[SAGEUK WORLD SPECIAL - pt3] Kwak Jung-Hwan Interview Continues

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[SAGEUK WORLD SPECIAL - pt3] Kwak Jung-Hwan Interview Continues


TWITCH- We could start with the novelty of Myeong-Ok (Park Min-Young) being the youngest out of all the "foxes with nine tails," but this was the first time a Gumiho went beyond the ghost story symbolism, and was humanized. She wasn't just the scary perpetrator hiding her identity, but she changed into an innocent victim, which was also quite fresh. Just like you focused on characters completely different from the sageuk canon in Conspiracy, was the reason you chose an illustrious subject like Fox with Nine Tails to once again break from tradition?

KWAK- I should probably start by mentioning it wasn't really my intention to choose Fox with Nine Tails. An older colleague of mine who was working on this had to step out, so it was a project I inherited from him. Because of the symbolic value it carries, we couldn't leave Fox with Nine Tails out of this new Hometown of Legends, so that's why. Subject aside, I really wanted to break from the traditional narrative structure of Hometown of Legends. Conventional characters and ghosts, linear plots, familiar accidents and situations etc. etc. I thought we needed to overcome all those cliches, although of course this meant those feeling nostalgic and expecting those same elements must have ended up feeling much more disappointed. Re-enacting Fox with Nine Tails's conventional themes could have become a strategy in itself, but on the contrary I wanted to break from its traditions, and tell that story through a different vision. Just like what I did with Conspiracy, I find breaking standard habits and traditions, while constantly striving for new and creative things much more rewarding. More than going after success through familiar characters, casting and stories, I find focusing on unfamiliar characters and fresh casting, and striving to tell new story much more interesting (laughs).

We tried new, different ideas with our Fox with Nine Tails, both in terms of story and image. The hardest part was creating a new story. This time it wasn't the Gumiho oppressing people, but we started from a concept about the people who oppressed the Gumiho; we also developed the theme of kids born out of Gumiho and people's relationships, and through the "blood of the Gumiho" we made a connection to that "red complex" [ed. Anti-Communist phobia] which dominated our society for a long time. In that sense, the sense of horror about the Gumiho was connected with the horror tactics of the ruling ideology (laughs). In building the story, our biggest concern was the same as what we experienced preparing Conspiracy. That is, making it sure we could convey our story effectively to the viewers. That is why in the first part of the show you can find elements and familiar genre tropes from horror and thriller, and it's also the reason why In-Hong and her mother's importance grew exponentially. Looking at the ratings breakdown by the minute, it's a strategy which worked quite well. I think, by using those "traditional ghosts" in random intervals, we were able to attenuate the negative reaction which can emerge whenever you try something new, while at the same time widening the scope of our viewership.

TWITCH- The list of people who played a Gumiho in the past is quite a scary roster, from Han Hye-Sook in the 70s to Jang Mi-Hee, Kim Mi-Sook, Park Sang-Ah, Song Yoon-Ah and Kim Ji-Young. Even if she still shows a few rough spots around the edges, Park Min-Young did quite well on her sageuk debut, as not only the cute moments, but also her dramatic acting improved. We could call Conspiracy the paradise of breakthroughs and it wouldn't be an exaggeration, but this time you not only had the pleasant return of Kim Ha-Eun; Park Min-Young, Kim Tae-Ho, Lee Yeon-Doo were quite remarkable as well. This might be a rather obvious question, but do you think this continuous flow of young talent showing some kind of breakthrough in your dramas has more to do with luck, or is it just the result of carefully selecting only those people who fit well with the character?

KWAK- When I start the casting process, I tend to write down nominations for the entire cast. Then, I select every nomination for a particular character, and try to "pair" them mentally with those of another character, to see if they could theoretically achieve a kind of harmony together. After imagining for a long time, I write down those who convince me and then the real casting begins. Even if I'm dealing with a newcomer, if I can only make sure they can give me what I want, it can be a lot better than someone from the old guard, who will mostly bank on name value first and foremost. I think if you cast that way, always trying to find a sort of harmonious balance in which everyone tries to help each other, then more than stars or actors what really shines are the characters themselves. Of course, as I told you, to really find out if one fits a character well, or can reach a certain harmony paired with other actors, I need to know them really well first (laughs).

