[SAGEUK WORLD SPECIAL - pt2] ScreenAnarchy Talks with PD Kwak Jung-Hwan

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[SAGEUK WORLD SPECIAL - pt2] ScreenAnarchy Talks with PD Kwak Jung-Hwan

The history of 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court), as you can read, was filled with interesting events, making what came before and after the drama just as special as what happened in between. For instance, without the passion shown by the DC Inside Conspiracy in the Court Gallery, there certainly would be no Director's Cut DVD available to buy now, as they were the ones who fought for its release up until the end, even sending the money in advance to convince KBS this masterpiece was worth selling - just as much as the unwatchable crap which often gets quick releases thanks to the Hallyu. If it weren't for their efforts, those few lucky hundreds wouldn't even have dreamed of being able to read and collect what is one of the nicest pieces of fan appreciation you'll ever see, the Conspiracy in the Court review book, full of reviews, photos, historical essays and some of the most candid interviews you'll read. The reason this was possible also comes down to the fact Conspiracy in the Court's makers knew all too well this would become a niche, cult affair. That it would be something not many people would watch, but which would become part of those selected few's memory for a long time. The passion and guts shown by the actors and crew, by writer Park Jin-Woo and producer Kwak Jung-Hwan is what really made this little legend possible.

We recently had a talk with producer Kwak, about the Conspiracy phenomenon, his latest work 구미호 (Fox with Nine Tails), the termination of the 드라마시티 (Dramacity) franchise, the industry in general and much more. Take a big breath (this is kind of long, but you probably knew that, right?), and let's jump in...

NOTE: generally, I tried to stay light on spoilers, but when discussing dramas it's inevitable there will be some. I left a warning whenever spoilers were major, so you can go ahead.

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TWITCH- You can attach two particularly important meanings to this return of 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends). One is the comeback of horror series on network TV. In the last few years there were a few series labeled as "fusion horror" on cable TV, but more than shows concerned with or respectful of the genre, they mostly borrowed (or, well, stripped) horror's clothes as an excuse to make something closer to erotic dramas. Dramacity from time to time did have its horror escapades, such as 레드백 (Red Bag) and 도시괴담 (City Horror); but when the second installment of Hometown of Legends in the late 90s ended, that was the point when horror more or less vanished from Korean Tv. What's more, if you consider 고死 (Death Bell) was the sole summer horror film in Chungmuro this year, this return might prove both fresh for viewers, while at the same time bringing back themes they were well accustomed to.

The second issue is the legacy of short dramas being felt once again through this return. A look at the list of producers working on the show, and starting from you to Lee Jeong-Seop, Lee Min-Hong, Kim Jung-Min and Kim Yong-Soo, you were all Dramacity alumni. Then, of course, there's the 8 episode short drama format used by the show. It's really regrettable 드라마시티 (Dramacity) was canceled, but if the "alternative" is something like this, I think it's actually a pretty interesting experiment. Do you think this return of Hometown of Legend, beyond just representing the return of horror on TV, can become a more competitive (ratings-wise) alternative to Dramacity, and become the starting point for similar shows in the future?

PD KWAK JUNG-HWAN- Hometown of Legends actually started and was undergoing pre-production as a Dramacity summer special first and foremost, even before the decision to terminate the format was made. Then, as the unexpected canceling of the show was announced, it survived by itself, and we decided to broadcast it as a 납량 특집 (Summer Horror Special). If you think of the current landscape of the TV industry, particularly compared to the situation up to the early 90s when many genres and formats shared the airwaves, I personally think the fact all that's left now are melodramas, home drama (family-oriented weekend dramas), miniseries and daily dramas left us the short drama format - best represented by Dramacity -- as the sole venue where genre dramas could be broadcast, despite having its share of melodramas as well.

In addition, before Dramacity started, Hometown of Legends was the only format which allowed us to explore horror/thriller themes on TV. For those reasons, it's quite natural that Hometown of Legends and Dramacity ended up getting connected. And the same goes for many of the actors who were cast in Hometown, mentioning that this represented the resurrection of Dramacity. Yet, as we decided to broadcast Hometown during the Wed/Thu nights miniseries slot, this brought us new challenges, as clearly we're dealing with another viewer base and expectations in terms of ratings. And that could actually end up becoming the crucial point.

If, in the long run, Hometown proves to be as successful in terms of ratings and ad revenue as the other weekly miniseries, KBS could certainly use this as a springboard for other similar experiments in the future. A successful Hometown could mean the continuation of genre dramas' blood line, so to speak, even though it might not encompass as many genres as the old Dramacity did. In that sense, this "alternative" could certainly prove to be the starting point for similar formats. But, clearly, if Hometown flops, then this will further put fuel on the fire of those who argued for Dramacity's termination, as they will use this as a proof that they were right, and bring it up whenever plans to resurrect the Dramacity franchise are brought up. This, then, would eventually make the possibility of genre dramas going through an evolution or even getting made at all even lower.

