Kim Seong-hun's follow-up to 2014's hit A Hard Day was screening in Locarno's majestic Piazza Grande. ScreenAnarchy had the chance to sit down with him to discuss his new film, The Tunnel, which is currently smashing the Korean box office.
THE TUNNEL is based on a Korean novel. How did you end up adapting that book? Did you bring a lot of changes to the original story?
When I first read the novel, the setting of one man being stuck is what I liked. I liked the simple story about the life of one human being. That's what I took the most from the novel. When I was adapting it, what changed the most was probably the tone, the use of irony to draw out more humour. In order to watch a film like this I think that you need to rely on the strengths of the humour in the film. Also, the ending dramatically changed because in the novel it's more painful and cruel.
Most Korean films tend to rely a lot on genre hybridity. In your work you always use a lot of humour. Basically THE TUNNEL is a disaster movie with a dramatic dimension, and yet it also has a lot of funny parts. How did you work to balance these two opposite tones?
My previous film, A Hard Day, was a thriller portraying a lot of tension and humour. I think both of these tones can collide with each other in order to have a bigger synergy effect. For The Tunnel, I thought that story and the situation itself could be quite heavy and even if it's a good story it could be to unbearable for an audience to sit through the two hours. But delivered with a sense of humour, if it doesn't affect the fundamental nature of what you're saying then it would be much better received. And that's also how I think that life works: we have all kind of emotions in our life, you can differentiate them but they all mix together.
Talking about humour and irony, you're tackling governmental issues as well as the media. Was it a pure comedy device or did you also plan to have a critical dimension?
Well, I think it depends on how you see the film and experience it. In Korea, this is a big budget commercial film so we have a responsibility to get as many people possible to watch this film. So regarding the critical aspect, by using humour -- whether the audience agrees or disagrees with it -- I wanted the film not to be too uncomfortable. For example, when you're being sworn out if it's done in a very serious way it can lead to physical fight afterwards but if it's done in a jovial, humorous way then you can just laugh it off and move on.
The question of national security is a central point in your film. Is it a direct consequence of the Sewol Ferry Incident?
It's not intentional, but as you've mentioned it you're aware of what's happened and I think for all Koreans -- including myself -- it's not an influence you can escape from. The film wasn't based on any specific incident. I think it can be seen as very similar as it deals with the collapse of universal values around the safety of human lives which of course can draw comparisons.
A very striking element of your film is how it goes straight to its point - the tunnel collapses before the first ten minutes. Did you specifically want to surprise your audience and challenge the concept of disaster films?
This was pretty similar in my previous film and it was partly made to surprise the audience. I think this there is also something to do with my approach of storytelling. Rather than having a promised set-up and building up toward a climax, I like to have the climax at the beginning and then afterward to have some time to explore the characters and the story. One strong advantage from this alternative is that it's a bit more unpredictable for the audience and harder to anticipate how the story will flow.
During the writing process, how much did you take into consideration the realistic elements for such a story (battery of the phone, the needs of a human being in such extreme conditions)? Did you rather prefer to focus on the symbolic meaning of the story?
It's not something that I was severely restricted by. Of course it's important not to lose sight of the realistic aspect of the story but in terms of helping the development and the unfolding of the story there are some parts where I sacrificed realism.
Both main actors - Ha Jung-woo and Doona Bae - are extremely good in the film. Did you have these two actors in mind when you started working on the development of the film?
It depends what you understand by the starting point of the film, but for me it was when I was writing the script that I had these two actors in mind and not from the very beginning. Only once I started working on the directions of the writing.
And how hard was it for Ha Jung-woo to act in such a narrow set?
The actor is actually bigger than he looks so for me it was also how I realised how small the interior of the car was (laughs). During the shooting, similarly to what happens in the film, he also adjusted to this. At the beginning, moving from the back of the car to the front part was very difficult, but halfway through the shooting he was very competent in doing so, just like the character in the film.
Are there any new upcoming projects that you could talk about?
Two years ago I came to Europe with my previous film and I got the same question about my next film and I said 'nothing certain'. Today I'm in the same situation: there's nothing certain about my next project but for sure I would love to come again in a place like this with something (laughs). In fact, I'm the one who's most curious about what I'm gonna do next!
Thanks to Seh Hyun-rho, Stefanie Kuchler and to the team of Locarno Film Festival for making this interview possible.