Japanese movies struggling amid tensions with S.Korea

Seoul-based film distributor Media Castle thought it had a hit on its hands when it prepared to release the Japanese movie “Weathering With You” last year. It was made by the same director as the record-setting “Your Name.” which drew 3.7 million people to cinemas in South Korea. But the follow-up flopped, taking just 20% of the revenue the previous film achieved, and Media Castle says it was international politics that killed it off.

In July last year, Japan’s government tightened export controls of high-tech materials bound for South Korea. People there reacted by boycotting Japanese items, from beer to clothing, vehicles and movies.

On a South Korean website for Japanese movie reviews one person wrote, “I won’t watch Japanese films because I don’t want to be a pig or a dog.” Another wrote, “Who wants to see Japanese movies at a time like this?”

Watch without prejudice

Media Castle had planned a major campaign to promote “Weathering With You,” but its business partners pulled out, saying they didn’t want to be associated with Japanese movies in that climate.

“There was nothing we could do to turn things around,” says Media Castle Executive Producer Kang Sang Wook. “It’s a pity we couldn’t show the film to many people. I hope everyone can avoid prejudice against movies.”

Kang Sang Wook, Executive Producer at film distributor Media Castle.

Meanwhile, a small theater in the city in Incheon is trying to keep interest in Japanese cinema alive. Once a month it screens a Japanese movie for free.

The cinema, Milim, has close ties with an indie theater called Jack and Betty in Yokohama, Japan. Last year, when tensions were flaring, they worked together to show movies from both countries.

Milim Director Choi Hyun Jun says he felt a bond with the people at Jack and Betty. “We speak different languages and live in different areas, but it’s important for us in culture and the arts to treat each other well and seek exchanges with our minds wide open.”

Choi Hyun Jun, director of the indie Milim theater in Incheon, has been supporting Japanese cinema.

Filmmakers reach out

In effect, it used to be illegal to screen Japanese movies in South Korea because Japan was regarded as a hostile nation. That situation changed only in 1998 after concerted efforts by the organizers of the Busan International Film Festival, the largest of its kind in Asia, who had been inviting Japanese filmmakers to the event since 1996.

When people in South Korea began boycotting Japanese products last year, some film festivals in South Korea dropped Japanese titles from their schedules. But the Busan organizers decided to open their event with one: “The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time,” starring Moriyama Mirai. At the same event, they named Koreeda Hirokazu as Asian filmmaker of the year.

The festival’s programmer, Park Sun Young, said, “We have a responsibility to do our best to prevent Japanese films from getting involved in political issues.”

Park Sun Young, programmer of the Busan International Film Festival.

Media Castle’s Kang says he felt encouraged when “Weathering With You” director Shinkai Makoto visited South Korea to promote the film. The director wrote a Korean phrase on the poster urging them to fight on. Kang says it raised everyone’s spirits.

Kang says he is now considering setting up a theater in Seoul to show only Japanese titles.

“I want to help Japanese films take root in South Korea,” he says. “I believe this will lay a foundation for future generations to settle political issues.”