The United States is the epicenter of the world when it comes to Hollywood fiction. Somehow, the aliens nearly always make it a point to first stage assaults on American cities and most of the world’s mightiest heroes turn out to be American citizens. Occasionally, however, the cinematic giants cast their eye on countries beyond North America and even consider the possibility that an important event can occur off American soil.
When it comes to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (of which I am a fan), arguably the most de-Americanized movie so far is Black Panther. Yet a small issue I have with this movie – and one that does not diminish any of its advantages – is how it failed to promote the South Korean city of Busan. It is something I would have ignored, if not for the fact that this is the second time a Marvel movie did a disservice to a South Korean city. In 2015, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron featured South Korea’s capital, Seoul, but did not really put it in the spotlight.
One can say that I am trying my best to dig into minor issues, so just in case, a disclaimer: this text is not about movie plots or morals. It’s about money and promotion. To be sure, South Korea reportedly paid a lot of money to promote Seoul and its neighboring province Gyeonggi-do through Age of Ultron and Marvel’s president did say that “South Korea is the perfect location for a movie of this magnitude because it features cutting-edge technology, beautiful landscapes, and spectacular architecture.”
But, in my view these aspects were hardly featured in the movie.
The Random Stations
In Age of Ultron, the Seoul part of the story first takes place in a lab and then moves into a chase through the city when the protagonists, the Avengers, chase the dreaded machine Ultron and his robotic minions. We do get the glimpse of Seoul as a grand and modern city, but we can hardly see anything that would make it different from other cities. It’s a nondescript urban jungle with a river and a subway, like dozens of other metropoles around the globe. True, much of Seoul is just this – an urban jungle – but this is not the point when you promise a promotion. While I do not consider myself an expert on either Korea or the movies, having lived in Seoul for two and a half years and having been there when Age of Ultron was being shot (and having watched it while still living there) I could not help to wonder why the movie managed to miss nearly all of the architectural highlights.
It did not get any better for South Korea with Black Panther. The recent Marvel film featured another South Korean metropolis: the port city of Busan. The story first takes us to the iconic Jagalchi fish market, but we only manage to get a glimpse of it. It quickly turns out that the fish market houses a secret casino (which to my knowledge it does not) and the subsequent scenes take place in this fictional location, off the stage of Busan. The heroes and the bad guys clash in the casino and the villains run away, and thus are once again taken on a chase through the city. Black Panther and his women warriors trail the arms traders through some of Busan’s best known areas but as all of this happens during the night and in a car chase sequence, there is hardly anything important of the city that the viewer has a chance or time to see.
It is all a different case when the story necessitates the choice of the location. But when it comes to Age of Ultron and the Black Panther, there hardly seems any reason why South Korea was chosen. In both cases the story jumps to the Korean city from a completely different location and promptly moves onto another one, as the fight between good and evil assumes global proportions. Seoul and Busan are just stations in the quick-paced train ride of the story.
In terms of the plot, the choice may as well be random. Seoul could have been Geneva and Busan could have been Moscow. To repeat myself: it’s not about the plot here – it’s about money and promotion.
The Promotion Deal
Let’s be blunt: shooting a movie in a foreign country is no free lunch. Many state institutions, such as those connected to tourism, sweat it out to bring in famous movie producers to their countries, and often offer considerable amounts of money or tax deduction. Even if no financial incentive is on the table, the administration and the people of a given location have to make arrangements for the filming crew: traffic may be blocked or certain buildings may be closed for some time. The costs of the financial perks and the hardship of hosting the film crew are worth it – the argument goes – because of the publicity which the location will get thanks to the movie. Fame may bring fortune. This point firmly puts the debate on promotion-through-movies on rational, financial grounds. If a city or a country is paying somebody to get a film shot there, the authorities expect their country to be represented in a positive and attractive way: it’s as simple as this.
But the math behind this is not simple and can never be. You can count how much money you want to put in such kind of promotion; you can evaluate which city or region needs such promotion the most; you can count the costs of hosting the filming crew; you can assess how many more tourists were attracted to a location if a film was a success and the location was represented in an attractive way. But how do you assess the effects of the promotion before you take the decision?
Aside from the fact that it’s always a kind of a business risk – because a movie can turn out to be a flop – there is no magic wand to determine how the money put in such promotion will translate into rising numbers of tourists. And how do you determine the best ways of promoting a given location, balancing between the push for good representation and the needs of the script? I am aware that if the movie producers had the authorities following them at every corner and telling them to film a given building from a different angle it would be difficult for both sides and eventually just absurd. The moviemakers, like other artists, must have their freedom in this regard. But while some of these aspects can never become countable (and I believe it’s good that many things remain uncountable), it is still reasonable to argue that shooting scenes between nondescript block of flats or nighttime chases on hardly recognizable streets is not good promotion.
There is also a deeper point about representation, and one which I owe to the author of the Ask a Korean blog. The blogger points out that in Black Panther, the dialogue at Busan’s Jagalchi fish market features mostly awful Korean pronunciation and the subsequent casino scene reminds one much more of Macao than of Busan. The author comes to the conclusion that Busan in Black Panther is one more case of a “generic” representation of a Korean city in a Western movie.
It’s a different story when the location is fictional or when it plays a role of another location. Part of New Zealand became Tolkien’s Middle-earth for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and that fictional role still reportedly translated to rising numbers of tourists. But when you present Paris as Paris, Tokyo as Tokyo, and New York as New York, do you have to represent its “true” self or can you toy with fictional elements? After all, this is work of fiction, and from this point of view I have nothing against putting a secret casino under a famous fish market. I do not criticize adding fictional elements; what I do criticize is not properly showing the real ones.
But the subject of “misrepresentation” is a broad and complex one and I am unable to address it fully. Partially hitting at my own points above, I could ask how do can we “properly” represent a city of millions of people? Aren’t there always many visions and experiences and aren’t the filmmakers entitled to have their own interpretation? When we talk of really showing the city, and not just using it as a background or promoting it for tourism, then financially induced promotion can as well be considered a biased representation as well, as it should focus only on the positive aspects. The Western misrepresentation of Asian cities in the movies should be challenged, but the urge to show the “true face” of the metropolis should not solely rest on passing the initiative to the relevant authorities who could often use this occasion to cover up the darker sides of their cities. But while succumbing to the propaganda of success while looking for proper representation is not a way forward, holding on to Western, generalized, and stereotypical “pan-Asian’ imagery of Asian cities is certainly a way back.
I am not aware of any data that would prove that Age of Ultron made Seoul any more popular with foreign tourists. With Black Panther and Busan, it is just too early to say. I sincerely doubt that any such large-scale promotional effect was or will be achieved. But it does seem it worked the other way: amongst Marvel’s movies, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther were some of the most popular with Korean viewers. Once again, the West got its part of the bargain right.