South Korean film director Lee Jung-beom is smiling the sweet smile of — could it be revenge?
His action thriller, "The Man From Nowhere," recently surpassed the 6-million-viewer mark in South Korea to become the nation's highest grossing feature for 2010, topping $40 million in ticket sales. It's being featured at the Pusan International Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday. The movie recently opened in Los Angeles and has sold out many showings.
A dozen years after U.S. studios launched an aggressive offensive into South Korea — a push that came amid a financial crisis that battered the movie business here — the country's film industry is doing record-breaking business, thanks to moviemakers like Lee and their simple strategy: Just out- Hollywood Hollywood.
In "The Man From Nowhere," Lee's blueprint could have come straight from some Burbank studio back lot: Cast a heartthrob lead actor known for soft dramas (in this case, the boyish Won Bin) to lure in female filmgoers, then splatter the screen with enough blood to keep their male counterparts happy.
Don't be afraid to spend some cash — in this case, $6 million, a sizable sum here. And last, tell a straightforward story that avoids the introspection and navel-gazing of many South Korean films.
In "The Man From Nowhere," an ex-con tries to rescue the girl next door from the mob. The more emotionally invested the hero gets, the more violent the film becomes.
"It's a simple good-versus-evil story where good prevails," said Lee, 39, whose other full-length feature film, 2006's "Cruel Winter Blues," explored the psychology of South Korea's gang violence. Both films were funded by CJ Entertainment. "In the end, the audience feels the same satisfying catharsis of revenge as the hero. There's no doubt which emerges the victor."
In their battle with American fare, South Korean filmmakers have emerged as the victor — at least on their home turf. South Korean films command a market share of nearly 50% (up from a dismal 13% in 1993).
It's a major turnabout from the late 1990s, when the nation's economy was reeling from the Asian financial crisis. Disposable income was scarce, and competition for movie viewers turned fierce.
That's when Hollywood pounced, successfully pressuring the government to relax a quota system that required theaters to play a fixed number of Korean films.
Moviegoers here launched a Boycott Hollywood Film campaign that included heated street protests. Many filmmakers shaved their heads in solidarity.
"The debate was, 'How can we survive?'" said Nam Lee, an assistant professor at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Orange County's Chapman University. "Some said, 'Let's make Hollywood-type films to win back our audience.' Others insisted that Koreans wanted films about Korean subjects. They eventually reached a compromise."
To beat U.S. competitors, they decided to make Korean films with bigger budgets and technical pizazz — but with subjects that intrigued domestic audiences. At the same time, other changes in South Korean society were pushing filmmakers in new directions.
Opposition leader Kim Dae-jung was inaugurated as president, increased government support for the arts prompted more investment and censorship was curtailed. Suddenly, filmmakers could tackle subjects in ways that would have shocked their parents: Black comedies mocked presidents and the powerful. North Koreans, once portrayed only in caricature, were shown with a human touch.
Multiplexes were built with digital sound, air-conditioning, stadium seating and, in some cases, adjoining bars and restaurants.
In 1999, the $8.5-million "Shiri" grossed $34 million, eclipsing South Korea's receipts for "Titanic" and becoming the first so-called Korean blockbuster. That was followed in 2000 by "Joint Security Area," a thriller about a killing in the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.
Just a few years earlier, a $1-million budget for a Korean film was unthinkable, but producer Shim Jae-myung spent three times that, which meant more money for screenwriters, and sophisticated lighting, shooting and sound equipment. She could even afford to build a set resembling the DMZ.
"Investors here began to realize that high risk brings the possibility of a high return," Shim recalled.
Her movie won the best film award at the Blue Dragons — South Korea's version of the Academy Awards. "Korean audiences said, 'Wow, this has the same quality of a Hollywood movie but with a very Korean subject matter,'" said Shim.
In the last decade, budgets have risen steadily. Many boast $8-million price tags, and two now in development cost a reported $30 million each.
While Hollywood studio executives no longer consider South Korea a pushover market, and South Korean filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook have received critical attention in the U.S., a Korean film has yet to storm the American box office. Lee and many others here hope "The Man From Nowhere" will score some commercial success in the U.S., and, as Shim says, "remind Hollywood how much Korean films have developed."
Ethan Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.