TWITCH- Looking at the complaints about the drama, the biggest was probably that it wasn't "scary enough." Actually, that doesn't necessarily seem like a complaint particularly directed at Fox with Nine Tails per se, but more like something the legacy of the old Hometown of Legends shows had created. It's as if for some, whenever they hear the name Hometown of Legends, they instantly start thinking about visceral thrills and very in your face horror. But, suddenly, they get to see shows based on a sort of "people are scarier than ghosts" philosophy, and something about "those people's" actions and their greed, causing our cute and innocent Myeong-Ok to change. So I guess those expecting the cheap thrills of a summer horror show could certainly be confused. I actually thought that was one of the show's major strengths. But, while preparing the show, was the legacy of those old Hometown of Legends shows more an influence to you, or just burdensome pressure?

KWAK- That Fox with Nine Tails would be quite a touchy and difficult subject, all the PDs agreed on. That's because, If we made it just like in the old days, people would complain it was a cliché fest, whereas if you try something new some people will react with a "what the hell is that?" (laughs). From the moment I decided to move things in a new direction, nostalgia for both the Hometown format itself and the old Fox with Nine Tails was a huge burden. Yet, just as it meant a lot of pressure for me, it was also an impetus to do better, which in turn benefited us. The moment I became convinced this wouldn't become a simple horror drama, but something about political symbolism and metaphors about the ruling ideology, fascism and the red complex I became even more involved and passionate about the project. Just like it took quite a while for me to get rid of all the preconceptions and that "red pigs" slant I inherited watching 똘이 장군 (General Ddol) [ed. 1978 anti-Communist, nationalist animated propaganda by Kim Cheong-Gi. North Korean soldiers where portrayed as animals like wolves, and their leader (Kim Il-Sung) was a pig in disguise] when I was little, I thought my tentative of trying to break all the preconceptions and fixed notions about Fox with Nine Tails was a worthy endeavor.

After all, what could those fixed notions people inherited about Fox with Nine Tails be, without having much say in how it was portrayed, or any conflicting opinion about the matter? Wasn't it just coming from someone who, a long time ago, first produced Fox with Nine Tails and filled it with certain sensibilities? How could that Fox with Nine Tails have survived for so long, and dominated so many Koreans' thoughts even until now? There you go, wouldn't that be very close to the idea of ruling ideology? So, at the end, since I wanted to bend every rule of the Fox with Nine Tails canon, from narrative structure to my view about the subject, more than being influenced by the old show, you could say I tried to dismantle every single concept about it. Although, of course, that meant those feeling nostalgic about it would get angrier.

TWITCH- Another quite remarkable complaint was the lack of 권선징악 (勸善懲惡, good prevails over evil). This, unlike Conspiracy, was actually a drama clearly separating good from bad. But a look at In-Hong's father, or right at the end Hyo-Moon's "choice," both Park Sang-Gyu and Park In-Bin came to mind. Just like Sang-Gyu was swayed by all the misdeeds his father committed to survive, Hyo-Moon ends up becoming a "player" because of pressure from his clan, for being the eldest grandson. The period is a little different, but they're both characters with very visible shortcomings, although Hyo-Moon's choice is different at the end. What I felt in Fox with Nine Tails were the same nuances as Conspiracy after all, about the political and social environment dominating the choices and hopes of the individual. So, in a way, more than "good prevails over evil," the lesson one should expect from your dramas is closer to something like 남귤북지 (南橘北枳, "people's nature changes according to their environment"). Do you think something as traditional and conventional as this genre should always need that kind of sharp social commentary? Among foxes with nine tails, goblins and messengers of death, that is (laughs).

