THE VILLAINESS Interview: Director Jung Byung-gil on the Stunts and Stars

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THE VILLAINESS Interview: Director Jung Byung-gil on the Stunts and Stars
With its mesmerising female protagonist and eye-popping analog action, The Villainess arrives on our shores after receiving a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.  Closing this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, director Jung Byung-gil spoke with me about the logistical challenges and the rarity of putting a woman at the centre of his stunt-laden thrill fest.
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  First, I’d have to find out whether if on the last day of filming, you apologised to Kim Ok-vin for all you put her through in this movie?
 
Jung Byung-gil:  I don’t remember saying sorry to her on the last day of filming, but I do remember saying sorry to her when we were having drinks.  {Laughs}.  The last day was too busy and there was too much going on to actually give her proper apology.
 
I think the title of THE VILLAINESS is intriguing.  What made you decide to call this film that? 
 
I would say it’s kind of an ironic wordplay, because when you see the whole story, it’s the sad story of a goodhearted woman.  On the outside, you see her killing people, but on the inside, she’s a goodhearted woman, so that’s how the title came to me.
 
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Korean film like THE VILLAINESS.  Was it difficult to convince producers to make a movie this wild, and also to take the risk of building the story around a female protagonist?
 
It actually wasn’t really difficult to persuade the producers or investors.  They really placed a lot of trust and faith in my ability, and that’s why I was able to make the story that I wanted to make.  
Right now in Korea, it actually is virtually impossible to have a film with such a strong female protagonist, but with this project, in particular, really from the start it was a project that started with the investors and production company placing their faith in me, so I was lucky enough to do that.
 
Did you envision THE VILLAINESS as a live-action comic book? 
 
For certain sequences, in particular with the opening, we didn’t use any 3D pre-visual processes; I remember that one being filmed first by stuntmen, and working around that.  The motorcycle scene, we used pre-visuals for that one.  And for the bus scene in the end, we used pre-visuals and pretty much shot at the same way as we worked it out in the pre-visual process.
 
The action sequences, particularly the opening and finale are masterpieces of cinematography and editing.  You have been a cinematographer yourself with ACTION BOYS.  Please talk about how you worked with DP Park Jung-hun and editor Heo Sun-mi?
 
I would say we worked a lot with some visual storyboarding, and also we would try out a lot of things.  For example, we would try setting up a camera on the helmets.  I feel that there was a lot of communicating between the DP and myself, communicating my ideas to him, and also really experimenting with having the DP have the camera, but also having the stuntmen have the camera on themselves, as well.  So, it was like a back-and-forth process.  
 
Also, with regards to the DP and the stuntmen, I had both of them spent a lot of time together, because it was important for the DP to know the movements of the stuntmen in order to figure out the blocking in the most ideal way.  So, there was a lot of spending time together and also practicing these moves together.
 
Regarding the shot choices; initially it looks like a first-person shooting game, and that pops in and out through the action.  Then there are moments during that hectic sequence and later set pieces, when you pull the shot out and have us viewing as independent observers, or looking over Sook-hee’s shoulder, or as one of the antagonists. 
 
What went into your choice of those different perspectives?
 
In the very beginning, in the opening sequence, I felt that using this first-person narrative perspective would be a good way to grab the viewer’s attention from the very beginning, and give you the feeling as if you are one with the protagonist.  I also thought that it would sort of pique the audience’s curiosity about who the protagonist was.  
 
So, in that process, I had to figure out how to maintain the cut while transitioning into the third person.  While I was thinking about that, I thought that using a mirror would make the transition naturally happen to a third person, so that’s how I sort of devised the perspectives.
 
Of course, we cannot talk about this film without mentioning your action choreographer, Kwon Kwi-duk (ACTION BOYS).  Please tell us about your collaboration with him?
 
I would say that he did everything that is asked of the fight choreographer:  He is basically the person that has been able to take my pre-visuals that I’ve given him and make those into reality.  For example, even the scene where the bus is overturned, Kwon Kwi-duk is the person who actually overturned the bus - himself.  He used a jump board that enabled it to make that happen, but other than that, I have no idea.
 
You began your career as a stuntmen, working with other stunt actors, so I wonder if THE VILLAINESS is the film that you had inside you for a long time?
 
Right after Action Boys, I received a positive response for that, so that became the foundation for me to do a commercial film endeavor, which was Confession of Murder, where the fight choreographer for that one was the main character in Action Boys, and he also crossed over to The Villainess, as well.  I would say that because I’m friends with the stuntmen, I would say I have an advantage when making action films, because I have the knowledge of how action scenes get made, and also I’m more aware of how stuntmen work.
 
How much of what we’re seeing is CGI and how much is actual hand-to-hand and wirework or “analog” action? 
 
