The following interview took place at the Korean Cutural Centre UK on November 14th 2013 prior to the London Korean Film Festival 2013 screening of Kang Woo-suk's 'Fists of Legend' at Odeon Covent Garden:
Hangul Celluloid: You’re here at the London Korean Film Festival 2013 for both a retrospective of your earlier work and a screening of your latest film ‘Fists of Legend’. In general terms, what does the screening of a retrospective at a film festival, and in fact an international film festival, mean to you personally?
Kang Woo-suk: Truthfully, as I’m still active as a director and fully intend to make many, many films in the future, I didn’t really want to do the retrospective at first. However, as commercial Korean films that are extremely powerful still aren’t that well known in Europe and internationally, and since there is still somewhat of an assumption that Korean Cinema is all about arthouse content, I ultimately felt that an opportunity to show the reality of Korean cinema was important and worth being involved in. So, I agreed to the retrospective and I honestly think coming here to England to be part of the London Korean Film Festival was the right decision.
Hangul Celluloid: A Lot of your older work is deemed ‘classic’ Korean cinema - ‘Public Enemy’ which, certainly internationally, you’re known for above all else; ‘Silmido’ etc. - and, as far as ‘Silmido’ is concerned, if tensions between North and South Korea had been higher when the film was being pitched its fairly likely that it wouldn’t have got the green light to be made at that time. Do you feel that Korean cinema has now progressed to the point where narrative subjects that were once taboo - be they related to social unease, injustices or historical scars - can now all be spoken about in film?
Kang Woo-suk: Some of my earlier work such as ‘Two Cops’ received a lot of complaints and criticism related to the depiction of such topics in such a new manner. There was what I can only describe as an extreme air of caution and the turning point only really came with ‘Public Enemy’ and, as you said, ‘Silmido’. Thanks to those films, in the years since directors have been able to enjoy a far greater freedom to make films about almost any subject or topic.
Hangul Celluloid: Why did you choose to return to the ‘Public Enemy’ narrative idea subsequent to the film to make ‘Public Enemy 2’ and ‘Public Enemy Returns’?
Kang Woo-suk: Because the title of the film is ‘Public Enemy’ these stories depict enemies of society as a whole rather than that of an individual and I think we will likely always have social enemies of that type. As such, I felt not only a justification but also almost a need to return to the film again and again. I may well keep returning to ‘Public Enemy’ until I did simply because of what the title allows from a narrative point of view and, at any point in the future, if anything makes us think this or that is not acceptable, it opens the possibility for a film to be based upon it. While the form and individual subject changes in tandem with societal moves, the film and its possibilities remain.
Hangul Celluloid: You have, with ‘Public Enemy’, ‘Silmido’ and even ‘Fists of Legend’, repeatedly chosen to depict characters on the edge or outside of the norms of society. What is it about such stories that makes them of continued interest to you?
Kang Woo-suk: I have the personal ideology that just because I have or possess something, it doesn’t give me the right to walk over others. If it’s being rich, you shouldn’t really boast about it; if it’s status, you should treat those who are in a more vulnerable situation with respect and not treat them as if they are nothing. That’s what society ideally should be and how it should work but sadly it’s often not the case and so my referencing of such individuals is my way of standing up and speaking out.
Hangul Celluloid: As well as directing, throughout your career you have been a producer on numerous Korean films; you started Cinema Service in the 90s; and you’ve even worked in the production department of a number of movies. What is the reason for that? Is it to have as varied a career as possible or is it possibly in a continuing effort to see worthwhile films made that you wouldn’t actually want to direct yourself?
Kang Woo-suk: Any time I feel a film must be made and must come into existence but I either do not personally want to direct it or feel someone else is more suited to take the helm, I will invest in it without hesitation. However, when I find a film idea that I feel only I can direct, then I will do my utmost to ultimately become its director. Early in my career, I made so much money from my films that I felt a huge personal responsibility and pressure to re-invest in other cinematic works.
Hangul Celluloid: Is that what leads your career as a director - i.e. the thought “I’m the only person who can direct this film”?
