Ryoo Seung-wan Filmography (as director): The Berlin File (TBA),
The Unjust (2010), Dachimawa Lee (2008), The City of Violence (2006), If You Were Me 2 (2006), Crying Fist (2005), Arahan (2004),
No Blood No Tears (2002), Die Bad (2000).
Since the release of his first feature film, 'Die Bad', in 2000, Ryoo Seung-wan has regularly been referred to as the "Action Kid" of Korean Cinema. However, though
a number of his subsequent features could generally be described as action films, that description
ultimately does the director and his work rather a dis-service. For, while they are indeed often both faced-paced and exhilerating,
there is a level of gritty realism and character depth
to many of Ryoo Seung-wan's films rarely seen in average action fare.
hard-hitting storylines with smatterings of dark humour and Ryoo Seung-wan's films regularly, and deftly, step beyond simple genre categorisation. With his latest film, 'The Unjust' - the story of a police investigation into the case of a serial killer targeting school children - and his forthcoming feature 'The Berlin File' (working title) - a tale (based in Germany) about a North Korean secret agent who infiltrates a South Korean organization - Ryoo Seung-wan's reputation as one of the most vital Korean filmmakers today looks set to build yet further.
The following interview took place at the Apollo cinema (Picadilly, London) on November 17th 2011, prior to the London Korean Film Festival Closing Gala screening of 'The Unjust'.
Hangul Celluloid: Certainly in the West, you are primarily known as a director who has also done a fair amount of writing, editing and even choreography, but you have also regularly worked as an actor at various points in your career - playing roles in your own films, such as ‘Die Bad’, as well as other directors’ works, including Lee Chang Dong’s ‘Oasis’. When you were beginning your career, were you planning to both direct and act from the outset, or were you focused on only becoming a director?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Honestly, when I was watching Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, I just wanted to be an action star or an action hero. So I worked out and did a lot of sports, but when I browsed through film magazines it turned out that directors were more admirable figures. There is a photo I saw of John Ford directing John Wayne and that was a critical and significant photo for me because it just looked so awesome… and it still does. [Ryoo Seung-wan breaks into laughter]
Hangul Celluloid: A number of your films, including ‘The Unjust’, feature fairly dark and gritty storylines. Have you faced much pressure from film, production or investment companies to, perhaps, make your film plotlines more upbeat or provide happier endings, or have you been pretty much allowed to tell the stories that you want to without outside intervention?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Strangely enough, Korean audiences are very generous when it comes to tragic endings and I feel that outside companies trying to make films lighter is internationally a quite rare phenomenon. There are five films in Korea that reached the billion mark and, out of those, four have tragic endings. So, though particular films of mine may have been tragic or dark, I didn’t really get much interference because of that. Instead, the direction of the film, once the investment has been secured, can mean that several firms can look at the scenario in several ways and that’s really where the majority of differences arise.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘The Unjust’ is based around the story of an increasingly corrupt police investigation into child murders and I believe that there were somewhat similar real-life corruption stories in the Korean press during the time the film was being made. Did those news items affect the making of the film, or subsequent audience reactions to it?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Fundamentally, my film deals with the corrupt attitudes of the police or the way an event was dealt with by the judicial system and there was a lot of anger surrounding the real-life news reports at the time. I think the huge stress felt by the nation at the same time as this film was released created an explosive synergy effect, when reality and the film were compounded together. There was a growing craving and thirst by the Korean people for the meaning of justice and this could be seen from which books were becoming bestsellers and from the fact that the most popular foreign film at the time was ‘Dark Knight’, and as people’s feelings reached boiling point, ‘The Unjust’ was able to approach the audience in a special way.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve written the majority of your films, whereas the first draft of ‘The Unjust’ was written by Park Hoon-jung. Did the fact that the film was essentially written by someone else change the way you approached it as a director, and in your rewrites of the script did you alter the original story to a large or small degree?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I changed the script entirely according to my own style but, in truth, I never actually saw the version that Hoon-jung wrote, and I still haven’t seen it. It had been through the hands of many other writers who had been adapting it and it was only at that point that I saw the script. The subject matter of the film and the character structure was what appealed to me and at the time I was finding such story structures interesting, but there was nothing particular that was different for me as a director. Also, as I had rewritten the script significantly, I was in effect making my own film, as I always had.