TWITCH- Seemingly, KBS has plans to resurrect the short drama format starting from this autumn, although there's no word on what kind of timeslot it will be broadcast on or the show's direction. When the news of Dramacity's termination was announced, not only viewers but also many drama people joined the strong complaints against the decision. Back then, in an interview with Magazine T, what you said put the spotlight on two very important issues at play: one was that the broadcasting stations nowadays see dramas as a simple product, a vehicle to make money; the other that there was really no readily available alternative to Dramacity, when they decided to cancel it. When I heard the news of Dramacity's comeback, happiness was mixed with bizarre nuances, as more than resurrecting Dramacity at all costs, the most important thing was keeping intact the spirit and meaning of such format.

When they announced it would be terminated, there was chaos for a couple of weeks. But, then again, if Dramacity indeed restarts, it might just go back to being a program recording ratings around the 5%, being ignored by most viewers and journalists with the sole exception of a few drama fans, and constantly fighting with the nightmare of another termination. In that sense, was KBS' decision to resurrect the format something they did after thinking how much short dramas mean to the industry, and examining all the strengths and weaknesses such format presented? Or was it just a quick reaction, reading the people's (viewers and industry insiders) minds and giving them what they wanted? Although that, too, wouldn't be so bad in these days....(laughs)

KWAK- It's a fact KBS's position on the issue was that, if a solution to the chronic red ink [ed. KBS has shown heavy losses for the last few years] problem could be found, they'd be happy to resurrect the format. A quicker solution we're looking into is restarting it this autumn with a significantly lower budget, which would allow them to bring back short dramas much more quickly [ed. Depending on the genre, one episode of Dramacity usually cost between the 50 and 100 million won, with a few exceptions such as 변신 (Transformation)]. All the producers from our Drama Team are stressing that resurrecting the short drama format as quickly as possible is of crucial importance, but with the current financial issues KBS is going through, taking no refusal is not really an option we have on the table, which is certainly worrying us. It would be a relief if these "low budget" short dramas set to return in autumn could both solve our red ink problem, but also continue the legacy of the format. But if even one of those two issues fails, then the format could meet with another termination, or just make its resurrection useless. It's a difficult decision, really. So, in that sense, our Drama Team is discreetly putting forward this idea of a low budget Dramacity for this autumn, and there's hot debate over it, but nothing is confirmed yet.

TWITCH- In the past, you mentioned how Dramacity was your favorite drama. Any particular highlights you remember?

KWAK- The idea wasn't really about singling out any particular drama, but a sort of canvas where people could work creatively, and be stimulated by the work they're doing. That was what Dramacity meant to me. If I really had to single out particular episodes, 황금숲, 토끼 (Golden Forest, Rabbit) [PD Kim Yong-Soo) and its clever experiments, 아나그램 (Anagram) [PD Kim Gyu-Tae] and its genre strengths, 제주도 푸른밤 (Blue Nights in Jeju Island) [PD Kim Gyu-Tae] and its deadly sensibilities, 변신 (Transformation)'s [PD Kim Young-Jo] out of this world philosophy, and finally G.O.D. [PD Kim Won-Seok]'s excellent CGI. Those works all represented great opportunities to learn and guide my style as a producer.

TWITCH- Personally, I don't think the most important element of Dramacity was just its freshness and variety alone. Of course, things like Transformation, 저수지 (Reservoir), Blue Nights in Jeju Island, those excellent examples were something only Dramacity could show. But, then again, an even more important sign of Dramacity's legacy during the last 4-5 years was the way it indirectly influenced writers and producers. Call it a sort of new vision short dramas brought to the table: the approach to narrative which avoided conventional drama tropes; genre nuances and visual storytelling, and so on. It was as if a parallel world existed, partaking the airwaves with traditional dramas but offering completely different recipes. Of course this is just my opinion, but save for weekend sageuk, take a look at the best KBS dramas of recent years, and it will feel like a festival of Dramacity alumni.

There was the magic combination of Kim Ji-Woo and Park Chan-Hong in 부활 (Resurrection) and 마왕 (The Devil); Ham Young-Hoon and Park Yeon-Seon of 얼렁뚱땅 흥신소 (Evasive Inquiry Agency); Noh Hee-Kyung's 굿바이 솔로 (Goodbye Solo) and 꽃보다 아름다워 (Prettier Than Flowers), and of course Conspiracy in the Court. As someone who started his career as a producer in a non-drama related department, but in reality was "brought up" by Dramacity, how do you think this format influenced your directing style?

KWAK- Actually, every single drama producer or writer learns from short dramas, and goes through a growing process thanks to them. Short dramas are the equivalent of R&D in our industry, I think. They're like a yardstick, measuring the potential for future development our industry is showing. The melodramas and home dramas that are currently dominating our trend will eventually decline, just like the wave of trendy melodramas hitting the industry in the mid 80s did. I actually think that decline has started already. But, If short dramas cease to exist, then we'll lose that spark able to create a possible alternative, replacing melodramas and home dramas whenever they'll start to wane. All the new genres and formats you are starting to see nowadays are a by-product of short dramas' R&D. So, if that creative factory ceases to exist, the industry will be forced to look at Japanese and American dramas to find their alternatives. You know, as if the disgraceful memories of those days were coming back to mind, when people would tape things off Japanese TV and try to wildly steal their formats. That's our future without short dramas.