Kang Woo-suk: In many cases, I come up with the idea for a film myself which was the case for ‘Public Enemy’, but regardless of whether the idea is originally mine or someone else’s, the story itself is vitally important to me. I feel Korean films should reflect both society as a whole and the Korean people within it and should stand as a statement of the times in which the films were made. Realism is vitally important to me too but while I just cannot bring myself to make quiet films I will nonetheless support other directors to do so. Ultimately, a film must touch something within people in a believable way and whether harsh or soft it should reflect them - or elements of them - in the past, present or future, and that is the principle I follow.
Hangul Celluloid: You directed ‘Moss’ which was based on a Korean ‘webtoon’ and ‘Fists of Legend’ is also based on an internet comic. Do you find a different approach to directing needs to be taken in moving a script from comic-based to screen than is the case with more literary, realistic scripts?
Kang Woo-suk: A ‘webtoon’ is a story that already exists visually and many assume it is therefore easy to turn into a film or very convenient to convert, and that was even one of the main reasons I approached that type of story in the past. However, I was completely deceived and came to realise that it is a hugely difficult process to convert a ‘webtoon’ into a film: Some things that make sense in relation to a comic idea just do not work in terms of cinematic visuals or narrative progressions on the big screen and audiences who unquestioningly accept what takes place in a ‘webtoon’ will often say this or that doesn’t make sense in a film. The fixing of all those elements in every aspect of a film is an utterly gruelling and incredibly difficult process.
Hangul Celluloid: With ‘Fists of Legend’, how did you find a balance between the portrayal of a large number of action sequences with the depiction of the underlying narrative story?
Kang Woo-suk: That was, in fact, the most difficult part in making the film. I didn’t want to make a film focused on simply action but at the same time I didn’t want to overstate the drama and risk losing the audience’s interest. So, that hugely difficult process I mentioned of converting such a story to the screen came into play, time and time again. That’s one of the reasons the film is as long as it is - I didn’t want to lose either the action or the drama and I didn’t want to hear from the audience that either only the action or drama was good - and, difficult though it was, it was vital for me to really focus on balancing the two. I found the balance I required by treating each aspect as being as important as every other and trying to ensure that each had a voice without overstepping its place; each stating its case without detracting from the other.
Hangul Celluloid: Was that need for balance part of the reason you decided to cast Hwang Jung-min in a lead role; with his ability to portray understated emotions so naturally?
Kang Woo-suk: Definitely. That was the reason he was my first choice for the role. He can portray emotion incredibly well and you don’t immediately think he’d be able to perform action as well. He also has a very ordinary face and I really wanted an actor who wasn’t overtly muscular like Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, so that as the narrative progresses audiences will constantly be surprised by the character both emotionally and in terms of physicality.
Hangul Celluloid: To what extent were the action/fight scenes in ‘Fists of Legend’ performed by the cast themselves, since Korean actors are known for often wanting to perform their own stunts?
Kang Woo-suk: Apart from one or two scenes, almost no stunt actors were used, and in the three months leading up to filming all the actors undertook training and practiced for the stunts tirelessly. However, though they had trained in advance there were many casualties suffered by the cast during filming. For example: one actor hurt his knee really badly; another had several teeth knocked out; but ultimately both I and the actors felt that the injuries sustained were worth it for the way in which the final film appears.
Hangul Celluloid: Over the years since the days when you made ‘Two Cops’, ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Silmido’, there has been a huge change in Korean cinema with an almost ever-increasing focus on blockbusters, some would say at the expense of smaller independent productions. When you were making ‘Fists of Legend’, did you feel pressure either personally or from an industry perspective to conform to that ideal and produce an action film that fitted with big-budget productions?
Kang Woo-suk: I think my personal situation is slightly different from most directors, both when I shoot films and when they get released, in Korea: If one of my films is about to be released, other films will tend to avoid that date and though there is certainly that idea of pressure felt in the industry as a whole, I never personally have to entertain or pay attention to it as I really have no budget constraints or worries in any production I’m making.
Hangul Celluloid: I’ve been asked to wrap things up, but one final, very quick question: What is more important to you as a director, character depth or overall storyline?
Kang Woo-suk: Storyline. Without hesitation, storyline.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my many questions.
I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Culltural Centre UK and the London Korean Film Festival 2013 for allowing me to interview director Kang Woo-suk at such length.