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D-War: Shim Hyung Rae's Divide and Conquer

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Although in an election year it might seem a little frivolous, there were few instances in 2007 that surpassed the controversy and fervor created by Shim Hyung Rae's blockbuster monster flick D-War (a.k.a. Dragon Wars). Director Shim, oh-so-much smarter than he makes people believe on TV or print interviews, ended up running away with the cheese while supporters and critics of his film were fighting under his nose.

Although even non-Koreans might already be familiar with the director of Yonggary and D-War, an introduction is necessary to understand a little better what happened. Shim Hyung Rae is perhaps one of the two or three representative Korean comedians of the 1980s, becoming a star right around his debut in 1982 with the character which would bring him fame for decades to come, Young Gu. This was a sort of superhero for the children, with his one-digit IQ and dental, uhm, difficulties. It certainly wasn't subtle nor sophisticated, but it worked. His foolish and awkward Young Gu started to gain tremendous popularity, leading to - strange enough - a film career and the biggest prize at the 1988 KBS Comedy Awards. That movie career didn't really mean star vehicles focused on the comic talent of the actor, such as say, what Eddie Murphy did at the beginning of his film career. No, it was simply our good old Young Gu, starring in extremely low-budget tokusatsu (comedies with dubious historical settings) and monster movies. Essentially he reprised his TV skits on the big screen, for the joy of the kids who watched his films in droves, in a period when Chungmuro was all too often divided into quasi-softcore erotic films and rarely accessible social realist dramas.

An important change in Shim's career came in 1988, when he founded Younggu Art Films, his own production company. The idea was to create SF films for kids, a genre which always had very little popularity in a Chungmuro that rather strongly focused on realism. This is when Shim started producing works like Tiranno's Claws, The Power King, and Dragon Tukka, an appetizer for the kind of monster film he had envisioned. That project was obviously Yonggary, at the time quite an expensive film by Chungmuro standards, but most importantly heavily focusing on CGI and pointing the focus at the International market, with an all American cast and English dialogue. Now in theory, this was a solid project: Yonggary wasn't entirely unfamiliar to Korean audiences as it was the subject of a 1967 film by Kim Ki Duk (obviously not that Kim Ki Duk), a period when even a few tokusatsu and kaiju films were being made by Chungmuro. The two movies were only loosely related, but it was a decent start.

Even the international drive wasn't such a bad idea. Shiri was in production right as Shim was putting the final touches on his little big creature, and Korean cinema certainly needed that overseas boost which would legitimize the growing success of domestic films even more. Shim's choice was very ambitious, but then again that was only in theory. There's a big difference between choosing good English-speaking actors to lead an internationally minded project, and just casting anyone that agrees to go for it. There was no recognizable overseas star or homegrown star, so to the Korean public Yonggary wasn't exactly the most alluring of appetizers. Certainly the domestic market wasn't Shim's aim, as the kajiu genre is much more popular in Japan and the US, where the film was released on DVD, unlike in its motherland, where it was insulted right and left by critics and viewers. Shim spent a lot and lost a lot, including the battle to get at least one end of the spectrum (critics or public) to agree the effort was worth it. Leaving the scene for a few years with insults that ranged from incompetent director to conman, this time Shim needed something else. Something that would make him and Korea proud. That was probably when the incredibly ambitious and even a little crazy idea to make D-War materialized.

Most of the problems of Yonggary, leaving aside pure cinematic fundamentals like character development, pacing, and narrative structure, had to do with very poor CG. It was as if Shim had all the ingredients - international focus, CGI-driven monster film, the exotic factor, and so on - but without a solid recipe, he threw everything inside the mixer, with the results painfully splashing on the big screen. D-War had to be different: he needed a lot more money to do his CG in-house at Younggu Art Films and prove that South Korea's special effects are as good as Hollywood's. He recruited no big name stars, but at least recognizable actors (including Roswell's Jason Behr and Robert Forster of Jackie Brown) that had experience going further than "Drinking Buddy No. 8" in a straight-to-video action flick. And of course he had a monster from a Korean folk legend, exotic enough to appeal to western eyes, but also to strike a chord with Korean youngsters, more and more in tune with Hollywood's extravagant and lavish productions.

It was the February of 2003 when Shim announced at the Seoul Westin Chosun Hotel his new creature was a 15 billion won SF blockbuster, which would release during the all important summer season of 2004. With his quintessential brash attitude, he went on to compare his monsters to the realistic look of Jurassic Park's dinosaurs, that over 80% of the film would shoot on location in the US, and that American major studios would eventually start knocking at the door. Reaction? Expectedly, some had high hopes, while others - maybe driven by Shim's past films including his last debacle - just thought our good old Young Gu was at it again, throwing money at the screen pretending it would stick.

