Localized Globalization and a Monster National

Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and
the South Korean Film Industry
Nikki J. Y. Lee
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oes the recently burgeoning South Korean cinema offer a model for how to
defeat the global dominance of Hollywood? In his discussion of the emergence and popularity of the Korean movie blockbuster, Chris Berry claims
that “the idea [of the blockbuster] may be borrowed and translated, but this
should not be understood in terms of the original and the copy, where divergence
from the original marks a failure of authenticity.” Instead, for Berry, the Korean
blockbuster “de-Westernizes” the American-centered conception of the blockbuster. He contends that while blockbusters are locally understood and made into
local versions, “the active participation of local fi lm critics and fi lmmakers . . .
makes a difference and constitutes ‘de-Westernization’ as well as pluralization.” He
also highlights “the importance of grasping de-Westernization within globalization
as a fundamentally ambivalent practice.”1
I agree with Berry that the process of producing, distributing, and marketing
Korean blockbusters differs in certain key ways from Hollywood practice. However,
whether these differences signify de-Westernization requires further discussion. Simply put, the problem with the de-Westernizing thesis—namely, that in non-Western
countries the blockbuster can be translated into something else and then recreated
into its own distinctive and plural forms—is that it is likely to re-invoke the dichotomy of “the West” and “the Other,” and thus works further to solidify the idea of a
dichotomy between Hollywood cinema, identifi ed as Western, and non-Hollywood
Abstract: This essay examines the industrial practices behind the domestic success of
the South Korean fi lm The Host (Goemul; Bong Joon-ho, 2006), highlighting the Korean fi lm industry’s ambivalent nationalist-global ideological stance and its increasingly
monopolizing and globalizing tendencies, and arguing that Korea’s pursuit of indigenous
movie blockbusters has turned it into an international producer and distributor of localized global movies.
Localized Globalization and a
Monster National: The Host and
the South Korean Film Industry
Nikki J. Y. Lee received a PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has taught at Yonsei
University and Korea National University of Arts, has published several articles on Korean fi lms and directors, and is coeditor of The Korean Cinema Book (forthcoming).
1 Chris Berry, “‘What’s Big About the Big Film?’: ‘De-Westernizing’ the Blockbuster in Korea and China,” in Movie
Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (London: Routledge, 2003), 218.
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
cinema, identified as non-Western. The notion of de-Westernizing Hollywood presupposes the existence of two exclusive entities (Hollywood vs. Korean, the West vs. the
non-West) and may obscure the very significant ambivalence toward Hollywood that lies
at the heart of the South Korean film industry. After all, the Korean blockbuster strives
to emulate Hollywood while also demonizing it by casting it in the role of Other.
This article explores the industrial conditions structuring the recent emergence
of the Korean blockbuster and suggests that the Korean film industry’s ambivalent
practices do not necessarily constitute de-Westernization. In the contemporary South
Korean context, localizing Hollywood does not de-Westernize the practice of making
blockbusters so much as it globalizes the domestic film industry. Globalization in this
sense refers to how the Korean film industry has been reorganized and integrated
into an internationally standardized system established and promulgated by “global
The international expansion of the contemporary Hollywood film industry appears to be moving beyond concepts such as “international” or “multinational.” New alliances with local or other multinational multimedia companies for
the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies make it almost impossible to
differentiate Hollywood from global film networks and industries.3
Bearing all of the above in mind, I consider how in the case of The Host (Goemul;
Bong Joon-ho, 2006), the Korean film industry’s nationalistic stance was mobilized
for the purpose of mediating the integration of the domestic film industry into the
globalized system centered on Hollywood.4
From this vantage point, the “fictional”
(socially constructed) dichotomy between Hollywood and Korean cinema may be understood as a prerequisite for facilitating the localized globalization of the Korean
film industry supported by a nationalistic ideological discourse. In what follows, I first
briefly discuss The Host’s record-breaking box office significance before critically examining the concept of the Korean blockbuster as originally initiated by Shiri (Swiri; Kang
Je-gyu, 1999). Next, I explain how The Host owes its commercial success to the industrial practices driving Korean blockbusters. Finally, I outline what the film’s success
reveals about the recent transformation of the South Korean film industry.
The Monstrous Success of The Host. The Host is director Bong Joon-ho’s third
feature film. It opens with a scene set in a dark laboratory where a US military officer
orders a Korean military officer to discard many bottles of toxic liquid in the Han
River. Two years later, two fishermen find a disgusting and strangely shaped tiny mutant creature in the river. Four years after that, the fully grown mutant monster devours
a man who jumps from a bridge into the dark water to commit suicide. Eventually,
the monster comes out of the water one bright afternoon to attack and kill people,
creating panic and chaos. Before it leaps back into the water, the monster grasps and
carries away a young girl. The four members of the girl’s family desperately attempt to
locate the monster’s lair and save her. However, the US government spreads a warning
2 See Toby Miller et al., Global Hollywood 2 (London: British Film Institute, 2005), for further discussion of the globalization of the Hollywood film industry.
3 On “glocalization,” see Roland Robertson, “Globalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity,” in Global
Modernities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson (London: Sage, 1995), 40.
4 In this article, I follow Korean convention in putting surname first and given name last.
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
about the dangers of a nonexistent virus allegedly transmitted by the monster, forcing
the South Korean government to shut the area down in order to prevent the spread of
the fictional virus, thus preventing the girl’s family from rescuing her and thwarting the
authorities’ ability to track down both the monster and the truth.
The Host dominated the South Korean box office in the summer of 2006. It became
the biggest domestic hit ever, drawing approximately 13,010,000 viewers nationwide.
