HOW WONDERFUL DAYS BECAME SKY BLUE: THE TRANSNATIONAL CIRCULATION OF SOUTH KOREAN ANIMATION

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  • ABSTRACT

    This article examines the production, release and reception of Wonderful Days (Wŏndŏp’ul teisŭ, 2003), in the context of the historical developments and contemporary standing of the Korean animation industry, both at home and around the world. More specifically, this article discusses the transformation of Wonderful Days into Sky Blue, addressing the changes to the film’s content and title, and providing an analysis of the marketing and critical reception of the film in the USA and UK. The film’s Korean identity was largely disguised in its marketing and ignored by reviewers; Wonderful Days is therefore an important example of the limitations of the Korean wave, an instructive case study that reveals a perception of Korean animation as inferior and superficial. Finally, this article concludes with a discussion of South Korea’s internationally co-produced animated films, the release and reception of which also demonstrate the difficulty of Korean animation overcoming its invisibility and establishing a meaningful international identity alongside Japanese animation.


  • KEYWORD

    South Korean cinema , animation , hallyu , transnational cinema , film marketing , Wonderful Days (2003)

  • INTRODUCTION

    The widespread international circulation of South Korean cinema over the last decade has created several distinct markets for Korean film and television. In Asia, the ‘Korean wave’ (or hallyu wave)of romantic melodramas (and, to a lesser extent, comedies) has found passionate audiences, while in the West, a new cycle of genre and art films has captured the attention of cinephiles and critics on a wide scale (Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy [Old?boi] is surely the best-known of these).

    Korean blockbusters, specifically designed to appeal at home as well as abroad, have also often found international success. However, despite the best efforts of Korean filmmakers and even policymakers, animation is noticeably absent from the Korean cinema wave(s).

    The most prominent example of the concerted push for internationally successful theatrical animation is undoubtedly Kim Moon-saeng’s Wonderful Days (W?nd?p’ul teis?), released in 2003. A lavish science-fiction epic produced during the film industry’s peak years and the height of hallyu, Wonderful Days was the most expensive animated film ever produced in Korea (estimated at a cost of around $13 million USD),1 and would also go on to receive the widest-ever international distribution of any animated Korean feature film. The film’s domestic release was a notable failure, yet it received a commercial release in several Western countries, its content re-edited ‘to better suit Western tastes’ and its title changed to Sky Blue. Released at a time when live-action Korean cinema was receiving unprecedented attention and accolades, Sky Blue represented Korean animation’s best chance at international success.

    This article therefore examines the production, release and reception of Wonderful Days, in the context of the historical developments and contemporary standing of the Korean animation industry, both at home and around the world. More specifically, this article discusses the transformation of Wonderful Days into Sky Blue, addressing the changes to the film’s content and title, and providing an analysis of the marketing and critical reception of the film in the USA and UK. The film’s Korean identity was largely disguised in its marketing and ignored by reviewers; Wonderful Days is therefore an important example of the limitations of the Korean wave, an instructive case study that reveals a perception of Korean animation as inferior and superficial. Finally, this article concludes with a discussion of South Korea’s internationally co-produced animated films, the release and reception of which also demonstrate the difficulty of Korean animation overcoming its invisibility and establishing a meaningful international identity alongside Japanese animation.

    1Korean Cinema, 2003 (Seoul: Korean Film Commission, 2003), p. 180. This figure is several times larger than the average feature film budget at this time.

    KOREAN ANIMATION AT HOME AND ABROAD, FROM THE 1960s TO THE 1990s

    The first feature-length full-color animated film produced in South Korea was Hong Gil Dong (Hong Kil-tong, Shin Dong-hun, 1967). Based on a famous Korean folk tale, the film was the pride of the industry; John A. Lent and Kie-Un Yu note that “the arduous work involved was important in selling the film” to local audiences.2 Yet although the characters and topics addressed in early Korean animation were often culturally specific, and even nationalistic, there were clear influences from the Japanese industry. The seminal and highly influential Robot Taekwon V (Robot’? T’aekw?n V, Kim Cheong-gi, 1976) took obvious inspiration from the Japanese series Mazinger Z (Majing? zetto, Toei Animation/Fuji TV, 1972? 74), the design of its robot clearly plagiarized from the earlier series (Mazinger Z was broadcast on Korean television in 1975).3 Robot Taekwon V was also one of the first Korean films to receive an international release, appearing on VHS in the US in 1986, albeit in a heavily re-edited (and, naturally, re-dubbed) version now called Voltar the Invincible. Other Korean animation was also exported under similar circumstances; yet with little to indicate the Korean origin of the films, the international release of Robot Taekwon V and others like it failed to raise the international profile of Korean animation. For example, another work by Kim Cheong-gi, Gold Wing 1,2,3 (Hwangg?m nalgae 1,2,3, 1978), was also released on videotape in the US in the 1980s. Released simply as Gold Wing, this version of the film includes an entirely new musical score and theme tune; features a kaleidoscope of American and European accents in its voice performances; and with its characters ethnically unidentified (but vaguely Caucasian) and its setting geographically indistinct, it’s easy to see how the film’s ‘Korean-ness’ was impossible to recognize. These films had nothing to distinguish them from either the numerous Japanese animation imports of the time (though these, too, were not identifiably Japanese), or the many animated films produced by the domestic US industry during this period.