Sure enough, the Americans came knocking. Not only did Side Street agree to co-produce, MGM promised to distribute the film in the North American market. A few months later, Larkwood invested US$15 million in the film for half the North American profits in return. Seemed like this time Shim was serious about it. He had the money, he had the cast; the shooting took more than expected, and the budget went up and down like a rollercoaster to finally reach the insane amount of 70 billion won, about six times what was spent on The Host, the most successful Korean film of all time. The film debuted, right around the time when May 18 was doing great at the box office, and instantly scored the biggest Korean opening day of 2007, and the highest spectators in a single week. It only took eleven days to reach five million admissions. Peanuts compared to what they needed to sell to break even (not considering the American release), but quite a start.

The money spent, what they managed to make, the hugely disappointing American intake (under the $10 million mark, around half of what was spent in publicity alone according to some) after the incredible 2,000 plus screen-release - all those statistics really have very little to do with the controversy that surrounded D-War. Stories of productions going over-schedule, over-budget, and not even making half the money spent have become a dime-a-dozen in an increasingly nefarious scenario for big-budget Chungmuro productions. The real bone of contention was the film itself, and the way it was promoted, at least in Korea. Despite the good opening score and rising expectations, D-War was completely trashed by domestic critics, citing inept storytelling and awkward acting, in short making the film sound like a complete flop.

On the other hand was Shim's intelligent strategy: he went on some of the most popular TV variety shows, bringing out his veteran comedian persona first and the businessman later. To the eyes of many Koreans, it was old Young Gu, showing up on TV after years. His teary-eyed confession, be it sincere or not, that he wanted to make Korea proud, that his Hollywood dream would succeed at all cost, won him the attention of many viewers. In some ways, considering the increasingly hostile atmosphere Chungmuro was living in after the screen quota and FTA fiasco, Shim's underdog's plea to the people to help him make his dream come true was the most intelligent thing he'd done since he entered the entertainment circle. Because what he began was none other than the oldest and most effective of strategies: divide and conquer.

Just like the Hwang Woo Suk scandal, the diatribe wasn't moved so much by people who liked the film versus those who didn't, but by an "us vs. them" mentality that gained nationalistic colors. After crying on TV, declaring his love for the country, detailing his ambition to promote Korea's cultural image in Hollywood, and even attaching Korea's most famous song Arirang at the end of his film, Shim successfully turned D-War into more than a movie but a matter of cultural and national pride. By bringing up the patriotism card, he enraged critics, divided opinions, and inspired the public to show up at theaters in great numbers.

A particularly interesting voice in the debate was culture critic Jin Joong Gwon, a very astute and outspoken debater who went on MBC's late night talk show "100 Minute Debate" and completely trashed Shim and D-War in his usual pungent and ironical tone. He criticized all the "D-Bba" (online jargon for extreme fan, with "Kka" being its opposite) who verbally assaulted critics and even normal bloggers all over the net at the first hint of any criticism, and complained that they weren't allowing people like him to do his job. He then went on to essentially repeat what was said in the previous few weeks by most of the country's online and print critics, and that was when the real battle started.

Hordes of people, young and old, who saw Shim cry his heart out on TV and throw out the good old "Daehanminguk Manse" ("Hurrah for Korea"), as well as netizens who liked the film, started attacking critics of Shim or the film online. For supporters of the film, D-War became representative of something greater - the underdog's fight against holier-than-thou critics, the dream to succeed in Hollywood in Korea's name. On the other side were increasingly heated rants about Shim's directorial prowess (or lack thereof) and the whole nationalistic bonanza portrayed on TV. Controversial indie director Leesong Hee Il raged against the mass hysteria online, comparing people cheering blindly for D-War with a horde of people in the 70s celebrating the successful imitation of American toasters in Cheonggyecheon.

Why this diatribe only ended up benefiting Shim is pretty obvious. All the chaos meant that people talked, talked, and talked some more about his creature, D-War. By the time the dust settled, D-War had become the highest-grossing Korean film of 2007, still not enough to break even, but more than enough to ensure Shim's next film will have no problem getting funded and produced. Shim's D-War divided the country in two, and he conquered the only thing he needed: the people's attention.

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Published February 4, 2008

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