The dream of preparing one's directing debut, or one's first script is endlessly imagining the process behind the making of a short drama. If, hypothetically, any director or writer show a certain style in their work, those are skills they honed through short dramas, it's the product of that creative training they got there. I don't think I established any particularly unconventional "style" through Conspiracy in the Court. But it there was ever any improvement in that sense, whatever new or unconventional elements Conspiracy brought to the sageuk world were the fruit of watching countless episodes of Dramacity, and directing two myself. It was the possibility of doing something unconventional and different through that format that allowed me to show new things. If you can't concern yourself about expressing things unconventionally, if that canvas is not even there, then a creative drama can never be born.

TWITCH- Finding the essence of sageuk, and portraying those elements in an unconventional manner was Conspiracy in the Court's most shining achievement. Actually, even if you're a hardcore sageuk fan, the fact the 3 stations focus on projects similar to 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) and 주몽 (Jumong) after their incredible success is not that hard to accept, since no matter how often one says this is culture, it's also a business, at the end of the day. The real sad thing, then, is that nowadays that is all you get. Afraid of low ratings, the industry doesn't even try to replicate what something innovative like Conspiracy did. In that sense, what 신돈 (Shin Don), 8일 (Eight Days) and Conspiracy did in the last two years was really bringing the potential and meaning of historical dramas to the forefront, throwing all that fire and excitement only this genre can generate on the screen. Yet, there's still no particularly significant sign the broadcasters have been influenced by such works; and, if we set aside the passion show to those shows' makers by a few hardcore fans, you don't even get the feeling the broadcasters are even rewarding in any form those who try to do something different, although things might be different internally. After trying a meaningful experiment like 최강칠우 (Strongest Chil-Woo), KBS is preparing both a sageuk with the same potential and worrying points of 주몽 (Jumong), that being 바람의 나라 (Kingdom of the Wind), and of course the next big weekend sageuk 천추태후 (Empress Cheonchu). In this atmosphere, what do you think about the current state of sageuk?

KWAK: Conspiracy wasn't born from the same mold as traditional sageuk. It's very different in nature than, say, longer weekend sageuk like Empress Cheonchu, or mid-sized (20 to 36 episodes) ones produced to compete in the ratings market like Kingdom of the Wind. What is happening now is that the broadcasting stations are starting to perceive sageuk as an alternative and replacement for trendy dramas when it comes to competitive programs , just as the success of Jumong and 이산 (Yi San) has shown. So, the reason the broadcasters cherish sageuk is not for their intrinsic value, for their historical consciousness, the subject matter and perspective on the period they portray. It's simply because they are the safest format to maintain a stable and long running momentum both in terms of ratings and ad revenue. So, essentially, we're dealing with a boom moved only by financial issues, not a revival of the genre in terms of its cultural meaning.

When you accept that point, then every distinction between "authentic" and "fusion" sageuk becomes increasingly vague to define. Meaning the idea that, because it's an "authentic" sageuk, such dramas should respect and accurately portray historical facts and consciousness, or even a kind of national sentiment or any individual point of view, just ceased having any real importance in the making of a sageuk. So, strictly speaking, the concept of "authentic" sageuk these days has pretty much disappeared from our industry's canon. As tragic as it sounds, the present and likely to be future question asked to any sageuk is just "for how long will it be able to record stable ratings and ad revenues." As a result, that is why Kingdom of the Wind and Empress Cheonchu immediately gained pole position in the genre, exactly because they're the most likely answer to such question.

Actually, if you think about our habitual practice of shooting two episodes of a drama per week, perhaps even the mere idea of expecting a solid script of an "authentic" sageuk could be considered nearly absurd. Other than going from producing one episode to two per week, and from 50 minutes (pre-HD days format) to 70 minutes per episode, there are other quintessential differences between today's product and the authentic sageuk of old, which focused their attention on The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty as their text. For instance, the problem of how much information you want to integrate into one episode, the issue of viewers' increased historical knowledge and more. It's for that reason that, perhaps, most sageuk produced in the future will be content to stay within the "fusion" territory. That is not a case of trying to find the genre's charm at least through the fusion paradigm, even if it betrays what an "authentic" sageuk should be (historical accuracy and consciousness, etc. etc.). It's just that it's much more convenient to push all those traditions and authentic approach out of the window.

Conspiracy was a "fusion" sageuk, but the reason it felt a lot closer to "authentic" sageuk is exactly that. This drama didn't start as a sageuk, it chose and used this genre as it would embody the thematic consciousness it wanted to portray. To let that thematic consciousness emerge more clearly, getting closer to the traditions of authentic sageuk was what we eventually arrived to after seriously thinking about it, this wasn't necessarily something we planned right from the beginning. Focusing on those people who lived during those days was our way to convey our message. So, as a consequence, the period they were living in and representing it realistically became more important for us. That is why, paradoxically, while being a fusion sageuk -- which on paper has considerable freedom when dealing with historical authenticity -- we focused a lot more and remained faithful to that historical realism. By focusing on people, we ended up doing the opposite of what today's a"authentic" sageuk were doing, showing the details of that period those shows were avoiding.

