Korean filmmakers take center stage to bash trade talks

International Herald Tribune

Korean filmmakers take center stage to bash trade talks

By Heejin Koo, Bloomberg News

7 September 2006

SEOUL - Fresh from acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival for creating a South Korean "Jaws," the director Bong Joon Ho staged a lone protest outside the Culture Ministry in Seoul, shouting slogans and raising a red placard.

Since February, the South Korean movie community has stationed one person each day at the ministry or the presidential Blue House to complain that the industry is being sacrificed to Hollywood for an agreement that may bring an extra $29 billion of trade with the United States each year. Talks on the accord reopened Wednesday.

The moviemakers, fighting for quotas that protect local films, and their allies - beef, dairy and rice farmers - may be winning the battle for public support. A recent survey showed that half of Koreans opposed an accord, up from 29 percent six weeks earlier, The Seoul Economic Daily reported.

On Thursday, 23 lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties filed suit in the Constitutional Court in Seoul, alleging that trade negotiations were illegal because the National Assembly wasn’t consulted before they started. The court has the power to overturn government policy decisions.

"Everyone believed that we were throwing eggs at boulders," said the award-winning director Jung Ji Young. "Now the tide has turned. More Koreans and lawmakers are doubting the necessity and justification for a free-trade agreement."

The accord to remove trade barriers would be the largest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. U.S. exports could jump by $19 billion a year, while imports from South Korea are expected to increase by $10 billion, the U.S. International Trade Commission has forecast. Trade between the two countries was $71.5 billion last year.

In July, South Korea cut the number of days a year that theaters are required to show local films to 73 from 146, meeting the demands of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Sony, Walt Disney and other moviemakers.

"This was a priority for the U.S. motion picture industry for many years," said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for the group. "We feel like the best scenario for all filmmakers is a truly global market."

Disney declined to comment. Sony referred questions to the MPAA.

The South Korean film industry wants to scuttle the trade talks, win back the quota, and prevent Hollywood from dominating box-office, video and DVD sales.

"The decision to cut the screening quota set a positive tone for the FTA talks," Kim Jong Hoon, Korea’s chief negotiator, said in July, pointing out that the issue led to the collapse of negotiations in 2000.

Stumbling blocks to an agreement include access to Korea’s agricultural, pharmaceutical and car markets, and a U.S. refusal to accept goods made in the Gaeseong industrial complex in North Korea. The second round of talks was cut short because of a dispute over South Korean drug regulations.

South Korean cinema triumphs include "Old Boy," which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and "The Host," applauded at this year’s invitees-only Directors’ Fortnight at the festival.

In "The Host," U.S. soldiers dump toxic waste into Seoul’s Han River, spawning a monster that goes on a rampage. The movie drew comparisons with "Jaws" and "Alien" for scariness and filmmaking expertise, Variety magazine reported.

"It’s a stretch to simplify ’The Host’ as an anti-American film," Bong said in an interview last month with local radio station Korea Broadcasting System. "But there is certainly a metaphor and political commentary about the U.S."

The reduction of the 39-year-old screening quota may slash South Korea’s output to 40 films a year from 80, according to the organization leading the protests, the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images. Hollywood won 41 percent of sales in 2004.

"We will see a marked decrease in investment in the film industry," said Jung. "Korean movies just won’t be able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters."

The star of "Old Boy," Choi Min Shik, handed back a medal awarded by the South Korean government and picketed at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May. The movie’s director, Park Chan Wook, protested at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

"There are people in the U.S. and in Korea that are concerned about this agreement - concerned that this agreement may not benefit their sectors, but that’s kind of the nature of trade talks," Wendy Cutler, the assistant U.S. trade representative, said in July.

South Korean farmers, who drew tear gas and water-cannon blasts at World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong last year, joined the moviemakers in Seattle this week to protest at the latest round of talks with the United States.

keywords: culture, Korea, US