Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • Korean Film Guide to BIFF 2013: Star HA Jung-woo
  • by LEE Hwa-jung  / 09.29.2013
  • Jack of All Trades

    One of the most notable stars of this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is HA Jung-woo. While invited as an actor to Panorama Section of Korean Cinema Today for The Berlin File, he is also invited to the same section as the director of the film Fasten Your Seatbelt. Other films in the same section include HONG Sangsoo’s Our Sunhi and KIM Ki-duk’s Moebius. It is quite an unusual case for HA Jung-woo, who has worked with HONG Sangsoo on Like You Know It All (2009) and with KIM Ki-duk on Time (2006) and Breath (2007), to stand alongside the likes of these directors as a film director himself. BIFF programmers state their reason for the selection to be “the film’s commercial qualities and director HA Jung-woo’s talent as a filmmaker.” Furthermore, The Terror, LIVE, which he starred in and which sold over five million tickets at the domestic box office, will be screened in the Open Cinema Section bringing the total of HA Jung-woo’s films to be showcased during this year’s festival to three.
    As one can see, HA Jung-woo’s time has definitely come. Since his debut in 2002, he has sustained an extremely prolific career, performing in more than 20 films which have received both critical and popular acclaim and earning him a reputation as an ‘actor whom you can count on.’ The first film to put him on the map was The Unforgiven (2005) directed by YOON Jong-bin. This film was invited to the Cannes Film Festival’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ Section in 2006 and gave him the opportunity to prove to the public that he was consummate actor. Soon, his performance in a hit TV drama shot him to stardom, yet he subsequently chose to work with KIM Ki-duk on two of the filmmaker’s low-budget art house films, Time (2006) and Breath (2007), as a means to expand his horizons as an actor. The film in which his potential became most clear was filmmaker NA Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008). This film, which claimed 5.13 million in admissions, advanced new prospects for Korean-style action thrillers, but more importantly secured HA Jung-woo, with impressive performance as a psychopathic serial killer, as an actor with star quality and acting talent. He collaborated with NA Hong-jin once again on the action thriller The Yellow Sea (2010) and became a household name in the action thriller genre. In 2009, he starred as a ski jumping player, given away at birth to the U.S. in filmmaker KIM Yong-hwa’s sports film Take Off, which claimed over eight million in admissions (currently the 14th highest grossing Korean film of all time) and earned him the stature of a bankable star as well.
    The fact that he stars in an average of three films per year gives him the opportunity to work in various genres including melodrama, comedy and human drama. However, if there is an image that has best represented him as an actor, it is the bold and masculine image he has projected through the action thrillers he has starred in. The gang boss he played in Nameless Gangster : Rules of the Time (2011), in which he collaborated again with YOON Jong-bin of the The Unforgiven, and the North Korean spy he played in The Berlin File directed by RYOO Seung-wan, are some of the notable works that demonstrate HA Jung-woo’s most defining character on screen. With the success of his most recent work, filmmaker KIM Byung-woo’s The Terror, LIVE in which he plays a TV anchorman facing a terrorist situation, this actor who is now known to have the ‘Midas touch’ has teamed up again with YOON Jong-bin on the filmmaker’s upcoming action period piece KUNDO: Age of the Rampant which is currently in production.
    - It seems you shaved your head and gained a deep tan because of KUNDO: Age of the Rampant. How far are you into production?

    The film shoot has been slightly delayed because of the rain. I believe it will run until October. Working on this film has been so much fun. This is because quite a number of the actors I worked with in YOON Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time are also in this film. This film deals with a gang of thieves who stole for the people at a time when the nobility’s exploitative wrongdoings were at their worst. I play Dolmuchi who lived as a butcher until he joins a gang of chivalrous robbers or you might say, Robin Hoods. I guarantee it’s a film you shouldn’t miss.

    - You seem to enjoy working with first time filmmakers and challenging projects, however, it must have been difficult to decide working on The Terror, LIVE.

    Everything was a drawback for deciding to do this film. The uncertainty of working with a first time filmmaker and the quality of computer graphics that corresponded well with the flow of the script were all subjects of concern for me. Nevertheless, my instincts told me that if the film could maintain a speedy pace, then there definitely were points where the audience would respond.

    - The TV anchorman YOON Young-hwa in The Terror, LIVE gradually loses himself as he is threatened by the terrorist on live TV. How did you intend to express this character?

    Instead of establishing some kind of fixed character, I focused on showing the two sides of YOON Young-hwa. When he was on air, he presented himself as a typical white collar man, but when the ‘on air’ lights went off, I wanted to express an uninhibited man who is no stranger to coarse language.

    - In most of the scenes that the terrorist appears in, we acknowledge his presence through his voice. In the studio, it’s almost a one man show you pull off as YOON Young-hwa battles the terrorist. How was this done?

    You can consider this as a film with 21 chapters. While five cameras were rolling at the same time, each chapter was shot in a one-scene-one-cut fashion as if we were in a theater play. We maintained a shooting schedule of five hours per day, five shooting days per week during a course of four weeks. The main issue for me was mastering the script before each shoot. I had an incredible amount of dialogue to memorize and considering the nature of a TV anchorman, I had to deliver my lines with speed. In order to focus, I rented a place near the set and stayed there for a month. I rehearsed alone each night before the film shoot as if I were practicing for a theater play.

