By Park Si-soo
Comedian-turned-filmmaker Shim Hyung-rae is a dreamer. He has pursued his dream to make a No.1 box office film in Hollywood for decades against all odds.
Many critics call this dream “impractical” or “unrealistic.” Of course, he knows he has a long way to go, but he is confident that he will make his dream come true someday.
Korean films have smashed the box-office in Asia and earned greater recognition at many international film festivals.
Still, the presence of made-in-Korea films in the U.S. market is non-existent. Experts say the local industry lacks capital, technology, international movie stars and many other elements to appeal to American audiences.
Shim, however, says it’s because of a “lack of trial.”
“We cannot know how to get into the U.S. market without trials,” Shim said in an interview with The Korea Times. “Many Korean movie directors and experts studied in the U.S. and they seem to know the industry quite well. But knowledge is not enough to penetrate the market. The most important thing is experience, not textbook-based knowledge.”
Shim, 53, an undisputed “king of slapstick comedy” in Korea, made his debut in 1982 as a comedian and rose to stardom in the late 1980s with his simpleton TV persona, “Younggu,” a bumbling but lovable idiot character.
‘D-War’ & ‘Last Godfather’
He produced several children’s movies in the 1990s and in 2007 he knocked on the door of Hollywood with his first sci-fi blockbuster “D-War.”
Despite a flurry of negative reviews from critics both in Korea and the U.S., the film grossed more than $10.8 million in North America, making it the highest grossing Korean-made film released theatrically there.
Last December, he released the slapstick comedy movie “The Last Godfather” in Korea, watched by 1.3 million people in its first week, and breaking the 2.5 million mark in mid-January.
The film, produced in English with an American crew and star Harvey Keitel, will be released in 12 major U.S. cities on April 1.
Shim said the success of Korean films in the U.S. is largely dependent on how well Korean directors narrow the cultural gap in their films so that foreign viewers can be engrossed by the movies.
“That was the first reason why I used slapstick comedy this time, which is a less verbal and more universal tool to make people laugh like Charlie Chaplin and Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson),” he said. “Frankly speaking, we don’t have strong cinematography technology and ample capital to produce a blockbuster film whose scale and marketability is equivalent to ‘Avatar’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series. What we can do and should do in this situation is find transnational items, and map out a strategy based on these to get into the U.S. market.”
Gap in production systems
He also pointed out a systematic gap in film production for Korean movie producers to overcome to stand upright on the big stage.
“Every filmmaking step in the U.S. is completely contract-based, meaning actors, actresses and other supporting staff in the U.S. work as stipulated in a legal-binding contract regarding the work, which is not the case in Korea,” Shim said, highlighting the need for setting carefully designed shooting plans to work as planned. “Filmmaking in Korea is of course contract-based. In reality, however, directors wield ‘absolute’ power in the process. To meet time schedules, they frequently film overnight and require non-contracted performances, which is impossible in the U.S.”
Shim said there is little information in Korea about how to handle the much more profitable “secondary market” for DVDs, character products, cable TV broadcasting and so on.
“The U.S. market is sort of a major gateway to South America and Europe,” he said. “But we have never distributed our films to other countries via the U.S. My endeavor to make it to the U.S. is not the pursuit of the North American market alone, but global distribution.”
Younggu vs. Mr. Bean
The key motivation behind his sudden departure from local comedy scene and to get into the somewhat unfamiliar movie industry in 1993 was quite simple: “I just envied Mr. Bean,” he said.
“Younggu is the Korean version of Mr. Bean. But the global presence of the two similar characters has been in stark contrast,” he said.
Mr. Bean, the title character of a British comedy TV series, has received numerous international awards and has appeared in films and animated cartoons released in hundreds of countries, while Younggu is only known in Korea and, even worse, its popularity here is waning in recent years.
Shim said American critics’ response to his latest film “The Last Godfather” and its main character “Younggu” during previews was welcoming.
“Many labeled it as a fresh, cute and attractive character to American viewers,” he said. “Some even proposed the idea of putting Younggu into a comic-version of a Western cowboy film like ‘A Fistful of Dollars.’”
Asked about his English-speaking proficiency for interviews with the foreign press, he answered: “I think I speak English very well. But the problem is that they don’t understand what I’m saying.”
He is cautious about the prospects for his latest movie in the U.S. But he made clear that it will be another meaningful step for him.
“I’m just taking the second step in the U.S.,” he said, referring to “D-War” and “The Last Godfather.” “A newly-born baby cannot run as fast as the legendary sprinter Carl Lewis. As such, my films still have long way to go to become as competitive as major U.S. films. But I’m going to keep making films regardless of the genre, and eventually win at the box office.”
Now Shim is in preparation for his next project, a 3-D animation orphan tale called “Memory of the Bread” which will portray 1960s post-war Korea.
Who is Shim Hyung-rae?
Born in 1958 in Seoul, Shim made his debut as a comedian in 1982 through a comedian-recruiting competition hosted by KBS, the largest TV station in Korea. His simpleton TV persona “Younggu” led him to stardom in the 1980s, gaining him the honor of “Comedian of the Year” in 1988.
Establishing his own film company, Younggu-Art Entertainment in 1993, he produced a number of sci-fi children movies. He was designated as an “innovative leader in the 21st century” under the Kim Dae-jung administration in 1999, and told people then grappling with the fallout from the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis: “The problem is that you lack the will, not the capability.”
He experienced severe financial trouble in the late 2000s after a series of box-office flops, but overcame them through his constant search for success on the big screen.
“I hope my works will become a guide for local movie directors seeking to make inroads into the bigger overseas market,” he said.