KWAK- The biggest reason we wanted to build a completely new story was exactly to get rid of traditional plots like "good prevails over evil," and because we needed a canvas to paint our thematic consciousness and message. Right from the very start, I had no interest whatsoever in the quintessence of horror or respecting genre tropes itself; my goal was letting those political and social issues transpire through our thematic consciousness. That is, out intention wasn't to focus on entertainment value alone, but also throw in some social commentary as the media content drama represents, that's the kind of work I desired to make. Even if I ended up working on goblin stories or something about messengers of death, I'd always focus on thematic consciousness, and always try to instill social and political issues throughout the story (laughs).

The reason you found similarities between Hyo-Moon and Sang-Gyu is exactly because characters were designed to support thematic consciousness in both works. Actually, the final moments of Fox with Nine Tails and Conspiracy have the same function, they ask the viewers a question. Still, more than Sang-Gyu, what Hyo-Moon shows at the end is a sort of combination between Wolhyang and Yang Man-Oh. The tortuous expression Hyo-Moon shows at the end is like a mix of Yang Man-Oh, falling into pieces and resigned, and Wolhyang's hope for the future generations. I wanted to make reactions on both ends possible: one could be considering that Hyo-Moon's final, peculiar expression meant he completely adapted to the "system," the other that he was just forced to do that, while at the same time feeling strongly against it. Just as different people will find different answers from that moment, viewers would ask themselves that question, reflect on what his choice could have really meant.

TWITCH- For the first time, you abandoned wigs or masks and the fox's own fur for the Gumiho. Looking at the CG, it had its awkward spots and moments of excellence. But, more than that, what I strongly felt watching the show was exactly what you referred to at the production meeting, her sexiness.... no, more than sexiness, should I call it femininity? Myeong-Ok has cute and sad aspects, she shows elegance and is a little scary as well. It was a really cool, fresh new outlook on the Gumiho, and when Myeong-Ok transforms it was as if a young maiden had lost all her innocence, and matured into a femme fatale. Other than CG, what did you focus on the most while preparing this character?

KWAK- Trying to portray the Gumiho in a new way, we also tried to break from form with her outward appearance. According to the "first period" story, it was obvious Myeong-Ok's introduction would have to be as a very cute, energetic and curious girl. The problem was after her transformation into a Gumiho. Costumes, make up, hair; all those concepts focused on trying to find a certain harmony with the story, so we went for a stylish, modern look. We had quite a few meetings with the Art Team, and focused a lot on this issue. Then, for what concerns the CG, we started from the "nine tails" concept, and then focuses on form, placement, color, movement and thickness, and went through a lot of trials and errors. I kept telling our SFX team that they were doing something really meaningful, which had never been tried before in our country. But, now that I think about it, maybe it's the first time that kind of image has been tried anywhere (laughs). Also, to better portray her sense of anger and revenge, we used CG tattoos developing around her back and face. We received a lot of complaints that the CG was awkward, that the Gumiho wasn't scary, or that the tails were just charming, but we did our best, and I'm quite satisfied with the result (laughs).

We needed something to contrast the character's transition, from Myeong-Ok to the Gumiho. That's because things like the woman's first period, her coming of age rites and the appearance of the Gumiho blood always symbolized attaining maturity to us. In other words, it's the moment when she starts understanding the reality of the ruling ideology, and a strong sense of social criticism builds inside her. Although, of course, for many journalists mere sex appeal replaced that maturity. More than the visual impact of the finale, what I focused my attention on was the essence of that "clan" mentality, and the gradual unfolding of that "Gumiho complex" (as in horror) before Myeong-Ok had her transformation. The only way to make her transformation into Gumiho convincing was to gradually go from simple curiosity to a critical viewpoint on her environment. And that catalyst, after all, was Seo-Ok's unfair death, so we needed for Myeong-Ok to identify with her, we needed a strong bond between the two sisters. That is the reason Seo-Ok became just as important as Myeong-Ok in building the story.