I would say pretty much almost all the movie was shot in real life.  For the opening sequence, the motorcycle sequence, the bus sequence in the end, we really tried to minimise the computer-generated graphics.  I would say maybe passing cars – some of that was computer-generated, but for the most part, it was almost all shot in real life.
 
I would like to add that even though CG technique has flourished, I still feel that it sort of lessens the sense of reality when you start using it.
 
Having interviewed other directors of hers, I know Ms. Kim commits very strongly to her roles.  How much of the stuntwork did Ms. Kim do herself? 
 
I guess a general rule of thumb in figuring that out would be when you can see her face on the screen, that’s the stuff that she’s done on her own.  When you see her from behind, or when you can’t see her face, those would be the work of stunt men or stunt women.
 
Why did you think Kim Ok-vin was right to play Sook-hee? 
 
I felt like her face had the aura fit for a villainess.
 
But she’s not really a villainess…
 
{Laughs} Yes!
 
Could there have been any other course for Sook-hee, considering her terrible childhood?
 
The way I envisioned her character was that she was sort of destined to become the killer, but in the process of her becoming one, it’s not that she actively goes to someone and says she wants to become a killer, but she coincidentally meets the character of Joong-sang, and sort of evolves to a killer from there.
 
What would you say Kim Ok-vin added to this film that wasn’t originally on the page?
 
I would say I feel like she did a rather great job working on the melodramatic romance line of the film.  I wasn’t expecting that she would you as well as she did with those storylines.
 
Even though Sook-hee is a killer, she still has the capacity to open her heart.  I’m a big fan of the actor Sung Joon.  Tell us about choosing him to play the suitor of this dangerous lady?
 
I’m really thankful that you liked that relationship.  Sung Joon has mostly worked on TV dramas in Korea, and there was a series that sort of caught my eye, and I sort of thought, ‘Oh, he would be a nice choice for the role.’  And also I feel like Kim Ok-vin kind of personally wanted him to play the role, so that’s how it came together.
 
I felt THE VILLAINESS has quite a few tributes to previous action films with mighty female protagonists: I saw a lot of LA FEMME NIKITA, KILL BILL, HEROIC TRIO, and other films with strong female leads.  I wondered if those similarities were just part of your collective consciousness, or were they meant to be homage to those earlier films?
 
This film actually started more as an homage to La Femme Nikita: It was kind of me going back to the shock of watching it for the first time when I was 10 years old, and it expresses my respect for the director Luc Besson.  
 
Kill Bill, I like Kill Bill, but I would say the action sequences are different.  The reason I feel Kill Bill is mentioned a lot, is because of the scene where Sook-hee is under the bed watching her father die, and also her having her wedding dress on, maybe people feel is a reference to Kill Bill, but I feel that these kind of devices have been used even before Kill Bill in a lot of action movies. So, rather than being a specific homage to Kill Bill, I would say it’s more homage to La Femme Nikita.
 
On a different tack, the first film of yours that I saw was CONFESSION OF MURDER, which starred the great actress, Kim Young-ae.  Ms. Kim recently passed away.  Would you please share a thought or memory about working with her on that film?
 
Actually, Kim Young-ae really resembled my mother. {Laughs} So, I remember saying to her on set, “Oh, you resemble my mother.”  But I told her that she was prettier than my mom.  {Laughs}
 
What did it feel like to have a four-minute standing ovation at Cannes? 
 
Just to clarify, I felt that the quality of the film at Cannes – because we were working on such a tight deadline, and also it was a little bit longer than the version that is going to be shown tonight – so I thought, quality-wise, it was a little lesser than the one that is being shown tonight.  
 
And even after getting that standing ovation, because it was my first time at Cannes, I thought maybe it’s a customary thing that French people do, but then right after, I was getting scheduled a lot of interviews.  For Kim Ok-vin, it was her second time at Cannes after Thirst, and she was telling me that she was getting even more interviews than when she had done Thirst several years ago.
 
So, at first, I thought maybe it was just a customary thing, but the response that I’ve been receiving from foreign press has been quite positive, and also I’ve had agents from Hollywood contact me and I’ll be having meetings tonight with other potential agents.  So, I feel like my cinematic world is really changing; it’s kind of like before and after The Villainess.  I feel quite a shift in the response with The Villainess.
 
LMD:  What would you like for THE VILLAINESS to say to the audience?
 
JBg:  First of all, I hope the audience has a fun experience watching the film.  I hope that is sort of in the vein of seeing something fresh and new:  I hope that they watch it and feel that they have seen something that is fresh.  Personally, for me, The Villainess was the hardest to make, but it also gave me new experiences.  So, I hope that part of my experience translates to the audience, as well.
 
The Villainess opens in cinemas on August 25. 
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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actionJung Byung-gilKim Ok-vinNYAFF 2017Sung JoonThe Villainess

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