"Anyeong ha seyo," I greeted my handler as I arrived at Incheon International Airport. "Ooh, ooh," she gasped, before catching her breath, "you speak Korean!" "Well, no," I corrected her, "I just watched Winter Sonata."
An answer that no doubt a fair amount of people across Asia can give. That, and 'Full House', 'Love Story at Harvard', and many others that might jump to your mind. They are all Korean dramas, part of the Hallyu wave that swept across Asia during the late years of the last millennium. Initially referred to TV serials that became ultra popular, it came to encompass pretty much everything that came out of Korea. I say swept, but in truth, the wave is still sweeping, judging by the reaction given to popular Korean singer Rain when he dropped by here recently.
Not getting left behind are their movies, and that particular wave is not just limited to Asia. It's more like a typhoon, a freak of mother nature that rampages in cinemas worldwide. Rare is the international film festival that passes without the inclusion of some Korean films.
It helps, of course, that national law favours the films heavily. The Screen Quota system ensures that there is a number of screening days per year that is reserved for local films (it currently stands at around the 70 day mark, reduced from over 140 days due to the Free Trade Agreement with the United States earlier this year). It helps to the Korean films to remain visible. In the United States, films would be lucky to survive half that long at the box office. This ruling has helped to make Korean cinema more popular and profitable that it might have been otherwise (though the long term effects of the reduced quota remains to be seen).
Having said that, it helps that Korean society as a whole remains rather inclusive to themselves. Generally speaking, people outside of Seoul are not as exposed to the outside world, and a large number still cannot speak or understand English well. There's a shift in this way of thought, with the newer generations improving on this apparent disadvantage. A disadvantage is it not for Korean cinema as a whole, as that particular characteristic, by default, renders Korean films to be more popular in contrast to Hollywood films. It's almost as if the movies are shown on their terms, without even English subtitles to help this foreigner along. Even the cartoons have a Korean version of their own, voiced by Korean personalities. I realised this to my own disadvantage after the first five minutes of Disney's 'Cars' ("That red car didn't sound like Owen Wilson...").
Since the beginning of the new millennium, Korean films have regularly outsold its foreign counterparts. And a fair amount of their films also do relatively well overseas, getting lots of praise, if not necessarily money. The hallyu wave, remember?
These are the main reasons why the Korean film industry is the overbearing monster that it is. It is its own mother nature, an industry that is capable of being self sufficient and indepenednet enough to do its own thing. This goes towards the independent approach to filmmaking.
Independent films in Korea have a life of their own, a living, breathing industry that lives perfectly fine without its mainstream relative. This has a lot to do with filmmaking and the arts as such being considered as a fine profession on its own. For example, if a Korean youth tells his or her parents that there is something here in the arts industry, in the film industry, that calls out to him and makes it work for him, chances are, support will be given. Parents everywhere are concerned primarily with only one thing, and that is the welfare of their children. So long as there is food on the table. And the food can be put on the table consistently because, as I've said before, the independent filmmaking industry can live and breathe on its own. There are always jobs around somewhere, and the chances of making a decent living in the film industry (even as an actor, a cinematographer, an editor - it pays to specialise) is much higher compared to Malaysia.
Tell your parents that you want to be a filmmaker. What do you think the reaction is likely to be?
It helps that the arts is not particularly looked down upon in Korea. This is not just in films, but also in music, traditional arts, and other forms of cultural expression. One feels that in Malaysia, the emphasis is given a bit too much towards the subjects and interests that leads to safe jobs like being a lawyer, a doctor, or an accountant. All very fine and well, but again, it comes to the nature of the jobs: safety. Such jobs always have a stable income, while filmmaking in Malaysia has yet to reach the stage where many can be self sufficient being a full-time independent filmmaker.
There are, of course, the select few who do get there, as there always will be. The names of Amir Muhammad, James Lee, and Yasmin Ahmad, amongst others, jumps to mind.
But how does it work? How does one fund oneself to the point where one can live as an independent? Well, that can easily be summed up into one word: network. By this, I am referring to the helpone can get in making the film, and the avenues through which the films are shown.
When I was in Korea, I was hosted by the Jeonbuk Independent Film Association. Let's not look so much towards the first word, for it denotes nothing than the name of the region. More interest should be in the latter three: Independent Film Association. There are, of course, many regions in Korea, and most of them have an agency or an organisation that would prove to be a crucial starting point for independent filmmakers. Should you ever need help with logistics, equipment, perhaps even help with the cast. It is the spot for you. Even if the organisation can't extend more than a few tripods your way, they can connect you to others who can get you bigger tripods. This is what I mean when I say network: there are always ways for you to get to where you want to go.
It also helps that there are a fair number of means to show your films. As a whole, Korea hosts at least one international film festival a month in different cities. They all have a theme, something that makes them slightly different from one another (Jaecheon International Music and Film Festival, the Women's International Film Festival in Seoul, etc). Having said that, there is still a very strong Korean presence at these festivals, the needs of the local filmmaker never fair from the organisers's minds. Each festival is professionally organised, with one single organisation focused on the task throughout the year. Hence, the Jeonju International Film Festival is sorted out by...the Jeonju International Film Festival Foundation. For the entire calendar year, that organisation works primarily with that particular event.
“But it's not difficult, right?” you might think. “Get the movies in, pick the good ones, then show lah!” Well, there's that. But a film festival in Korea is more than just a film festival. In a sense, it is a big social event, a happening that the whole town can get into at the same time. It's something that boyfriends can bring their girlfriends to, somewhere families can spend some quality time together, and of course...where other filmmakers meet other other filmmakers. The festivals invite these directors to town, and what happens is by the end of their screening, they would be subject to a Q&A session. And then there are concerts, open air screenings, competitions...the list goes on and on. Like I said, it's not just a film festival. It's a social event, almost like a way of life, even.
And, I suppose, that is the crux of the matter, the heart of the issue. Filmmaking, independent or otherwise, is seen as something that is perfectly fine for people to adopt as their way of life. I personally feel that Malaysia can also get up to a similar level, to a level where the industry is well looked after and supported by both the people and the government. Of course, quality is also an issue, and filmmakers have the responsibility to tell interesting stories in an interesting way. Easier said that done, of course, but then again, so is speaking Korean...
*An article published mid 2007 in Sinema Malaysia, an internally circulated magazine of the National Film Body.