Hangul Celluloid: Your next project is called ‘The Berlin File’, which I believe is still a working title. Could you tell us a little bit about it and why you chose to make a film based in Germany?
Ryoo Seung-wan: To introduce the film, there are North and South Korean spies who battle in the background of Berlin and, of course, there are many more complex factors involved but that’s really all I can reveal right now. The reason I chose Germany was because in the 20th century the two divided nations were Germany and Korea, and today in the 21st century, North and South Korea still stand at somewhat of a stalemate, as if it was still the 20th century. Berlin, in shooting a spy film there, had a lot to offer and the mysterious feeling it created was very attractive for me. When you’re making a film there are lot of things that you can’t logically or rationally explain and similarly I find it a difficult question to have a logical answer to. It’s simply “just because” and I have a strong feeling, or sense, that I should go there and film people who are standing, looking extremely lost and lonely. I think there may be women there playing harpsichords and enticing me to come and shoot. [Ryoo Seung-wan breaks into laughter]
Hangul Celluloid: Several of your contemporaries, including Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, are currently making English language films. Has the idea of working in the West, or making an English language film, ever appealed to you?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I never particularly thought that I must make a film in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to shoot a film in Hollywood. For me the question of whether a film is a Hollywood, a Korean or an English film really doesn’t make a difference, what’s important is that it’s my film.
Hangul Celluloid: Over the years from ‘Die Bad’ right through to ‘The Unjust’ there seems to be a gradual shift in your style of direction – early on being incredibly energetic with obvious Hong Kong influences but less so in recent years and films. Has that shift in style been a conscious decision on your part or has it been more of a natural progression?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I think there are parts that are conscious and parts that are unconscious. When you’re making a film, just because you make a conscious decision doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work out that way and lately I'm just trying to let myself go with the natural flow of things. Obviously, as you get older, your tastes and preferences change and I think it’s just a by-product of that. Perhaps I should brush my shoulder in a grandfatherly manner now. [Ryoo Seung-wan laughs]
Hangul Celluloid: Your brother is, of course, a highly successful actor who has starred in a number of your films, including ‘The Unjust’. Do you find it easier to direct him than, perhaps, someone you’re working with who is less familiar to you?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Every time we work together it’s a new film and a new character so it’s really a fresh beginning, and it’s not noticeably easier to work with him than other actors. I think compared to other directors and actors we feel a huge sense of responsibility to do better all the time and that pressure can actually become quite stifling at times. Aside from that, he is inspiring to work with and offers a lot for me to select from.
Hangul Celluloid: The other main actor in ‘The Unjust’ is Hwang Jung-min. Did you always have him in mind for the role or was the decision made to cast him at a later stage?
Ryoo Seung-wan: When I was writing the scenario, I was thinking of an actor of around that age, but to cast an actor in Korea a lot of things have to fit together, like scheduling, and it’s always a shame to have an actor in mind and then find that they aren’t available. So I wasn’t thinking of a specific actor when I wrote it. Once I’d presented the script to him and he accepted, I adapted it to suit his style. In fact, the choice of Hwang Jung-min was largely due to Ryoo Seung-beom’s recommendation.
Hangul Celluloid: I’m being asked to wrap things up but I have one more fairly general question: There is a common misconception among those in the UK who haven’t seen a lot of Korean cinema, that Korean films are inherently violent. What are your feelings about this misconception?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Korean films are inherently violent. [Ryoo Seung-wan bursts out laughing]
Hangul Celluloid: I’ve asked that question in several interviews but that’s the first time I’ve had that answer.
Ryoo Seung-wan: Does that prove that I’m unique? [Still laughing]
Hangul Celluloid: I think it does. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
I would sincerely like to thank Elizabeth and Caroline at Margaret London (PR), as well as all those involved with the organising of the London Korean Film Festival for arranging for me to interview director Ryoo Seung-wan.