    Although the rate of animation feature film production in Korea seemed to peak during the 1980s, there were several notable films produced?and exported?in the 1990s. Due in part to “a new government-backed infrastructure in place by 1995” there was a “rejuvenation” of animated film production.4 Two of the films produced during this period?the martial arts action Red Hawk (Pulg?n mae, Shim Sang-il, 1995) and the science-fiction adventure Armageddon (Amagaedon, Lee Hyun-se, 1996)?represented a significant financial investment from the domestic industry, as well as a new kind of international distribution. Both films were based on popular comic book (manhwa) series, and Armageddon in particular had an unusually big budget, based on expectations of significant commercial success. Both films were unable to meet projected box office returns, however, failing to draw local audiences in sufficient numbers. One possible explanation for this, according to Lent and Yu, is that they “failed to reflect a Korean identity.”5

    These two films were, however, in spite of, or more likely, because of this, acquired for distribution in the US and UK by the pioneering British company Manga Entertainment, and released at a time when Japanese animation was finding its widest-ever international audience. Releasing numerous Japanese animated films, TV series and direct-to-video titles on VHS, Manga Entertainment was largely responsible for the UK ‘anime boom’ of the 1990s; their catalogue consisted mostly of violent and/or sexually explicit anime titles, and their demographic was specifically the teenage male market.6 Manga Entertainment’s videotape releases in 1997 and 1998 of Red Hawk (retitled Red Hawk: Weapon of Death to emphasize its violent content) and Armageddon were re-dubbed in English (as the company’s Japanese releases were). With nothing in the marketing or on the packaging of the films to suggest their Korean origin, and little content in the films themselves to identify their national heritage, these films were effectively sold to Manga Entertainment’s customers as Japanese films.7

    Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, therefore, Korean animation found international distribution on a wide scale, but its identity was constantly subsumed under the auspices of other national cinemas. Indeed, this was the defining image of Korean animation: its industry has been well-known since the 1990s as a major production centre for the outsourced, sub-contracted animation of US TV shows like The Simpsons (Gracie Films/20th Century Fox Television, 1989?present), produced almost entirely by Nelson Shin’s Akom Studios. It’s this image of Korean animation?uncreative, unoriginal, merely the production centre of OEM animation8?which the industry has, for the last decade, been deliberately trying to escape.

    2John A. Lent and Kie-Un Yu, “Korean Animation: A Short But Robust Life” in John A. Lent (Ed.) Animation in Asia and the Pacific (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 90.  3The similarity in the visual design of the robot characters of Mazinger Z and Robot Taekwon V has been noted in several places: Lent and Yu reference the similarity, as does Joon-Yang Kim in the article “Critique of the New Historical Landscape of South Korean Animation” in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Vol 1.1) (July, 2006), pp. 61?81. Yet while the Japanese series undoubtedly inspired the Korean film, it would be extremely unfair to suggest that the latter is devoid of creativity; indeed, Robot Taekwon V is in fact often highly original and thematically meaningful. It’s also worth noting that the influence of Japanese media on South Korean production wasn’t limited only to animation: Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi note that for decades, “Japanese pop culture had been ‘copied’, ‘partially integrated’, ‘plagiarized’ and ‘reproduced’ into Korean products,” in spite of the official ban on importing such media into Korea between 1945 and 1998. See Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi (Eds.) East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave (Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), p. 3?4.  4Lent and Yu, p. 93.  5Ibid., p. 96.  6See Jonathan Clements, “‘Snuff Out These Sick Cartoons’: Anime Goes West” in Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements (Eds.) The Erotic Anime Movie Guide (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1999), pp. 82?93.  7Certainly, Red Hawk’s aesthetic, while clearly Oriental, is not identifiably Korean. Armageddon, on the other hand, does make specific reference to its Korean setting (the opening expository text establishes the present time and location as “Seoul, Korea, 1996 A.D.”) and there is a reference to the nation of Korea in the dialogue at one point. However, with the majority of the film taking place on alien planets or in outer space, it’s likely that these signifiers would be overlooked, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten by Manga Entertainment’s target demographic.  8The term used in the industry for this kind of production work for other national animation industries is ‘OEM animation’?‘Original Equipment Manufacture.’ This term, while not originally intended to describe the processes of animation production, is nonetheless widely used in public discourses around animation in South Korea. See, for example, Joe Yong-hee, “Critical point for animation” in the JoongAng Daily, June 3, 2004 [http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2423207].

    THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW KOREAN ANIMATION

    With the rise of hallyu, and a booming domestic film industry, film financers and cultural organisations in Korea have increasingly made efforts to develop the animation industry along similar lines. There has been an emphasis on the production of more creative work; filmmakers are encouraged to be more imaginative and experimental. Kim Jae-jung, the director of the Seoul Animation Center, has noted a widespread desire for “pioneering artists, marketers and directors” to “push the industry forward with original material.”9 This is partially in response to the declining OEM industry; journalist Ben Applegate noted in 2005 that “Korean studios are increasingly underbid by foreign competitors looking to duplicate Korea’s success. Between 1997 and 2003, Korean revenues shrank by more than 50 percent. Instead, Korean studios are increasingly creating projects that are completely Korean.”10

    Among the organisations supporting original Korean animation are the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), and, since 1995, the annual Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF), which encourages such production as a “major part” of its mandate.11 Furthermore, with the specific aim of promoting Korean media (including animation) abroad as well as at home, the government-funded Korea Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA) “encouraged content producers to cultivate overseas markets by providing financial support.”12 The best example of the emphasis placed on the animation industry13 is the 2006 opening of the KOCCA Animation Studio, a facility offering funding and support for new animation projects “throughout the production and marketing process.”14 The support offered by many of these organizations was more of a response to an emerging trend, rather than the impetus for the creation of a new production cycle.

    Darcy Paquet (who also has an article in the present special issue) identified a growing number of independent animated films produced in the early 2000s, moving into the mainstream with Lee Sung-gang’s 2002 film My Beautiful Girl, Mari (Mari iyagi). The film combines a more artistic approach to animation (a more realistic aesthetic and an emotionally resonant theme) with commercial ambitions.15 Though financially disappointing, the film set a precedent; Joon-Yang Kim argues that Lee Sung-gang “is probably the first example of the director as artist or auteur, not a technical employee, in the feature film scene of South Korean animation.”16

    Oseam (Osaeam, Seong Baek-yeob, 2003), another distinctive, artistic theatrical animation, followed shortly after My Beautiful Girl, Mari. A Buddhist fable with limited commercial appeal, Oseam also failed to achieve box-office success with local audiences.17 Though both of these films were unable to attract domestic audiences, they received some international distribution?most notably in France, where both were released in arthouse cinemas and subsequently on DVD. Nevertheless, while Korean animation was developing its production and international distribution, this new generation of filmmakers had yet to produce a true domestic hit, or a meaningful success in the English-language market. The production and release of the feature-length Wonderful Days aimed to change this.

    9Ibid.  10Ben Applegate, “Cartoon fest offers chance to look back” in the JoongAng Daily, August 5, 2005 [http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2603048].  11Ibid.  12Doobo Shim, “The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave” in Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi (Eds.) East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave (Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), p. 28.  13It’s also worth noting the efforts of KOCCA to promote manhwa abroad as well, organising a range of events and exhibitions at cultural centres around the world, and publishing two informative books designed to introduce Korean comic books to new audiences; these are Manhwa, Another Discovery in Asian Comics (2007) and Manhwa 100: The New Era for Korean Comics (2008).  14Ramin Zahed, “KOCCA Funds $6 Million Toon Studio” in Animation Magazine, March 16, 2006 [http://www.animationmagazine.net/features/kocca-funds-6-million-toon-studio/].  15Paquet notes that the intention of the filmmakers was to bring “Korean animation back into the spotlight” through targeting “adults more than children,” “securing the talents of well-known actors to dub the voices of the adult characters,” and operating with a marketing budget which “allowed the film to do extensive advertising and to open on a larger number of screens.” See Darcy Paquet, “My Beautiful Girl, Mari and the rebirth of Korean animation” in The Film Journal, July 2002 [http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue2/mari.html].  16Kim (2006), p. 78.  17Kim blames the failure of Oseam on its self-Orientalism, accusing the film of presenting stereotypical images of traditional Korean culture that were out of step with contemporary audiences. Ibid., p. 76.