Given that the population of South Korea currently stands at 48 million, this means
that potentially more than a quarter of the entire population saw the movie in a theater. In terms of the number of paying customers, The Host held its top status for
more than three years until its record was finally broken (if only by a close margin) in
early 2010 by Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Avatar recorded more than 13,080,000
admissions in Korea within seventy-three days of its theatrical opening.5
Certainly, the
record number of viewers of The Host held symbolic value in the domestic Korean
film industry, not only in terms of marketing but also as an index of the industry’s
current scale. Rayna Denison suggests that one of the specific marketing strategies of
Korean blockbuster movies is the foregrounding of audience figures rather than box
office revenue. Although such marketing strategies have been effective in making box
office success a national event, her argument is only partly valid, for it was inevitable
that marketing agencies would use audience figures instead of box office receipts, especially in the case of Shiri, as a nationwide system for recording box office ticket sales
was not in use until very recently, and box office records from areas other than Seoul
were hence considered unreliable and inaccurate. As a result, most statistical figures
provided by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) are based on box office figures from
Seoul alone. In its report on the Korean film industry during the first half of 2008,
KOFIC began using nationwide box office records for the first time.6
After conquering the domestic box office, Bong’s movie was released consecutively in
various other Asian countries in September 2006. It opened in Japan on September 2,
in Singapore on September 7, in Hong Kong on September 14, and in Taiwan on
September 15, all while still being screened in South Korea. This consecutive regional
release strategy—although it cannot match the phenomenon of simultaneous international releases for the biggest Hollywood blockbusters—echoes the synchronized
regional release pattern of major US movies.
The Host was initially targeted at international territories and garnered moderate
success in the regional Asian market. For example, in Japan it took seventh place in
gross box office receipts in its first week of release and earned $1,478,657.7
The Japanese distributor had anticipated that the film would have a much bigger box office
success by appealing to Japanese kaiju (monster) movie fans. Yet the film was actually
5 Kim Sung-hun, “Korean Movies Over-Ruling Foreign Movies Again After Four Months” [in Korean], Cine21, http://
www.cine21.com/Index/magazine.php?mag_id=59968 (accessed June 10, 2010). All translations from the Korean
are mine.
6 Rayna Denison, “The Language of the Blockbuster: Promotion, Princess Mononoke and the Daihitto in Japanese
Film Culture,” in East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, ed. Leon Hunt and Leung WingFai (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008), 103–119; Jean Noh, “Korean Film Exports Up by 37% in First Half of 2008,”
Screen Daily, July 24, 2008, http://www.screendaily.com/ScreenDailyArticle.aspx?intStoryID=40008 (accessed July
28, 2008).
7 Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=host.htm (accessed July 25, 2008).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
greeted with negative and at times hostile responses from these fans, who accused it of
copying a Japanese anime film, WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (Weisuteddo satın kido-
; Takuji Endo-
and Takayama Fumihiko, 2001).8
In Singapore, it was ranked
second at the box office in its opening week. The Host was also screened in China in
March 2007, where it stayed at the top of the box office for two weeks and earned
The precise English word for the Korean title Goemul is “monster,” not “host.” However, since a movie called Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003) already existed, and a famous
Japanese manga had been adapted into an animated television series with the same
name, the producers of The Host felt that its title could not be translated as “monster.”
Unlike Godzilla, the monster in this movie was not given any particular name, which
may be one reason why the film was often retitled The Monster of Han River for release in
other Asian countries. This title is less vague than the film’s English and Korean titles,
endowing the monster with a particular geographic identity and regional character.
As a marketing tagline for the movie’s theatrical run in the United Kingdom, distribution company Optimum Releasing borrowed a quotation from the popular magazine Total Film: “It’s Jaws via Jurassic Park. Hugely Entertaining” (Figure 1). Clearly,
this was a part of an opportunistic promotional effort to associate The Host with the
large-scale production values of hugely successful Hollywood monster movies. The
UK DVD cover of The Host also indicates that Optimum Releasing attempted to fit
the movie into the generic expectations surrounding blockbuster monster movies.
These particular analogies are highly suggestive, and interesting parallels may certainly be drawn between The Host and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). In the 1970s, the
success of Jaws marked the beginning of the “New Hollywood.”10 The film’s achievement in raising the bar for what might be accomplished by a “high concept” commercial movie is often attributed to its ambitious marketing campaign, which included
intense television advertising, wide release in multiplex cinemas, and promotion of
director Steven Spielberg as a superstar.11 The tremendous success of Jaws marked a
turning point for the Hollywood film industry, which at the time was facing an uncertain future. Produced more than three decades after the release of Jaws, The Host relied
on similar—though not quite the same—industrial practices. Arguably, the box office
success of The Host also marked a transitional moment through which the Korean film
industry entered another phase in its development.
The Shiri Syndrome and Korean Blockbusters. The South Korean film industry has evolved considerably over the past decade, producing a string of blockbusters.
Of the many titles to launch the nascent marketing term “Korean blockbuster,” Shiri
(costing approximately $2.75 million) was the first big-budget movie to set a domestic
box office record for the South Korean film industry, by outperforming Titanic ( James
8 “Is Korea’s Latest Blockbuster Film a Shameless Copy of a Japanese Anime?” Japan Probe, http://www.japanprobe
.com/?p=480 (accessed July 31, 2008).
9 Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=host.htm (accessed July 25, 2008).
10 Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” in Stringer, Movie Blockbusters, 15–44.
11 Ibid.
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
Cameron, 1997). The success of Shiri was significant in that it reorganized the structure and the principal orientation of the South Korean film industry.12 The resulting
“Shiri syndrome” was the social and cultural outcome of a successful mobilization of
nationalist sentiment during a period of intense economic crisis. As one Korean film
scholar puts it, “The box office competition between Shiri and Titanic was taken rather
as a virtual war between South Korea and the USA as the invading foreign power. The
[Korean] people watched Shiri as if they were fighting a war.”13 The Shiri syndrome
was, in other words, not only a public event but also a national event in which audiences
were identified as patriots.14 Since Shiri’s success, widespread marketing employing nationalist rhetoric, such as “Support Korean movies against the invasion of Hollywood,”
has become the industry norm. The film’s release and phenomenal box office returns
created a general hype for domestic movies, and fanatical media coverage of a recordbreaking parade of subsequent Korean movie hits, combined with nationalist marketing, has maintained ongoing public interest in domestic hits. South Korean newspapers
reported on the box office success of record-breaking domestic movies in a “suspenseful,
12 David Scott Diffrient, “Seoul as Cinematic Cityscape: Shiri and the Politico-Aesthetics of Invisibility,” Asian Cinema
11, no. 2: 76–91.
