Ah, it's good to be back.
Just as a brief introduction, I had a short but intense stint here at ScreenAnarchy a couple of years ago, and while old regulars of the site (hi!) might remember me already, those who don't can head to the search engine and input "ridiculously long tomes punctuated by endless rambling" to find out what they can expect. What happened in Korea during the last two years? A new president was elected; cattle got mad; and, sad to hear, Chungmuro has turned into a producer of refrigerators for mass consumption disguised as movies. They're shiny, sexy, and you can even send e-mails to your dog through the center console. But they're almost all similar, devoid of passion and creativity. Our mission, should you decide to accept it, is to dig through that endless array of frozen creative fluids from the Land of the Morning Calm and Slightly Noisy Afternoon and bring you the non-smelly and particularly the good. Just for today only, the bad and weird as well. This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Unless you keep reading...
It was the Northeast Asian O.K. Corral, the place to be if you were into monumental fights between a choice selection of ever changing contestants. If El Paso Street had its Four Dead in Five Seconds, what we presently know as Manchuria was the theater of some of the most brutal, but also important transitional battles of the last few millennia. It was there that Korean history's first centralized kingdom, Gojoseon, enjoyed its golden age, and that the Xianbei flourished. And, in the following centuries, what is now a huge lot of land sandwiched in between North Korea, Russia, Mongolia and its current sovereign China became home for many civilizations. Think of the Goguryeo that scared shitless the Middle Kingdom until its last days in 668; think of its remnants and the Mohe tribes that got together and fought with the Tang Dynasty for their independence, eventually founding Balhae - Hey Mom! I saw that on 대조영 (Dae Jo Young)! Think of the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty, or the Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty; and of course think of the Manchus, who else? Think of the dark ages of Manchukuo, the puppet state created by Imperial Japan and former Qing Dynasty officials in 1932. There Koreans, Japanese, Russians, Manchu remnants, Mongols and many other ethnic minorities had to survive together. It was an interesting political jjambbong, especially if you were into history. Or... westerns?
Oh yes, westerns. Why not? When you say western, what will likely come to mind are the classic Howard Hawks/John Ford type, or the "you're smart enough to know that talking won't save you" spaghetti flavor, maybe with a few deliriously cool Osterns thrown in. But, just like India had its curry western in شعلے (Sholay), other Asian countries jumped in, with one particularly tasty dish coming from Korea in '71. That year, what was supposed to be the last sequel in the interminable 미워도 다시 한번 (Love Me Once Again) saga (it wouldn't be the last, obviously) did better at the box office, but one of the most interesting films of 1971 was director Lee Man-Hee's 쇠사슬을 끊어라 (Break the Chains). The film starred Nam Gung-Won, Jang Dong-Hwi and His Supreme Badassness Heo Jang-Gang, perhaps the coolest baddie in all of Korean cinema history (and also Hur Joon-Ho's father, while we're at it). So we have three machismo-drenched, B movie-textbook quoting machines. One of them, as we know, was really bad. The other was really, really ugly (let's not say who). By any chance, was the third good?
Break the Chains was a clear homage to the Cinema of Sergio Leone, but beyond the super-cool yet cheesy dialogue and kimchi western innuendo you could also find a layer of historical value. For logistical reasons, Manchuria was more or less the only place where Koreans would get the chance to shoot at each other (be it back then, or in the 70s), and that geographical location couldn't help but bring back memories of Manchukuo, and of the Japanese colonial era. It was a little pulp all right, but the kind they don't make anymore nowadays. Director Kim Ji Woon said he found the inspiration to make his first ever western watching Lee Man-Hee's classic. Of course that would mean going back to the original The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but this wasn't a mere cinematic transliteration of Leone's seminal work. For decades, Korea never even tried to approach this genre again, maybe for obvious reasons. With such a tradition in realism, just doing a western for the hell of it, because it could be fun, wouldn't cut it. But perhaps that kind of mentality is exactly what Chungmuro needs to pass through this (hopefully) transitional crisis. Bringing the fun back to the movies, just like what 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (The Good, The Bad, and The Weird) is trying to do.
