Family for the drama fans, The Journals of Musan and Old Partner for the art crowd and finally The Housemaid and The Man From Nowhere for those searching for latest hits. From my involvement with other Asian related events, this general breakdown is quite common. Australian audiences are embracing Asian content but have been directed into experiencing only one type of film through their favourite medium.

Read Joseph Sampson's great piece on Korean melodramas
and how they are films for all seasons

Now the content for a significant portion of Korean movies is the basic formula that K-dramas follow, and would fit the same market, yet they simply don’t get exposed to as wide an audience. The success and popularity of My Sassy Girl is a perfect example, a film that is so popular around Asia that its director Kwak Jae-yong has made his recent films in Japan and China, rather than Korea itself. The film was remade as a drama series, in Hollywood and even Bollywood. The reason I bring that example in is that it is the basic melodramatic content that is the appeal, whether it is Korean or not. (Just this week Kwak Jae-yong walked off the set of his latest film!)

The films Kwak Jae-yong is making in China and Japan, are in Chinese and Japanese with Chinese and Japanese cast. It is not necessarily Korean language, cast or locations that are the appeal, it is the drama itself. The stories, romance, characters and emotion are what draw in their audiences. My Sassy Girl, My Girl and I and many other terrific Korean films are essentially Korean dramas in short form. Thus I feel if Korean movies could only have a greater accessibility or availability, then the audience would be just as passionate about them as dramas. This is just an example through films that meet the drama formula, but I think it could eventually expand to other genres and cinematic styles and address all four groups of viewers that embrace Korean film in Australia

Kieran Tully

[1] Asia Extreme essentially encompasses South East Asian hardcore genre cinema, with themes of violence, crime, revenge or horror. Nearly all Korean films released in the Western World, be it Australia, UK or USA, fall under this category. The term “Asia Extreme” stems from UK-based Tartan Films creating a label called “Asia Extreme” under which films from Asia were distributed. Now as films were specifically categorised under this label it meant that they were the only types of films picked up, which we have also seen with Sydney Film Festival’s “Freak Me Out” section. Madman’s “Eastern Eye” is fairly similar, though does differ slightly. 

By aligning Asian and more specifically Korean cinema to these genre titles, audiences in the West now have specific ideas in their head of what Korean cinema is, which is not entirely accurate. Viewers’ opinions on Korean cinema has been directed primarily at only a certain type of Korean cinema, for eg


  1. Another great piece Kieran, the narrow labeling of Korean cinema (and all Asian film as you point out) is a real sticking point with me. It's a hard cycle to break out of though and I'm not sure who is to blame more: the gargantuan homogenized Korean distributors or the shy and recalcitrant foreign film distributors (admittedly a generalization but they should be doing more)!