The Straits Times
JULY 31, 2004
Sector protests against pressure by US to lift curbs that limit the screenings of foreign movies
By JOO SANG MIN
FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
SEOUL - A star-studded film about two brothers caught on opposite sides of the Korean War broke all box-office records here this year.
Taegukgi, starring heart-throbs Won Bin and Jang Dong Gun as the ill-fated brothers, was watched by more than 10 million film-goers, or about one in four South Koreans.
Recently, its director, Mr Kang Je Gyu, and cast took part in a battle of another kind - to protect the domestic film industry. They joined 2,000 of their colleagues on July 13 to protest against growing pressure from the US on Seoul to lift its decade-old curbs on foreign films.
Other well-known stars at the rally included Mr Ahn Sung Ki, who starred in box-office hit Silmido; Ms Moon So Ri, winner of the Best Young Actress Prize at the 2002 Venice Film Festival; and comedy cult actor Park Jung Hoon.
The stars were out in force to voice support for South Korea’s screen quota system, in place since 1993, to protect the local industry from Hollywood blockbusters.
The policy requires local cinemas to screen home-made films 146 days a year - 40 per cent of the time. Similar schemes are in place in France and Spain.
But now, the United States wants the curbs on foreign films to be eased before it will sign a bilateral investment treaty that South Korea proposed during the 1997 financial crisis.
The Korean Institute for International Economic Policy said the treaty is expected to bring in US$40 billion (S$69 billion) in foreign investment.
But South Korea’s screen quota system has been standing in the way of the conclusion of the treaty for many years.
With the economy still reeling from the 1997 financial crisis, many economic officials and business leaders are in favour of abolishing the quota system in exchange for the treaty.
Mr Kwon Tae Shin, an economic ministry official, said the local film industry has matured and no longer needs protection from the quota.
Critics of the screen policy say the local film industry has come of age with blockbusters such as Taegukgi and Silmido - which attracted more than 10 million movie-goers - and accolades bestowed on South Korean films at international film festivals.
But local filmmakers say success stories are few. Among 28 Korean films released until May this year, only seven attracted more than 500,000 viewers - the least number needed for the film to break even.
They fear cash-rich Hollywood distributors would squeeze out home-grown films with an avalanche of US blockbusters should the quota system be eased or scrapped.
Take Mexico’s experience for example, they say. The Mexican movie industry produced only 14 films in 2002, down from 46 in 1994, after the country lowered the number of screening days for home-grown films under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Underlying the strong resistance against the abolition of the quota system is a growing sense of pride in the country’s cultural exports. South Korea’s film exports jumped to US$37 million in the first half of this year, from US$7 million in 2000.
’We are not doing this for fun. It’s not just about our livelihoods, but also about the country’s culture, which cannot be subject to trade negotiations,’ Mr Ahn, leader of the pro-quota lobby, told The Straits Times.
A recent survey found the majority of the public thinks the quota system should remain intact.
’I think it is too early to lift the barrier. And what’s so bad about protecting our own movies... and earning money in the global market?’ asked Mr Hwang Moon Sang, an engineer.