How bad could the situation possibly be, especially if you've experienced things like the drought of 1993 - 15% for domestic films despite 서편제 (Seopyeonje)? It's so bad uncle Shim Hyung-Rae is back on TV telling bad jokes, albeit just for a painful, interminable night (note to self: don't watch award ceremonies); so bad that the great Moon So-Ri will soon star in a, get ready, weekend drama on TV. That means shows targeted at housewives, with the same level of freshness and unpredictability as Microsoft's accounting records, and one screaming ajumma throwing selected parts of her house around every 45 seconds. There were a few lights, of course. Im Sun-Rye's 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Forever the Moment) had too many "it's a sports drama. Cry, you bitch" moments, a meh ending and patchy editing, but the acting and overall directing made it quite the good little flick; 추격자 (The Chaser) was an excellent debut film, with all the flaws of debut films, and a monster amongst monsters performance from the great Kim Yoon-Seok; there were also things to like in other works, and the year usually gets pumping right around the summer season. But something was needed. Something, even a colossal failure, that would show this industry wasn't just worrying about that bad graph constantly pointing the floor. We needed something that screams and says... it's a film. Let's have fun.
What is happening in Chungmuro right now is not necessarily because of lack of talent, although way too many first time directors are rushing their debuts, instead of working under veterans and building their know how. The real point is, there's virtually no more quota. No more time to play, no more time to try things which might or might not work. Only making money and keeping afloat has become important, so Mr. Creativity will cordially jump right in the Han River, Sopranos style. And maybe meet that cute little creature from a few years ago down there, reminding them how the mighty have fallen. So the big two of this summer, Kim Jee-woon's kimchi western and the quite promising 님은 먼 곳에 (Sunny) from that genius of cinematic anarchism that is Lee Joon Ik, need to show once again Korean films can be fun. Not the Hollywood wannabe, something for everybody extravaganza they've tried to be for the last year and a half. We start with Kim's first, to continue with the second later in the weekend.
THE MAN WITH NO NAME (OR HE DID HAVE ONE, BUT DIDN'T LIKE HORSES)
Ahh... the 30s. Uncle Adolf and Il Duce, the Great Depression, The Wizard of Oz. And, since we're talking of refrigerators, the birth of frozen food! But also Manchuria, that strange place where people from the former Joseon dynasty, Manchus, Chinese, Mongols, Russians, Japanese and a truckload of horses lived together in harmony and peace-loving prosperity. They went to the hills when their hearts were lonely, to hear what they'd heard before; their hearts would be blessed with the sound of... wait. Wrong film. Anyhow, a man, leader of a pack of no good fellas, learns of a mysterious map leading to what could possibly be a shitload of money. He looks like the bastard child of Angel Eyes and one of those Dong Bang Shin Gi kids, but let's just call him Chang-Yi (Lee Byung Heon). He's bad, really bad. Problem is, to find the map, he needs to catch that train (South Manchuria Railways doesn't guarantee the safety of its passengers. And no refunds), and that no good Kanemaru (Lee Hang Soo) who's apparently holding it.
Horror and shock, on the scene he finds this weird fella named Tae-Gu who looks a lot like Song Kang-Ho, wears sunglasses, and rides a bike. First thing that comes to mind is, why? Couldn't find horses? In Manchuria?! Nope. Song Kang-Ho was so scared of riding horses he and director Kim found a compromise, hence the bike. Which, I might add, turned into a pretty damn cool compromise. But, wait. There's more. We have a third bounty hunter named Do-Won (Jung Woo-Sung), who's after the map himself, so he must be the good, although what he's good at might wildly change depending on target demographics. What starts as a mere menage a trois just for a map turns into the International Manchu Derby, with hordes of Japanese soldiers, Korean independence fighters and other men of assorted clothing and colors, all after that one map. One map to find them, one map to bring them all and in madness bind them. Gentlemen, start your engines.
Silliness aside, you can see where Kim Jee-woon is going just with a quick look at the plot. We have a very simple setup, with three characters that will not likely show too many layers of complexity, a big goal to reach, and assorted horse riders to make things difficult for them. Right in the middle, crazy chase scenes, shootouts, and the majestic background only Manchuria could offer. Except they shot in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. But I digress. If Break the Chains was about finding a precious statue of Buddha, this one is about a map and money, but the intent is clear. Style, cinematic flow exploding on the screen by the metric ton; our three leads' charisma, and the usual array of hilarious cameos from regulars like Son Byeong-Ho, Oh Dal-Soo and the like; The Santa Esmeralda-drenched soundtrack by Dalparan, and action choreography by Jung Doo-Hong. This film is crucial for distributor CJ Entertainment, and not only because of the 17 Billion Won plus budget. It could in fact be the first time ever the company reaches the 10 million mark (all the other ten-mil sellers were distributed by Showbox or Cinema Service), and it would give a much needed shot in the industry's arm, with only two veritable hits in what is the worst domestic performance in a decade.