    - What was the most difficult thing about acting in this film?

    I made a request to the director to continue shooting without any interruptions. But each take became more painful. Since there weren’t any reactions to respond to, I often found myself feeling quite embarrassed. To make matters worse, as I had to deliver TV anchorman lines, I constantly struggled with the pronunciation as well as the fast pacing. The challenge was to deliver all those lines with considerable speed.

    - You are known for being meticulous in your work. The director of The Terror, LIVE, KIM Byung-woo, also said he was amazed by how prepared you were when you came on set.
    I guess my personality makes it difficult for me to go over things easily. If I just slack off because things are not working the way I want them to, then the audience notices this. It’s too late if I do things on the set. I feel more comfortable double-checking things over and over again. It was the same for me when I was in the director’s seat. I made my Fasten Your Seatbelt cast go through hard training each day for two month before the film shoot. As a result, my producers were impressed with their performances. It’s because they had enough practice.
    - You often work on several films at the same time like you did while you were working on The Terror, LIVE. What are your criteria for choosing a project? In addition, you are also fairly active as a painter; I imagine you have had no time to paint during this period.

    I didn’t have time to paint a single piece of work during this time. The film overlapped with the marketing schedule of The Berlin File and went into production as soon as I finished shooting Fasten Your Seatbelt, so I only had time during the weekends to edit Fasten Your Seatbelt. I often read scripts while exercising on the treadmill, but had to stop because I was so fascinated with the script of The Terror, LIVE. Fortunately, the schedule for YOON Jong-bin’s KUNDO: Age of the Rampant was pushed back, making it possible for me to perform in it.

    - How would you describe Fasten Your Seatbelt?

    It’s a film about everything going haywire when an aircraft, with a big Korean actor on board is in danger of crashing. As I am a big Woody Allen fan, I tried to replicate his comedy.

    - I assume your experience as a director gave you new insights on your profession as an actor.

    When a filmmaker’s directions were rather vague on set, I would always wonder why that was so. But after directing a film myself, I could see that there are areas that are difficult to fully understand as a director. Sometimes, it was the actor(s) I had to rely on. I became determined to become that kind of actor. As The Terror, LIVE was the debut film of director KIM Byung-woo and being placed in the position of being a debuting filmmaker myself, I could relate to him in many ways such as the anxieties along with the difficulties of dealing with uncontrollable situations. I became more comfortable with myself and more understanding. (laughs) Furthermore, it was a lot of fun to direct while acting. I especially enjoyed the process of making things my own way.

    - I assume you discovered your own style as a film director through the film you made.
    Fasten Your Seatbelt was made on a shoestring budget of KRW 590 million (approx. USD 590,000) and had a schedule of 21 shooting days. It was possible because I am a quick decision-maker. The reason why the film shoot did not drag on was because I forced the cast to go through intense training. (laughs) We got together to practice five days a week for two months, as if we were preparing for a theater play.

    - You have announced the title and your role as the main character of your upcoming directorial project Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, which you are aiming to put into production by February next year.

    I wasn't arrogant to ask if I could direct the film. (laughs) I was already cast for it and it was the production company that asked me to direct. I always thought it would be impossible for me to direct such a large-scale film before I reached forty, but when I actually received the offer, my heart started pounding like crazy. It felt like an incredibly challenging opportunity that I shouldn’t back down from.

    - Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is based on an original story by the Chinese writer, YU Hua. How are you planning to adapt this story for the screen?

    The script, in which the background has been changed to Korea, is finished and the era has been switched to a time right after the end of the Korean War. It tells the story of XU Sanguan who moves to a village and gets married there. I want to make a film that recalls the concentration camps in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) and tells a story with both tears and laughter as in Roberto Benini’s Life is Beautiful (1997). I lowered the age of the original character XU Sanguan in the original story to be late-30s so it would be a bit easier for me to create the character. The main issue is to move the audience without destroying the essence of the original story. I really want to maintain the unique cheekiness and humor in author YU Hua’s writing style.

    - You mentioned you wanted to become like actors such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. What is the difference between choosing a project as an actor and as a film director?

    I guess the films that I want to see and what I want to do are different. When I participate as an actor, I usually choose projects I’ve never done before. My choice is based on the cinematic uniqueness of a film project that is essentially cinematic. The reason why I often work with first time filmmakers is because it is another challenge for me. I don’t really mind what genre it is. But when I am working as a film director, I prefer human dramas or human comedies.

    - You’ve worked with quite a number of directors. Have any of them influenced you in terms of directing a film?

    I’ve been influenced by RYOO Seung-wan’s detailed execution on set, YOON Jong-bin’s hit-and-run type of humor, NA Hong-jin’s editing speed and sense of rhythm and KIM Yong-hwa’s actor-directing style and leadership on set. Being in the director’s seat, I realized that all the filmmakers I worked with are my teachers whom I now see in a different light. (laughs)
    By LEE Hwa-jung • Photo By OH Kye-ohk
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