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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fribourg Intl. Film Festival: Huh Jong-ho Interview

Last Friday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with Huh Jong-ho, the director of Countdown, which was screening in the main competition of the festival.  His film was awarded the FIPRESCI award during Saturday's closing ceremony.

Born in 1975, Huh is a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts and was an assistant director on Park Kwang-su's Meet Mr. Daddy (2007) prior to making Countdown, which is his debut film.

We covered a range of topics in our long discussion, including film schools, first time directors in Korea, the future of the industry, plans for his next project and much more.

I would like to thank Director Huh and his translator Kyung Roh Brannwart for their time, as well as Gunnar Gilden, the Press contact for the FIFF for setting up the interview.


Was it your choice to cast Jeong Jae-yeon and Jeon Do-yeon?  And if so, why did you cast them?

It’s really difficult to work with big stars.  As I was writing the scenario I already had these two actors in mind and after finishing it I worked with my producer to get in touch with them and luckily it worked out.  Jeong Jae-yeong, the main actor of the film, has had many roles, often playing soft characters.  The way I saw him as a director, I felt he had a very urban feel with a lot of solitude.  I was interested in him from the beginning and he was the first person to be cast in the film.

What was it like to work with them?

With Jeong Jae-yeong, at first the relationship was very professional but now we have become very good friends.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of Korean films from first time directors and often we don’t hear from them again.  Could you comment on why this happens so often?

As you know there are a few very famous directors who have met with success from critics but are also commercially successful.  This commercial success is a very important factor nowadays, a lot of young directors try to make something great and successful but it has become difficult to meet both of these demands.

With first time directors, is it true that there is an element of control from the studio, where they may not be completely free to pursue the project the way they want to?

Luckily, in my case I was afforded the freedom to do what I wanted to do.  The studios have adopted the system of Hollywood, where the producers are very much involved from the writing itself to the filming where they make comments after each first shot.  So it’s very controlled.  But it’s not just the producers, the investors have a lot of say too.

With Countdown we were very lucky to have a very well known producer, Oh Jung-wan, who has worked a lot with Kim Jee-woon.  He has also worked on many other big films, like E. J. Yong’s Untold Scandal (2003).

South Korea has an extraordinary film school system that has done much to bring the industry to a very high technical level.  As a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) how do you view the role of these institutions in the industry?

I was very much influenced by my school especially since while I was there, the equipment we used was actually better than that used in the industry.  The ex-president of the school saw Jurassic Park (1993) and then realized that movies have much greater commercial potential than say, selling a car.  So he created the school and made a lot of investments to improve it and made sure it was stocked with the very best equipment.  While I was there I made short films and had access to the best possible equipment for editing and sound.  After I left I didn’t feel that there was much of a gap with what was being used in the industry.  It was an easy transition.

On the subject of K’Arts, your first big job in the industry was as an assistance director for Park Kwang-su’s Meet Mr. Daddy (2007).  Was he your teacher in K’Arts and is that how you got involved in the project?

That’s true, during my last year at the school he was a professor.  Lee Chang-dong was also an assistant director for Park back in the 1990s and after I graduated he became a professor at the school.

After having him as a teacher, what was it like to work for him on set?

It is impossible to theoretically learn how to make a movie so while I was in school I would take my camera, go out and film and I would then talk with professor Park.  Later, as I worked for him, it was great to witness how he works on his own projects.

What are your influences as a filmmaker and which ones did you draw on for Countdown?

I couldn’t find many references for my film as the main character isn’t really a good person and he undergoes a transformation at the end.  I wasn’t able to find a textbook example of this.  But I’m sure that the many Hollywood, Japanese and French films, especially crime ones that I’ve seen have influenced me and can be seen on screen.

Some Western spectators have had trouble with the end of Countdown, namely the melodramatic conclusion that brings to light the backstory of Jeong Jae-yeong’s character.  There are also many other recent Korean films that are similarly constructed.  Could you comment on this phenomenon?

I understand and agree that there are many films that have this melodramatic aspect that is commercially motivated.  But for me the initial inspiration was the ending of the movie, the relationship between the man and the son.  At first the movie wasn’t called Countdown, its initial title was ‘My Son.’  For the beginning of the movie I adopted the action and crime genres as a way to tell the story. 

That’s very interesting, personally my favorite part of the film was the end.  So is there an element, and I'm not necessarily talking about your film, that studios like to throw in melodrama to attract audiences?

In my case it was different, as the studio had already agreed to the initial idea before the script was even written.  The car chases and various actions scenes actually account for very little screen time in the film and they were low budget and thankfully effective.  The studio was surprised to have these scenes added and in any case as a director I am interested in these genres so the film became a bigger project.

In other cases though, as you say, I’m quite sure the studio is very interested in adding these elements.

I was very happy to hear you mention during your film’s introduction at last night’s screening that you are working on a second film.  Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Even last night and when I was making my first movie I realized that there is a complication when different genres are mixed up.  For my second movie I want to be more straightforward and focus on one genre.  The film does not have an official English title yet but its literal name is Happy Country.  It’s set during 1979 and based on the events surrounding the assassination of the Korean president Park Chung-hee by his chief of intelligence.  The main character is not going to be one of the people responsible for the assassination but one of their lawyers who has completely different political convictions but defends his client nonetheless.

That’s very interesting, as there have been a number of successful courtroom films coming out of Korea recently, including Unbowed (2012) and The Client (2011).  Park Chung-hee’s assassination has already been captured in the famous Im Sang-soo film The President’s Last Bang (2005), how will your film compare to that?

Im Sang-soo’s film is more of a black comedy whereas with my point-of-view I’m trying to give an honest account of the characters involved, it will be more dramatic.

The Korean film industry, in its modern incarnation, is still quite young and undergoes constant change.  What do you think the next few years have in store for the business?

It’s true that we had a big setback between 2006 and 2009, less movies were made during that period.  Now it’s coming back again and a lot more movies are being made.  I think that the investment companies have settled down now, before it was a little shakier but it has become more solid.

Before we used to call the film industry ‘yeonghwa pan’ which means it’s a small place where we used to know everyone.  But now there are a lot more people working on different projects.  We even have a big Chinese market and some projects are specifically made for that country.  So commercially we are stronger and I think things will continue that way.  Although with this increasing industrialization we may run a risk of losing the special character of the Korean film industry.  What investors want is for the Korean film industry to become the Asian Hollywood so there is a bit of a danger.

CJ Entertainment is such a huge company and sometimes it seems like their trying to take over the entire world.

Now we don’t always film with 35mm as there are a lot of digital movies and as a result it has become possible to produce movies with very low budgets.  Because of this the contrast has also become quite big.  There are the big budget movies made by CJ but at the same time there are a lot of smaller independent films.  Sadly there is nothing in between.

Yes and that’s a bit of worry.  Although a lot of these smaller films are also being funded by bigger companies.  For instance the Korean Academy of Film Arts’ (KAFA) student features are all partly funded by CJ.

It’s a bit like a big supermarket trying to control everything!

I actually have a question from one of our readers.  Lauren, an English teacher currently based near Busan, wants to know what your favorite Kimchi is!

Kimchi? (laughs)  My favorite is baechu, this is the most common type of kimchi.

Finally, could you please tell us what some of your favorite Korean films are?

I really appreciate Lee Chang-dong’s older movies, especially his humanity which is really profound, not to mention his research.  Whenever I watch his movies I think ‘I’m going to do the opposite, I’m going to make a commercial movie!’ 

Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

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