When “Avengers: Age of Ultron” filmed in Seoul last year, the South Korean government spent close to $2 million to help cover the filmmakers’ costs, and cordoned off vital areas of the busy capital. Officials hoped that Seoul’s appearance in the movie would bring positive publicity, more big international film crews and more foreign tourists.
“Age of Ultron” — the first major U.S. production shot in the city — is now in theaters here and has proved a huge hit with South Korean moviegoers. But some people are less than thrilled with how their capital city appears in the blockbuster Marvel action flick, and with the government’s financial outlay.
“Age of Ultron” follows 2012’s “Avengers,” which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. The sequel has been at the top of the South Korean box office since opening here April 23. According to data from the Korea Film Council, it has brought in $68 million and is already the second-highest grossing film of 2015.
One lure bringing South Koreans out to see “Age of Ultron” is curiosity over how the scenes filmed in Seoul in March and April of last year came out.
Some critics say Seoul looks bland and dirty in “Age of Ultron.” The main scene that takes place in Seoul is a chase along the Han River, which bisects the city of nearly 10 million. The river is not particularly picturesque, and the scene shows the Avengers racing along and below concrete expressways, next to blocks of apartments. The scene concludes in what appears to be a run-down, grungy area.
"We all really looked forward to seeing the movie, but what we saw was just several minutes of an ugly and horrid city," said Byun Eun-kyo, a 21-year-old college student.
Another filming location was Seoul’s shiny Gangnam area, made famous by singer Psy’s viral hit of 2012. Critics complain that there is nothing in any of the scenes to make clear to viewers that the action is happening in Seoul, and thus, the PR effect the government said “Age of Ultron” would have is lacking.
“It is doubtful any foreign visitors have been fired up to come to Seoul after watching the film. It looks like the only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the producers, who got a massive discount on top of their stellar global earnings,” wrote Yoo Jin-woo, a journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely circulated newspaper.
Though it has parts that are leafy and charming, Seoul is mostly a city of concrete and glass, made up of buildings that were hastily constructed starting after the 1950-53 Korean War that are not pretty by most standards. British author Simon Winchester went as far as to call the city “spectacularly ugly” in a travelogue published in 1991.
Seoul has developed a lot since Winchester described it that way. It is a technologically advanced metropolis, with strong, widely available free Wi-Fi and a huge network of clean, efficient public transit.
"The image in the movie doesn’t capture Korea’s advanced features. The government built up false hope that Korea would be a sought-after film location after the Avengers," cultural critic Han Sang-duk wrote on PR News, a news website for public-relations professionals (link in Korean).
In addition to Seoul, “Age of Ultron” filmed scenes in a handful of international locations: Britain, South Africa, Bangladesh and Italy (a stand-in for a fictitious Eastern European country called Sokovia).
The governments of Britain, Italy and South Africa provided the makers of “Age of Ultron” with assistance and incentives to film there.
An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism wrote in an email that the government was still tallying the exact amount of public money spent on the filming. The official estimated the total to be $1.85 million and attributed the delay in calculation to having to add up expenditures that went through various government agencies.
Some Seoul denizens feel like they sacrificed more than just public money: During shooting for “Age of Ultron,” crews blocked off streets in high-traffic areas, and occupied one of the city’s cross-river bridges. Traffic is usually heavy anyway in Seoul, but was worse during the nearly two weeks of filming.
Police agreed to secure the busy areas for “Age of Ultron” on the premise that the movie would enhance South Korea’s standing abroad. A police representative told the Hollywood Reporter before the filming that “Age of Ultron” would help boost local tourism and the national image.
Some South Korean moviegoers say they saw “Age of Ultron” simply for entertainment, not out of interest in how Seoul was portrayed.
Han Seul-ki, a 26-year-old office worker, said Seoul looked pretty much as she expected it to. She added, “I only saw the movie because I like Robert Downey Jr. [who plays Iron Man], so I don’t really care how the city looks.”