TWITCH- Another really welcome "guest" was the historical consciousness and authenticity, from the props to little detail like 아묵리가 (亞墨利加, amungniga, old spelling of the American continent). Looking at old Hometown of Legends episodes written by sageuk veterans like Im Choong, Jung Ha-Yeon and Lee Hwan-Kyung, they also worked as a standalone sageuk with very strong historical backgrounds, set aside the usual horror tropes, whereas the rest often felt like a collection of horror cliches thrown at the screen, with some awkward CG thrown in the mix. Fox with Nine Tails might have worked even better if you had two episodes to work with, in which case you would have had more time to develop the story and convey everything you needed. Yet, all considered, from the story structure to its thematic consciousness that of Fox with Nine Tails was a really accomplished script. I don't think I've heard of writers Ha Mi-Seon and Kim Jae-Eun before, but if this is their debut work it looks like a really promising start. Care to tell us what they previously worked on, or how they joined the production?

KWAK- Quite a few writers tried to strip themselves off the vestiges of Fox with Nine Tails's legacy, but gave up trying midway. After agonizing over it, I decided to create the story myself, and leave the script to newcomer Kim Jae-Eun. Her only career note is that of having been involved in the pre-production of cable drama 에이전트 제로 (Agent Zero) [ed. 2006 action thriller which was set to air on OCN and star Seol Kyung-Gu and Son Ye-Jin. It eventually moved to SBS and completely vanished from production lists, sinking without any trace], but I've known her for a long time and thought she had tremendous potential. While we were working on the script, a senior colleague of mine recommended Ha Mi-Seon, who previously worked on SBS' 남과 여 (Man and Woman), KBS' 사랑과 전쟁 (Love & War), 봄의 왈츠 (Spring Waltz) and more. I made sure the two writers' strengths could complete each other, and helped them with script revision, added details and we completed the whole thing together. When working with newcomers, the most important point is that you can overcome the limitations of old guard writers, who stubbornly refuse to accommodate most requests of the producer.

TWITCH- And so here we are, at the end of this scary long talk (laughs). On your debut, you gave us a masterpiece like Conspiracy in the Court; through your second work, which is often a very difficult and transitory test for any writer or producer, you killed two birds with a stone, pleasing critics and scoring high in the ratings. Now one could say you've become a "star producer" yourself. So, will your next project go for something much bigger, or do you plan to stay the course? And, any particular genre or subject you'd like to try, or any writer you'd particularly like to worth with?

KWAK- As I said, even in the future I'll try to balance entertainment with social commentary, through dramas that can allow me to focus on thematic consciousness, whenever possible. Of course it won't be easy, but my goal is to always try to kill two birds with a stone. Depending on KBS' internal situation, and the changes of the overall production environment of the industry, I might get the opportunity to do a big project, or some genre dramas. If I end up shooting another sageuk, there's a strong possibility it might be with an acclaimed veteran writer. And I'm also looking at the idea of making court and specialist [ed. Medical, police procedural etc. etc.] dramas with young and upcoming writers (laughs).

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More about Kwak Jung-Hwan

thunderboltAugust 30, 2008 10:01 PM

X, this interview is hands down the best thing you have ever written. (Better even than your monster Duelist review and you know how I feel about that one.^^) It's a must-read for anyone who cares about this genre and about the industry as a whole. There are so many lines I want to store away for safekeeping so I can revisit them and marvel again at how pure, profound and prophetic they are. Such wisdom. Such an inspiring read.

May I be nosy and ask how the interview was birthed and conducted? Seeing all the [laughs] interjections, I gather this wasn't an email interview. Did you actually meet Kwak Jung-Hwan? Was he privy to your questions before the interview and so "came" prepared? And oh, do spill the beans on how you felt doing the interview.^^

Finally, I don't care how busy I am. I'm rewatching Conspiracy in the Court tonight.

XAugust 30, 2008 10:24 PM

Mail. (laughs) is just the closest thing to ^^ or ㅋㅋ