After graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Choi Dong-hoon made his feature film debut with ‘The Big Swindle’ in 2004. He worked as first assistant director for Director Im Sang-soo on his acclaimed film "Tears" and has earned the reputation as an innovative and excellent screenwriting filmmaker. His subsequent films, ‘Tazza: The High Rollers’ and ‘Woochi’ further cemented his place as a talented director, leading producer Cha Seung-jae to describe him as a "genius storyteller" for his ability to develop elaborate yet gripping stories. His latest film ‘The Thieves’ has broken box office records in Korea, overtaking even Bong Joon-ho’s ‘The Host’ in cinema admissions.
The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on Thursday November 1st 2012 prior to the European premiere of director Choi's film 'The Thieves' - the Opening Gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2012, at the Odeon West End, Leicester Square, London.
Hangul Celluloid: Between 2003 and 2006, you were an actor as well as a director; having roles in ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’, ‘The President’s Last Bang’ and your own film ‘The War of the Flower’. In your career as an actor was it always your intention to move full-time into solely directing or did you, for a time, considering continuing to run both careers simultaneously?
Choi Dong-hoon: When I attended university, I joined a theatre and social club and that’s where I first experienced acting but almost instantly I realised it was no fun whatsoever and so I quit it right away. Directing is my “thing”, if you like, but I was curious to know how actors work and to understand as much as I could about that particular craft. So, I actively sought out acting roles while I was also directing early in my career but I feel I’ve “been there, done that” and, yes, directing is now my sole focus and career and probably always will be.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve worked with director Im Sang-soo on a number of occasions; once again, ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ and ‘The President’s Last Bang’, and you were also First Assistant Director on director Im’s film ‘Tears’. Considering the amount of adult content that Im Sang-soo chooses to put in so many of his films, what are your thoughts on the growing use of graphic sexuality in Korean films; especially considering the fact that many would claim its inclusion is a deliberate attempt to attract young Korean adults and draw them away from the competition of Hollywood films and blockbusters?
Choi Dong-hoon: While, as you say, there is an increasing use of sexual content in Korean cinema there are relatively few films that use that content to discuss and dissect serious, worthy subject matter and a great many that I feel use sexual scenes simply to try to titillate and be seen as controversial. Im Sang-soo does use a lot of adult content in his films but he always ensures that there is a valid reason for it and a note-worthy narrative to surround it. As far as those types of films are concerned, I really feel that there should be far more of them in Korea and we as filmmakers and viewers have a great deal to thank Im Sang-soo for. With regard to your question about the competition from Hollywood and how Korean cinema can successfully differentiate itself, yes, growing sexual content may well be one way in which some Korean films attempt to attract the audiences you mentioned, and even international audiences, but I think the one thing more than any other that allows Korean cinema to stand out from the crowd both domestically and on the world stage is Korean actors expressing Korean lives using the Korean language; well realised stories, deftly acted, that discuss important matters, with social commentary presented as an integral part of the narrative.
Hangul Celluloid: If I can take that point further: Your latest film, ‘The Thieves’ could be described as a blockbuster; certainly now as it has broken box office records and has even overtaken Bong-Joon-ho’s The Host on cinema admissions. While it is at its core a heist movie, a genre that you are incredibly adept at making films within, what were your thoughts on adding the social commentary you mentioned and discussing issues that do relate to Koreans? Was the setting of a large part of the plot of ‘The Thieves’ in Hong Kong part of your attempt to do so?
Choi Dong-hoon: I almost wish I was psychic and had known you were going to ask that question; then I might have been able to find a way to say that ‘The Thieves’ is socially vital, but I have to be honest and say that there was no social commentary intended within ’The Thieves’. After the film was released, some people even said that if there really was no social commentary present that that would be a rather problematic issue in itself. In fact, what I really set out to create was a genre movie, plain and simple, and while others may say that makes it a low-profile genre film that just happened to become a huge hit, in my view the story was just great to work on and the quality of acting was exemplary, and I still don’t feel that this particular film actually needs anything else; especially in its scenario of ten thieves getting together giving me the dynamics of characters some exciting or excitable and some who are actually evil. Actually, I think that may even be why many audience members in Korea have actually seen the film twice. The Hong Kong element helps this dynamic, I feel, but the main reason it was included was because I visited Macau and thought it was such a beautiful place that I wanted to set a film there and, in fact, it was while I was there that the idea for ‘The Thieves’ started.