For instance, the "axe" incident in Conspiracy [ed. Court officials standing outside the palace, protesting the King's decision to bring a minister back to the Palace, hacking one of the palace gates' pillars with an axe] was actually something recorded in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, even though we connected it with modern themes. But the "candlelight protest" in 일지매 (Iljimae) used the Hyo-Sun and Mi-Sun [ed. The two teenagers who were run over by a US army armored vehicle in 2002] accident in a sageuk setting. If you think about the difference, then, Conspiracy is a "fusion" sageuk but is closer to the idea of "authentic" sageuk, whereas Iljimae was presented as an "authentic" sageuk but just couldn't help to become a "fusion" one.

In every sageuk, the moment you choose people and the period they lived in as your theme, then automatically a viewpoint about people and that historical period will eventually emerge. Regardless of how faithful it was in representing those people from that period, which is how a sageuk's quality is normally judged, I think Conspiracy's unique charm was not just focusing on people [ed. Like other fusion sageuk, where people throw into a rather vague historical vacuum are the core of the story]. It was that we focused on the period those people lived in. To convey our subject, we needed that particular period. And, in turn, that particular period needed to be filled with people who would represent it, which at the end brought us to that atmosphere and story development. Since it wasn't like the traditional sageuk, trying to teach lessons and touch people by portraying the life of an historical figure, it certainly can feel as if we completely threw the textbook out of the window, and drew the genre's paradigm from scratch. Or, in other words, we decided not to dwell in sageuk's traditional paradigm. Then again, a senior colleague of mine, who's been producing authentic sageuk for ages, kept lecturing me about all the problems he found in my direction while watching Conspiracy (laughs).

Because they will likely not be competitive in the ratings battle, not only the chances to see such short miniseries (eight episodes or less) find their place on Korean TV in the future will be very slim. But also sageuk needing a strong investment in pre-production [ed. As in, focusing most of the budget on production and not casting, so needing most of the budget up front] being produced in such a short format will have a hard time emerging from now on. If these financial issues keep dominating the field, then the real problem of the genre per se won't be its losing the soul of "authentic" sageuk, but really worrying about what the beauty, the essence of fusion sageuk really means to us after all.

TWITCH- Looking at your filmography, one gets the impression you tend to cherish working with people you're familiar with, be it actors or writers. You worked with writer Park Jin-Woo in 그들의 진실 (Their Truth), and while something else you were supposed to do together was canceled in between, after spending a few years working on other things you reunited for Conspiracy in the Court. Looking at your debut Dramacity 참빗 (Bamboo Comb), not only you could find the protagonist Park Su-Hyeon, but also Kim Ha-Eun, who back then used her real name Kim Hyeon-Jin, had a very striking 10 second cameo. For what concerns Park Su-Hyeon, you worked with him also in Conspiracy in the Court and 이 죽일놈의 사랑 (A Love to Kill), which you co-produced. And now you're working once again with Kim Ha-Eun in 구미호 (Fox with Nine Tails), so these two actors are just like a muse to you. Is this the kind of situation, just like what happens in Lee Joon-Ik's films, where you tend to prefer working with people who know your style and can adapt a lot more quickly to your shooting tempo?

KWAK- It's not just actors or writers. I consider important and like to cherish every single working relationship. When it comes to actors or writers, obviously if they know my working style we can work much more comfortably together, things are much easier. But much more important than them knowing me is me knowing them. That is, a producer should know better than anybody else what to expect from his crew, his cast and the writer, what they're capable of, what their major strengths are. Only that way you can expect the kind of synergy a good drama needs, and can achieve a sort of harmony that can bring a positive result. Only a drama where producer, crew, cast and writer reach a certain harmony can communicate something to the viewers and connect with them, so that they'll remember it as a good experience. And, also, it's through that kind of harmony bringing quality that both us making the shows and the people watching can grow together. To me, that is the core of a good drama. Something that communicates certain feelings and excitement, something we can all learn something positive from, growing together in the process.

TWITCH- If you think about it, just about everything concerning Conspiracy has some kind of radical, innovative element to it, starting from the crew and most of the cast being completely new to sageuk. Think of really interesting choices like Jang Hyun-Sung, Kim Young-Ae, Bae Sung-Woo and Han Jung-Soo; or, starting from Ahn Nae-Sang's monster performance, the surprising leads. Hell, even small cameos like Jung Jin have shown tons of personality. This felt as if you completely ignored the star system, and in front of an increasingly commercialized industry showed the guts of a real drama person in choosing your cast, not just a businessman merely trying to make money. So it was pretty ironical, that someone far removed from the age old sageuk patterns, that in many ways what was an "outsider" was the one showing the path this genre had to walk. Was it your intention to crash all the dichotomies at play in this genre through this casting, or did you just cast whomever you thought would be the best choice for the role?

