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Get the Whole Nine Yards - Filmmaker OH Ki-hwan on his experience making a Korean-Chinese Co-production

Sep 11, 2018
  • Writerby KIM Su-bin
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“The key is finding in local markets the compatible emotional strings to pull in the narrative”

The film A Wedding Invitation (2013) is a perfect example of Korean-Chinese co-productions' commercial potential. Recouping its production costs of KRW 5.4 billion (approx. USD 4.8 million) within just two days into its Chinese release in 2013, the film eventually raked in KRW 35 billion (USD 31 million) in total local box office revenues. The inception of this film was different from other Korean-Chinese co-productions from the get-go as instead of going for a Korean remake, the original screenplay was developed and written in a joint effort between the production companies of both countries. Filmmaker OH Ki-hwan debuted in 2001 with Last Present and directed films such as The Art of Seduction (2005) and Fashion King (2014). We recently met with the director, currently working on a TV series script, to hear his views on Korean-Chinese co-productions and his future plans. 

-A Wedding Invitation became the highest grossing Korean-Chinese co-production film made in 2013 at the Chinese box office. This was the first film CJ ENM handled from development to distribution for the Chinese market

I don't believe in fate, but I do believe there is something above us deciding on a specific time for each of us. At first, it started out as a remake of Last Present, my debut film. However, while working on the project, I realized there were huge differences in Chinese and Korean sensibilities. It’s only a 2-hour distance away, but the emotional distance seemed to be more than 2,000km. We came to the conclusion that transposing the story in its entirety to a Chinese context wouldn’t work. Eventually, we decided to just leave the plot and change the content inside the story. Time-wise, A Wedding Invitation is the first commercially successful example of Korean-Chinese co-production, but in fact, the starting point of this film dates back 7 years earlier. It could serve as a reference for those aiming at Korean-Chinese co-productions, but it could be dangerous to strictly follow the same steps we’ve taken. Just like we kept checking the discrepancies between Korea and China while working on A Wedding Invitation, each co-production needs to double-check the successes and failures of each project and find their own way. That’s how a co-production can duly reach its goal. 

-Were you interested in Chinese culture before you began your film career?

In 1999 or 2000, I happened to find myself by chance on the Chinese location shoot for KIM Young-jun’s Bichunmoo (2000). My interest in China started then, and I picked up a few clues about working on a Korean-Chinese co-production during this shoot. A full ten years had passed when in 2011, my personal curiosity met CJ China’s vision and resulted in A Wedding Invitation. I guess nothing really happens out of the blue. 

-Was it difficult to collaborate with a Chinese screenwriter? 

We worked with 3 different writers. With the first writer, we realized the emotional gap between both countries, and with the second writer, we finally created a plot. With the third writer, we were able to complete the script in a short period of time by adding the dialogue, parentheticals and other details. A miracle can occur only if everybody's thoughts come together at the right time. It’s not easy to do something in a totally different national environment. I guess it was possible in my case because, at least, I had the framework for a plot. Had it been a totally new project that started from scratch, it could have taken quite a long time.
-You recently participated in a forum at Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival introducing examples of international collaborations. There, you talked about the difficulties of co-producing a film that relied on emotions compared to an action film. 

I believe that Hollywood, which has been making films for a worldwide market, has an extensive expertise in this field. I felt that if I came to understand Hollywood, it would make my work in China easier. So I did a little research and found out that action or hero films were the most compatible with other local markets. The Hollywood strategy is to emphasize the action factor. Action narratives constitute the highest portion of the latest Korean exports, which indicates that Korea might also be going for a similar strategy. Whereas narratives focusing on the emotion factor are more of a challenge in regards to local compatibility. Each country has a different sensibility and thus, you endlessly need to question yourself. You have to check if Korean customs or emotions apply to the Chinese culture. For example, Koreans tend to reconcile their differences with others before they die. In China though, everything is forgiven in death and rarely before. Likewise, because everything is different, one always needs to question the premise. The most challenging thing that came up while working on this film was that, apart from the physicality, every emotional embodiment had to be questioned. 

-You worked on various genres: melodrama (Last Present), romantic comedy (The Art of Seduction), and horror (Someone Behind You, 2007). You also directed a film adaptation of a webtoon targeting the teenage audience (Fashion King) and a Korean-Chinese co-production (A Wedding Invitation). It seems that you like to take on challenges in new fields. 

I do have a lot of curiosity. These days, I even want to make a film in Vietnam or Indonesia. I also want to work on a new project in Korea, but currently, there is an extreme dichotomy in Korean films. It’s either a film that costs more than KRW 10 billion (approx. USD 8.9 million) or under KRW 1 billion (approx. USD 891 thousand). For cultural diversity to exist, there need to be the films with mid-size-budgets. Personally, I believe that these mid-size-budget projects are being turned into TV series. The recent TV series look like films. As I’m always looking for diversity in my works, I chose a TV project this time. Once I’m done with this, I think I’ll come up with a new idea that I can work on. Or maybe while I’m directing this TV drama, I’ll be able to initiate a new project in China. Anyway, I’ll think about the next step after I’m done with this one.
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