    THE PRODUCTION AND DOMESTIC RECEPTION OF WONDERFUL DAYS

    Wonderful Days was an ambitious project from its beginnings, designed with the specific intention of both attracting a bigger domestic audience than any animated Korean film ever had, and of succeeding in the international market. This was to be Korea’s first animated blockbuster, and it remains the most expensive animated film ever produced in the country (primarily funded, like most live-action blockbusters, by one of Korea’s big conglomerates?in this case, Samsung). The film’s production took seven years, and its crew created several innovative and pioneering techniques: the film was the first of its kind, blending traditional 2D cel animation with CGI and live-action miniature photography. The effect is of hand-drawn characters interacting with computer-generated vehicles and machinery in front of a photo-realistic background. Indeed, the film’s long production cycle, big budget and revolutionary technical achievements were all emphasized in the promotional discourse around the film, as it was expected that Wonderful Days would achieve the same success as live-action Korean blockbusters like the wildly influential Shiri (Swiri, Kang Je-gyu, 1999).18

    The film’s setting, themes, characters and visual style were all carefully calculated to give Wonderful Days both domestic appeal and international potential. Director Kim Moon-saeng believed that avoiding specifically Korean topics and signifiers, and imitating Hollywood cinema more than local productions, would give his film the best chance of achieving this.19 Thus, Wonderful Days is a science-fiction action-adventure film, set in the year 2142 in the geographically unrecognisable location of ‘Sisil Island,’ after an ecological apocalypse caused by pollution has wiped out most of the world’s population.20 The film’s narrative involves a false utopia familiar from Hollywood and Japanese science-fiction films, pitting the technologically superior citizens of the city ‘Ecoban’ against the exploited and disenfranchised ‘Marrians.’

    The characters were designed to avoid associations with any particular ethnicities or cultures. Director Kim explains that rather than a distinctive Korean style of animation and character design, he aimed for a more standardized and realistic appearance for his main characters; yet the filmmakers also admit that their inspirations for the protagonists were Hollywood stars?the lead male character, Shua, is patterned after Keanu Reeves, and his love interest, Jay, was inspired by Winona Ryder.21

    This notable lack of culturally or nationally specific signifiers is also a trend found in Japanese anime, according to Susan Napier. Napier invokes the Japanese word “mukokuseki, meaning ‘stateless’ or without a national identity” to describe such anime.22 Napier suggests that this is specific to the science-fiction genre, arguing that

    This approach would seem to contradict the successes of the hallyu wave, which created a very specific interest in Korean characters and settings in its media. Yet many filmmakers and cultural commentators believed the ‘Korean-ness’ of these products to be of limited appeal; Keehyeung Lee cites Yi Oh-ryong, the former Korean Minister of Culture and Tourism, who argued that “to become the global mainstream, the Korean wave must die […] we must create a new hallyu based on universal and natural values?a sort of digital Oriental wave.”24

    It’s clear that this is precisely what Wonderful Days was aiming for: ‘universal and natural values’ without specific Korean signifiers. It’s interesting, then, that the film nonetheless exhibits several of the narrative and thematic trademarks associated with hallyu TV dramas: among the characteristics that define hallyu melodrama, Lee includes “sophisticated visual schemes, and absorbing narratives that revolve around emotion-ridden family relationships, love interests and other interpersonal matters among the characters.”25 The plot of Wonderful Days is preoccupied with a central love triangle, as the heroine Jay finds herself caught between the heroic and rebellious ‘Marrion’ (read: lower-class) Shua, and Simon, the deceptive leader of the Ecoban military forces (both of whom are her dear childhood friends); furthermore, one of Shua’s defining roles is as protective older brother to a vulnerable orphaned boy who adores him. The film has a melodramatic tone typical of Korean love stories, and quite unlike the vast majority of Japanese and American science-fiction.

