Korea Steps Forward

James Gibbons doesn't have a crystal ball, but as Discovery Networks Asia's VP of programming, he's in a better position than most to predict where in the Pacific Rim documentary production is likely to heat up next. His contenders: 'Taiwan, China and Korea,' he says. 'Those are most likely the next hot spots.'
February 1, 2004

James Gibbons doesn’t have a crystal ball, but as Discovery Networks Asia’s VP of programming, he’s in a better position than most to predict where in the Pacific Rim documentary production is likely to heat up next. His contenders: ‘Taiwan, China and Korea,’ he says. ‘Those are most likely the next hot spots.’

Taiwan penetrated the collective conscious of the international community when the country’s Government Information Office began to work with global broadcasters to develop domestic talent. And China, with its burgeoning TV market, is drawing broadcasters and producers alike. New Zealand’s NHNZ opened an office in Beijing in 2002, and London-based Lion Television followed suit after striking a joint-venture deal with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television. But, Korea?

‘Korea has quite a bit of support for TV production in general,’ explains Gibbons from his office in Singapore. ‘It’s one of our newest markets and we don’t do much production there ourselves, but of all the countries [in the region], it’s probably the most like Singapore in terms of scale and support in the future.’

South Korea has a sketchy record with documentary films. Independent movie-making was illegal for most of the 20th century, thanks to legislation passed by the military dictatorship that came to power in the 1960s. The guerrilla doc-makers who surfaced in the 1980s are considered to be the pioneers of the Korean doc industry, although the films produced were more political statements than artistic ones. One film in particular, director Kim Dong-won’s Sangkeiy-dong Olympics, about slum residents forced to relocate during construction for the 1988 Olympics, is regarded by many as the first major Korean documentary.

When Korea’s first democratically elected president took office in 1993, docs shifted focus. ‘When the government changed, people were able to look at their lives rather than political issues,’ says Hohyn Joung, a doc-maker who produced films in Korea as an indie for three years before moving to Canada. ‘Now people are able to make films about sexuality, family, superstitions – all sorts of issues.’

Joung says the new government saw film as a powerful cultural tool, and decided to invest in the independent production sector rather than try to stifle it. The Korean Film Commission (KOFIC), for example, a government-supported agency that promotes and supports Korean films both domestically and abroad, provides production grants twice a year to shorts, docs and indie films shot on video. The selected projects receive US$15,400, or up to 50% of the production costs, without provisions.

Docs are also popping up on TV. The Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the nation’s main pubcaster, counts ‘History Special,’ which aims to correct historical misinformation, ‘Environment Special’ and ‘Sunday Special,’ which gives a critical interpretation of contemporary society, among its regular doc slots. In development is ‘Science Special.’ KBS also combined animation and documentary to create an ‘animentary’ series. Based on local fables, Animentary Korean Fables visits historical sights around the country.

With funding for docs now in place, Joung says critics and audiences alike are paying closer attention to a film’s aesthetic attributes – a key step if Korean films are to travel internationally. Coming full circle, Kim Dong-won’s latest doc, Repatriation, screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Following his roots as a political filmmaker (he founded p.u.r.n. productions in Seoul in 1991, a collective that aims to experiment with and develop the art of documentary in Korea, while tackling grassroots issues), Repatriation was shot over 10 years and tells the story of captured North Korean spies who were allowed to return home in 2000. International sales are being handled by Seoul-based Indiestory, one of the few indie distribs in Korea to carry docs. ‘People say it’s a renaissance period in Korea for independent film and documentary,’ notes Juong.

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