Showing posts with label jeong jae-yeong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jeong jae-yeong. Show all posts

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Naega Salinbeomida) 2012

The sound of torrential rain beating down during a pitch black night can be heard along with the heavy footfalls of boots stamping on the wet ground. The atmosphere is pregnant with a sense of unease; menace and frustration linger in the air. A weary and despondent detective chases after a despicable man: a monster with the blood of young women on his hands. But the lawman’s pursuit will prove fruitless, as this faceless ghost will vanish into thin air and into the forgotten recesses of history.

Such a passage could easily describe any number of narratives that have cropped up in all kinds of mediums across the world. As far as Korean cinema is concerned, it quickly brings to mind a handful of powerful works whose import cannot be dismissed in any serious consideration of the nation’s cinematic output. Chief among them is Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), a transcendent genre piece that captured the anxiety and trauma of an entire nation and which is for many, including myself, the single greatest work that the country has ever produced. Another would be Na Hong-jin’s blistering The Chaser (2008), which deliberately trampled over every generic convention it could find and forged a new direction for one of the world’s most dynamic film industries in the process.

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.

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 (GMT+1).

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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Countdown (카운트다운, 2011) and the Rise and Fall of the Korean Star System

Around the same time that South Korea emerged as a global economic force in the early 1990s as it went about the process of shaking off the gloom from decades of authoritarian oppression, the film industry began to see a lot of changes.  Large corporations began to fund some projects and film production rapidly modernized.  The quality and budgets of films rose.  Another aspect of the industry that began to take shape was the star system.  Given the low market share of Korean films at that point, there weren’t many household names in the local film industry since the larger public would not have been aware of the films much less the stars.  As the 1990s progressed however, a few names became known to local film viewers.  Park Joon-hoon and Han Suk-kyu were some of the first major Korean stars.  To this day they are still popular draws at the box office but then again the rebirth of the industry didn’t happen that long ago.

In the late 1990s, when the domestic film market exploded, the star system blew up along with it.  Very quickly, talent and management agencies began to hoard and commodify promising talent, employing strategies pioneered by the Hollywood star system and its domineering power brokers in the talent management sector.  Soon the hallyu phenomenon added to this escalation of the importance of above the line talent and it was at this point that things began to spiral out of control.  Budgets for Korean films were quite low but agents had driven up the prices of top talent so production costs for the industry began to soar.  Filmmakers were not happy with the direction that the industry was taking but the grip that these agencies held over the entertainment industry proved very strong.

Around the peak of the Korean film industry’s dominance of the box office in the middle of the last decade there began to be a change in star power.  Up until then recognizable actors had proven big draws for audiences but there appeal was starting to diminish.  As the industry saw a dramatic fall in 2007 there was a shift in how projects were designed.  Budgets were too high and had to be slashed, and since top actors weren’t backing up their hefty fees with solid return on investment there weren’t deemed as essential as once was the case.

At the present time even more consternation has been expressed over the bankability of big stars.  Last year there were a number of big flops, some, like Sector 7 and My Way, were huge blockbusters that generated little interest but there were a number of mid-level productions, more modest in their ambition, which were mainly relying on the recognizability of their main stars.  One of these was Hindsight, starring Song Kang-ho, another was Countdown, which featured the promising pairing of Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeon Do-yeon.

Jeong Jae-yeong is the king of deadpan, I dare you to watch Going By the Book (2007), in which he expresses not a single emotion, without falling off your seat laughing.  Over the years he has amassed an impressive array of credits, which have included many recalcitrant gangsters and stoic antiheroes.  In time he has developed into one of Korea’s most dependable leading men and of late has moved audiences to laughter and tears with award-winning roles in Castaway on the Moon (2009) and Moss (2010).

Jeon Do-yeon may very well be the most versatile actress in Korea.  Starting off in TV, she got her start in movies with the successful romance films The Contact (1997) and A Promise (1998) before moving onto different roles such as a gangster’s girlfriend in Ryoo Seung-wan’s No Blood No Tears (2002) and a diffident mother in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) for which she won Best Actress at Cannes.

In Countdown, Jeong plays Gun-ho, an efficient and stoic debt collector who discovers that he has liver cancer.  Five years ago his son died and his organs were donated to a number of people whom Gun-ho now approaches in the hopes of getting a liver transplant.  One of these beneficiaries is Ha-yeon, a con artist who is currently in jail.  She is about to be released and agrees to the operation on the condition that he finds someone for her, the man responsible for her incarceration.

The film boasts a terrific opening but it doesn’t take long for the melodrama signals to turn on.  The death of Jeong’s character’s son, who was afflicted with Down Syndrome, weighs heavily on him.  So much so that the memory of the loss has been suppressed by some sort of ‘han’-induced amnesia.  It should also be mentioned that his parents are disabled.  All this comes within the first 10 minutes.