    The domestic release of Wonderful Days was preceded by a significant marketing and merchandising campaign. The raft of multi-media tie-ins planned for Wonderful Days made the film unusual among Korean animation of the time, and clearly indicate its blockbuster intentions. Though the film was released in July 2003, its marketing campaign began in 2002, with online advertising attempting to generate interest (the film promoted to potential audiences through a highly stylized, interactive website). A permanent and extremely elaborate exhibition of Wonderful Days production materials at KOFIC’s Namyangju Film Museum served as marketing for the film and also reflects its status as the pride of the Korean animation industry. June 2003 saw the release of a novelisation of the film, a mobile phone game, and a CD soundtrack (promoted by a music video containing footage from the film). In line with the most successful Japanese animation, a range of merchandise was produced for devoted fans; this included action figures, paper models, and a range of t-shirts and baseball caps. The film’s release, originally planned for December 2002, was delayed in order to spend more time developing these promotional activities and building awareness (it was also believed by those involved in the release of Wonderful Days that one of the reasons for the financial failure of the earlier My Beautiful Girl, Mari and Oseam was too small a window between the end of production and their theatrical release).26

    It was a significant and surprising disappointment, then, when Wonderful Days failed to meet even its most conservative expectations of success. The film was met with a dismal critical reception and limited audience interest. It spent only two weeks on cinema screens, recouping just $1.9 million of its estimated cost of $13 million USD.27 KOFIC’s statistics record that the total nationwide admissions of Wonderful Days were 224,000 (Shiri had broken records and set the bar for blockbusters with over six million admissions in 1999). The reception of the film was, obviously, disastrous, and grand plans for further merchandise and tie-in media (such as a series of online and arcade-based video-games) were scrapped.

    In retrospect, the film’s failure fit with a pattern of unsuccessful science-fiction blockbusters; the same year Wonderful Days was released, the domestic industry also produced the thematically similar live-action Natural City (Naech’yur?l sit’i, Min Byeong-cheon, 2003), which also failed to recoup its significant production budget. Jinhee Choi has succinctly identified the cause of this, noting that

    The domestic release of Wonderful Days was only the first part of its planned circulation; it was always intended to court an overseas market as well, capitalising on Korean cinema’s newfound audience. Although the film avoided Korean signifiers in its content, one of the primary goals of its director was to “showcase to the world the quality of Korean animation.”29

    18The Producer of Wonderful Days, Hwang Kyung-seon, admitted this intention in an interview, predicting that the film “could be animated version of Shiri.” See Kim Yeon-hui, Wonderful Days Making Book [Wondeopul deizeu Making Book] (Seoul: Yedam, 2003), p. 203.  19Kim Moon-saeng has cited Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996), The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) as the biggest influences on Wonderful Days. He doesn’t mention taking any influence from any Korean films, live-action or animated. Kim (2003), p. 108.  20The film’s events and expository opening voiceover initially avoid associating its setting with any real-world locations, but a major strand of the narrative hinges on geography, as the protagonist, Shua, is searching for the island of Gibraltar, believing it to be the last unpolluted place on Earth. A final twist reveals that ‘Sisil Island,’ where the entire narrative has taken place, is in fact Gibraltar. This curious plot thread allows the film to avoid associating its characters with Korea, or any other Asian nations.  21Kim (2003), p. 27, 31.  22Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation [Updated Edition] (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 24.  23Ibid.  24Keehyeung Lee, “Mapping Out the Cultural Politics of ‘the Korean Wave’ in Contemporary South Korea” in Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi (Eds.) East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave (Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), p. 179.  25Ibid., p. 181.  26Kim (2003), p. 192.  27Joe, “Critical point for animation.”  28Jinhee Choi, The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2010), p. 35.  29Quote from Kim Moon-saeng from the behind-the-scenes documentary included on the South Korean DVD release of Wonderful Days, and subtitled on the UK DVD release of Sky Blue.

    THE INTERNATIONAL CIRCULATION OF SKY BLUE

    Wonderful Days was released in Japanese cinemas, with support for a preview screening provided by the Tokyo branch of KOCCA, in its original form. Yet for the wider international release of Wonderful Days?specifically, its journey to English-language markets?the film was effectively reinvented. Its content was reedited; its script was not just translated, but completely rewritten for its English-language voiceover dub; and its title was changed to Sky Blue. Credited as the creative force behind all of these changes was Korean-American Producer /Director/Distributor Sunmin Park. Park was instrumental in securing an acceptable distribution deal for the film in the US, and her contributions to the film are such that some American journalists referred to her having “re-directed” the film.30

