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The Future of Korean Cinema at Cannes 2023 (1): PROJECT SILENCE by Kim Tae-gon

Jun 15, 2023
  • Source by Online Magazine K-Movie by KOFIC
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PROJECT SILENCE, Project Silence, a Film Born From a Sense of Dread Experienced in an Ordinary Place




On May 22nd, the film <Project Silence> had its premiere in the Midnight Screening section of the Cannes Film Festival. As the Korean title may suggest (literally “Escape: Project Silence”), this work belongs to the disaster genre. Set on a bridge inspired by the Incheon Airport Bridge, with connects the reclaimed land where the airport is located to the continent, the story shows what happens when the weather conditions become so bad one couldn’t distinguish anything right in front of them. A series of chain collisions and explosions damages this bridge to the point where it’s at risk of collapse, and people who were on their way to or from the airport suddenly find themselves trapped with their life on the line. But there is a far more concerning threat: “Echoes”, creatures born from a military experiment called "Project Silence", were being transferred in the utmost secrecy, and now they are let loose and wreaking havoc. 





What pushed Kim Tae-gon to choose the disaster genre for his new project after making his feature film debut with the horror title <The Pot> in 2009 before jumping to mainstream fare with <Familyhood> (2016) was "a feeling of dread I experienced in my daily life." Before <Familyhood> entered production, he had embarked on a long trip walking alone from Mokpo, a port city in southwest Korea, to Seoul, and one day he found himself in a life-threatening situation. “At some point I was chased by close to 20 dogs on a secluded national road. What started as just a few dogs suddenly grew into a larger pack just as the day was ending. Being alone, it was extremely frightening. It never occurred to me that I could be threatened by dogs and fear for my life as an adult. And yet, that’s what I had in mind at that moment for the first time. As time passed and I would recall that incident, I started to wonder where these dogs came from. Surely, they must have been raised by people... And so, I thought mixing together these dogs that were abandoned by humans, the trauma they carry, and the dread that humans keep in them, that’s the recipe for an interesting story. Maybe Kim Yong-hwa, who served as produced on this project, decided to greenlight this pitch because it was penned by Kim Tae-gon and <Train to Busan> screenwriter Park Ju-seok? Or could it be because he wanted to see if Kim Tae-gon could pull off a multilayered story that involves dogs and humans, as well as natural (the mist) and manmade (the dogs) disasters?


As the story takes place on the way to and from an airport, the characters and their personal stories are as diverse as you would expect to see in a major travel hub. Among them, the characters who lead the narrative and from whom the audience experiences the story: Cha Jung-won and Cho Bak. Cha Jung-won played by Lee Sun-kyun is a Korean government administrative official who was on his way to see his daughter (Kim Su-an) off as she is going to study abroad in Australia. Cho Bak played by Ju Ji-hoon is a tow truck driver who works around the airport. He rushes to the airport bridge after hearing that an accident has occurred there but gets trapped like everyone else. Kim Tae-gon said, “I tried to portray the two characters who get caught in a disaster situation, Cha Jung-won and Cho Bak, as constantly quarreling and exchanging blows.” He also hinted at the fact that “Cha Jung-won is a character whose feelings and sincerity towards his daughter as a father changes as he experiences these events.” They cross paths with other characters such as an elderly couple (Moon Sung-keun and Ye Soo-jung) who are returning from a trip overseas, two sisters (Park Hee-bon, Park Joo-hyun) who missed their flight, and Dr. Yang (Kim Hee-won), the person in charge of ‘Project Silence’. Each of them struggles to escape from an ever-changing situation that that seems to get increasingly difficult with each new development, like as many stages in a video game.


Dogs trapped in the fog. This image alone, a central motif in the movie, is evocative enough to make us want to delve into the story. Keeping some realism in the visuals must have been crucial in order to get the audience feel fully immersed into a story set in a real-life place. One of the films Kim Tae-gon named as his reference points for a disaster scenario taking place in a misty area was the Hollywood horror movie <The Mist> (2008, directed by Frank Darabont). “One problem I had was filming the scenes so that the audience would be able to understand what was happening even when the fog was thick”, he said. “For that reason, I hesitated for a long time between implementing the fog in CGI or just using practical effects by producing smog on set, but after much consideration I decided to go for the real smog”, he said. “This way, for each sequence I could decide the density of fog that best fit the moment”.


Although the story mainly takes place outdoors, they decided to film in a studio with a bridge set built for the occasion. One of the main reasons for that was to maximize the effect of the mist. After all, it is difficult to control the concentration of fog if you spray it outdoors. Another reason must have been that it would have been difficult to restrict access to the actual Incheon Airport Bridge to film on location. Along with Art Director Han Ah-rum, who worked on <1987: When the Day Comes> and <Kingmaker>, Kim put a lot of thought into how to recreate the bridge as realistically as possible. “We designed the set by modifying each road section to reproduce a 200m section of the bridge”, explained director Kim Tae-gon. “Many people have already seen that bridge while in a car but never had the occasion to leave the car and stand on it on their two feet. I wanted to replicate that rather unfamiliar place”. Filming in studio accounted for more than 80% of all the footage shot.


What was just as important as the bridge set was to incorportate the experimental dogs. They consulted many movies that featured CGI dogs in pre-production, but “it was important to build these characters with a much better level of production than the CGI dogs we had seen before because the dogs are the main characters in this movie”. As you can see, <Project Silence> was a project for which high-quality visuals were expected from each technical department, be they VFX artists (the experimental dogs), special effects artists (the fog), or art designers (the bridge set). Kim had to call upon the best among the best: not only the aforementioned Han Ah-rum, but also Kim Yong-hwa for the production, Hong Kyeong-pyo for the cinematography, and Demolition for the special effects. “If I had more experience with big-budget movies like disaster films, I could have given them directions myself, but because I didn’t have much of that experience yet, working with experienced colleagues was invaluable”, said Kim Tae-gon who felt much gratitude. “I felt a lot of trust and support from them through the whole filming process.” According to him, it may have been thanks to this reliable production team that he was able to complete the movie without any major incidents despite having had to film it during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Kim Tae-gon recalled his thoughts as this new feature film, which he shot with great effort over many days, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. “Isn’t Cannes a dream stage for everyone who make movies? Of course, when the project was in the preparation stage, I thought that a movie about dogs that mix the creature film genre and the disaster genre would have some appeal in other countries, but I never expected to be invited to Cannes. When I heard the news of its selection, I couldn’t believe it.” When asked by reporters if he received any congratulations from the other members of KwangHwaMoon Cinema, the independent film collective he founded with other students when he was attending the Korea National University of Arts, he replied, “They congratulated me as they knew how hard it had been for me to shoot <Escape> so they were seeing this as a reward for my hard work.” (laughs)


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