After screening at Cannes, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is preparing for its release in Korea. Although it was already announced at the Festival, some changes will be made for the domestic print. It will run 12 minutes longer, which will allow Eom Ji-Won's cameo back in. It will also add more character development, for instance explaining the reason why Do-Won is going after the map (he probably needs money for his movie?). Also, whereas at Cannes people couldn't see who won the last fight clearly, we'll get our answer in the Korean version. This last change sounds a little worrying to me, but just in case, can we get both on DVD and judge by ourselves later? A few days earlier the film had its press screening, and here are a collection of interviews with the leading trio, conducted in monologue style (complete with uhuh's and haha's) by Cine21.
THE GOOD, JUNG WOO-SUNG
Man... it's just great. That nature, the heat. When the wind blows, you really feel it, just like when it's hot and sunny. Looking out for pretty rocks with the scorching sun beating on your chest. When will I ever get the chance to be caught in sand storms like those again? Ah ah, China. Really. When I told people I was going to China for a shoot, they all knew it would be this. Actually when Director Kim offered me to play "the good," I really had no reason to decline it. Some people told me "the bad" looked cooler, so they wondered why I wasn't playing that. But I didn't listen to them, and I never thought my character was getting buried by the other two. When you can feel a character's presence even if he's standing still, doesn't that make a bigger impact? Unlike what people speculated, I wasn't really worried about living up to Song Kang-Ho and Lee Byung-Heon. It just seemed like for the entire shoot I'd go "Ah, the weather is great!" That kind of atmosphere. Here, should I ride the horse now? Should we go get Tae-Gu?
On the set people kept saying I was the expert on China, on riding horses. But when you think about it, the only time I rode horses a little was back when we shot 무사 (Musa - The Warrior). And that's a 2001 film so it's already seven years ago. If you don't ride for that long, you'll have to reacquaint yourself with everything once again anyway. What's more, Do-Won's horse was an English thoroughbred racehorse. Right from the first moment the horse would show such strength I was shocked. For the first scene we had to run, and the staff was surprised at how good it looked. But when we got back I let my legs go loose and eventually fell off. I didn't just have to ride, but shoot from that angle. Ah, the scene with the rotating guns was cool?! I learned that by myself. Actually it wasn't meant to go that way, but playing around with the Winchester I eventually got used to it. So then the director and [Jung) Doo-Hong came to me, and said it would look really cool if I did that while riding. I was ambitious myself, and a little scared, but I just gave it a try. If I had just made a small mistake and by chance hit the horse with the gun, it would have been a total mess. I'm glad people like the scene, but I risked my life in there. Haha. Injury? Yeah, I hurt my wrist. And kept shooting despite that. They talked of unyielding passion for acting in that case, but I really couldn't do anything about it, we had no time to waste. If you could stop the shoot and deal with the costs through insurance like they do abroad, there would be no need for that "passion" for acting to come out. But we were out of time, already overbudget, and if I had it cured it would have taken between three and six months of recovery. We had no choice. Hearing about my passion for acting sounds nice, but things like that need to improve. In our industry, that is.
I guess that ruined the atmosphere. Haha... if I was a fan of western films? I was crazy about them ever since my childhood! But shooting the film, I ignored all those memories of gunmen I saw. I just thought I'd just have to focus on what I could do, and could come naturally for me. I never really went back to watch those films, because I didn't want any sort of mimicry. It's just that I used the image I built over the years in a more concrete manner this time. It wasn't the kind of atmosphere where I'd think "they say I look cool, so I'll shoot this great scene. I need this to survive" or similar things. On the contrary, more than action scenes the most fun I've had was shooting scenes together with [Song] Kang-Ho. Those were two very different characters coming into collision, but I think we achieved a really nice chemistry.