    Sky Blue has a slightly shorter running time than Wonderful Days, and in terms of editing, there are two minor but notable changes: the first two sequences of Wonderful Days have been swapped, presumably in order to facilitate the much-extended opening expository monologue included in Sky Blue; the other modification breaks up a flashback sequence, revealing a key plot twist much later in the narrative (this has the effect of revealing the true reason for Shua’s exile from Ecoban to the audience at the exact moment it is discovered by Jay, reinforcing audience identification with the character). The other changes of note are all to the dialogue in the film, which remove a great deal of the ambiguity from the original film (which is, admittedly, confusing in places): the ‘Marrions’ become the ‘Diggers,’ and much of the dialogue, especially in the first few scenes, is much more revealing, making clear character relationships and providing information about the film’s setting. The most substantial modification in this rewritten script is to the character of Simon?given the less mundane and more cyberpunky name ‘Cade’ in Sky Blue?whose personality is completely transformed. Where Simon was stoic and arrogant, Cade is emotional and obsessive. His romantic feelings for Jay?subtle and implicit in Wonderful Days (yet instantly recognisable, especially to audiences familiar with Korean romantic melodramas)?are now manifested in a clearly established romantic relationship. In one key scene in Wonderful Days, Simon’s bitter admonition to Jay over her loyalties to Ecoban becomes, in Sky Blue, Cade’s pitiful, pleading “I love you” after he realizes she has reunited with Shua.

    The emphasis placed on the romance in Sky Blue was the subject of frequent criticism by Western film journalists and reviewers. Although Sky Blue’s US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 was met with a warm reception (and an optimistic prediction of financial success by industry journal Variety),31 its reviews on its eventual nationwide theatrical release in 2005 were less favorable. Critics reacted against the love story, criticising the characters as shallow and unconvincing. In keeping with the filmmakers’ ambitions to avoid presenting any specifically Korean content, the primary frames of reference used by critics were Japanese animation and Hollywood science fiction: Sky Blue was frequently compared (usually unfavorably) to the influential anime films Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) and Ghost in the Shell (K?kaku kid?tai, Mamoru Oshii, 1995), as well as the then-recently released Appleseed (Appurush?do, Shinji Aramaki, 2004). American films such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and The Matrix (itself acknowledged by the filmmakers as a major influence) were often cited. The most frequent similarity identified, in terms of visual scale and thematic concerns, was Fritz Lang’s seminal silent German film Metropolis (1927). The technologically pioneering but critically and financially disastrous Japan/US co-produced computer-animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara, 2001) was also a common reference point; Sky Blue was typically judged to be aesthetically beautiful, graphically impressive, and emotionnally hollow.

    Likewise, in the UK, Sky Blue received a nationwide theatrical release, but its marketing gave critics and audiences no indication that the film was either Korean, or romantic. Sky Blue was released by British company Tartan Films in 2005, at the height of the success of their ‘Asia Extreme’ brand. This influential concept unified (and, problematically, elided the national differences between) Japanese horror, Hong Kong action films, and the new wave of violent Korean thrillers epitomized by the work of Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk. Sky Blue was sold as much to this ‘extreme’ cinema audience as it was to anime fans: the UK theatrical trailer emphasizes action above all else, and with a bombastic action-movie musical score (not from the film itself), makes Sky Blue appear to be militaristic and brutal. The poster designed to advertise the film, meanwhile, was deliberately ambiguous about the film’s national origin. Quotes on the poster draw attention to the film’s similarity to Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, and its festival badges are proudly displayed, suggesting the film’s artistic merit. Paul Smith, Tartan Films’ Press and PR Manager during this period, admitted that in marketing the film “it was felt that there was never a need to draw attention to the country of origin;” interestingly, he suggests that the film’s English-language dialogue made it “totally irrelevant if it came from Korea or not.”32

    Given the context of the film’s UK release, it’s perhaps surprising that British critics consistently made reference to the film’s Korean origin; yet their response was generally negative, and a consensus formed that Sky Blue was shallow and derivative, and that Korean animation had nothing different or better to offer than Japanese animation (at the time enjoying a great deal of highly positive critical attention, thanks primarily to the groundbreaking success of the films of Hayao Miyazaki). Jamie Russell’s review for BBC Films epitomizes this sentiment; he succinctly declares that “Sky Blue is Korea’s unsuccessful attempt to challenge Japan’s dominance of the anime market.”33

    Joon-Yang Kim predicted that Wonderful Days would be “unlikely” to ‘ride the hallyu wave’ and achieve international success due to its weak screenplay.34 Although Sky Blue achieved “healthy DVD sales”35 for its British distributor, it did little to establish an identity for Korean animation as distinct and meaningful. The effect of the film’s domestic and international disappointment led the South Korean animation industry towards different approaches to developing its identity both at home and abroad.

