Monday, September 25, 2006

Lessons for British Cinema from the Koreans

British talent is all over Hollywood. There are British stars: Jude Law, Keira Knightley, Kate Beckinsale, Clive Owen, every Star Wars/Lord of the Rings villain, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz. British directors are doing some of the best work in Hollywood: Sam Mendes with American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Jarhead; Christopher Nolan with Memento, Insomnia and the superb blockbuster Batman Begins.

The British film industry itself is somewhat less impressive. It consists of occasional romantic comedies, costume dramas, Guy Ritchie's rather worn gangster niche and various gritty social commentaries many of which, Kidulthood for example, are quite good. However, by contrast to the 60s boom with Zulu and Lawrence of Arabia to the early Bonds this is not a mass market phenomenon. We have quite a good answer to the US indie film industry but we no longer have an answer to Hollywood. As such, the vast majority of the film watching done in England is of American films.

Is it important that Britain have a film industry? I usually steer clear of such econ-nationalism but this is a special case. Good, popular, films provide a people with a sense of themselves and a shared experience. It provides a narrative to our past, present and future. The first post on this blog was about the need for a sense of nation as identified by our political leaders. Film making is a powerful medium through which such a national spirit can communicate itself.

I think South Korea's film industry is an example of the way forward here in its sheer ambition. The quota system undoubtedly aided its development but I do not think it was crucial as this article highlights that before a series of remarkable successes the quotas had merely kept the industry on life support making low budget quota fillers. Equally, the Competition Commission does not think there are any uncompetitive blocks to British films making a bigger splash in the UK although this article thinks there may be to success in competing in the US. To my mind it would seem equally likely that increasing protection will lead to lazy UK film makers instead of their creative renaissance.

It was Shiri in 1999, with a large budget and a willingness to play the American game that changed the rules by beating Titanic's South Korean box office record and proving their was money in South Korean cinema. By 2001 domestic film makers had a 42.2% market share; up from a low of 15.4%. By comparison the share of British companies in the British market is around 4%. They now make both blockbusters such as the Saving Private Ryan-like Brotherhood and the historic epic The Warrior (I've used the Westernised titles as it is easier) and some commercially successful creative efforts such as Old Boy and A Bittersweet Life.

If our emigre film makers can succeed in Hollywood one would assume they can, creatively, follow the same track. Equally, we have advantages over the Koreans in being an English speaking nation which is, therefore, more accessible to those overseas who might constitute an export market. There are a few lessons from the Korean success:

1) Competition in the film industry: these are not film funded by charity or government (National Lottery funding is important to the UK industry and has backed a great many flops).

2) Experience of foreign film-making: there is no lack of UK talent working abroad, particularly in Hollywood as described above, so the more important effort may be luring some of these stars home.

3) Offering something different: watch the best Korean films (plenty of suggestions above) and they're offering something quite different to Hollywood. This is something I am absolutely sure British creatives can come up with.

4) Be fun: I hate to sound philistinical but films about the dingy side of British life are neither particularly relevant to the British experience (we're not a dingy nation these days if we ever were) nor good candidates for the basis of a film experience which British filmgoers and an international audience will want to be a part of.

Britain has a lot going for it in establishing a cinema industry. We have a wealth of history and literature from which to draw. Contemporary creative successes in other cultural forms which can take on the world. Internationally we have the world's most valuable national brand which suggests foreigners would be interested in engaging with cinematic treatments of Britain. Translating these advantages into British films about British topics would be a great achievement for anyone ambitious and talented enough to make it happen.

1 comment:

Tim Newman said...

I am getting more and more impressed with Korean cinema. Films like Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sister, and Whispering Corridors would outstrip anything British made in the last 5 years.