13 Kim Kyung-wook, Fantasy of Blockbuster, Narcissism of Korean Cinema [in Korean] (Seoul: Chaek Sesang, 2002), 19.
14 Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer, “Storming the Big Screen: The Shiri Syndrome,” in Seoul Searching: Culture and
Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances Gateward (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007),
15 Chris Howard, “Contemporary South Korean Cinema: ‘National Conjunction’ and ‘Diversity,’” in Hunt and Leung,
East Asian Cinemas, 94.
Figure 1. The UK DVD cover of The Host advertises the movie in connection with Hollywood monster movies
like Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws and his 1993 Jurassic Park (Optimum Releasing, 2006).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
stage-by-stage count-down.”15 Prime-time television news programs, film-related television entertainment programs, and online news websites all provided similar coverage.
The period immediately preceding the production of Shiri witnessed the release of
a number of other big-budget projects eager to take advantage of a financial environment friendly to event movies. The Soul Guardians (Toemarok; Park Gwang-chun, 1998),
a science-fiction action movie saturated with computer-generated imagery (CGI), was
marketed as the first “Korean blockbuster” and thus introduced this novel term to
the film industry, the press, and audiences. As the case of The Soul Guardians demonstrates, the term “Korean blockbuster” provoked popular desire through advertising
campaigns. While other films failed fully to spark such popular desire, Shiri ignited the
flame by promoting itself as full of Hollywood-style action scenes and as representative of Korean cinema’s fight against Hollywood. Shiri helped raise the market share
of domestic titles to 35.8 percent in 1999 and changed Korean audiences’ expectations
of Korean movies.
Subsequent big-budget titles from this period include the dramatic thriller A Mystery of the Cube (Geonchukmuhan yukmyeongakcheui bimil; Yu Sang-wook, 1999), the war
action drama Phantom, the Submarine (Yuryeong; Min Byeong-cheon, 1999), the martial
arts epics Bichunmoo (Bicheonmu; Kim Young-jun, 2000) and The Legend of Ginko (Danjeokbi yeonsu; Park Jye-hyun, 2000), and disaster movies such as Libera Me (Yang Yun-ho,
2000), among others. However, these titles fell short of becoming box office record
breakers in the way that Shiri had, perhaps because Shiri engaged with one of the most
pressing questions facing the Korean nation-state, the conflict between North and
South Korea.16
In short, post-Shiri hits have become national events by touching on historical traumas. For example, JSA: Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA; Park Chan-wook,
2000) engages with the tragedy and anxiety of cold war ideology and the ongoing
division of the Korean peninsula. Silmido (Kang Woo-suk, 2003) retrieves the hidden
history of a South Korean military terrorist group trained for a secret mission. Brotherhood (Taegukgi hwinallimyeo; Kang Je-gyu, 2004) stirs up painful memories of the Korean War. May 18 (Hwaryeohan hyuga; Kim Ji-hoon, 2007) resurrects memories of the
traumatic 1980 Kwangju Massacre, a tragic incident in which civilians from the city
of Kwangju were mercilessly wounded and killed by the government’s special troops.
Such films aim to appeal to the widest possible audience by turning moviegoers into
an audience of patriots through hype created by nationalist marketing.
The cinematic deployment of real historical events and social issues by these blockbuster movies validates the Korean film industry’s nationalist stance. Because of the
shared historical memories and social issues they represent, such films are identified
by domestic audiences as cultural texts embodying the nation. Kim Sung Kyung suggests that these blockbusters construct a “socio-cultural verisimilitude” through which
Korean audiences accept what is projected onto the screen as the actual narrative of
national history and therefore an accurate reflection of Korean society.17 Kim claims
16 Lee Kyung-eun, “Sing a Tragic Narrative of One Nation, Two States,” in Korean Blockbuster: Atlantis or America [in
Korean], ed. Kim Soyoung (Seoul: Hyunsil Munhwa Yeongu, 2001), 155–175.
17 Kim Sung Kyung, “Globalisation, Film, and Authenticity: The Renaissance of Korean National Cinema,” (PhD diss.,
University of Essex, 2005), 144–149, 171.
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that this explains why Korean blockbusters began to be identified as representative of
Korean national cinema, displacing movies made by the Korean “New Wave” directors of the late 1990s. The new blockbusters have thus come to constitute Korean
national cinema.
However, some commentators cast doubt on the social value of Korean blockbusters, arguing that historical events and social issues are employed by these movies
simply to maximize the thrill of cinematic spectacle, thereby making their representations of history more convincing because they are so emotionally overwhelming. One
Korean film critic states,
Certainly the national division is very important here. However, it is not because Kang Je-gyu (the director of Brotherhood) has any particular message
that he is eager to deliver about the situation of the national division. The
real reason that Kang made such a movie is because the historical event, the
Korean War that shattered this country half a century ago, is fantastic material for making a movie, which we, the Korean film industry, can deal with
exclusively. Shiri is not an exception to this.18
Others complain that the excessive melodramatic fictionalization present in these
movies nullifies the historical weight of real events, rendering them mere cinematic
spectacle for popular entertainment: “The tragic sacrifice of brothers effectively conveys the antiwar message, as originally intended. Yet the historical specificity that still
throws a deep shadow over [Korean society] is erased and eventually ends up being
replaced by virtual spectacles.”19 Either way, these movies transform lived historical
memory into popular cinematic memories of national history and thus interpellate
audiences as members of “an imagined community,” the Korean nation.20 In other
words, as the films take the nation as their subject matter, the commercial movie industry producing these blockbusters is identified as a key cultural agent maintaining
Korean national identity.21
Of course, it is not uncommon for the domestic marketing of non-Hollywood local
or regional blockbusters to capitalize on national pride or nationalist sentiments. However, the nationalist marketing of South Korean blockbusters is particularly interesting
for the hype created around Korean cinema in general, not just individual movies.