    30See an interview with Park conducted in 2005: “Producer Sunmin Park talks Sky Blue!” on MovieWeb, February 18, 2005 [http://www.movieweb.com/news/producer-sunmin-park-talks-skyblue]; also see Marc Savlov, “Sky Blue” in The Austin Chronicle, March 4, 2005 [http://www. austinchronicle.com/calendar/film/2005?03?04/260806/]. The English-language opening credits of Sky Blue credit the Screenplay to “Moon Sang Kim, Jung Young Park, and Sunmin Park” where the Korean-language opening credits of Wonderful Days credit only Kim Moon-saeng and Park Jung-young. The end titles of Sky Blue begin with the credit “U.S. Production?Director, Sunmin Park.”  31Robert Koehler, “Sky Blue” in Variety, February 1, 2004 [www.variety.com/review/VE1117922976].  32All quotes from Paul Smith come from a personal interview conducted via email in March 2011.  33Jamie Russell, “Sky Blue (2005)” on BBC Films, July 6, 2005 [http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2005/06/17/sky_blue_2005_review.shtml].  34Kim (2006), p. 79.  35Interview with Smith.

    CONTEMPORARY KOREAN ANIMATION: DIVERSITY AND CO-PRODUCTIONS

    Following the disappointing domestic reception of Wonderful Days, animation filmmakers in Korea have avoided repeating its mistakes. No animated film has had as elaborate a production cycle or as expensive a budget, nor has any subsequent release attempted to maximize its returns with extensive tie-in media and merchandizing.36 The standardized, realistic character design pioneered in Wonderful Days has been discarded in favor of much more individual and expressionistic aesthetics. If anything characterizes the current cycle of animated films, it’s the remarkable diversity of visual styles and thematic concerns; few of the most notable works resemble each other, and the majority are smaller-scale personal and collaborative projects. Recent years have seen the production of the off-beat romantic comedy What is Not Romance? (Romang ?n ?btta, Hong Eun-ji, Park Jae-ok, Soo Gyeong, 2009) and the surreal The Story of Mr. Sorry (Chaebulch’alssi iyagi, Kim Il-hyeon, Kwak In-keun, Lee Eun-mi, Lee Hye-yeong, Ryoo Ji-na, 2009) (both supported by KOFIC and KAFA); Life is Cool (K?ny? n?n yepp?tta, Choi Ik-hwan, 2008), the first Korean film to use the ‘rotoscoping’ animation technique made famous by Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life; and the most high-profile of all of these: the vulgar, adult-oriented, celebrity-voiced, niche-market, KOCCA-supported action-sex-comedy Aachi and Ssipak (Ach’i wa Ssip’ak, Jo Beom-jin, 2006). Production on more commercial and con-ventional animation has also increased, with the release of such films as the Miyazaki-influenced adventure Hammer Boy (Mangch’i, Ahn Tae-geun, 2004); the children’s fantasy Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox (Ch’?nny?ny?u Y?ubi, Lee Sung-gang, 2007), a more commercial effort from the director of My Beautiful Girl, Mari; and fantasy action films like Guardian of Olympus (Ollimp’os? kadi?n, Kim Joon, 2005) and Magic Hanja (Mab?m ch’?nja mun: Taemawang ?i puhwal ?l magara, Yoon Young-gi, 2010).37

    While the success of these films in the domestic market has been variable (and, as many of these projects are significantly less ambitious in terms of mainstream audience appeal, ‘success’ is arguably more difficult to measure), none of them have received international distribution on the scale of Wonderful Days/ Sky Blue. The Korean animation industry has, however, been able to reach a much wider international audience through several international co-productions. These have had varying degrees of success, however: for example, the US-South Korean computer-animated science-fiction film Ark (Kenny Hwang, 2005), featuring screenplay contributions from noted live-action writer/director Kwak Jae-young (best known for the domestic hit My Sassy Girl [Y?pkij?gin k?ny?], 2001) and a vocal performance from Hollywood star James Woods, went straight-to-DVD in the US and has yet to appear in either cinemas or on any home video format in South Korea.38

    More visible is the CGI children’s film The Reef (Lee Kyung-ho, Howard Baker and John Fox, 2006),39 a KOCCA-supported US-Korean co-production released in cinemas in South Korea, the UK, and several other countries. However, the film is another ‘stateless’ fantasy, as it takes place entirely underwater, and features no human characters at all (only anthropomorphic sea creatures); it therefore was neither marketed nor recognized as Korean in any way. Furthermore, while its wide international release might be a source of pride in Korea, the film was the subject of critical scorn for its apparent lack of originality and poor quality CGI, compared extremely unfavorably to the similar Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003) and Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman, 2004).

