January 23, 2006

Big budget S.Korean film breaks new ground

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - The South Korean movie "Typhoon" has a
little something to make a lot of people nervous.

The story touches on one of the worst fears of global
strategists -- a hell-bent North Korean who has acquired
weapons of mass destruction.

The cost of the film touches on one of the worst fears of
movie studios -- it is the most expensive South Korean movie
ever and, as such, depended on a strong box office showing to
avoid becoming a historic disappointment.

The underlying theme touches on one of the most emotionally
charged issues in South Korea -- how to care for North Korean

"Typhoon" was shot at a cost of about $15 million, paltry
by Hollywood standards but representing a huge expenditure in
South Korea, where the typical major movie is made for about $3
million to $5 million.

"The large production costs for 'Typhoon' were thought to
be reckless when looking at the domestic market," said Shim
Jae-myung, a member of the Korean Film Council.

The movie, a spy thriller, was shot in diverse locales that
included a lush resort island in Thailand and a gray setting in
Vladivostok, Russia.

It is about a family of North Koreans who try to defect to
the South via a third country and end up being abandoned by
both Koreas. The parents are killed and only the son and
daughter survive.

The son grows up to become a bloodthirsty bandit with a
hatred for the governments on both sides of the Korean
peninsula. His character, Sin, is played by one of the top
heartthrobs in Asia, Jang Dong-gun.

Sin steals nuclear missile guidance kits from a U.S. ship
and is chased across Thailand, Russia and around the shores of
the Korean peninsula by a South Korean secret agent played by
Lee Jung-jae.

The movie has not impressed the critics. Some have said it
is high in action, low in coherence, with plot holes so large a
column of North Korean tanks could drive through unnoticed.

But the movie has impressed audiences. It has made over $26
million in South Korea since it hit theatres on December 14.
The figure is respectable, but it is far from record-breaking.


South Korean movies have done well by tackling the
complicated ties the country has with North Korea.

The two remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean
War ended in a truce rather than a full peace treaty.

The twist in "Typhoon" is that it asks audiences to have
sympathy for a North Korean defector, who has become a

The producers of the film have enlisted a North Korean
defector, who had a private meeting with U.S. President George
W. Bush last year, to help promote the movie.

"The movie accurately depicted the reality of North Korean
defectors. But there are many more stories that are more tragic
and tearing," said Kang Chol-hwan at a recent promotional
screening of the movie. Kang is the author of "The Aquariums of
Pyongyang," a harrowing account of his 10 years in a North
Korean prison.

The next step will be selling North Korean defectors as
entertainment to overseas audiences.

A key player is actor Jang, who has become the dream man of
young women across Asia from Tokyo to Taipei. He is one of the
best-known South Korean actors and a key element of the wave of
popular South Korean entertainment sweeping through Asia.

"I think South Korean movies these days vary a lot in genre
and I think that is what makes South Korean movies sell," Jang
told reporters in Seoul.

The other critical element is landing international

The film's producers have reached agreements that will take
"Typhoon" on a major run in the world's second-largest film
market, Japan, in April. It will also play in other parts of
Asia as well as North America and Europe.


Some in the industry are saying "Typhoon" will likely raise
the bar for production costs for South Korea films, which are
already highly regarded in Asia. That in turn could lead to
other Asian countries trying their hand at making more
expensive films.

"With filmmakers making better and better films, we have
seen a rise in production budgets along with the improvement in
quality," said Silvia Yoon, an official with CJ Entertainment,
the South Korean company that is behind the movie.

The company minimized risk by securing co-financing from
partners in Asia and arranged for pre-sales of tickets for
"Typhoon" in overseas markets.

No one is expecting an Asian film being made with the
eye-popping budget of a Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but
more big budget films are likely.

"The South Koreans know they will be making money if they
have the right elements attached to their movies, such as an
A-list cast, and can secure good financing in a major market
like Japan," one industry source said.

"We are going to see South Koreans putting more and more
money into their films," the source said.

(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)