Nationalist discourse is mobilized in the interests of the film industry itself.
One of the distinguishing features of the contemporary Korean film industry is
that domestic theatrical releases generate the vast majority of the industry’s revenue.
Film companies earn around 80 percent of their total revenue from these domestic
releases. The international market for Korean cinema is unstable and at a nascent
18 Djuna, “Kang Je-gyu’s Hollywood Complex” [in Korean], Cine21 440 (February 24, 2004), 100–101.
19 Kim Byung-chul, Light and Shadow of Korean Blockbusters: The Universality and Particularity of Korean Blockbusters [in Korean] (Seoul: Hanguk Haksul Jeongbo, 2005), 176–177.
20 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso,
21 Kim, “Globalisation, Film and Authenticity.”
22 See Kim Mi-hyun and Do Dong-jun, “2006 Annual Report on the Korean Film Industry”; and KOFIC, “2007 Report
on the Korean Film Industry,” www.kofic.or.kr [both in Korean] (accessed July 28, 2008).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
stage of development, and export revenues rely heavily on a single overseas market—
namely, Japan (79.4 percent in 2005; 42.4 percent in 2006).22 International exports
have started to drop sharply, by 68 percent in 2006 and 50 percent in 2007, owing to
a decrease in Japanese imports of Korean movies. However, in the first half of 2008,
international exports increased by 37 percent, mostly owing to sales of home video
and remake rights to North American companies and to the presale of titles based
on Japanese manga and featuring Korean stars popular in Japan.23 Indeed, Korean
companies have begun to customize their products for the Japanese market (e.g., Saying
Good-bye, Oneday [Sayonara itsuka; John H. Lee, 2009]).
In addition, the DVD market, which in the case of other film industries is looked
upon as one of the main ancillary markets, remains in long-term limbo in South Korea
and has never really had the chance to blossom there.24 Since 2006, large telecommunication groups such as Korea Telecom and SK Telecom have merged film production
and distribution companies into their fold in order to secure enough cultural content
for new media such as digital media broadcasting. There is a real possibility that such
groups could create substantial ancillary markets for Korean movies in the near future.
At the same time, however, a very common way of watching movies among young
people in Korea today is through Internet file sharing and downloading—practices
which have thrived thanks to the country’s high-quality Internet infrastructure and
an accompanying lack of regulation. Under these circumstances, the Korean film industry can expand further only by maximizing the number of domestic filmgoers attending movies in theaters. Creating and maintaining hype around domestic movies
has been instrumental in attracting filmgoers of all ages to movie theaters. As a result,
nationalist film culture comes into being in tandem with the wide release of Korean
blockbusters in multiplex cinema chains.
Chris Howard diagnoses this situation as “a national conjunction.” According to
him, Korean audiences’ cinema-going practices are constructed in line with “the national” as the Korean film industry, ruled by an oligopoly of a few large companies,
maximizes profits in the domestic theatrical market through wide releases to multiplex cinema chains and nationalist marketing which turns consumption of domestic
movies into “patriotic consumption.”25 However, this astute observation falls short by
overlooking Korean blockbusters’ ambivalent role in reconstructing the local market
in favor of Hollywood movies, and it also fails to detect a key transitional phase that
betrays a gradual disarticulation (or disjuncture) between the nationalist ideological
imperative and the underlying conditions of the Korean film industry.
At this point I want to underline the importance of Hollywood’s presence, whether
symbolic or actual, as a prerequisite for the success of Korean blockbusters. One of the
essential conditions for the inculcation of nationalist values among the Korean public
is the domestic film industry’s projection of Hollywood as a monster trying to devour
Korean national cinema. In practice, however, the relations between the Korean film
industry and Hollywood are more complicated and rather ambivalent. For example,
23 Noh, “Korean Film Exports Up by 37% in First Half of 2008.”
24 Kim and Do, “2006 Annual Report”; and KOFIC, “2007 Report.”
25 Howard, “Contemporary South Korean Cinema,” 89–90, 91.
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Shiri seeks to emulate Hollywood movies at the same time that it offers a fantasy of local
resistance to Hollywood. Regarding this, Kim Soyoung stresses that Korean blockbusters are “asymmetrical counterparts” of Hollywood blockbusters unless they achieve the
same level of “hegemonic power” over the international market.26 Kang Je-gyu, the
director of Shiri, proclaimed at a press conference at the time of the film’s production
that he was going to make Korean action blockbusters that could compete with those
of Hollywood. Korean film scholar Kim Kyung-wook considers the Shiri syndrome a
crucial turning point in the South Korean film industry, underlining that Shiri was the
first ultrapopular Korean movie to try hard to emulate Hollywood movies, from preproduction through distribution. Kim refers to such emulation as an “America complex,”
while other commentators call it a “Hollywood complex.”27 Action scenes from Shiri
resemble small-scale replicas of similar moments from Hollywood movies, while the
portrayal of espionage, spies, killers, and terrorists, along with the film’s plot of a bomb
planted at a public event, “reconstitutes countless Hollywoodized generic codes of Cold
War paranoia,” according to David Scott Diffrient.28
Similarly, it is well known that Kang Je-gyu’s Brotherhood was made to prove that Korean filmmakers could produce scenes as impressive as the battle sequence that opens
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Brotherhood includes a plotline wherein an
attempt is made to save a private from the fierce battleground of the Korean War—
not by the state government, but by his own brother, who is killed in the process. Kang
appropriates traumatic historical events, the lingering effects of which still constrain
many aspects of Korean social life, in order to produce a movie comparable to a Hollywood blockbuster.