    Another animated co-production, the South Korean-Japanese Blade of the Phantom Master (Sin amhaeng ?sa/Shin angy? onshi, Joji Shimura and Ahn Tae-geun, 2004),40 also received relatively wide distribution. Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre in Japan, as well as KOCCA, the film is a fantasy-action retelling of the iconic Korean folktale Ch’unhyang. When the film was released in Japan, its Korean aspects were emphasized, and the Japanese theatrical trailer enthusiastically predicted a new era of co-productions.41 Yet when the film was released on DVD in the US by anime label Funimation, it was aimed specifically at fans of Japanese animation; its Korean origins are totally disguised, Joji Shimura is credited as sole director, and the only available language options are English-dubbed or Japanese with subtitles. In spite of the film’s content, there is nothing in its marketing or visual style to distinguish it, for US audiences, from other Japanese animation; Blade of the Phantom Master represents another ‘invisible’ Korean animation in the Western market.42

    36It’s worth noting that the status of Korean television animation is quite different. The ‘One Source Multi-Use’ (OSMU) model, which promotes the production of as much cross-platform tiein media and merchandising as possible, has been a notable success when applied to TV franchises. The best example of this is Pororo, the Little Penguin (EBS TV, 2003?present), a computer-animated children’s show that has become something of a phenomenon in South Korea, reaping profits from the sale of books, toys, and a variety of other ancillary media. Pororo is surely the greatest financial success of the Korean animation industry as a whole, and has also been exported widely.  37The most widely used English title of the film is Magic Hanja: Stopping the Resurrection of the Great Devil King, though the film is alternately known by the title The Five Magical Letters, while the recently released DVD’s subtitles translate the title as Magical 1000 Characters: Stop the Resurrection of Great Devil King.  38Though the film did, curiously, receive a theatrical release in China in 2005.  39Released on DVD in the US under the title Shark Bait, and in South Korea as Pi’s Story.  40Known in Korea by the English-language title New Royal Secret Commissioner, a more accurate but less evocative translation of the original title.  41“Meaningless prejudices will surely be destroyed!” declares the Japanese trailer; “A new era in full-scale animation collaboration between Korea and Japan!”  42There is an interesting parallel here with the Western circulation of manhwa. In response to the ‘manga boom’ that has made Japanese comic books available in mainstream book stores across the US and UK, many publishing companies have added Korean content to their catalogues. But while there is a great deal of translated manhwa in circulation, there are typically few indicators of its national origin. Christopher Hart notes, in his book on manhwa art techniques, that “manhwa is currently being imported into the United States, as well as other countries, by major publishers of manga (Japanese comics). In fact, many manga fans don’t realize that their favorite comics are actually Korean manhwa!” Christopher Hart, Manhwa Mania: How to Draw Korean Comics (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2004), p. 7.

    CONCLUSION

    The pattern of the release and reception of Korean animation in the West suggests its minor status. While Japanese animation has achieved a significant penetration of the Western market, regularly exporting countless TV series, video animations and feature films to a specific (but considerable) audience of fans, Korean animation, when recognized, is seen as little more than an inferior imitator, a minor curiosity.43 The unprecedented worldwide success of live-action South Korean cinema and television over the last decade suggests the possibility of Korean animation finding an audience, yet it has consistently been unable to do so. Wonderful Days (as Sky Blue), though not a commercial or critical disaster, failed to signal clearly enough its difference from Japanese and American animation. The attempt by Kim Moon-saeng and the crew of Wonderful Days to create a ‘new global animation aesthetic’ was arguably poorly timed, and out of step with the ways in which Korean media has been celebrated outside of its immediate national context. Korean cinema is marketed and appreciated in the US and UK based largely on Orientalist discourses focused on its supposedly ‘extreme’ content unique to South Korea.44 In a very different but equally specific way, the melodramas of the hallyu wave are adored because of their distinctly Korean perspective on universal Asian themes. Wonderful Days disguised the single aspect of its production that might have allowed it to achieve more notable success: its Korean identity.

    43Another indicator of Korean animation’s neglected status in the West is the relative shortage of English-language academic research on the subject. While there is a thriving field of researchers working on Japanese animation, wide-ranging work on Korean animation has yet to appear.  44See Nikki J. Y. Lee, “Salute to Mr. Vengeance!: The Making of Transnational Auteur Park Chanwook” in Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai (Eds.) East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2008), pp. 203?219; and Chi-Yun Shin, “Art of branding: Tartan ‘Asia Extreme’ films” in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No. 50 (Spring 2008) [http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/TartanDist/index.html].