KWAK- Since, as the producer, I didn't want to dwell on sageuk's traditional paradigm myself, there really was no need to have a cast or crew acquainted with the genre. Better yet, those not used to traditional sageuk might actually have been a lot more suited for what we were trying to do (laughs). Another reason was the fact Conspiracy was born as a "short sageuk," with no particular expectations in terms of ratings or being competitive, straight from the planning stages. This pretty much made sure we would be quite far from the kind of environment allowing for star casting. But the biggest reason why we ignored the star system was again that thematic consciousness, after all. From the get go, this drama wasn't going to put the spotlight on historical figures, but on people living in a certain period, so I thought myself that all the characters would have to sacrifice themselves a little, to convey that subject. Since it was important to find harmony with the cast, whose prime goal was to sustain our theme, in that case stars being cast could have even been detrimental. They'd be sticking out of the group and have an adverse effect on the ensemble chemistry, which is why we went for this type of casting. I had experiences in the past working as assistant director, when certain "star" actors would end up disrupting our creative directions, and pretty much stubbornly act by themselves; then you had other "stars," who would ruin the atmosphere and teamwork playing with their schedule and behavior. So, in that sense, I'm a tad allergic to actors who tend to run solo, when deciding my cast (laughs).

TWITCH: Perhaps the choice which most emphatically expressed the essence of fusion sageuk was your characters' names. Fusion sageuk should be the perfect canvas to show the essence of history, it being a dialogue between past and present, so if you obsess over an historical figure, then that freedom vanishes, because of the fixed image and legacy people carry regarding such figure. But, in this drama, suddenly Jeongjo becomes just the "king," and Queen Mother Jeongsun is just "Queen Mother," so that decision opens quite a few opportunities. To start with, even if Conspiracy shows plenty of historical authenticity and consciousness, it's relatively free in trying to tie those themes to the present. In that sense, all the characters being fictional both allows them to ooze nuances of the historical model they were based on, but at the same time could be compared to their models projected in the future, what you can find in today's rulers. While building the story with writer Park, was it your intention to show this kind of dualism, bringing together past and present through those characters' names?

KWAK- As I said, Conspiracy didn't start as a drama trying to focus on the life of any particular historical figure. But, to present its message and thematic consciousness, it focused on people living during the past. Then, the issue becomes that of us living in the present earning food for thought about our set of values and the society we're living in, exactly through the representation of those people living in the past. It's obvious it's us living in the present who are more important, so the characters in the drama are essentially a model of ourselves. What is different is that, this being a sageuk, we tried our best to carve those characters out of existing historical figures, whenever they possessed the kind of qualities we needed to portray. That is why we took out anyone who didn't have any particular connection to our present; it's also why "Jeongjo" and "Queen Mother Jeongsun" were replaced with "King" and "Queen Mother," why writer Park agreed to such change, why I mentioned Jeongjo himself wasn't really important in previous interviews, and why important figures from Jeongjo's reign like Jeong Yak-Yong [ed. one of the leading voices in the Silhak movement] weren't mentioned at all.

As a producer of sageuk, two major elements concern me. One is to tell an interesting story through the drama, the other that it should be something historically meaningful to us living in the present. Authentic sageuk can just portray historical figures from a certain period with sophistication and delicacy, and they will have fulfilled their mission. But what fusion sageuk means to me is to find out things from the past we could connect with the present, and show them; learning, thinking, debating about our present through history, that is really their legacy. Sometimes I wonder: what is the difference, in terms of vision, between a sageuk producer trying to find modern elements, themes that can speak to our present inside history, and what people who produce contemporary dramas with strong social commentary think of sageuk itself (laughs)?

TWITCH- Thinking about that dialogue between past and present, one can't leave out that all too infamous "막 가자는 게로구나 [ed. One line of dialogue from Ep. 2 resembled something former president Roh Moo-Hyun said once in one of his speeches, and after journalists raised a ruckus over it, KBS aired Ep. 2 without that brief line]. Thankfully, the complete scene was restored in the Director's Cut DVD, but I actually thought those journalists' reaction was a little uncalled for. First off, those words being similar to what President Roh said was just the tip of the iceberg, as the allegory survived even without that. Seeing complaints from netizens, the atmosphere was more or less that of "how dare you compare Jeongjo the Great with Roh Moo-Hyun?" But the drama doesn't really strives to compare Jeongjo and Roh's achievements, it just shows the way their reforms and politics failed, comparing the two situations symbolically. Just like Jeongjo didn't have any political support thanks to that kind of environment; and that, after he died, Joseon fell prey of powerful clans manipulating the Royal family and palace politics, the Roh Moo-Hyun government faced similar obstacles, ended its run in similar ways, and... well, "the rest is history!" Let's just put this touchy allegory to an end (laughs).

