Infernal Affairs poster image (Images courtesy of Tartan Films)

Dark Water poster image

Oldboy postcard

Umbrella with Battle Royale emblem

Battle Royale T-shirt design

A Tale of Two Sisters poster

Vengeance Trilogy deluxe boxset



Art of branding:
Tartan "Asia Extreme" films

by Chi-Yun Shin

"Asia Extreme" is the first distribution label created to specifically deal with East Asian film titles by Tartan Films, which operated as Metro-Tartan Distribution between 1992 and 2003, before reverting back to the name Tartan Films.[1][open endnotes in new window]  Launched in 2001 as the first of its kind, Tartan Asia Extreme has successfully released a number of titles which, to name just a few, include

  • Japanese films such as Ring/Ringu (1998), Audition (1999), and Battle Royale (2000);
  • South Korean films – The Isle (2000), Old Boy (2003) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003);
  • Hong Kong films from Hard-Boiled (1992) to the Infernal Affairs series (2002-4)
  • as well as the films from Thailand – Bangkok Dangerous (1999), The Eye (2002).
    [See Appendix I for the details of the films cited.]  

Now with an extensive and ever growing DVD catalogue, which includes the pan-Asian horror omnibus films, Three … Extremes (2004) and Three Extremes 2, Tartan Asia Extreme has emerged as the most high-profile label amongst the East Asian film providers, playing an instrumental role in promoting and disseminating East Asian films in the West in recent years.  It has also launched an U.S. distribution of many of the same titles, although a significant number of the best-known titles are distributed by other firms in North America. [See Appendix II for the list of titles.

Hamish McAlpine, who is the founder and owner of Tartan Films, is in fact responsible for the creation of the Asia Extreme label.  The story goes that one weekend at the end of 1999, McAlpine watched two Japanese films on video, and he was “totally blown away by them.”  The two films he watched back to back that weekend were Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Takashi Miike’s Audition.  Soon after, he came across Thai and South Korean titles – Bangkok Dangerous and Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-Se, 1999), which were also “outrageously shocking” to him.  In an interview, McAlpine emphasised the fact that the films came first:

“When I realised that these films were not one-offs and there was a constant flow of brilliant films coming out of Asia, I decided to brand it and make Asia Extreme.”[2] 

And, that’s how the label was born.  Since then, as the Tartan Asia Extreme website boasts,

“Asia Extreme has been single-handedly responsible for the groundswell of interest in Asian cinema and the widespread attention that its roster of World class directors, such as Hideo Nakata, Miike Takashi, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook, have enjoyed.”[3] 

It is important to note here that region-free or multi-region DVD players and the proliferation of international mail-order websites (Internet DVD shops) since the end of the 1990s had enabled Asian film fans to purchase titles from abroad.[4]  What the Tartan Asia Extreme has achieved, however, is successfully infiltrating into the minds of mainstream audience and shelves of high street shops (such as HMV in Britain) as well as Internet shopping sites such as Amazon and Play.com. 

Starting off as a cult phenomenon, targeting the cult "fan-boys" but soon incorporating the art-house audiences (or world cinema patrons) to its niche, the Tartan Asia Extreme label has established itself as an immediately recognisable brand.[5]  Subsequently, as McAlpine himself described, with the Asia Extreme label, Tartan

“found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow [by identifying] ‘the next big thing’ ahead of your competitors and becoming the early dominant provider.”[6] 

Recent high profile Hollywood remakes of such East Asian titles as Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimuzu, 2002), Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002) and Infernal Affairs (the remake of which was directed by Martin Scorsese and re-titled as Departed, the film winning the best film award at the 2007 Oscar), as well as Quentin Tarantino’s reported support and endorsement of OldBoy at the 2004 Cannes Film festival (where the film won the second prize, Grand Prix du Jury), only raised the interest in, and the profile of, East Asian cinema and the size of "the pot of gold" McAlpine had discovered. 

Indeed, it is commendable that Tartan Asia Extreme has carved a viable East Asian film niche, at the same time establishing its name in the industry where distribution labels do not normally make much impact in the market place.  Questions, however, are raised as to the reductive nature of Tartan’s marketing practices, which repackages the films “as exotic and dangerous cinematic thrills.”[7]  In addition, the output of the label, and indeed the name of the label itself, invoke and in part rely on the western audiences’ perception of the East as weird and wonderful, sublime and grotesque.  At the same time, the ways in which Tartan registers and navigates the vagaries of distinct national cultures and different genres gathered under the Asia Extreme banner provide a fascinating site to explore how the West consumes East Asian cinema. 

In order to illustrate how the so-called Asia Extreme films are presented, this article will examine Tartan’s marketing strategies for the Asia Extreme brand, especially its horror titles, not only because they have become the most prominent and leading examples of the label, but also because the rise of Asia Extreme coincided with the phenomenal success of "Asian horror" with branches such as "J-Horror" and "K-Horror," which have been celebrated as the most original and innovative horror movies of the last decade.  (The notion of horror or what constitutes horror, however, is not the main concern here, but horror films here broadly refer to films that evoke fright, terror and abjection from viewers.)  Needless to say, different audiences understand films in different ways, but as Mark Jancovich pointed out,

“Advertising campaigns were designed in part to present a range of possible ways of reading films.”[8] 

The article will also engage with the critical reception of the most "notorious" Asia Extreme titles – Audition, The Isle and Oldboy — in the U.K. and the U.S. so as to understand the different discourses through which the Asia Extreme films are evaluated and mediated. 

