Last year's hit movie 'The Thieves' is just the latest in a list of co-productions between South Korea and Hong Kong that date back to 1958, writes Darcy Paquet
South Korea's biggest-grossing film in history is a work that features popular Korean actors, but also benefits significantly from Hong Kong star power. Last summer, The Thieves sold a record-breaking 13 million tickets in South Korea, and part of the appeal was the presence of actors Simon Yam Tat-wah, Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung and Lee Sinje, and even the urban landscapes of Hong Kong and Macau.
To South Koreans in their 20s, this might have seemed novel - yet co-productions and partnerships between the film industries of Hong Kong and South Korea stretch far back into the past.
This history was highlighted earlier this month with a screening at the Korean Film Archive of the newly restored Love with an Alien (1958), the first South Korean-Hong Kong co-production. What sounds like a science-fiction film is actually a touching cross-cultural romance featuring South Korea's Kim Jin-gyu and Hong Kong star Lucilla Yu Ming. She plays a talented young nightclub singer, while he plays a songwriter visiting from South Korea. It's love (almost) at first sight, but an unknown wrinkle in his past threatens to doom their romance.
Film historians from both lands have long been interested in this work, which is also the South's first colour film. But the only surviving copy, in the Shaw Brothers' private collection, was too badly damaged to be screened. Last June, Korean Film Archive's representatives reached an agreement with Shaw Brothers to borrow the negative for digital restoration, carried out in Japan by Imagica Corp.
Unfortunately, Love with an Alien's sound is irreparably lost, and much of the visuals are badly degraded. The screening in April was furnished with subtitles taken from the screenplay, so that the audience could follow the story. Nonetheless, the film's commercial appeal and glamour shone through even without sound, and with images in which many of the blacks have chemically decomposed into a glowing green. Korean journalists, while noting the damage to the print, declared it "no obstruction" to enjoyment of the film. Public screenings at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul are scheduled for May, and the film is likely to travel further afield in the coming year.
At the time it was shot, this pioneering work of cinematic collaboration meant a great deal to a poor nation still trying to recover from a devastating war. "This may sound funny today, but before flying to Hong Kong we made an offering at the National Cemetery, and a military band played music as our plane took off," says 79-year-old actor Yoon Il-bong, who played a supporting role in the film.
The origins of this project can be traced back to a meeting between Im Hwa-soo, a power broker in the Korean film industry, and producer Run Run Shaw at the 1956 Asia-Pacific Film Festival. Shaw was interested in securing additional markets for his company's films, especially works such as Love with an Alien that used pricey Eastman colour technology. The screenplay was drafted in South Korea and then revised based on recommendations from Shaw Brothers' writers.
The directorial credit was shared by Tu Guang-qi (Hong Kong), Jeon Chang-geun (South Korea) and Mitsuo Wakasugi (Japan).
Love with an Alien was a hit in both countries, and it marked the start of a boom in Hong Kong-Korean co-productions that would last more than two decades. After a handful of similarly themed melodramas were shot in the late 1950s, the stage was set for the most active period of exchange that took place from the mid- to the late 1960s.
By this time, the South Korean film industry had grown stronger, and the leading figure was producer-director Shin Sang-ok (who was famously kidnapped to North Korea in the late 1970s and forced to make films until his escape in 1986). Shin and Run Run Shaw met in 1962 when the Asia-Pacific Film Festival was held in Seoul, and Shin won the top prize for Mother and a Guest.
Shaw proposed a collaboration, Shin accepted. The two men focused on big-budget historical epics, with indoor scenes to be shot on sets in Hong Kong and outdoor scenes in the Korean countryside. In certain cases, including the 1966 film The Goddess of Mercy, the partnership was creative. Two actresses were cast in the lead role: Shin's wife, Choi Eun-hee, and Hong Kong's Li Li-hua. For each scene, Choi would perform her lines in Korean, and then the exact same scene would be shot again with Li speaking in Mandarin. The film was then edited into two versions, one starring Choi for the South Korean market and the Li work for distribution throughout Asia.
Although such works were popular, the high production costs and demands on the stars' schedule ultimately made shooting them impractical. However, simpler exchanges involving the hiring of South Korean directors and actors for Hong Kong films became common during the martial arts boom of the 1970s, and the Korean government gave such films privileged access to their market.
Hong Kong directors such as Huang Feng, whose Hap Ki Do (1972) was recently screened at the Hong Kong Film Archive as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, visited Korea often for location work. More than 90 Hong Kong-Korean productions were shot in this decade. One of the most famous is King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death, 1972), directed by South Korea's Cheng Chang-ho (aka Jeong Chang-hwa) and the first kung fu film to break into the US market.
By the 1980s, however, shifting trends and changes in the two film industries meant there was less mutual benefit in pursuing co-productions. With commercial Korean cinema on a downward spiral in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Hong Kong cinema entering a boom period, instances of collaborations grew rare.
Whether the success of The Thieves indicates potential for increased cross-industry pollination today remains to be seen.