Look out, Japan
Russell, Mark, Newsweek International
When "Wonderful Days" opens next month, it will be the most expensive movie ever made in South Korea. Costing $15 million, the film got its start five years ago, when Kim Moon Saeng, a director of animated commercials, showed his script about environmental apocalypse to producer Kay Hwang, who is also his wife. At first the pair envisioned the futuristic tale as a live-action thriller. But as they hashed out the narrative, sharpening its depiction of a cruel world flooded by global warming, they decided the material was better suited to animation. That choice could soon change the face of Korean cinema.
Technically, at least, "Wonderful Days" delivers quality on a par with the best animation Japan or Hollywood can produce. The film combines huge sets--including 40-foot-long battleship wrecks--with cartoons, computer-generated 3-D images and real-world motion pictures. The melange of technologies overlap to create eerie, provocative images with a depth unrivaled in digital film. "I try to communicate simple truth, the value of humanity, through new technological visuals," Kim says.
The project represents a huge leap for South Korea. For decades, the country served as the sweatshop for the animation industry, supplying artists to fill in cels and colorize backgrounds for U.S. productions like "Batman," "Rugrats" and "The Simpsons." At their peak, Korean animators took in one third of the world's low-end animation subcontracts. In recent years, however, increased competition from less developed Asian nations has cut into that business, spurring Korea to build up its own industry or risk being left behind. "It's about going from 'The Simpsons' to 'Antz'," says Rhee Suk-hun, an official at the Korea Culture and Contents Agency, which provided funding for "Wonderful Days." That kind of government support--combined with cheap labor--have enabled Lee and Hwang to produce the movie for about one fifth of what it would cost at a big Western studio. If they can make hit movies and match Pixar's quality at a fraction of the price, Korea is poised to become a major player in the global animation market. …