Entertainment & Arts

The Thieves opens doors to Korean cinema in UK

Image caption The Thieves is a high-octane crime thriller partly set in Macao

Once the South Korean film industry was little known outside Asia. Yet this year it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Now a festival in the UK aims to show that South Korea can impress both with art-house fare and in the mass market - and Korean film talent is beginning to turn up elsewhere too.

The Thieves is the second biggest-grossing South Korean film ever. So getting its star and director to fly in to open the London Korean Film Festival was a coup.

The screening in Leicester Square on 1 November was packed, and not only with members of London's large Korean community.

The makers of The Thieves may be getting a little tired of comparisons to Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven.

Their hyper-kinetic heist movie has an energy of its own and has obvious international potential - if only for its extraordinary parkour-influenced stunts, many at a dizzying height above ground.

Director Choi Dong-hoon says the trick of appealing beyond Korea is to appeal at home first.

"The Korean audience really loves movies, but also it's very conservative and hard to please. So if I can get Koreans to like my movies, I know other people will probably like them too.

"Of course it's important to sell a movie internationally, but South Korea has to be the first target. There are so many good films in Korea - a festival like this shows them to people in the rest of the world."

Wide influences

Choi insists casting Hong Kong actors such as Derek Tsang wasn't meant simply to boost his film's chances in the rest of Asia. "I just wanted to work with good artists," he says.

"I'm not sure how widely The Thieves will be seen in China: because it's a crime story it may not get past the censors. But it's been box-office number one in Hong Kong."

Choi is part of a generation of South Korean film-makers happy to absorb influences from other cultures but who have created an industry with its own dynamic.

He says crime films that influenced The Thieves include Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Henri Verneuil's The Sicilian Clan (1969). "What interests me most is a good story and good characterisation," he adds.

Image caption The King of Pigs tells the story of two warring factions in a high school

The film's star, Kim Yoon-suk, says South Korea has learned from films made in Hong Kong and Shanghai but has also surpassed them.

"Hong Kong had a big reputation for action and crime movies. But if you look at the action sequences in The Thieves, you see we're now as good.

"And we have a much more varied industry - from art-house films like Pieta [winner of the Golden Lion at Venice this year] to huge blockbusters like this one."

The success of The Thieves may yet lure director Choi Dong-hoon to Hollywood.

If so he will follow in the footsteps of compatriots Park Chan-wook, director of Hollywood horror flick Stoker with Nicole Kidman, and Kim Jee-woon, whose latest film, The Last Stand, marks the post-politics comeback for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As Asia becomes a more valuable market for Hollywood, we are starting to see Korean stars in roles in English-language pictures. Lee Byung-hun, for example, appears in the forthcoming Bruce Willis film Red 2.

Hye-jung Jeon, who runs the London Korean Film Festival, says both the quantity and quality of films available for inclusion has increased in the seven years the event has existed.

That partly explains why this year's event also extends to cinemas in Bournemouth, Glasgow and Bristol.

Missing north

Yet the LKFF brand might be thought something of a misnomer, as the festival excludes anything from North Korea.

The North Korean industry remains largely a mystery, with estimates even of its size varying hugely. Some sources say it produces as many as 60 films a year, while others believe it's a mere handful.

Image caption "K-comedies" like All About My Wife are also included in the line-up

The country's supreme leader Kim Jong-il, who died last December, was known to be a film fan. As yet it is unclear if his successor, son Kim Jong-un, shares the same tastes.

Hye-jung Jeon says even in the South Korean capital Seoul it is difficult to see a film from the north. "Definitely we are seeing more South Korean films about the north-south relationship. But it's very hard to know exactly what's going on in the north.

"This year the Busan Film Festival [in the south] managed to show one North Korean film, called Comrade Kim Goes Flying. But it needed special permission from the South Korean government.

"Sometimes we get to see a classic North Korean film at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul. But only very rarely."

For now, the two-week LKFF will have to restrict itself to South Korean output. But there is unlikely to be a shortage.

Categories this year include K-Animation, K-Comedy, K-Sports and K-Period Drama - plus, of course, the inevitable K-Pop.

The London Korean Film Festival runs until 16 November.

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