Sadly, Jeong’s deadpan demeanor in Countdown comes off as glum and a little sleepy while Jeon admirably throws herself into a role that is underwritten and scarcely worthy of her talent.  It’s rather unfortunate that this is the case, especially since the film started out so well.  The problem with the film is that despite all its promise it is critically lacking in originality.  The set pieces are for the most part banal or rehashed car chases and standoffs.  The photography is competent but the editing sometimes leaves much to be desired.

The film is not as witty as it attempts to be and as a result it is far too dry and glum to ever be funny.  The local overcast weather is a also detriment in this film which by all rights should be colorful and exuberant, they should have played with lighting, locations and wardrobe more to counteract this.  It’s a sad state of affairs when the most interesting location is a Lotte department store.

Another issue is that the weight of inevitability looms over the narrative as we are just waiting for the backstory, the seeds of which have already been planted in the opening minutes, to kick in and hijack the narrative.  It’s a long time coming and though it is predictably melancholy and cloying, thankfully it works rather well.  This is due in large part to Jeong, who is afforded the opportunity to add more depth to his character and performance in these final stages.

At the end of the day, Countdown is a mediocre film with a humdrum narrative which happens to feature two big stars.  It’s like a song that thinks it’s cool and savvy, replete with self-assured lo-fi beats and interspersed instrumental bursts, but is really just elevator music.  I am a big fan of both Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeon Do-yeon but now I will need to count down until they both return in better films.


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 (GMT+1).

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.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

G-Love (글러브, Geu-leo-beu) 2011

The team

Kang Woo-suk is a big name in Korean cinema.  He is the director behind the Two Cops (1993-98) and Public Enemy (2002-08) trilogies and helmed the blockbusters Silmido (2003) and Hanbando (2005), as well last year’s big mystery film Moss.  He’s been around for a long time and has had a big hand in shaping the industry as it stands today.  In the 1990s he formed Cinema Service, which is now one of the country’s top film producers.  Like a more prolific Kang Je-gyu, Kang specializes in blockbusters and doesn’t seem to know how not to make an event picture.  Earlier this year however, his new film GLove was released.  A baseball pic with a big star (Jeong Jae-yeong) and a rather modest concept by Kang’s standards.

GLove does feature a number of typical Kang features:  a male-centric narrative populated by his regulars, such as Jeong and Kang Shin-il; an ambiguous protagonist who has fallen from grace; a lack of subtlety; and a very long running time (144 minutes).  If it sounds like I’m criticizing him I will admit that I find Kang to be a very limited director though what he does, with his big, bombastic style, he does quite well and Public Enemy (one of the first Korean films I ever saw) still stands as one of my favorites.  That said, in this new territory, Kang seems a little out of his depth.  He recognizes the codes of the sports film and uses them to his advantage, the mise-en-scene is typically strong though not par with his other films, especially the sumptuously filmed Moss (2010).  What Kang does struggle with is the saccharine melodrama, he doesn’t do a bad job but he is not subtle in his approach, not that many Korean filmmakers are, but it’s clear that it’s not his area of expertise.

The star and his agent: Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) and Charles (Jo Jin-woong)

To begin with the concept is terribly cloying.  Baseball superstar Kim Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) falls from grace and is suspended, in order to rebuild his image his agent Charles (Jo Jin-woong) suggests that he start teaching baseball at a school for the hearing-impaired.  Stubborn, moody, and resistant at first he soon starts to take a shine to the kids and begins to shapes these diamonds in the rough with the help of teachers Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon).

From the outset there is little doubt as to what you will be subjected to:  the bullying of deaf children; group crying; the melting of cold hearts; redemption; etc.  On these counts the film does not disappoint.  Korean cinema is rife with mute or deaf characters harboring or enduring traumas without the ability to express them.  I briefly wrote about these protagonists in my review for last year’s Poongsan and it occurs to me now that they are also an ideal cinematic representations of ‘han’, which I discussed vis-à-vis mothers in my piece on Mama (2011) earlier this week.  Of course normally we only have to deal with one of these characters in Korean films but with GLove we get a whole school of them, which of course comes with a whole lot of baggage.  It’s nearly as though the depiction of the hearing-impaired built to a crescendo in 2011, ending of course with the worldwide media frenzy surrounding Silenced, which resulted in new laws being passed in Korea.

The teachers:  Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon)

Sadly GLove is not as interesting as it could be, which is no surprise.  It’s most like A Barefoot Dream, Korea’s 2010 selection for the Oscars, which was a strong feature but also bogged down by saccharine melodrama.  The strongest aspect of the film is Jeong Jae-yeong’s performance whom I think is one of the best actors in Korea.  Primarily identified as a bad guy or a comedian, Jeong has shown great range in the last few years and turned in some of the best performances in Korean cinema.  His deadpan comedy was the anchor of Someone Special (2004) and Going By the Book (2007), while his vulnerability was aching in Castaway on the Moon (2009), and he rightly won a Grand Bell award for his menacing performance in last year’s Moss.  His turn in GLove is not on the level of the previous films but he plays the arrogant, stubborn, and stoic baseball star to a tee and as always he’s very funny.  Special mention should go to Jo Jin-woon who plays his hard-working agent.  Jo, who has been in Gangster High (2006), A Frozen Flower (2008), and The Front Line (2011), had never impressed me before but now I can see why he appears in so many films.  He balances the good-natured and frustrated elements of the character very well, and his chemistry with Jeong is excellent.

Besides a few strong performances, GLove was a disappointment but it was a strong, confident production.  It’s just too long, not particularly engaging, and very predictable.  I like to see directors trying something new but maybe Kang should stick to what he’s good at, I’m not sure how versatile he is.  I do enjoy baseball films though and still have two Korean ones to watch from 2011, FightingSpirit and Perfect Game, I hope at least one can bring it home.


Enthusiastic coaching

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 (GMT+1).

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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Quiz Show Scandal (Kwijeu Wang) 2010

At first, I wasn’t too exited about The Quiz Show Scandal despite the fact that it is a recent effort from one of my favorite Korean filmmakers. There has been very little buzz surrounding it, which is strange for a Jang Jin film. I cannot express my delight as the film unspooled and grabbed me from the opening minutes. It is a wonderful ensemble piece stuffed with sparkling dialogue and surely one of the funniest Korean films of the last few years.

The Quiz Show
It is often the case that while Korean thrillers, horrors, and certain romance films make the leap into foreign territories, comedies have a little more trouble accomplishing this. There are certainly some films with elements of humor that have crossed over, such as Save the Green Planet (2003) and The Host (2006) but few outright comedies have managed this feat. The obvious reason for this is a language barrier or a cultural gap. You can’t really laugh at a joke on a subject of which you know nothing about. Korean comedies often suffer from this, at least from a foreigner’s perspective. Those comedies that can be understood by westerners are often simplistic and not always the most shining examples of the genre, the Marrying the Mafia and My Wife Is a Gangster series come to mind. 

The more sophisticated the comedy the more likely it is to go over our heads. Jang Jin’s films have definitely suffered from this from time to time due to the fact that he has such a keen wit and is so articulate. He has both those things in spades, but in Korean, which means that some elements may fall by the wayside. But every so often there is a film that breaks through that is both intelligent and jaw-droppingly hilarious. Lee Hae-joon did it with Castaway on the Moon (2009), Jang Jin did it with his script for Going By the Book (2007) and he’s now done it again with The Quiz Show Scandal.

Jeong Jae-yeong in a great cameo
Like in his previous films, his ever-inventive scripts are brought to life by the excellent ensemble casts he surrounds himself with. Ryoo Seung-yong, Kim Soo-ro, Song Yeong-chang, Kim Byeong-ok, Lee Moon-so, and Im Won-hee are only some of standouts in the stellar cast, which is supplemented by uproarious cameos from Shin Ha-gyun and Jeong Jae-yeong as well as Jang himself.

While it may not have the political rhetoric of Good Morning President (2009), the North-South rapprochement themes of Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), the criticism of the media of Murder, Take One (2005) or the indictment of authority of Going By the Book, The Quiz Show Scandal uses a clever premise and razor-sharp dialogue as it light-heartedly explores what it means to be intelligent.

After a few opening scenes which loosely give us an idea of the characters that populate the mosaic script, they are all thrown together into a police station for the better part of 30 minutes of screen time. A woman has been run over and they are all somehow involved but they don’t know eachother yet. Most of this extended sequence does absolutely nothing to advance the narrative but it brilliantly shows us who these characters are. Suddenly we are given a piece of information, the woman’s USB stick features the answer to the 30th and final question of a very difficult TV quiz show, no one has answered it before and the rolling jackpot is enormous. All our variegated protagonists need to do is get to that 30th question. What follows isn’t surprising but due to its dialogue and characters, it feels like a much more substantial film than it ought to.

Arguing over toy cars
The comedy is truly top notch and I think that anyone could appreciate it. Some gems include the banner to a depression group that reads “We’re not depressed, we’re just less exited than everyone else”, and the pedantic argument that stems from which model of toy car the characters are being represented with as the police try to reconstruct the scene of the accident at the precinct. Another great bit in the opening scenes, which could only come from the mind of Jang Jin is when a pair of gangsters, who are torturing and preparing to kill someone, argue about the provenance of a quote, which the first identifies as Pavarotti while the latter corrects him by pointing out that it was from Goethe’s Faust.

Without spoiling anything else I would urge you to immediately seek out this wonderful film, it is definitely one of Jang’s best.

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 (GMT+1).

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.