I've been acting for fifteen years. But that doesn't really mean I'm a veteran or anything. Haha. It's been fifteen years already, but isn't this the age when you can really get something started? More than trying to maintain youth at all costs, I think keeping your energy alive is more important. I had to spend years dealing with labels like "idol of the young," but I think now I need to get by just by being myself, Jung Woo-Sung. When 비트 (Beat) came out people thought of my character first. But when this film releases in theaters people won't speak of Do-Won, it will be Jung Woo-Sung. I think that's what those fifteen years gave me after all. Ah, from now on I think I'll have to focus on studying English. Around the end of the year we start shooting City Hunter, this is an interesting story. A Korean company bought rights of the Japanese original, but a Hollywood major is showing interest now. I think this might get a worldwide release, the English dialogue worries me a lot. Hahaha. When will I start directing? I started a production company a while ago, and I'm working on it. I almost finished the script as well. It's an action film. I hope I can use anything I'm learning while shooting City Hunter to improve my film. The lead? Of course, I'd like to cast myself. Haha. But the problem is budget. It's trouble, I tell you.
THE BAD, LEE BYUNG-HEON
Why are you so surprised? My eyes look different?! It's no surprise, since I've been playing villains all year. First Chang-Yi in The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, then I Come with the Rain, and finally G.I. Joe. I've used my eyes to act menacing for so long, people now tell me I look different. Oh Oh. My manager went like "Man, nobody will offer you any roles in melodramas from now on." I thought, now that I'm trying to play the bad guy it won't be too hard. But it's the subtle differences between all three that get me. To be specific, in Kim Jee-woon's film I can be cruel, but it's the kind of character people will watch smirking no matter what he does. Remember that scene in 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters), when the first ghost comes out during the day? It's a really scary scene, but think as if you could laugh at it. After I shot 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), Kim Jee-woon and I have become friends. We drink coffee together, and if any press screening comes up and I have nobody to go with I always call him. I knew director Kim and Song Kang-Ho had been discussing about the film for a while. I even joked with him he's always very quick with these things. If you think about it, the film really focuses on "The Weird," with the other two strong characters playing around him. The director and marketing worked hard to push us as a trio, but let's call it a spade. So I did think about it before accepting the role. I actually refused at first, but director Kim kept going at it. "Think about it some more. I'll give you another couple of days to think about it." That sort of talk. Haha. At the end of the day, we promised not to hurt each other (literally!) and shook hands. I'd always been complaining there were no films a la Ocean's Eleven in Korea, so refusing the role when I actually got the chance would have been a little awkward.
But even before playing Chang-Yi I had to face some difficulties. I hurt myself training with the horse, and had a few more injuries. I just thought what the hell, I'll show you what I've got. So I started training and working out despite that. That kind of energy might have helped me make Chang-Yi a better, more realistic character. When we reached shooting locations in Dunhuang, that sight just humbled me. I felt like a grain of sand next to that. You imagine people living in this environment, the physical and emotional pain they'd feel. What we go through now would be impossible to accept. Chang-Yi just lives to be the best. He gets his bounties and completes all his work like a perfectionist.... or not. Ha. Not really. He just goes with the flow, and if something starts smelling fishy he just quits. Even in between jobs, if he meets his match, he can just drop what he's doing and go after the guy. That's because he's got no practical sense, he's just running after a dream. Well, it's just a big spectacle, but people won't just take that as face value, will they? Like the bravado of just going after someone with a knife, thinking he can beat him without a gun.
Whereas A Bittersweet Life was a noir focusing on precise facial expression, this time it was fun showing that twisted rollercoaster of emotions. I had time to talk with the director about my character in the former because it focused on one character alone. But The Good, The Bad, and The Weird had us three constantly trying to find the right balance. There's that difference between someone who was raised in a rich family, and someone who had it hard all his life, right? This is my second time working with Song Kang-Ho, after 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area). The roles we play are completely different this time, but the atmosphere on the set was quite similar. We spent time together, every night we had some beers and talked frankly. Kang-Ho would just leave his room's door open, and if anyone passing by was in the mood for a few drinks, it'd be like going to a pub or something. And, ah! Football! We separated into actors and all the guys working for Jung Doo Hong (stuntmen, choreographers etc.) first, and there were times when we even played three games a day. We ran around so much. I mean, there were people who would ride horses all day until the shoot was over, then play with us, and finally go to sleep. People thought we were trying for the Olympics or something. I guess since we were out there working like that, they wanted to go the extra mile and do some nice workout. Haha.