Hangul Celluloid: You cast Jeon Ji-hyun [also known by the name she uses in English Language films, Gianna Jun] as a thief who is a wire expert. How did her casting in the film come about?
Choi Dong-hoon [speaking English]: My wife is a producer and Jeon Ji-hyun worked with her around ten years ago. I’d never met her but one day my wife said that Jeon Ji-hyun wanted to visit my home; about 15 days before I started writing the script for ‘The Thieves’. Of course, my immediate reaction was to clean everywhere and make sure my house was spotlessly clean [Choi Dong-hoon laughs] and when I finally met her at my home, well, she was just so incredibly attractive as a person. At that point, I began to wonder why we haven’t seen that side of her in films anywhere near as much as we should and I quickly realised that I wanted to show her true nature to the world. So, as I wrote the script for ‘The Thieves’, I began to create a character specifically for Jeon Ji-hyun to play.
Hangul Celluloid: That actually almost covers another of my questions: Kim Hye-soo was also cast in ‘The Thieves’. Did the fact that both she and Jeon Ji-hyun are renowned for their beauty play a part in your decision to cast them both?
Choi Dong-hoon: I am really close friends with Kim Hye-soo but when I first gave her the screenplay she refused it right away. In one of my previous films ‘Tazza: The High Rollers’, Kim Hye-soo played Madame Jung and she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to produce anything extraordinary or particularly different from her portrayal of that character. So, I said “Completely forget Madame Jung and you’ll be able to give this role exactly what it requires” and at that point she said yes to the role. In fact, when she decided to take the role, she texted me at 3am and said she wanted the role so I got out of bed and texted her back, saying “Welcome to ‘The Thieves’”.
Hangul Celluloid: You mention ‘Tazza’ and I guess ‘The Big Swindle’ and even ‘The Thieves’ would all be termed heist films and, in fact, heist films are almost your trademark. What led to your decision to make ‘Woochi’ which in genre terms is almost a million miles away from any of those films?
Choi Dong-hoon: Following the success of ‘Tazza’ I almost felt that investors would be willing to fund any film whatsoever that I wanted to make and I thought that was my perfect opportunity to make a film like ‘Woochi’. I’ve always been interested in the fantasy genre film and I have to say that it was an incredibly fun project from start to finish, and I’d love to do it again. It made a lot of money too [Choi Dong-hoon laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: With ‘The Thieves’ being so incredibly successful domestically in Korea and now screening internationally, how important is the international market to you in terms of all your films?
Choi Dong-hoon: I think ‘The Thieves’ has a very rich generic colour to it and while my first priority is to make films for the Korean market, but as I get to make more films my interest in international audiences grows. I want people in other countries to share in the same quality and experiences as Korean audiences get from my films and I hope that the Thieves will be received well by international audiences too. Actually, some have said that that is why I added the Hong Kong element to the story, but as I said earlier that isn’t really the case. Besides all that, I want to communicate the wonderful qualities of Korean films to the world and show the amazing acting talent Korean actors and actresses possess because I consistently have a great time working with some truly wonderful actors.
Hangul Celluloid: I’m being asked to wrap things up but I have one final question: Producer Cha Seung-jae described you as “a genius storyteller” in your ability to develop elaborate yet gripping stories. What are your thoughts on his description of your talent?
Choi Dong-hoon: I’m both deeply flattered and slightly embarrassed by Cha Seng-jae’s comment [Choi Dong-hoon laughs]. Previously, I thought that the three most important elements to a film were good story, good story and good story. However, now I feel that the three important elements are good character, good character and good character.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
Choi Dong-hoon: You are very welcome and I look forward to seeing you at the screening of ‘The Thieves’ tonight.
I would sincerely like to thank the London Korean Film Festival and the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing me to interview director Choi at such length.