Thursday, September 6, 2012

Interview: 'Blood Fight in Iron-Rock Valley' Director Ji Ha-jean

An in-depth interview with Ji Ha-jean, the up-and-coming director behind the award-winning low-budget western Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley (2011), last year's PiFan winner for Best Asian Genre Film.

Interpreted by Kim Nemo

Bloody Fight references many classic westerns. What drew you to this genre in the first place?

The two most important references were Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and the second in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, A Few Dollars More (1965). Inside the film there are thousands of other references, such as Shane (1953), The Man From Laramie (1955) and Robert Aldrich’s Apache (1954).

What were your hopes as you embarked on making a Korean western?

I produced the film as well as directing it and even by independent film standards it had an extremely low budget ($40,000). Filmmakers with that kind of budget usually try to make experimental or dramatic films but I’m a real fan of the western genre and another aim of mine is to become a commercial film director. So I was wondering how I might be able to combine these two aims.

One big advantage of the western genre is that there aren’t actually that many fight scenes. It’s a journey towards the ultimate showdown at the end so I felt that it would be possible to make it with a low budget. Another reason is that, on a personal level, I have a different perspective on the Korean versions of the thriller and action genres and I wanted to explore my own views on both.

Your antagonist has been compared, both for his performance and his physiognomy, to western stalwart Charles Bronson. Was this a conscious decision in casting?

Totally deliberate! In addition to that the actor added a bit of his own personal style.

How hard was it to make a low-budget western?

I was not in a position to secure the proper amount of money nor make the set I wanted for the film so it was really important to get the right locations. That became key to the whole project so once I found these, the next task was to get the right kind of actors to fit into the film. These were the crucial elements, but the most important was to find the right locations.

One of Bloody Fight’s strongest assets was its magnificent photography. How careful were you to highlight this facet of the film and how did you achieve it within such a tight shooting schedule?

There were 25 days of shooting in total. The most difficult thing was that there was just the director of photography: no assistants, no team, just one man! His name is Ji Seung-woo and we’ve been friends since film school at the Korea National University of Arts (K'Arts). He works at MBC (a Korea TV station) and he received some wedding vacation time for his honeymoon which he used this to make the film. His wife came and pulled focus for him. We knew that only one person could do the cinematography so we were looking for locations where we could shoot from many different angles instead of just one place. Half-demolished buildings, iron structure, that sort of thing. Extreme long shots were very important so locations that suited this were key. The topography of many of these locations was very interesting and this helped a lot.

Some of the best shots in the films were quite misty, were you lucky with weather or did you orchestrate this?

Either the weather would be like that or it was really bright, two extremes. It was a very deep valley and due to the climate of these locations we couldn’t really control the lighting. From morning to night, the mist was usually there. It was consistent and very helpful!

Almost a year has passed between Bloody Fight’s double win at the 15th PiFan and it’s eventual release in Korean theaters. Was there a particular reason for the long wait and how do you think it affected the film’s performance?

The biggest reason was that the version shown at PiFan was incomplete. We had to redo the sound and finish the color grading. It was my first feature so there were many touch-and-go situations, a lot of trial and error! I also did all of the post-production work myself. We had no marketing money and no clue how to go about the distribution process. At the end of last year we received some funding from KOFIC (Korean Film Council) and thanks to that we were able to get it released. Indiestory, our distributor, came on board at the beginning of this year.

How difficult was it to market your film?

It’s showing in cinemas right now but this is the toughest time of the year for theatrical releases, when we must compete with all of the blockbusters. For some reason many other independent films are being screened right now. So it is hard to make a big distinction between my film and The Dark Knight Rises. Persuading people as to the merits of my feature is the toughest part of marketing the film.

Are there plans for a DVD release?

There are definitely plans for a DVD release with English subtitles but no date is set. I’m hoping to add some of my short films to the disc.

How do you feel about Bloody Fight’s box office run to date?

Despicable! However, the production process was completely outside of the normal run of things so the fact that it secured any kind of release at all is significant. I’ve done my best, but the process has not been easy at all.

What advice would you have for other young filmmakers looking to get into the local independent film market?

After I graduated from K’Arts, I wasn’t making films for three years and I became quite nervous. I felt that my raison d’etre as a filmmaker was graedually disappearing. It was around this time that I read Robert Rodriguez’s book ’10-minute film school’. One thing it said was that as a filmmaker you shouldn't wait for the perfect circumstances. Just make your film in your current situation with the resources at your disposal. This is the best advice I’ve found and is what I would pass along to others.

What are your thoughts on the current state of independent cinema in Korea?

A few years ago there was this prediction within the Korean film industry that films with budgets over 1 billion won ($1 million) and those with budgets under 100 million won would survive while everything else would disappear. That didn’t quite come to pass but was almost a reality. With the advent of cheaper digital technology it has become much easier to make independent films, though not all of them have succeeded. Some independent films have been loved by many but it is true that independent films in Korea have fulfilled a bigger role than in other countries as they bring a new sense of energy into the industry.

If you want to see different kinds of films in Korea then you should be watching independent films because all the commercial films have become so formulaic. Almost all cinema goers have varied tastes but the issue stems from the distribution and marketing process. Many varied independent films are being made but there are hardly any chances for most of these to be shown. I feel the distribution and marketing side are in need of an overhaul. However, the very existence of these independent films makes the film scene much healthier than if there were only commercial features.

Given the recent uptick in sales for local fare, do you think an opening could present itself for low-budget features?

It's not just independent films but also mid-size commercial productions that are having a really tough time. Men in suits are making vital decisions regarding Korean cinema, it’s a big problem. The energy behind the success of Korean cinema comes from half-crazed filmmakers who are putting in their own resources and their own energy despite everything. They aren’t expecting the right kind of compensation for their efforts, and any profits wind up in the hands of the conglomerates. The prediction is that the men in suits are looking at China as the next big market and production location. Korean filmmakers are bracing themselves for this change. However, as long as there are all these half-crazed local filmmakers willing to work under harsh conditions, I don’t think that the Korean film scene will die.

What do you hope to make next?

My next film will be a horror: it’s a slasher film with commercial elements. The shorts I made before were horrors and the genre is very suitable for new directors. I think that it’s a good chance to show some evolution as a director following Bloody Fight. I’ve set up a production company called Spinach & Beans and aside from my own projects I will produce other films in the western and crime genre, as well some horror films. I have a fairly strong lineup and I’m looking to branch out and work with other directors but for the moment I will work on my own material. I’m preparing a lot of projects!

What is your favorite Korean film?

Quite difficult to answer! Maybe The President’s Last Bang (2005) because I like one-day narratives. It’s a very well-made historical comedy.

Many thanks to Ha-jean and Nemo for taking the time out of their busy schedules for this interview.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment