Top South Korean film director Park Chan-wook shot a 33-minute film using Apple iPhones for cameras. His producer says the iPhone opens doors for artists on tight budgets.
Called "Paramanjang," literally “Ups and Downs,” the film opens with a grisly scene of a man pulled into a river and drowning while fishing at night – hence the English title, "Night Fishing” – and devolves into a fantasy of life, death, life after death, and spiritual relief.
Park has earned a reputation as one of Korea’s most renowned directors, but "Paramanjang" may go down in cinema history for reasons that have nothing to do with its tightly constructed plot or the impassioned performances of the two leading actors, the fisherman or the woman who came to embody his soul.
The difference between Paramanjang and every other feature film on big screens in movie theaters is that it’s the first iPhone movie ever shown commercially – and on a budget that should make it the envy of independent moviemakers and cinema students everywhere. The total cost was less than $150,000 – most of that for conventional sound and lighting, plus digital editing.
“ 'Night Fishing' is in various aspects a new movie,” says Mr. Park, citing “the fact that iPhones were the shooting medium, that it is a 30-minute short film, and the the story is unfamiliar and new.”
Ten Korean theaters, five in Seoul and five in other large cities, are offering the film on an experimental basis, but producer Jeon Won-jo is convinced that’s just the beginning. “It opens doors for a lot of people,” he says. “It’s democratization. It allows students and independent filmmakers another very useful option.”
Park warns, however, that the technique of shooting by iPhone does not necessarily mean the whole process is easier than normal filmmaking. “The size and scale of the movie is the same as a regular movie,” he says in one of several interviews shown right after the credits for the film. “It’s just that the camera was smaller.”
Park quickly discovered, while using eight iPhone 4 cameras in two months of shooting, that the only real difference between making this film and a film with conventional cameras is the drastic reduction in costs.
“I thought I could play with the camera,” he says, “but it was the same as making a regular movie. It takes just as much work as using normal cameras.”
That’s fine as far as filmgoers are concerned. The technical quality, say people after seeing "Paramanjang," is indistinguishable from that of any film shot normally. After seeing it, filmgoers may not be fully aware of having glimpsed the potential future of the industry.
“I couldn’t tell it was shot on anything different,” says movie fan Chang Sung-hee. Still, she says, the theme of "Paramanjang" “goes to the soul of Koreans.” The fantasy tale of suffering and finally redemption may not appeal to foreign audiences, she observes, “but Koreans will appreciate its inner meaning.”
As for director Park, he sees it as the precursor to shooting full-length feature films, and he plans to make more of them the same way. It was because of his reputation here as an innovative spirit that Korea Telecom (KT) contacted him in the first place and asked him if he could make a movie with Apple smartphones that it was marketing in Korea.
Jeon Hye-yoon, a KT spokesperson, says KT put up the entire cost of the film on the understanding that Park and his younger brother, Park Chan-young, co-director, would shoot the whole film with iPhone 4s provided by KT. The technique of shooting with iPhones, she believes, is bound to catch on commercially on a mas scale.
Foreign film experts here are impressed by the use of the iPhone 4 as a camera in commercial filmmaking, but don’t see a revolution in terms of what audiences see in the end.
“I find it interesting he took this high-tech device and shot it all that way,” says Darcy Paquet, who’s been writing about the burgeoning Korean film industry here for nearly 20 years. “It’s a gimmick that helps to get attention.”
As for why Park took on the job, says Mr. Paquet, “The only reason for doing it on an iPhone was the funding.” Nor does he think the idea of using iPhones for filmmaking is all that original. “It’s nothing new,” he says, it’ just that no one else has done it commercially.
Another expert on Korean cinema, Mark Russell, is upbeat on the significance of the film for the industry in Korea.
“Korean cinema rose to international prominence in the 1990s, thanks to the sudden appearance of many new voices,” he says, “but since then, the established order has gotten more rigid, producers more timid, so the industry has lost some of the dynamism that new talent brings.”
Since Park ranks as “one of Korea's biggest names,” says Mr. Russell, “his iPhone movie could help independent cinema and grow interest in Korea's more experimental, up-and-coming filmmakers.”