As if they were made to coincide with president Roh's last few months at the Blue House, it's incredibly ironical 2007 saw three sageuk focusing on the rule of King Jeongjo [ed. Other two are Yi San and Eight Days], someone who had been mostly used as salad dressing in past sageuk. Through Conspiracy, was it your intention to let those allegorical nuances emerge, or was it a more generalized message and philosophy about failed reformists per se?

KWAK- The thematic consciousness of Conspiracy was people and their flaws, which emerged through the conflict of values and ideologies that progressives and conservatives face when they come into collision. This subject is very important to understand today's Korean society. And, historically speaking, I thought looking back on the political situation during Jeongjo's reign would offer precious lessons about our present situation. But, as a producer, I wanted to widen the scope of Conspiracy's commentary in historical terms a lot more. No matter if you think of history as a process of action and reaction, or filter it through Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis process, the conflict between progressives and conservatives was never something confined to any particular historical period. So we weren't simply going for symbolism about the Roh Moo-Hyun government and the final part of Jeongjo's rule, but something much more macroscopic, which could speak to East and West, the past and present.

As a consequence, this story becomes about people with flaws and shortcomings, who even if they don't intend to attach themselves to any personal ideology, end up carrying certain political colors; it becomes a story about why the line between "progressives" and "conservatives" can only be blurry; about how, despite not knowing for sure and having shortcomings of their own, everyone strives and cherishes their own, personal ideology. Of course, the idea that quite a few people saw Conspiracy in the Court as simply a story about failed reformists leaves me with a lot of bitter self-condemnation, for not being able to let our message and subject transpire and be appreciated by more people. In that sense, my discontent about ratings had nothing to do with the drama not being a success, but just our not being able to convey our theme to more people (laughs).

TWITCH- In the past, many illustrious actors played King Jeongjo, but in my view Ahn Nae-Sang's Jeongjo was the best of them all. The reason doesn't simply have to do with portraying the Jeongjo written in the records. He perfectly conveyed Yi San's [ed. Jeongjo's birth name] grief and shortcomings, as if he took the crown off; the loneliness he displayed along with his dignity and majesty let the fact Joseon was in truth the sadaebu's (powerful clans of yangban) country transpire; and, despite the fact he was sitting on that throne, and on paper he was Joseon's most powerful man, that nobody considered or treated him as a human being. It was really an incredible performance. Actually Ahn Nae-Sang is not the type who often acts in this genre, and even though pretty much everyone knows he's a really good actor, I was a little shocked myself. It felt as if a character from Shakespeare's tragedies resurrected and was wearing the King's robes, so to speak. Did you fully expect him to do this well, and was your casting him influenced by those expectations?

KWAK: The most important thing for me, when casting the king, was finding the most suitable man to portray the distress and suffering that particular period's king felt. That period, when agricultural production was developing at rapid pace, the Silhak's [ed. Confucian social reform movement arguing for more pragmatic and realistic approaches to social problems] teachings were spreading, and complaints about redistribution of riches and about the social caste system pervaded the country; when the influence of court officials surpassed that of the king. The distress and suffering this particular king was feeling, concerning the divide and relationship between powerful clans and the people, couldn't help but be different compared to what other kings had experienced, I thought. The reason why I thought of casting Ahn Nae-Sang as the King before everyone else was exactly because he was the one who, more than anyone else, understood and agonized about the reality and limitations of our society's early 1980s, when it was approaching democratization [ed. Ahn confessed on a few interviews that he participated in student demonstrations during his college days]. I just thought and believed no one would be able to understand what that period's king was feeling as much as Ahn Nae-Sang.

It was ever since I saw him in the Dramacity Anagram, that I started feeling assured by Ahn Nae-Sang's acting. Whether him stealing the show in Conspiracy had to do with what I imagined he would be able to portray, nobody knows. I don't think even he himself can confirm that (laughs). But I think, more than just innate talent, acting goes hand in hand with that particular person's personal beliefs and efforts, and their way of channeling that into their performance. Well, actually, while shooting the drama I wasn't completely satisfied with all the details I wanted from him. But as time went on, those weren't really problems particularly standing out (laughs). There's no end to a producer's ambitions, after all...


TWITCH- As I mentioned before, every character has a strong personality, but setting aside the protagonists for a moment, the most remarkable examples were Park In-Bin (Kim Eung-Soo) and Wolhyang (Do Ji-Won). I saw Do Ji-Won in a few sageuk before, so more or less I knew what to expect, but her acting was really fascinating and multi-layered. We could even call Wolhyang the first realistic Gisaeng, although what Song Chae-Hwan did in 임꺽정 (Im Kkeok-Jeong) was quite remarkable as well. Usually, female characters in sageuk tend to act as a sort of proxy, working through someone else's power (and the situation is even worse when we're dealing with Joseon). You could feel those elements with Wolhyang, but also the keen and sharp eye and flexibility of someone who tasted power and knew its rules by the book, more than the conventional image of powerful women from dramas like 여인천하 (Ladies of the Palace). When she's with Sang-Gyu, she's just a person who fell in love; with Shim Min-Gu, she's a full fledged "player," a lot more daring and witty. Then you can see nuances of an artist, and many other layers inside the same individual. The way she survived at the end was particularly remarkable. It was as if her choice of life, that of silently following the current like the "player" she was, saved her, but deep down she still carries the hope of changing things. Was this another of those facets of your thematic consciousness, about finding one's road and the diverse ways in which hope manifests itself?

