This weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with Ryoo Seung-Wan, who was being honored with a retrospective of his work at the Korean Film Festival in L.A. One of the most impressive directors working in Korean cinema today, his films blend electrifying action sequences with riveting plot-lines, and expend far more energy on characterization than the average genre pic. His feature debut was in 2000 with the excellent "Die Bad," which was formed from four shorts about two high school friends who grow up on opposite sides of the fence - one to be a gang boss, the other a detective.
I really enjoyed re-watching "Die Bad," in which you give a great performance as a cocky teenager taking his first steps into a life of crime. Does acting give you as much pleasure as directing, and do you intend to continue acting in your own films?
I think I'm probably just a director who didn't achieve as much success as he would have liked as an actor! But seriously, the more films I direct, the more I find myself enjoying the process of actually producing a movie versus acting in one; not to mention, while shooting "City Of Violence" I managed to really injure my knee, so my desire to continue with it is definitely on the wane.
Some of your movies seem more focused on pure action and martial arts rather than their frequently violent effects, while others are content to include both. How do you choose to balance action with violence in your movies?
It all depends on character, and how the protagonist drives the plot forward. Character is always key. Beyond that, genre is obviously important. Are we in a comic book world or one of gritty realism, in which the objective might be to convey a tangible sense of pain to the audience? In a film like "Arahan," for example, the action could be compared to Gene Kelly's dancing, or Buster Keaton-style slapstick, whereas in "Crying Fist" or "Die Bad," the style of action is scrappier and more violent, which reflects the way of life of those films' characters. Like the films of Abbas Kiorastami, or Italian Neorealist movies, the lives of these people are very hard - very oppressive - and their lifestyles, accordingly, involve constant fighting against forces beyond their control.
Can you tell us anything about the American remake of "Die Bad"? Will you be involved at all in the production?
No, not at all. I just get the remake fee [laughs] As for Marc Forster coming on to direct, I like those of his movies that I have seen, so I'm happy with the choice.
On that note, would you ever consider working in the U.S. yourself, or directing one of your own remakes?
I would not wish to direct a remake of one of my own films due to the cultural differences between America and Korea. Having said that, there are films from the classic Hollywood era - especially some noir movies - which I would love to direct remakes of. I love "Angels With Dirty Faces," for example. If I were to remake it, I would cast Chow Yun-Fat as James Cagney's character - as an Asian-American immigrant - and I would use Ken Watanable in place of Pat O'Brien. Although I'd love to make this, the rights are with Warner Bros, so there would be significant obstacles to overcome.
Which directors or films - both Korean or otherwise - would you consider some of your biggest influences?
Martin Scorsese, first and foremost. Brian De Palma, for his gangster movies - "Scarface," "Carlito's Way," "Raising Cain," "Sisters," which is a great movie. A lot of films from the 70's. I like Lee Marvin movies, for example - "Prime Cut," "Point Blank" - and on the subject of John Boorman, I think "Deliverance" is also a fantastic movie. As far as Korean influences: Park Chan-Wook - with whom I have worked a lot, and who has been a great mentor to me - as well as Lee Chang-Dong and Bong Joon-Ho. "Last Witness," a film from 1980 by Lee Doo-Young is a really, really good movie. All of these films and directors have had a big influence on the way I work. On the other hand, I don't particularly like Korean action movies from the 70's: They can be fun, but it's difficult to respect the filmmaking on display. They remind me of Chuck Norris movies.
What are you most and least excited by in Korean cinema at the moment?
I feel like there has been a revolution in Korean cinema in the past 10 years, both in the aesthetic and the commercial sense. An independent, edgier spirit has now entered into the mainstream, which can be seen in films like "Old Boy" (Park Chan-Wook) and "Memories of Murder" (Bong Joon-ho). I really like this new environment in which more artistic Korean movies are being appreciated by the general public. But there is also an opposing trend in both the Korean and American industries, in which middle-budgeted pictures are being avoided in favor of high-budget blockbusters, which are obviously seen as a much safer bet. It is thus just as hard as it has always been for me to secure funding for my projects. When it comes to films that do not require an especially high budget, Korean investors are still looking for easy-to-make movies like broad comedies. I think that the true power of Korean cinema comes from the difficult and original artistic choices made by many of the country's directors.
How have these funding difficulties affected some of your own films?
Every time I make a new film, I always feel the financial difficulties, and it is always an uphill struggle. Because of such problems, I couldn't use as much of the film space as I had hoped for the final sequences in films such as "Arahan" and "City of Violence," for example.
Is there anything that you would consider distinctly Korean about your own movies?
I'm not particularly conscious of infusing my work with anything that I would consider uniquely "Korean," which is not to say that it doesn't contain anything like that. I don't make movies for a specific audience, but rather to connect with the individual who is watching. For example, you and I are having a conversation right now: we're culturally different, our upbringing is different, our ethnicity is different - yet the fact that we're talking under the same weather, in the same environment, feeling the same mood... We're still entirely able to communicate. As for what my movies will be like in the future? Well, every morning I feel like a new person, so it's difficult to say. I used to think that I should work in a certain style and simply stick to that, but now I feel that I shouldn't be so trapped by a future that is uncertain at best. Nowadays I just try to do my very best in each new moment as it arises.
What is going on with "Yacha" [a zombie/martial arts crossover] right now?
I very much want to make "Yacha," but it demands a very big budget, so it has been difficult to find the necessary investment. When that comes, however, I will be ready to make that movie - even if I'm 80 at the time. My current movie, "Unfair," is shooting three weeks from now in Korea. It focuses on a dispute between a prosecutor and a policeman, but will feature no martial arts. I would say it's more of a crime thriller, but I find it hard to place any of my movies into a particular genre. It has the characteristics of an action film, minus the action itself. When I watched "The Insider," for example, it didn't have any action scenes, but it really felt like I was watching an action film. That's the kind of mood I'm aiming for with "Unfair." I'm very excited about this film and I'm confident that it will be well received.
How do you see your future?
Similar to directors such as Clint Eastwood, or Suzuki Saejun, I see myself directing well into old age. It's what I love to do.
If you are based in New York, then you can check out "Die Bad" on the big screen for free this coming Tuesday. Details below...
KOREAN MOVIE NIGHT CONTINUES
Every other Tuesday at 7pm
(54 Varick Street, on the corner of Canal Street, one block from the A, C, E
and 1 train Canal Street stops)
Price? Free. All movies are first-come, first-serve. Doors open at 6:30pm.
SERIES TWO: REMAKES
Everyone¹s remaking Korean movies these days, and the next three films in
the Korean Movie Night series are all slated for Hollywood remakes.
TUESDAY, MARCH 9 @ 7pm
DIE BAD (2000, 98 minutes, New York Premiere)
Late in 2008, Marc Forster signed on to direct a Hollywood remake of DIE
BAD. Awesome! A remake by the director of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, MONSTER¹S BALL
and STRANGER THAN FICTION gives us a chance to show this film which is the
first flick from Ryoo Seung-Wan (CITY OF VIOLENCE, CRYING FIST, DACHIMAWA
LEE). A stripped-down, punch-drunk, hard-hitting action movie shot on the
sly for $55,000 and throbbing with adrenaline, DIE BAD is an intense series
of jaw-dropping set pieces shot over a long period of time that launched
Director Ryoo onto the international scene as one of the great modern action