I eventually realized how much expectations about this film can weigh on you. That was in Cannes. A Bittersweet Life went too, but that was right after Star Wars, so they stole all the spotlight for themselves. Things were different with this film. After the film was over people applauded for over ten minutes, I started thinking. "Should I keep bowing and waving, or start clapping as well?" The director was sweating so much! I thought he spread vaseline on himself or something. Thoughts about the movie? People told me I did well, but I thought I did get buried in there a little. I guess I couldn't get out of Chang-Yi's mindset yet? I don't know about the domestic version. I just had to do some ADR for my scenes and that was it, I can't speak for the entire film. Let's just say that, if my role was to offer a balance between the strong impact of "The Weird" and the coolness of "The Good," I think I did a good enough job. If anyone says "a new kind of villain has arrived" or things to that extent, that will do it.
THE WEIRD, SONG KANG-HO
I think Kim Jee-woon and I are destined to work together. I starred in his debut 조용한 가족 (The Quiet Family), and my first solo leading role was in his second film 반칙왕 (The Foul King). So I said, let's work again sometime soon. Eventually he called me right after I completed 괴물 (The Host), and offered me to work together again. I didn't really know it would become this film. But then, the offer for 우아한 세계 (The Show Must Go On) came in. He needed time to write the script anyway, so I told him and shot the film. But the real problem was that I ended up starring in 밀양 (Secret Sunshine) as well. I was a little sorry about it when I told him, but he just told me he'd be happy to wait. After all that would give him some more time to prepare the film. Anyway, I eventually got the script, and man. It was too much to take in one jab. Hahaha. Just looking at the script it felt so huge and scary, because I know all too well how director Kim was going to turn that into something much bigger and better looking on the set. He told me he always wanted to do a fun and energetic action film like this many times, and that he also wanted to restore Lee Man-Hee's Break The Chain [ed. Jesus Mama Jolly, let's do it, Robot Taekwon V style!]. I never thought it'd get so big. I think this kind of film was something that had been brewing inside director Kim's mind for quite some time. He just needed the opportunity to do it.
When I first got the script, I was wondering who I'd end up playing. It seemed like everyone but me knew I'd end up playing Tae-Gu, because he's "The Weird." To me they all three kind of looked a little strange, and with a personality of their own, so that's why. Actually I would have been happy to play anything, but I really liked Tae-Gu. The Good and The Bad had to look really cool, but The Weird had to be weird.... uhm. Of course I later learned Woo-Sung and Byung-Heon were cast, and wow. Haha. But that doesn't mean Tae-Gu is not cool. He just has his own ways. He's kind of cute in all his brashness and tenacity. He's great at adapting to circumstances, and survive in any situation. Still, deep down he's a goodhearted man. The other two use knives and guns and the like, but Tae-Gu's action scenes are mostly done with his body. Especially those three explosion scenes were really dangerous. For the SFX team everything had to be perfect, because they could only make everything explode only once. But the real problem was that I had to be in front of all that, while the set was falling behind me. In the scene where the tunnel starts collapsing the camera was shooting from afar, so I felt lonely and it was really scary. The explosion made me even fall, it'll feel realistic at least. Haha. If you think about it, that was good luck, but it was something we created. Working with passion even in those conditions brought us good luck.
I think as far as Korean movies go, this was a great achievement. Felt the same when I saw the film at Cannes. After shooting 박쥐 (Thirst) [ed. Park Chan-Wook's new vampire film] I left from Busan and reached Cannes in 24 hours, ah. I was exhausted. But the moment the film started, that all vanished, including jet-lag. The opening scene and the climax, I think, are some of the best action scenes in Korean Cinema history. And, surprisingly, the crowd at Cannes reacted really well to the comedy, too. It's just a shame they couldn't catch some details because of the language. Like, for instance, when Woo-Sung and I talk under the moonlight. The key there was in the dialogue, so I think Koreans will enjoy those details a lot more.
Nowadays I'm a little tired, I admit. First The Host, then The Show Must Go On, Secret Sunshine, this film, even Thirst. All in a row, and in many ways they were all difficult situations. Of course The Good, The Bad, and The Weird played the biggest role in making me tired, Haha. I think working for those great directors is a blessing. But after Thirst is over I'll have to take a break. Unless something really good comes up, that is... Hahaha.
Film opens on the 17th.