KWAK- When I think of Wolhyang, the closest image coming to mind is the "madam" from 20th Century secret societies, who would always emerge hand in hand with closed-door politics. They were in frequent contact with those in power, and as a consequence knew much more information than anyone else. But they would never take a step forward, unless it was strictly necessary. Think wise "femmes fatales" (laughs). Ever since I worked as assistant producer on 제국의 아침 (Dawn of the Empire), I experienced and knew very well what Do Ji-Won could do, both in terms of external appearance and her acting, so she perfectly represented the kind of Wolhyang I had in mind. She just did a great job in showing a stronger and more elegant acting spectrum, right as I asked her. I told you. When casting, it's much better for me to know them than the other way around (laughs).

Wolhyang knew both parties involved, both conservatives and progressives, and by origin was destined to dance around the two, without ever being able to choose one. That is why she wasn't inclined toward any specific party, and could always maintain an objective position. It allegorically reminds of people who consider themselves as playing halfway, neither left nor right. It might seem like the reason why we connected her with Shim Min-Gu -- who expertly shows a larger, more macroscopic view of the situation -- was exactly because he was the man with more information than anyone else. But the intention was more to show the difference between who really holds power and who doesn't. Yet, no matter how much Wolhyang tries to stay in the middle, she can't help but becoming involved in the situation. She can analyze the situation objectively and knows all too well what is happening, but she makes no decision. That does save her, but ends up forcing her to languish in the sorrow of never having chosen, that's what Wolhyang represents. History, after all, is written by that silent majority who ends up surviving.


TWITCH- Then we have Park In-Bin, what an incredibly fascinating character. Anti-heroes like Shin Don or Im Kkeok-Jeong are quite charming as well, but the reason Park In-Bin particularly stood out was that this guy, in theory, should be a villain. But, then again, just about everything he says has a point. What he talks about with the Minister of Personnel in the first episode, all the issues he throws at his son; you can hate this man, but you can't blame him, and no matter how many "evil" things he does, he can never become a villain, because he's a person just like everyone of us. If you look at Jung Ha-Yeon's sageuk, viewers can come to understand "the other side's" ideology through his legitimization tactics, but a "villain" being just as charming as the lead, especially in a sageuk, is something you rarely see.

Even if he's on the same boat with those who ruined Jeongjo's reforms, Park In-Bin is someone's husband and father, and is someone who fights, commits mistakes and struggles to survive. This might not be what the masses want from a sageuk character; that is, a very blurry line between good and bad. But I think this is the kind of philosophy drama makers need to show in drawing their characters, not only sageuk but in every single drama. We had sageuk trying to understand Prince Yeonsan like 장녹수 (Jang Nok-Su), and there were renewed commentaries about figures like Lady Yoon or Shin Don. But, more than anything having to do with narrative, that just proved the industry's outlook on history had matured. In this kind of atmosphere, where melodramas like 태양의 여자 (Women in the Sun) are starting to blur the boundaries between good and bad, you think this idea of characters who are not villains, but just people walking in another direction, could eventually become something the masses will accept?

KWAK- The reason why Park In-Bin needed to be convincing was because he represents our parents' generation. Even those we call 수구 보수 [ed. conservative old-guard, in contrast with just right wing] fought against the regime and participated in the 4.19 uprising [ed. April 1960 revolution, an uprising led by student and labor groups which overthrew Lee Seung-Man's regime]. Those were the same people abused after being accused of betrayal, the generation who, after the Gwangju Uprising of the 80s, led the country into its democratization movement. The new generation fights with the old guard, and then ends up becoming the new old guard. In the process, those end up becoming more and more conservative, and you experience a new generation going against them for the same reason. Park In-Bin's logic sticks with the old guard's logic even today. The logic that whatever misdeed you commit, time will wash away your sins. If you follow that logic, then there is no way pro-Japanese collaborators will ever pay for what they did.

It could just look like an endless, vicious and gloomy circle repeating itself, but I think that is the most realistic portrayal of how conservative movements recur and repeat themselves. The reason we particularly put emphasis on Park In-Bin wasn't to excuse, empathize and/or forgive him for being "just someone going in another direction, but not a villain." It was to ask the new generation a question, whether empathizing with and forgiving the old guard's quips, painting him as "not a villain, just someone going in another direction," is the right thing. I'll completely leave that judgment to the new generation (laughs)!