In sum, Korean blockbusters epitomize social and economic responses to anxieties
over globalization. To quote Kim Soyoung, “The transition to global society, which cannot be contained within the boundary of a state, incessantly generates a sense of anxiety. It is what motivates and is the effect of Korean blockbusters.”29 Yet ironically films
such as Shiri also embrace Hollywood’s generic conventions and relentlessly pursue the
Hollywood mode of production so as to create a type of blockbuster that can support
the national film industry. Put differently, Korean blockbusters are unimaginable without
the strong presence and domination of Hollywood blockbusters. The term “Korean
blockbuster” therefore denotes a complicated and ambivalent articulation of a nationalist ideological stance with a multivalent connection to the Hollywood blockbuster.
The Host and the South Korean Film Industry. In contrast to the other Korean
blockbusters discussed so far, The Host does not appear to draw overtly on nationalism
or the concept of the Korean nation. The same is also true of King and the Clown (Wangui namja; Lee Joon-ik, 2005), a gay-themed period melodrama released earlier in 2006
that unexpectedly became a record-breaking box office hit, drawing approximately
26 Kim Soyoung, “South Korean Women Vanish: The Unconscious Optic of the Korean Blockbuster” [in Korean], in
Kim, Korean Blockbuster, 17–39.
27 See Kim, Fantasy of Blockbuster, 18. Also see Djuna, “Kang Je-gyu’s Hollywood Complex.”
28 Diffrient, “Seoul as Cinematic Cityscape,” 78.
29 Kim, “South Korean Women Vanish,” 33.
30 Kim and Do, “2006 Annual Report.”
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12,030,000 filmgoers nationwide.30 What, then,
does the success of these less explicitly nationalist blockbusters reveal about the current configuration of the South Korean film industry?
The box office success of The Host marks a
consummation of the intense industrial momentum initiated by the Shiri syndrome. Equally, however, it provides evidence of a marked disjuncture
between the nationalist ideology appropriated by
the domestic film industry and its economic interests. The film’s success opened up critical and
public debate on the current state of the South
Korean film industry. On the one hand, The Host
shares certain key characteristics with other Korean blockbusters: it depicts the Han River—a
familiar geographic location for domestic moviegoers—and it refers to real-life historical events,
in this case the McFarland Incident of 2000,
wherein a US army officer was charged with
ordering his men to leak the toxic liquid formaldehyde directly into the sewage system. On the
other hand, while playing down overtly nationalist sentiments and not directly tackling any particular national issues, the film offers multilayered
points of entry for viewers of different national
and social backgrounds, ranging from Korean
multiplex audiences to international art-house
For example, like many Hollywood blockbusters, The Host is a “high concept” movie. Its
plot may be summarized and marketed to domestic audiences in a single sentence: “Monster
appears in the Han River.” It was advertised domestically as a family action drama, as expressed
in the tagline “One family’s mortal combat begins” (Figure 2). Using a family-centered drama
ensures that the film appeals to audiences of
multiple generations—thus, the character of
the young uncle speaks to the 1980s and 1990s
student movement generation, the young aunt
speaks to twentysomethings, and the character
of the middle-school girl speaks to teen audiences. The movie could therefore attract a wide
range of demographic groups into theaters and
succeed in maximizing the number of domestic
Figure 2. The Korean poster of The Host foregrounds the main characters as a family (Cheongeorahm Film, 2006).
Figure 3. The monster in The Host is not particularly overwhelming or impressive. The film
is more concerned with social and political issues than with spectacle (Cheongeorahm Film,
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
audience members. The original Korean title of The Host, Geomul, declares the film to
be a monster movie. Indeed, the monster was central to the film’s promotional campaign, with marketing materials piquing curiosity about how the monster was created.
Yet, the movie’s monster is not particularly overwhelming as a spectacle, and the film
centers more on social issues than special effects (Figure 3).
Noted for its “messy” qualities, The Host invites multiple readings.31 While drawing
on particular historical memories of South Korean society, the film also touches on
contemporary global political issues. Many critics and audience members therefore
read the movie as a political satire of the US government’s recent military campaigns
(its “war on terror”) and its relationship with the South Korean government.32 Because
this movie’s monster is unnamed and lacks overt symbolic connotations—it does not
serve an allegorical, nationalist function—the meanings audiences take away from The
Host are multifaceted, not one-dimensionally nationalistic. There is also ample possibility to interpret the monster, in Barbara Creed’s terms, as a projection of horrific
anxieties concerning the “archaic mother.”33 (The prior box office success of King and
the Clown has also been attributed to strategies of multiple address, although it does not
appear to have offered a wide range of readings to international audiences.)34
While The Host does not convey overtly nationalist attitudes, it still owes its box
office success to the same industrial conditions and practices established by previous
Korean blockbusters. An expensive nationwide nationalist marketing effort tapping
into the ready-made hype for Korean movies in general, along with multiplex cinema
chains under monopolized control and guaranteeing wide theatrical release, was a precondition for The Host’s success. In what follows, I discuss further the marketing of The
Host before taking a closer look at the industrial conditions that enabled it to become
such a massive box office success.
The Korean publicity campaign for The Host demonstrates how—regardless of
the actual content of the movie itself—nationalist marketing can still affect domestic
audiences by mobilizing preexisting hype for Korean movies and directors. Marketing stressed the film’s status as the very first big-budget, high-quality Korean monster
movie. For example, before the movie’s opening, the bestselling weekly film magazine
Cine21 carried a detailed special report on the making of the monster.35 In order to distinguish the high quality of The Host from the implied lower quality of B-grade monster
movies as well as such disappointing earlier experiments as Yonggari (Shim Hyung-rae,
1999), publicity drew on the popular and critical perception of director Bong as a
well-known national auteur-director—a status established by the box office success of
Bong’s previous film, Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok), in 2003. Although it was not a
record-breaking movie, Memories of Murder topped the Korean box office. Based on an
31 Manohla Dargis calls The Host “a loose, almost borderline messy film.” Dargis, “It Came from the River, Hungry for
Humans (Burp),” New York Times, March 9, 2007.
32 Kim Soyoung, Jung Seong-il, and Huh Moon-young, “The New Cartography of Popular Movies: Talking About The
Host and Hanbando” [in Korean], Cine21 567 (August 29, 2006), 98–105.
