Asia Pacific Screen Forum focuses in on Australian-Korean collaboration

Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’. 

Australia and Korea have had an official co-production treaty in place for five years now, though a project has yet to eventuate from it.

Of course, co-productions – particularly official ones under government treaties or MOUs – aren’t easy and can take a long time to come to fruition. The challenges are often numerable: finding the right partner, nuances involved in cross-cultural creative and financial collaboration, language barriers, managing talent and shoots across countries, and a lot of paperwork.

But co-productions also offer many creative and financial benefits, particularly as the marketplace for content grows increasingly global.

Collaboration between Australia and Korea’s screen industries will form a focus at tomorrow’s Asia Pacific Screen Forum in Brisbane – a new adjunct to the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) – in a session supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)’s Australia-Korean Foundation.

Speaking on the panel will be Busan International Film Festival founder and chairman Kim Dong-Ho, Screen Australia senior manager of the Producer Offset and co-production unit Michele McDonald, as well as producers Catherine Fitzgerald, whose current project Love Song is the first Korean-NZ co-pro, and Zoe Sua Cho of Mass Ornament Film, a US-based Kiwi who made US-Korean co-pro House of Hummingbird.

It’s understandable that Australian producers would want to tap into the Korean market. The appetite for film in South Korea is voracious, and its industry pumps out a lot of content: 454 national films were released in 2018. Korean audiences typically favour home-grown content, with domestic box office share regularly above 50 per cent. Individually, South Koreans watched an average of 4 films each in theatres in 2018; one of highest rates in the world.

And Korean content travels. South Korea exported a total of $US600 million worth of screen content last year, 41 per cent of which were films and 69 per cent television. Korean cinema is also frequently regarded as among the world’s most fresh and interesting, with the country boasting world-renowned auteur directors like Bong Joon-Ho, Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong.

Bong Joon-ho’s most recent work, Parasite, the 2019 Palme d’Or – the first Korean film to ever win the Cannes prize – has made upwards of $US105 million worldwide, and is projected to make $20 million Stateside. It’s tipped for Oscar nods in multiple categories – not just for Best International Feature Film, but also Best Picture.

But how well known is the work of the Australian screen industry in Korea? Where can Australian creatives best align their skills with Korean creatives to mutual benefit? What would an ideal collaboration look like between the two countries in terms of genre, market, and talent? How can filmmakers between the countries form networks? Why hasn’t a co-pro entered production yet?

These are questions that the session’s moderator, University of Sydney’s Jane Park, a literary and media studies academic whose work explores the intersections of Hollywood and Asian cinema, hopes to explore in the APSA session.

Noting that Australia’s Korean Film Festival just celebrated 10 years, Park says: “There’s definitely a growing audience for Korean cinema and Korean popular culture in Australia. I’m curious… if there’s something comparable or growing in Korea,” Park tells IF.

One of the key advantages of an official co-production treaty is that filmmakers can use the financial incentives and rebates in both countries. That means the Producer Offset in Australia, while the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) offers a rebate of 20-25 per cent on qualifying production expenditure and the 10 regional film commissions offer rebates and discounts on costs incurred in regional areas.

On the creative side, Park says co-production could also potentially be a great way to explore diasporic and cross-cultural stories between Korea and Australia. Yet challenges to overcome may include language barriers (notably Australia’s most common co-production partners are other English-language territories like Canada and the UK) and cultural differences in ways of working. For instance, Park notes Korean cinema tends to be very auteur-led, something that has caused “learning curves and challenges” in Hollywood collaborations.

One project currently in development as a potential official Korean-Australian co-pro is feature film The Pong Su, produced by Unicorn Films’ Lizzette Atkins and Jonathan Kim of Korea’s Hanmac Culture Group, and written by Reg Cribb. It will follow the infamous case of the North Korean cargo ship involved in Australia’s largest drug bust.

Interestingly, Australian cinema has a fan in Bong Joon-ho: he apparently studied Peter Weir and Jane Campion projects in film school and is an ardent Mad Max fan, declaring George Miller as one of his heroes.

The decision to run a session on Australian-Korean collaboration as part of the forum stemmed from success APSA had hosting a panel on 10 years of the Australian-Chinese co-production treaty a few years ago with Screen Australia and Ausfilm, APSA lead Jaclyn McLendon tells IF.

It seemed timely to now focus on Korea, given the country’s celebrating 100 years of cinema this year (APSA will also honour this milestone as part of the forum), the buzzy success of Parasite and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, and the fact we share a treaty that hasn’t yet been utilised. Further, Kim Dong-Ho is the APSA Awards’ patron, and last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner Burning was invested in through the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund back in 2010.

McLendon’s hope is that the Asia Pacific Screen Forum, as a new event, will further bolster the APSA Awards as a site for international collaboration, both formal and informal, professional development and networking opportunities.

“What we wanted to create with the forum is something that was more inclusive and accessible, not just for the nominees,” McLendon says.

Other sessions at the forum will include a VFX workshop with Industrial Light & Magic, a panel with programmers from the Toronto and Venice film festivals, roundtables covering issues such as sustainable cinema and historical reflections, and a networking event that aims to connect local industry with APSA nominees, more than half of which are first or second time filmmakers.

The hope is this year’s iteration will be a success so that the event may be expanded. “In the future, we really want to have a look at the global issues facing Asia-Pacific filmmakers and what we can actually do from Australia to support and nurture the region in which we’re all in,” says McLendon.

The APSA Awards will be held on Thursday evening at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. Australian films in the running include Daniel Gordon’s The Australian Dream and Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy.