Building Bridges – An Inner View with Hong Sungah

We sit down for an interview with Hong Sungah, a Malaysian correspondent for Korean institutes KOFICE and KOFIC, for a chat about Malaysian cinema, how the Koreans are learning about it, and her role in this bigger picture.

Hi Sungah. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, and hope this finds you well. For those who do not know you, how would you introduce yourself?
Hello, Thoughts on Films! I am Hong Sungah, and I am a PhD candidate for Strategic Human Resource at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). I am also working with several public and private agencies in Republic of Korea, as a Malaysian correspondent reporting on Malaysian and Korean culture in Malaysia.

What kind of agencies are we talking about here?
I am attached to the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange (KOFICE), which is placed under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as well as the Korea Film Council (KOFIC). I am also the Malaysia correspondent at the Asia Business Daily, writing about Malaysian business and economy for Korean subscribers.

That’s an interesting set of hats to wear.
I am someone who would like to be a bridge between Malaysia and Korea. Since Koreans do not have much knowledge about Malaysia, I work as a correspondent to research about the country, in order to share it with Korean society back home.

Coming back to your attachments, I know you primarily for your work at KOFICE. Just so we’re on the same page here, what do they do, and how do you fit into that particular picture as the Malaysian correspondent?
KOFICE is a designated institute for international cultural exchange under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. It covers not only film, but also art, sports, games and animation, which is a part of Malaysian culture. In order to promote mutual understanding between other countries, they assign correspondents in 43 different countries. I am the only Malaysian correspondent in the country, and my role is to promote mutual understanding between our two nations.

How do you do that?
In my case, I stayed in Malaysia first and became the Malaysian correspondent. To promote cultural exchange, I write about Malaysia culture, which includes art, celebrations, food, film, the publishing market, and the game industry, amongst others. Also, every month, I am introducing people in culture industry (usually by way of an interview), researching statistics of Korean film and music events in Malaysia, as well as reporting on the culture policy of Malaysia.

How would this work?
The Republic of Korea operates the correspondent system in many countries. For example, The Seoul Institute, the official think tank for Korea’s capital city, has a Kuala Lumpur correspondent, researching policy, welfare system and urban planning in Kuala Lumpur. This means that policies such as Starbucks in Bangsar hiring deaf baristas, and housing the homeless in Kuala Lumpur during the COVID-19 pandemic, can be submitted to The Seoul Institute, who will consider such examples in building the next policy.

That’s very interesting. How would KOFIC come into this equation, for instance?
KOFIC uses the system to research the Malaysian film industry. KOFIC operates overseas correspondents in 10 countries, including Germany, India, Malaysia, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, Indonesia, China, France and United States. In ASEAN countries, there are correspondents in Malaysia and Indonesia. Right now, they are preparing to assign Korean expatriates in Indonesia and Vietnam to research, collect data and discuss the film industry, since recent years have witnessed Korea’s growing investment in these two countries. They utilise this data to further promote filmmaking between countries, publishing its data online for people in the film industry. Similar to The Seoul Institute, this can be useful data for filmmakers planning to make a film in Malaysia.

Knowledge is power.
Also, since 2015, KOFIC has been organising the Korean Film Festival in Malaysia, in cooperation with entities such as Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) and the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS). As there have been film festivals in Malaysia for a long time, looking at Japan, Europe and France, this event became an important step to promote interaction between Korea and Malaysia.

What is your role in all this?
For me, I am researching the industry’s response and policy, submitting the report to the council. I also write brief news for a monthly magazine called Korean Cinema Today, published by KOFIC. Overseas correspondents report such news related to the film industry in their own countries.

Can you give an example of the kind of news we’re talking about here?
I wrote about the response of the Malaysian government towards Netflix, with regards to the digital tax. Previously, I reported on the film, ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’, a film released online on 21st May 2020, introducing its meaning and relation to Kadazandusun.

Overall, it’s a comprehensive approach to information and data collection.
I think it is very important to collect information about other countries through this correspondent system, and to consider good policies or information for further planning.

Coming back to the film discussion, as we are a film website, you’ve been in Malaysia for a while now. During our conversations in the lockdown period, you mentioned watching a number of Malaysian films. Which films are these, and what are some of your thoughts about them?
I subscribe Netflix, therefore I watched a number of films produced in Malaysia. Recently, I watched ‘Pulang’, ‘Crossroads: One Two Jaga’, ‘Jagat’ and ‘Ghost Bride’, though that one is not actually a film. I also watched ‘The Malay Regiment’, and yesterday I saw Yasmin Ahmad’s ‘Chocolate’.

