Australia / South Korea: Intersections

in 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival

by Mike Walsh

Film festivals are places of intersection between national cinemas, and this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival provided a rich site for a comparison between the cinemas of host, Australia, and South Korea (which MIFF director James Hewison has championed so strongly.)

The comparison is given additional relevance as both countries are currently comtemplating trade treaties with the U.S. in which film and television quotas are potential bargaining chips. Both have production industries which have enjoyed crucial government support through national Film Commissions.

At this point, however, paths begin to diverge. While Korea is the success story of recent national cinema, claiming up to 49% of its domestic box office, the figure for Australia has declined into the 3 to 4% range. On the basis of what we saw at MIFF, the impressive thing about Korean cinema is the sheer range of production, from commercial genre films such as Bichunmoo and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance through youth cult movies (Save the Green Planet!, Resurrection of the Little Match Girl) through commercial art-house (Ardor) to film festival modernist auteurs such as Hong Sang-soo (Turning Gate).

Not only does this variety indicate a successful meshing of production and screen culture, the high level of competence by first time feature directors such as Kim In-sik (Roadmovie) and Park Chan-ok (Jealousy is My Middle Name) gives evidence of a strongly supportive industrial structure – if not the genius of the system, at least a strong professional cleverness.

On the other hand, we see an Australian cinema which is frankly struggling. Films such as The Rage in Placid Lake, Japanese Story, and Travelling Light stem from a highly conservative industrial context which is more at home with the theatrical values of Acting and Dialogue, than with a vital knowledge of contemporary screen culture. The emphasis on development within film policy seems to be developing mainly the mannerisms that have led Australian filmmaking down to its current state.

Films are tangible indicators of broader production contexts, and it is worth citing two factors for consideration in explaining the differences between Australian and South Korean filmmaking.

The first is the relation of each industry to Hollywood. The Korean cinema enjoys the ability to differentiate itself from Hollywood on linguistic grounds. It also has sufficiently strong corporate backing to enable it to compete with moderately-budgetted entertainment films. Australian films rely much more heavily on government support which is smaller scale and less tied to popular response. Australian cinema consequently seeks places in the tasteful margins. The cultural capital that has accrued from the Hollywood careers of Australian actors such as Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett et al has resulted in a popular screen culture dominated by a star system that has moved offshore.

The second comparision in contexts is that Korean cinema has grown on the back of an increasingly regional appeal. Australian cinema has never explored this path. Australian post-production work on films such as Hero and So Close provide isolated instances of the opportunities of links with regional production, rather than simply concentrating on an annual Cannes push.

Perhaps the production of dramatic feature films is beside the point in Australia. It is increasingly evident that the strength of its filmmaking is in documentary production financed by television. Still, the award of the FIPRESCI prize to Undead, a low-budget, privately-financed zombie movie might signal an alternative direction for local filmmaking — one based on vigour and popular pleasure rather than the heavy-handed theatricality that has typified so much Australian cinema of late.