33 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993). See also
Nikki J. Y. Lee, “The Host,” Science Fiction Film and Television 1, no. 2 (2008), 349–352.
34 Howard, “Contemporary South Korean Cinema,” 92.
35 Moon Seok and Lee Da-hye, “Making the Monster in The Host” [in Korean], Cine21 557 (June 20, 2006), 58–62.
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
unsolved real-life serial rape and murder case of the 1980s, the movie places comedy,
chilling horror, and the investigating detectives’ frustrations against socially realistic
background settings. Through its critical acclaim and commercial success, Bong’s second feature film was considered “a savior of the Korean film industry.”36
It was hoped that The Host would make a similar impact. As one mark of its quality,
publicity releases and advertising emphasized the fact that The Host had been invited to
the Cannes Film Festival. Footage of Bong’s appearance at a Cannes screening of the
movie among an applauding foreign audience was included in television advertising
spots and served to cement perceptions of the director as an internationally recognized
talent. The Host was thus positioned as a vehicle allowing the excellent quality of South
Korean cinema to be known to the world.
After the initial very successful theatrical release of The Host, the film was further
promoted in Korea through a second television advertisement with a simple message:
The Host is breaking all box office records and is quickly selling out at every movie
house. The advertisement cross-edited images of “Sold Out” signs in front of movie
theaters with shots of people lining up to get tickets. In this way, the success of the
movie’s first few weeks was used to make it even more popular and further bolster its
success. In addition, a media frenzy provided step-by-step commentary on The Host’s
record-breaking achievements. Only a few days after its release, the story broke that
The Host’s audience numbers had exceeded those of previous record holders King and
the Clown and Brotherhood, and that the film had surpassed one million box office admissions in the shortest time ever. After five days, “total audience numbers surpassed three
million within the shortest period”; after one week, “total audience numbers surpassed
four million within the shortest period”; and so on.37 The Host was the biggest national
news topic of its day.
At this point in the discussion it is useful to bear in mind that The Host was not the
first monster movie in South Korean film history. In collaboration with Japanese production companies, Monster Yongary (Taekoesu Yonggary; Kim Ki-duk, 1967; also known as Yongary, Monster from the Deep) was created as a Korean copy of the Japanese monster movie
Godzilla (Gojira; Honda Ishiro, 1954). It was revived in 1999 as Yonggari and again in 2000
as 2001 Yonggari (Shim Hyung-rae; also known as Reptile 2001 or Reptilian). The 1999
Yonggari movie was hyped as a big-budget Korean blockbuster with high-quality CGI.
But it actually had poor sound and special effects, and a crude plot and dialogue. The
second movie was thus produced as an improved version of the first one. In 2007, Shim
Hyung-rae, the director of both Yonggaris, brought to cinematic life Imugi—a legendary
monster from many Korean stories—in D-War (2007; also known as Dragon Wars).
The huge box office success of D-War in the summer of 2007 echoed the success
of The Host one year earlier. Although most of the CGI and special effects were provided by Korean companies, D-War aimed to target the US market: it was filmed in
US locations with an American cast and English dialogue (Figure 4). Yet in contrast
to such efforts to make the movie appealing to global (or at least American) audiences,
36 “Critic: Finding the Path of Reality in a Jungle of Genre” [in Korean], in Bong Joon-ho: Mapping Reality Within the
Maze of Genre (Seoul: KOFIC, 2005), 8–25.
37 For instance, see “The Host Drew Ten Million Audiences Within the Shortest Period” [in Korean], Sports Hankook,
http://sports.hankooki.com/lpage/cinet/200608/sp2006081620105858470.htm (accessed July 28, 2008).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
on its domestic release the movie employed a marketing strategy that appealed to
Korean nationalism. The Korean version of D-War includes an epilogue in the form
of a voice-over from the director directly addressing the domestic audience. This epilogue highlights the director’s personal struggles and patriotic motivation for making
a movie that so graphically displays the high technological achievements of Korean
cinema at the same time that it manages to generate demand in the international
marketplace. Such marketing stunts convey the gaping disjuncture between the film
industry’s globalizing tendencies and nationalist moviegoing practices. In other words,
while D-War obliterates its national origins in its quest to become a globally successful
product, domestic marketing appeals to nationalist sentiment so as to maximize profit
in South Korea itself. Such nationalist marketing gave birth to a fanatical fan base
that almost blindly defended the film from criticism. Online advocates, for example,
violently attacked anyone who dared to express negative views about D-War.
The consecutive box office successes of The Host and D-War cannot help but raise
concerns regarding the workings of a distribution and exhibition system which propels
monopolization of the Korean film market by a small number of big-budget movies and large companies. While the domestic media were unanimously celebrating the
success of The Host in 2006, problems created by the Korean cinema’s reconfigured
industrial system were elsewhere being brought to the public’s attention. Kim Ki-duk,
famed on the international film festival circuit as the enfant terrible of Korean cinema,
provoked controversy by publicly denouncing the film’s quality and its audiences.38
In addition to nationalist marketing, The Host owed its success to the film industry’s
practice of producing expensive blockbusters and exhibiting these through multiplex
cinema chains. The fact that The Host could simultaneously be released on around
620 screens—more than one-third of the total number of screens in Korea—demonstrates how dependent the film’s record-breaking success was on the wide release
patterns made possible by the control over the multiplexes held by a small oligopoly of
38 See Kim Eun-hyung, “Kim Ki-duk Talk, No Communication but Only Scandal Ensued” [in Korean], Cine21, http://
www.cine21.com/Article/article_view.php?mm=001001001&article_id=40998 (accessed July 28, 2008).