Marketing the affect

The Tartan Asia Extreme label was initially promoted through various "traditional" marketing practices, including radio and television slots, postcards (Fig. 3) and posters as well as what the industry calls "teaser campaign" by revealing just enough information about a film (mostly in film and life-style magazines) to intrigue the potential audiences.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for the "extreme" label, what is emphasised and promoted in Tartan’s advertising campaigns is the visceral and hyper violent nature as well as the shocking and unexpected aspect of the films, as its widely used promotional material declares:

“If the weird, the wonderful and the dangerous is your thing, then you really don’t want to miss this chance to take a walk on the wild side.” 

Similarly, explaining its raison d’être in the introduction to the promotional booklet, The Tartan Guide to Asia Extreme, Mark Pilkington contends,

“When Nakata Hideo’s Ring and Miike Takashi’s Audition were unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences nationwide, it became apparent that the appetite for such outrageous fare was massive and it made sense to let people know where to find it.”[9] 

In addition to the more traditional methods listed above, Tartan created novelty merchandises such as the syringe shaped pen created for Audition and Battle Royale umbrella (Fig. 4) and t-shirts (Fig. 5) to entice particularly younger audiences, who are their main target audience.  Indeed, McAlpine may well have borrowed the term "extreme" from extreme sports, which is also an "invented" term to refer to certain activities such as skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX racing that are associated with youth subculture and inducing an adrenaline rush in participants, even though they are not necessarily more inherently dangerous or generate more adrenalin compared to "conventional" sports.[10]  From 2003 to 2005, Tartan also organised an annual "Asia Extreme Roadshow," which toured then UGC cinemas (now Cineworld Cinemas) around the U.K. with the programme of films that Tartan considers to be the most daring examples of "extreme cinema."  Notably, the roadshows were set in multiplex cinemas, not in art-house cinemas, which have been the traditional outlets for foreign language films in the U.K.  Such "mainstream" positioning of the films was clearly aimed to reach out to the younger audiences who frequent multiplex rather than art-house cinemas. 

Following the success of the first roadshow in 2003, Tartan obtained sponsorship from the Singaporean beer brand, Tiger Beer and the Japanese fashion label, Evisu for the 2004 roadshow.  Keeping the association with the young and cool, for the 2005 roadshow, Tartan teamed up again with Tiger Beer and Cineworld cinemas as well as their new sponsor Sony PSP (games console).  In line with the roadshows, Tartan also set up competitions to win a trip to Japan and Singapore in 2004 and 2005 respectively.  While the roadshows showcased the selection of films that can take the audience to “a world of extreme adventure, extreme horror and extreme thrills,” the competitions provided a chance to go on a real adventure.[11]  To win a trip to Singapore, all you needed to do was to visit one of the bars that were running the promotion and get hold of a Tiger Beer Tartan Asia Extreme scratch card!  Again, these promotional competitions, which were linked with their sponsors such as Asia House in London and other tourist boards whose interests were to enhance and educate the Asian culture, were high profile events and clearly aimed to attract young people who would frequent the trendy bars (rather than more traditional pubs).

Tartan utilised the roadshow when it expanded its territory by launching a U.S. branch in 2004, which, according to McAlpine, “was very, very logical extension” as

“there was a whole niche that was being ignored by [distributors] in America.”[12] 

The 2003 Asia Extreme festival pass poster

Tartan USA employed the same marketing campaigns: stand alone theatrical releases for stronger titles (such as Oldboy) and a roadshow/cinema tie-in across several major cities in the US.  Again, Tiger Beer was the main sponsor for the roadshow in the US.  Initial reactions to the theatrical releases were reportedly lukewarm, but the DVD sales of the Asia Extreme titles started to increase, particularly after the DVD release of the South Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters.  McAlpine explained that it took a while to persuade video retailers that Asia Extreme

“isn’t just some weird niche market … but A Tale of Two Sisters changed everything, and now retailers are grabbing [the films] with both hands.”

Tartan DVD box designs, which utilise striking images from the films, have been very successful in raising the profile of the label in the U.K., and the U.S. box cover designs clearly aim to achieve a similar effect.  It is interesting though to note that some of the U.S. DVD box designs retain no resemblance to the U.K. equivalents on the basis that they are operating in the different market.  In addition, there are some disparities between the U.K. and U.S. catalogues.  For instance, while the so-called Asia Extreme territories have expanded to include horror titles from Singapore – The Maid (Kelvin Tong, 2005) and Taiwan – The Heirloom (Leste Chen, 2005), the American arm has not released titles such as Audition and Battle Royale, the films that helped to establish the extreme label in the U.K.  The disparity is mainly to do with the fact that other distributors had acquired certain titles already, but it is also related to the fact that U.S. distributors tend to be more nervous and cautious about the possible legal problems in case of copycat incidents of any violence depicted in films.[13]  This however proved to be pertinent to Tartan Films, as I will discuss later. 

Oldboy U.K. and U.S. DVD covers
Another Public Enemy U.K. and U.S. DVD covers

Having established its brand image and profile through the Asia Extreme roadshows, Tartan is now concentrating on the home entertainment side of the business in the U.K., the revenues from which can be much more lucrative than those from theatrical releases.  Moreover, the theatrical release in general is getting harder to achieve as more and more films are competing for the limited number of screens that are reserved for non-Hollywood products.  In any case, according to Tartan’s Press and PR Manager, Paul Smith, Asia Extreme titles have always been stronger as DVD rather than theatrical releases.  In 2006, half of Tartan’s top 20 titles in terms of revenue were Asia Extreme titles, Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy leading the list.[14] 

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