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South Korean cinema struggles with High Definition

  • Story Highlights
  • High Definition cinema's low production costs make the films easier to budget
  • But HD's low penetration rate on market makes the movies difficult to exploit
  • Cinema Digital Seoul: Digital formats as a way for art to reflect on the world
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By Elizabeth Kerr
for CNN
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PUSAN, South Korea (CNN) -- As South Korea's Pusan International Film Festival -- widely recognized as Asia's most important film showcase and market -- wraps up its 12th year, one thing has become apparent, at least for the domestic industry: High Definition filmmaking hasn't quite reached the omnipresent proportions many believed it would have by now.

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South Korean independent filmmaker Kim Byung-woo's "Written" was shot in High Definition.

"IT technology is hugely developed in Korea, not HD cinema equipment or technology," says Kang Kyung-il, Manager of Production at CJ Entertainment, South Korea's dominant distributor in terms of volume and market share.

The nation's inherent curiosity regarding technology has helped put HD on a long list of options for filmmakers, but until exhibitors can screen HD films the way they're meant to be seen (the majority of HD films are transferred to 35mm for cinemas) and general high-def knowledge significantly increases, HD cinema will remain in the margins.

Of the nine South Korean films making their world premieres at PIFF this year, five were shot in HD. If this proportion seems impressive, it is less so considering the total of 24 contemporary South Korean films screened in the festival, where the HD feature ratio drops to little more than 20 percent.

According to statistics compiled by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), only 13 out of 134 films produced in 2006 were shot on HD, and none was among the top three grossers of the year: "The Host", "King and the Clown" and "Tazza: High Rollers" were all produced in traditional 35mm.

HD was similarly absent among the award-winners at PIFF. This year, three films shared the festival's prestigious New Currents award, and of those only "Flower in Pocket" from Malaysia was not shot on 35mm film -- it was shot on Digi-Beta.

KOFIC has slated 63 films for release in the second half of 2007, with the HD number remaining stable at 13. Of course, data can be deceiving -- five of those 13 are among the PIFF films already mentioned, and only two have major distribution deals.

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The reasons for HD cinema's slow progress are simultaneously obvious and confounding to people in the industry. On one hand, HD's low production costs make the films easier to budget; on the other hand, the format's low penetration rate on the market makes the movies difficult to exploit.

For filmmakers, a great deal of the high-definition decision comes down to cost. Negative cutting, processing, transport, and a host of other fees that come with celluloid drop substantially when principal photography is shot in HD.

One example is the independent film "Written," which focuses on the story of a man in search of an identity. The protagonist wakes up in a bathtub missing a kidney and is later told he's just a character in someone else's screenplay. The fuzzy line between fantasy and reality is spectacularly represented by super-saturated color, camera flares and high "grain" in HD cinematography.

Director Kim Byung-woo explains that the subject matter of the film was already more suitable to HD's quirks, but that wasn't the only reason. "It's just too expensive to shoot on film, so cost was the second factor for selecting [HD]," she says.

Others in the industry share Kim's idea that the cost of shooting on film can be oppressive. Among the advantages of working in HD, Kang at CJ Entertainment cites shortened post-production time, technical synergy between media and platforms (digital editing has long since replaced the traditional flatbed process), and reduced costs in principal production and distribution.

However, Kang mentions setbacks such as "controlling the picture speed, and HD is still new to a lot of filmmaking staff, so more time and effort is needed just to be able to function... [We] cannot expect to [exploit] the reduced production costs that come with HD until an industry-wide system exists that everyone can use."

The need for education, along with cultivating an appreciation, was one of the reasons for the founding of a new, all-digital film festival in mid-2007. Joan Lee, programming manager at Cinema Digital Seoul (CinDi), sees digital formats like HD as a way for art to reflect on the world, in addition to simply addressing more prosaic budget demands.

Echoing Kang, Lee says, "The myth of HD film -- that it can reduce cost -- does not hold any longer... It's more about how to approach the subject. More and more directors and DPs [directors of photography] are being educated. Some directors take this experimental step as [a way] to reduce production costs, even though it's not a big difference. [The] budget issue is a kind of trigger for giving it a first try."

Lee goes on to theorize that massive success by a digital feature in the market would do more to move the format forward than any other single factor.

The so-called HD system trickles down to exhibitors as well. Digital projection is still in its infancy, and chain cinemas remain slow to refit their projector booths with the appropriate HD equipment.

The MegaBox and CGV chains, South Korea's largest, began installing digital projectors in 2005. But the equipment was concentrated in central Seoul, and there has been no word since from either as to whether or not they plan on more conversions any time soon.

Ultimately, Kang goes on, "It needs to be confirmed that the HD cinema process is more economical than film production. It should be guaranteed that theatres... can secure HD pictures' merits."

High Definition cinema in South Korea, as in many parts of the world, is stalled at a chicken/egg stage. Without a place to exhibit, there won't be an incentive to create product -- or is it that without product, there's no point in creating venues for screening? Either way, we're still waiting for that HD revolution. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Elizabeth Kerr is a Toronto-born, Hong Kong-based freelance film and culture writer who has been living in Asia for the past six years. She has worked with both the Pusan and Hong Kong international film festivals, among others.

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