Figure 4. D-War (Shim Hyung-rae, 2007) was mainly filmed in US locations with an American cast and
English dialogue (Younggu Entertainment, 2007).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
companies. When it opened on July 27, 2006, the film was called “a savior of Korean
cinema in crisis,” in that it succeeded in driving the total domestic share of the 2006
theatrical movie market up to more than 60 percent.39
However, the film’s success proved to be a mixed blessing because The Host’s triumph came at a huge cost to the independent film sector. As part of the negotiating
conditions of the Free Trade Agreement with the US government, the South Korean
government decided to cut by half—from 146 to 73—the days allocated for the domestic screen quota as of July 2006.40 After The Host had filled up the limited days
reserved for domestic movies in most theaters, independent distributors and production companies struggled to secure extra screens for their own releases. Although they
managed to secure some additional days, theaters mercilessly dropped any title whose
profits were not deemed impressive enough after the first week or two of release. The
situation did not improve in 2007. During the peak of the screening of two Korean
blockbusters, D-War and May 18, which dominated over one thousand screens at multiplex cinemas, other Korean movies had a hard time securing screens for more than
three weeks. Fans of two horror films, The Epitaph (Gidam; Jeong Sik and Jung Bum-sik,
2007) and Wide Awake (Riteon; Lee Gyu-man, 2007), had to sign a public petition to
secure further screenings after their third week of release. The “cross-screening” of
movies (i.e., showing more than one film on one screen during a single day), which
has become customary for multiplex cinemas, only worsens the situation. A few days
after a film’s opening, theaters sharply reduce the number of screenings per day and
allocate worse screening times—the earliest (usually starting at 8:30 AM) or latest ones
(usually beginning around 9:00 PM or later)—if the film is under-performing.
The industry practice that combines blockbuster movie production with multiplex
cinema exhibition is not a uniquely Korean or de-Westernized one. Neither does it
work solely in the interests of the domestic film industry. Building and extending multiplex chains internationally is one means by which Hollywood secures international
revenue: in the 1990s, for example, the US film industry expanded its international
market by building multiplex cinemas in European countries in an attempt to boost
revenue streams in the face of falling domestic theatrical admissions.41 In this respect,
the contemporary exhibition environment centered on multiplex cinema chains is one
outcome of the South Korean film industry’s localization of Hollywood’s global distribution practices.
The development of the Korean film industry since Shiri is therefore most notable
in terms of the growth in cinema attendance and the proliferation of multiplex cinema
screens. While the domestic market share of Korean films rose sharply from 39.7 percent in 1999 to 63.8 percent in 2006, the total number of moviegoers also grew, from
approximately 89,360,000 in 2001 to 163,850,000 in 2006. In addition, the number
of multiplex screens nationwide increased from 818 in 2001 to 1,847 in 2006, while
39 Im Bum, “Bong Joon-ho Again Appears at a Critical Moment” [in Korean], Cine21, http://www.cine21.com/Article
/article_view.php?mm=001001001&article_id=40374 (accessed July 31, 2008).
40 For more historical details of the screen quota system, see Berry, “What’s Big About the Big Film?”; and Darcy
Paquet, New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (London: Wallflower, 2009), 68–70.
41 Charles R. Acland, Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
the total number of theaters nationwide decreased from 344 in 2001 to 306 in 2006.
During this period, many small local movie theaters were shut down if they did not
transform themselves into multiplexes. Multiplex cinema chains now dominate the
exhibition sector in Korea: among 1,847 screens, 1,131 (61.2 percent) are part of a
multiplex cinema; in 2006, multiplex cinemas drew 75 percent of the total theater audience. In addition, the total revenue that US movies make in the Korean market has
grown in tandem with the rise of multiplex cinemas, although the relative percentage
that Hollywood earns in the Korean market has diminished. Statistics published by
KOFIC state that in 2001 American movies took 46.4 percent of the domestic market,
drawing 16,233,078 attendees to theaters in Seoul. In 2006, although the market share
for American movies had dropped down to 35 percent, they still drew approximately
17,660,000 attendees in Seoul.42
In other words, recent industry developments centered on the rise of cinema attendance at multiplex theaters drive the expansion of every level of the South Korean film market. Under the ruling nationalist rhetoric, however, this expansion of
the film market is often identified misleadingly as the achievement of South Korean
cinema itself. The expansion of the market is, indeed, driven by the success of Korean
blockbusters like The Host. But the development of the Korean film industry has also
ended up providing stable and standardized exhibition sites for Hollywood movies. In
2007, for example, the Hollywood blockbuster Transformers (Michael Bay) garnered
its biggest revenue outside North America ($51,511,860) in the Korean market, and
in 2009, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay) captured its second biggest
revenue outside North America ($43,392,124) in the Korean market.43 In 2008, The
Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), the highest grossing Hollywood movie of the
year internationally, grossed $25,024,391 in the Korean market, helping to make the
Korean market the film’s fifth largest overseas territory, bigger than Japan or Italy.44 In
2009, the Korean market became the eighth largest overseas territory for Avatar as it
broke the world box office record previously set by Titanic.45
As the box office success of The Host demonstrates, a few big-budget movies dominate, in the process driving up the average market share of domestic movies. In 2006,
the top three titles at the box office were all domestic productions, and these movies—
The Host, King and the Clown, and The War of Flower (Tazza; Choi Dong-hoon, 2006)—
drew 20 percent of total audience figures, out of 110 domestic titles released that
year. The extreme polarization represented by these box office statistics has been consolidated by the monopolistic hold exerted by four production-distribution companies.
In 2006, CJ Entertainment took 34.6 percent of the domestic movies’ market share
(distributing 34.5 domestic titles out of 110), Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc. took 31.2 percent (23 titles), Cinema Service took 16.9 percent (11.5 titles) and Lotte Entertainment
took 7.1 percent (12 titles). Each company also operates a multiplex cinema chain: CJ
42 See KOFIC, “2002 Korean and Foreign Movie Box Office Statistics” [in Korean], http://www.kofic.or.kr/ (accessed
July 28, 2008). See also KOFIC, “2007 Report.”
43 Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=transformers06.htm, http://boxofficemojo.com
/movies/?page=intl&id=transformers2.htm (accessed June 14, 2010).
44 Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=darkknight.htm (accessed June 14, 2010).
45 Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=avatar.htm (accessed June 14, 2010).