We always have time for a little bit of ‘Chocolate’. How would you work these into your correspondent work?
After I watch a Malaysian film, I would write about its plot, and the cultural elements featured in the movie. For example, after watching ‘Pulang’, I wrote an article about Japanese occupation, the Malay club in Liverpool, Chinese Malaysians and Kartina Dahari; after seeing ‘Crossroads: One Two Jaga’, I researched on illegal labour in Malaysia and bribery.

How useful were these films in informing you about Malaysia culture and society?
To begin with, I had very little knowledge of Malaysian films. However, I can say that these films were really great, at the very least in giving me a heart-warming lesson and making me cry!

Why?
They have their own message to the audience. For example, ‘Pulang’ is about our ancestor’s sacrifice for family and love. And ‘One Two Jaga’ is giving us a message about how we need to handle issues of foreign labour and their difficulties. At least, I think these films are not only entertainment for nothing.

Looking at the bigger picture, what are your thoughts on Malaysian cinema?
I think Malaysian cinema does not have enough spaces for independent or art films. In Korea, there are many cinemas releasing only independent films, and it is a popular place for young people, including film students and those in their 20s who like art or for Instagram because it looks cool! Having said that, I know that Kuala Lumpur and Penang have their own art spaces and Sunday markets and such, which look cool and attracts young people or foreigners. I hope there is a growing Malaysian cinema for independent film or art film.

You mention writing regular reports about Malaysian cinema for KOFICE and KOFIC. In addition to the above, what other insights can you share with us?
I recently wrote about the 2019 Malaysian film industry report, including the number of cinemas, the Korean films released in them, the box office in 2018, the exportation of films, and the over-the-top (OTT) media service industry. For instance, I covered the impact of ‘Parasite’ in Malaysia, including how Malaysian newspapers would write about it, the number of cinemas its released in, and the marketing strategy facilitated by GSC, the film’s distributor. As mentioned previously, I am now preparing a report about the Malaysian film industry in the COVID-19 era.

Of course, you’d be far more familiar with Korean cinema, I would imagine. As a whole, its profile has increased over the past few years. I have some ideas, but from your perspective, if you can name just one factor or reason for this, which would it be and why?
I can say that Korean film has great empathy and sympathy from its audiences. As you pointed out in our last interview, when Korea has a gender issue, the film ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ is released. We Koreans also know about the increasing gap between the rich and poor, class differences and economic inequality. Therefore, we can all sympathise and empathise with the characters in ‘Parasite’.

What does that look like?
We would discuss current situations and how we thought about scenes in films, which makes the audience active. There are films about corruptions of politics, North Korea, murder incidents and disasters which happened in Korea. I think film industry allowing its filmmakers to handle current issues is one of the factors that promotes Korean films.

On an industrial level, what can Malaysia look to implement from the Korean context?
Korean cinema collects monthly film information about the number of audience (such as year-on-year, or month-on-month), box office details, reasons why certain film was ranked, and a similar rank on film distributor and industry. Therefore, every month and year, there is a collection of film information, and it can be reflected in policies and strategies on film industry.

Yes, such details in Malaysia can be scant, at least on a public level.
It is rare. When I searched for the number of audience for ‘Parasite’ in Malaysia, I could not collect information for it. Therefore, I needed to call to a Singaporean film company. I also called FINAS several times, and sent email. However, whenever I called, different persons answered, and did not send a single reply for my request. So, I think in terms of research and collection of information, Malaysia could learn from Korea.

At the same time, exchange is a two-way street: what can Korea learn from Malaysia when it comes to filmmaking?
I think Korea filmmaking can learn how Malaysia works with diversity. The K-Pop industry, for instance, would make a team with foreign nationals featuring Japanese, Thai and Chinese talents, which can be useful for their international market.

I must say that Korean films and cultural diversity are not two terms I would commonly associate.
In Korea, I think it is at an early stage, in terms of working with foreign cast or crew members. As you also mentioned last time, Malaysia successfully collaborate with other countries in the region, with distribution and production links to Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. Also, there were collaborations with China as well. I think this diversity can be learnt from Malaysia. To that end, KOFIC is preparing to set up a joint organisation with ASEAN, which is the ASEAN-Republic of Kore Film Organisation (ARFO), so let’s see what happens.

Seems like a good starting point, but this is where we end the interview. Thank you very much for your time, Sungah!
You’re welcome.

Follow Sungah on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her reports on films in Malaysia. Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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