By Song Ho-jin
“Should I put the word ‘arrowhead’ in a movie title?” joked a film producer during a recent meeting with the Hankyoreh. The producer’s company certainly hit their target at the box office. The follow-up to last year’s hit “War of the Arrows,” which drew 7.4 million viewers, “Unbowed” (the Korean title of which translates as “Broken Arrow”), passed the one million viewer mark just over a week after its debut early this year.
According to Korean Film Council figures Thursday, “Unbowed” had drawn 1,041,738 viewers by Wednesday, eight days after its premiere. This was more than double the 500 thousand required for the film to break even. Its production company, Aura Pictures, predicted the film was likely to pass the two million-viewer mark by next week. What is it that has this low-budget film (production costs of 500 million won or $450 million) making such an impact at the box office and in society at large?
The actors and staff shared the production costs to allow the film to be made from a script targeting the judiciary and vested interests in society. Actors like Ahn Sung-ki, who earned just about enough to cover transportation for his appearance, took part based on a guarantee that they would be paid if the film made a profit. Some of the country‘s top film staff agreed to be paid a percentage of the profits.
Producer Kim Ji-yeon said, “We agreed to give the actors and staff 60% of the company’s profits and we put the shares for the junior staff at a higher level than other films offer.”
“Unbowed” was made by Jeong Ji-yeong, a director with experience making films with strong social themes. Its marketing was handled by Myung Films, which has ample experience connecting with audiences, and it was distributed by NEW, which has emerged as a new force in the film distribution industry. Thanks to this three-way cooperation making use of each partner‘s strengths, the film rose to the top of the box office pack over the Lunar New Year holiday against rivals backed by investments from large companies and distribution networks.
In order to overcome the difficulties of a limited marketing budget, Myung Films held a screening for 20 thousand people before the premiere, helping to spur word-of-mouth through Twitter and other media. NEW, which distributed films like “Late Blossom” and “Blind” that were short on budget and long on content, managed to get 245 theaters for the debut, breaking into the cracks of the large corporation distribution network with such heavyweights as CJ E&M’s “Dancing Queen” and Lotte Entertainment’s “Pacemaker.”
Kim Jae-min, a deputy director at NEW, said, “We decided we need to start with at least 250 or so theaters so that audiences around the country could see it. Since the script is so good, we predicted that the number of theaters would increase as viewers were moved.” As predicted, the number of theaters showing “Unbowed” has since risen to around four hundred.
Korean films in recent years have generally had running times in excess of two hours. They have been rich in story and spectacle, but some are saying they have been overextended. “Unbowed,” in contrast, manages to pack its story into the relatively short running time of 101 minutes and one second. While this was in some sense a reflection of budget limitations, it also makes for a more absorbing film. Kim Ji-yeon said the pre-editing footage was around 130 minutes. The short running time also allows for more screenings at theaters.
Film critic Ahn Si-hwan said, “It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a film to be long, but there have been many cases in Korean films recently where there have been a lot of extraneous story elements and films have gotten longer because the directors were too ambitious and going for too much aesthetically.”
Ahn said the success of “Unbowed” sets an example for young directors. “It shows the possibility of getting a clear popular appeal by forgoing the desire to combine things with a lot of different social issues and clearly showing the story and themes they wanted to communicate,” he explained.
Observers in the film world welcomed the success as showing the value of its veteran director, the 66-year-old Jeong. With more and more young investors in recent years using their capital to work with directors in their thirties and forties, many older directors have been left out in the cold.
“I think the younger investors feel uneasy about meeting with older directors in a business relationship,”Jeong said. “For the sake of diversity in Korean film, we need to have older directors working to spotlight life and society in a profound way and create works that transcend generations.”
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