Features

South Korea on New Zealand screens


South Korea and New Zealand’s film connections have come a long way since the Korean Cinerama Trust was set up in 2004. Current chair Michael Stephens and deputy chair Melissa Lee talk about the Trust’s beginnings, and how film partnerships have blossomed over the years.

Michael Stephens and Melissa Lee

Michael Stephens and Melissa Lee. (Photo: Facebook/Korean Cinerama Trust)

It was around 2002 when a group of Korean film buffs got together to set up an initiative that could bring Korean films to New Zealand.

It was rare then to see any Korean stories or Korean talent on New Zealand screens.

So Michael Stephens, MP Melissa Lee, Michael Tai Yang Park, Josephine Kim and Richard Duncan established the Korean Cinerama Trust (KCT) to promote Korean film and Korea-New Zealand film links.

This year, New Zealand’s Show Me Shorts film festival features a Korean focus, with seven short films exploring South Korean culture – including its myths, legends, fears, dreams and history. The films span various genres from comedy to drama and animation.

Short film Red Bean Soup will make its world premiere during Show Me Shorts, supported by the Korean Embassy.

The 17 October Wellington premiere of the Korean short films will be attended by the Korean Ambassador to New Zealand HE Yeo Seung-bae, who says 2018 is seeing the most vibrant level of Korea-New Zealand film exchanges since the KCT was established.

2018 Korean Film Festival premiere in Auckland

Michael Stephens (fourth from left) at the premiere of the 2018 Korean Film Festival, with representatives from the Korean Embassy, Korean Consulate, NZ Asia Institute and the NZ Film Commission.

Highlighting quality Korean films

The Korean Cinerama Trust, which was officially launched in 2004, started with humble beginnings – and importantly, food.

Korean-New Zealander Melissa Lee, who was then an executive producer of TVNZ’s Asia Downunder series, fondly recalls feeding the KCT group with Korean food at her home every weekend, during their marathon viewings of the latest South Korean film releases.

“It was great fun and it was all voluntary; people passionate about Korean culture,” said Lee, who started out as the KCT’s project manager.

“It was an important part of the screening process, to make sure New Zealand audiences would see the best films on offer. It was early exposure, probably the first time the New Zealand public had ever seen Koreans on screen.”

Okja (2017)

Okja was screened in New Zealand cinemas in 2017.

Current chair Michael Stephens says the KCT also tries to improve access for New Zealanders to enjoy quality Korean movies.

“Because of issues relating to the size of box office for foreign films, it’s difficult for foreign films to play in New Zealand, says Stephens.

“There have been, in recent times, films that were quite successful in Auckland – for example the Korean zombie horror Train to Busan – but outside the Auckland area it’s difficult [for the public to access screenings].

“In 2017, we had the acclaimed film Okja (Bong Joon Ho), commissioned by Netflix, and this was the only opportunity to see the film on a big screen in this country.”

The action-adventure film Okja stars South Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun alongside Hollywood actors Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun and Paul Dano, and it competed for the Palme d’Or in the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

The KCT also ensures the range of films are pertinent and topical.

“We’ve been privileged to curate a diversity of films, including a range suitable for children,” says Stephens. “We like to have films that deal with relevant social issues.”

Tama Tū

Taika Waititi’s Tama Tū was screened at a film festival in South Korea.

New Zealand films have also appeared at South Korean film festivals.

“In 2017, Gina Dellabarca, festival director of Show Me Shorts, curated a New Zealand showcase at the 35th Busan International Short Film Festival.

“In April this year she presented, in conjunction with support of the Korean Embassy, a selection of 17 short films from New Zealand, including Tama Tū by Taika Waititi and we’re returning the favour.

“It’s a meaningful cultural exchange,” says Stephens. 

“Having been involved in the local independent film sector, I see a lot of similarities with Korea. They’re very strong on original content in South Korea.

We’ve been able to bring Korean and New Zealand filmmakers together to see whether we can create content together.”

RollerCoaster Boy Nori

Animated children’s TV show Nori Roller Coaster Boy. (Photo: Screengrab/YouTube)

Fruitful collaborations

Co-production between South Korea and New Zealand is fruitful.

Kiwi producer Catherine Fitzgerald and writer Michael Bennett are currently developing a Korea-New Zealand wartime story, The Love Song, with a Korean producer and with support from the NZ Film Commission.

POW Studios recently produced a 52-episode animated show, Nori Roller Coaster Boy, in collaboration with South Korean producer Xris Sohn and Chinese studio Henan York.

Wellington producer Michelle Turner and writer Nick Ward have just visited Seoul for their collaborative science-fiction TV series, in a programme run through the Seoul Film Commission.

“We try to facilitate ongoing screen links, and we try to bring the best Korean films to New Zealand and vice versa,” says Stephens.

“We openly collaborate and partner with the Korean Embassy in Wellington, the Korean Consulate in Auckland, and a range of organisations including the New Zealand Asia Institute, New Zealand Film Commission, Screen Wellington, Screen Auckland and the Asia New Zealand Foundation.”

The joint efforts also include facilitating the necessary face-to-face contact between New Zealand and South Korean filmmakers to enable screen projects to be developed and produced, Stephens added.

The KCT has in the past facilitated red carpet events, as well as collaborations between film industry creatives like WETA Workshop’s Richard Taylor and acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho.

– Asia Media Centre


2018 members of the Korean Cinerama Trust

Chair: Lawyer Michael Stephens

Deputy chairs: MP Melissa Lee, Richard Duncan

Members: Holly Huh, Josephine Kim, Hak Jun Lee, Arum Jung, Raymond Suen, Jay Waters

Patron: Michael Tai Yang Park