TWITCH- All the drama's three young protagonists in many ways have common traits with our present reality, but particularly in today's state of affairs, Yang Man-Oh (Lee Cheon-Hee) is the one who shines the most. Every time they meet with reality, his illusions become an important learning experience, and the burning desire building inside him gradually becomes strong enough to help him face reality. It's the kind of character who matures under your eyes. So what I felt watching the last part wasn't the kind of deep sorrow you would find in some old-guard melodrama, for having lost the love of his life, and expecting his remaining days to be painted with that grief. It was as if the catalyst who created that burning desire disappeared, so he would keep on living trying to find another kind of similar impetus, while at the same time cherishing the memories of what he lost. In that sense, having the drama end with two people leaving this world fulfilling their desire, and another two surviving despite being unable to fulfill it, felt like an atomic bomb full of the drama's message just exploded right in front of me.

To feel those nuances, one needed to watch the drama from beginning to end and not just as background noise; you needed to become a viewer who saw this work as visual narrative banking on the entire flow of the story, to really understand that power. Yet, these days way too many viewers consider dramas as a mere by-product of variety shows, looking only for superficial entertainment, so regrettably Conspiracy ended up with average ratings of 6%. It may have lost the battle for what concerns the ratings war, but when you put that line at the end of the show, saying "we think about the television tax's meaning," and considering you made something so meaningful it will remain imprinted in the memories of all that 6%, did you have something like this in mind? Does the passion for this show that 6% still shows represent a satisfying result for you?

KWAK- Already a year passed since Conspiracy was first broadcast, and seeing the viewers' interest is still as strong as it was back then, that it's enduring with time really makes me proud as its producer. It was something I did expect from the beginning, and you could probably say it's exactly what I wanted to happen. I didn't want this to become one of those dramas that make it big when they air, and then vanish quickly from people's memories. I think giving a lasting impression is much more satisfactory. In the rapidly evolving move towards "Cultural Industry" dramas are going through, you could see Conspiracy as a sort of illegitimate child of our current industry (laughs). But not in a self-deprecating sense, more as something expressed just like "The movie industry's rebel!" You know, a little corny, yes, but possessing quite a strong feel to it (laughs). Put that way, as a work fighting against the prevailing order and its rampant commercialization, sounds quite satisfactory to me. You know, "The drama industry's rebel, Conspiracy in the Court!" (laughs).

Seeing how much I like that term, "rebel," I guess I still think of myself as belonging to the "new generation" and not the old guard (laughs). Just like the drama's theme, maybe what I really desire as the "rebel of the drama industry" is to represent a backlash against "the industry's old guard," and to allow a "new generation" of dramas to come forward. Then, as reality always shows, by fighting against the old guard, some day our new generation will become the new old guard itself, and I might find myself making "old guard dramas." Then, someone will emerge from the new generation, and start a backlash against what I'm doing. I think that day will come. We can only hope.... (laughs)


TWITCH- Starting with Fox with Nine Tails, Hometown of Legends gained a lot of attention right from the beginning. And, considering current ratings performances, its 20.1% can only be considered a huge success. Nowadays, looking at the Monday-Tuesday dramas' competition, if a drama is able to capture the attention of the viewers (at least those with a Nielsen box), regardless of quality they tend to become regular viewers of that drama until the end. Then again, observing the transition between 이산 (Yi San) and 밤이면 밤마다 (When Night Comes) it doesn't necessarily mean a kind of inertial momentum carries over from show to show. Of course the influence of Women in the Sun, which started from just a 6% rating and recorded 27% on its last episode, cannot be overlooked in explaining the success of Fox with Nine Tails. But you can't just take that influence as the sole reason the drama did well. So, how can we explain this pleasant, very successful start? The past drama's ratings and the influence they had on its start, the kind of promotion only home-grown (produced by KBS alone and not by third-party companies) dramas can allow, or was it the nostalgia people feel for the Hometown of Legends format?

KWAK- That's the most difficult question yet (laughs). If you asked what I expected I could tell you right away, but I can't really help but speculate when it comes to ratings. This being a homegrown drama didn't mean it would give us any particular advantage in terms of promotion, I think. Instead, I can certainly speculate about what I think were the two biggest factors in the increased interest for Hometown of Legends. First, it was the synergy of joining the eight episodes together and treating it as a single entity, which certainly helped in terms of promotion. Particularly when it comes to casting, first we announced Choi Su-Jong, then Lee Deok-Hwa, then Park Min-Young and others, in the span of around a month. This continued promotion about our cast was quite important in raising interest. Another important factor was that of trying to stimulate the viewers' nostalgia for the Hometown format, while at the same time offering the novelty of eight episodes with completely different stories. Wouldn't using the old Hometown actively as part of our promotion [ed. Early teaser trailers showed clips from the 90s version] have helped (laughs)?

Then again, as a whole the entire nostalgia factor helped raise expectations, but in turn it also increased some viewers' disappointment even more, I think. Personally, I don't think the final rating number can tell the whole story. What most importantly decides ratings is the battle with your competition, and all ratings really mean to me is how a certain program did against its competitor broadcast at the same time. Whether our competitor was a drama, or popular Olympic sports was really the most important variable.


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More about Kwak Jung-Hwan

sharonkg.myopenid.comFebruary 21, 2010 8:10 PM

Thanks very much for this! Fascinating.