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
Entertainment runs CGV, Cinema Service runs Primers, and Lotte Entertainment
runs Lotte Cinema. (Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc. sold its multiplex chain, Megabox, in
2007.)46 In total, these big companies distributed almost 90 percent of Korean films,
far surpassing the 75 percent that is supposedly the highest limit for market share as
established by antitrust law. In addition, CJ Entertainment holds a significant percentage of the shares in Cinema Service, and the two companies combined took half the
market. In January 2008, the Korean Fair Trade Committee officially warned four
major multiplex chains (CGV, Megabox, Primers, and Lotte Cinema) and five big
distribution companies (CJ Entertainment, Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc., Korean Sony
Pictures, UIP, and Twentieth Century Fox Korea) about unfair business agreements.
One of the specific film industry conventions designated as unfair practice is for a
multiplex cinema to end the screening of a movie within six days, thus not following
the given convention of guaranteeing a screening duration of at least two weeks.47
Despite such warnings, the market share of the major companies (CJ Entertainment,
Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc., and Lotte Entertainment) did not decrease; in 2009, they took
around 80 percent of the theatrical revenue of domestic titles (CJ Entertainment, 36.8
percent; Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc., 27.9 percent; Lotte Entertainment, 15.0 percent).48
By 2009, CJ Entertainment’s CGV chain operated 792 screens nationwide (among 1,996
screens total), including Primers chains. CJ Entertainment has exclusively distributed the
films of Dreamworks SKG since Dreamworks’ establishment in 1996 and since 2007 has
exclusively distributed Paramount Pictures titles. (For example, CJ Entertainment distributed both Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in South Korea.)
Given all this, it is reasonable to conclude that the recent growth of commercially
successful big-budget Korean filmmaking and distribution has reshaped the domestic
film market by integrating it into a globally standardized industrial system in which
big-budget blockbusters are distributed to multiplex cinema chains regardless of their
country of production. This arrangement does not hinder so much as sustain the
global dominance of Hollywood movies. If, for the Korean film industry, Hollywood
is an unbeatable external monster, then Korean blockbuster movies may be thought
of as internal monsters that have grown up within the domestic industry. The success
of The Host in 2006 therefore marks the moment when ambivalent and ironic articulations between nationally mobilized moviegoing practices and globalizing industrial
orientations are disarticulated as the reconstruction and expansion of the local market
ensures it is becoming locally stabilized and globally standardized.
Localized Globalization: A National-Global Disjuncture. In sum, at the same time
that it self-consciously projects Hollywood as the Other, the South Korean film industry also promotes itself as a nationalist film industry essential for sustaining Korean national cinema. While mobilizing domestic audiences under nationalist rubric (“Watch
our movies and save Korean cinema from the invasion of Hollywood”), the industry
46 In July 2007 Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc. sold Megabox chains to KMIC (Korean Multiplex Investment Cooperation),
which is led by Australian investment bank Macquarie International Holdings.
47 Im Soon-hye, “Multiplex, Killing Korean Cinema in Crisis” [in Korean], Ecumenian, http://www.ecumenian.com
/news/articleView.html?idxno=4732 (accessed July 28, 2008).
48 KOFIC, “Analysis of Korean Film Industry,” Korean Cinema 2009 (Seoul: KOFIC, 2010), 32.
Cinema Journal 50 | No. 3 | Spring 2011
has been reorganizing the business environment within which it operates through vertical integration of the production and distribution sectors and consolidation of a
monopoly of multiplex cinema chains. Such industrial transformations standardize
audiences’ tastes and moviegoing habits, thus making it easier for a small number of
large companies to dominate the market. Today a select few production-distribution
companies own the major multiplex cinema chains and distribute their movies as wide
releases with heavy television and Internet marketing. With their control over the primary means of marketing and distribution, these companies can then create enough
hype around a blockbuster to turn it into a national event.
In the course of his discussion of the staggering growth of the domestic film industry, Kyung Hyun Kim remarks that “[t]he irony of the Korean film industry is that
it has localized the conventions and praxis of Hollywood to such a successful degree
that it has produced formulaic films that are appealing even to Hollywood.”49 Kim’s
comments aptly identify the distinctive features of the contemporary South Korean
film industry. However, I would add that the practices Kim alludes to are not ironic
so much as they are an integral part of the Korean film industry’s localizing activities. The phenomenon of producing locally embedded but globally marketable movies
and then distributing and exhibiting them in monopoly-controlled multiplex chains is
merely the result of the Korean film industry’s efforts to become another Hollywood
(domestically and internationally).
Andrew Higson once commented on “the paradox” of a national cinema that attempts to be “nationally popular,” arguing that since it is usually Hollywood films that
are popular and enjoy national box office success, a domestic film industry seeking
to attain the same level of popularity and commercial achievement “must attempt to
reproduce the standard, which in practice means colluding with Hollywood’s systems
of funding, production control, distribution and marketing.”50 The current configuration of the Korean film industry suggests that such arguments ought to be probed
further in the contemporary climate of unbridled globalization. Despite its inevitable
economic limitations, the Korean film industry does pursue Hollywood’s systems of
funding, production control, distribution, and marketing, resulting in the creation of a
local system that is part of a globally standardized industrial network.
South Korea is an example of a local film industry that, as Tom O’Regan puts it,
initiates “international integration” in the “guise of a local film industry producing a
variety of films or . . . a purveyor of the national culture.”51 When it asserts itself as the
essential agent of national cinema, the Korean industry becomes a global-local force
that mediates between multinational and local interests. As a result, the production of
highly successful Korean blockbusters like The Host has not de-Westernized the domestic film industry so much as it has reorganized it into a localized pseudo-Hollywood
system. In other words, Korea’s pursuit of indigenous movie blockbusters has turned
it into an international producer and distributor of localized global movies. ✽
49 Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 273.
50 Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” in Film and Nationalism, ed. Alan Williams (New Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 58.
51 Tom O’Regan, “Australian Cinema as a National Cinema,” in Williams, Film and Nationalism, 97.

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