Going My Way with KANG Je-kyu
The dramatization of a true war-time story that spans years, continents, and changing friendships and enmities, <My Way> is director KANG Je-kyu’s comeback after seven years. KANG Byeong-jin looks at what went into the making of the film.
<My Way> deals with a true story that is practically legend. In the late 1930s, a man from Joseon ends up going to China and the Soviet Union towards Germany and finally ends up on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Amongst the US National Archives’ records of the invasion of Normandy was found a photograph of an Asian man in a German uniform at Normandy. American historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in his book <D-Day>, “At the beach called Utah on the day of the invasion, Lt. Robert Brewer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, captured four Asians in Wehrmacht uniforms. No one could speak their language; eventually it was learned that they were Koreans.”
In 2005, the SBS TV documentary “The Korean of Normandy” uncovered relatively compelling evidence that the man in the photograph was indeed a Korean. Even simply imagined, it was a journey that was full of pain and resonance. It was also subject matter that had potential to bring together emotion and spectacle, something that has previously allowed Korean blockbusters to go up against Hollywood with comparatively smaller production budgets. Moreover, it was a story that could offer a new dimension to overseas audiences that had likely seen enough World War II films to be tired of them.
My Way of telling the story
The film does not try to recreate an imagining of the drama of the man’s real journey. The focus of the story is the conflict, reconciliation and friendship with another man who walked the road of pain with him. Considering the disposition of director Kang Je-kyu, who with <Shiri> portrayed the plaintive love of a man and a woman in the midst of North and South Korean confrontation, and with <Taegukgi> depicted the tragedy of two brothers dropped in the middle of the Korean War, it seemed like he was naturally coming full circle.
So the start of <My Way> is marked by the two men’s encounter as boys. Gyeongseong (now Seoul) in 1928. Tatsuo and his family moves there to join his grandfather, a high official in the Japanese colonial government, and this is how he first meets Jun-shik. Both respectively well-known as the fastest runners in Gyeongseong and Tokyo, the boys grow up running together.
Ten years later, they go up against each other to be chosen for the Olympic marathon team. Jun-shik (JANG Dong-gun) defeats Tatsuo (ODAGIRI Joe) and takes first place, but has the spot taken from him through the Japanese judges’ trickery. Enraged by the bogus decision, Jun-shik and his friend Jongdae (KIM In-kwon), along with several other Joseon men, start a riot. The Japanese court conscripts them to go to war to pay for their crime.
After several battles, Jun-shik and his group are facing off against the Red Army in Mongolia when Tatsuo, transformed into a soldier, comes to command them. He considers retreat on the battlefield a disgrace and drives the soldiers to suicidal destruction, but in the end, his troops are taken prisoner by the Red Army. Once they are all prisoners, the status of Japanese and ‘Josenjing’ (a derogatory Japanese name for Koreans) disappears and the conflict between Tatsuo and Jun-shik quickly escalates. But the tumult of war doesn’t allow them to stay enemies. As Tatsuo experiences a war that has nothing to do with him, he approaches the same standpoint as Jun-shik.
Kang Je-kyu’s return
<My Way> is director Kang Je-kyu’s first film in seven years. He left for the US in 2006 and was preparing his Hollywood debut with a sci-fi movie when he saw the <My Way> script and the documentary dealing with the true story.
“The first draft’s title was “D-Day”. Even reading that script, I was thinking this would make a [good] movie. Then I saw the documentary, too. After I finished watching it, my heart was pounding hard,” remembers Kang with a laugh. “It seems like the story of a man getting sunk by a tremendous part of history, but refusing to sink to the end. That’s what fascinated me about it.”
It was Warner Brothers that had proposed to Kang that he direct. But according to him, he couldn’t accept the investment conditions that Warner had presented. Generally in Korea, the title of main investor goes to the company that puts in 50% of the total budget. But what Warner presented at the time was much lower than that. In the end, instead of becoming Kang Je-kyu’s Hollywood debut, <My Way> turned into his fourth Korean film project.
Its production budget is about KW 28 billion (US$24 million). SK Telecom and CJ E&M’s film business division put up 80% of the budget in equal parts. The remaining 20% came from partial investors in China and Korea. The Chinese company that took on 10% of the production costs was Mu Xiao Guang, the company that also represents FAN Bingbing, the Chinese actress who appears in <My Way>.
Transcontinental, multi-national logistics
The production lasted about eight months from October 2010 to June 2011. The places that appear in <My Way> range from Nomonhan, near the Mongolian border, a Soviet Union prisoner camp, a logging camp, and a field of battle between the Germans and Red Army, but most of the film’s locations were actually in Korea.
At the pre-production stage, the production crew originally prepared to shoot on location in China, Mongolia and Russia, but weather, accommodations, costs and various issues proved difficult and so they had to look to Korea.
The early 20th century Gyeongseong scenes at the beginning of the film were shot on sets in Hapcheon. The logging camp where the captured Japanese and Joseon soldiers had to work was shot in the Cheong-oksan national park in Gangwon Province.
The most utilized location was Korea’s Saemangeum Seawall. A man-made dyke, it features 401㎢ of vast plains. “It’s a wide plain and at the same time, different parts of it have different atmospheres, so we were able to build sets for several different places,” says Kang.
According to the film’s backgrounds, the plain was divided into three sectors where sets were built, and the time and cost for cast and crew to move between sets was minimized. Not only that, but because it was a sparsely peopled area, they were able to shoot war scenes with loud explosion noises without any trouble.
The most significant difference between <My Way> and other war movies produced in Korea up until now is that it is a story about World War II and not the Korean War. Of course, recreating the naval battle at Normandy, the last battle in the film, was of utmost importance for the production. Although most of the scenes were shot in Korea, this was why the Normandy battle had to be shot on location overseas. From the pre-production stage, the crew had a team that was in charge of scouting European locations.
“I prepared everyone with the thought that the Normandy scenes would have to be shot as a separate movie,” says Kang.
For almost two years, the team analyzed information about ten or more countries around the Caspian, Mediterranean and Black Sea. After a month of recce, they ultimately decided on Latvia, on the coast of the Baltic Sea. They say they were able to get shooting permission after meeting with and convincing a Latvian minister.
More than 100 Korean crew members took part and including the local crew, there were about 200 or more people on the film’s Latvian location. People of diverse nationalities, from the neighboring countries of Russia and Lituania to Germany, Norway and Switzerland worked on the film. Local press eagerly covered the location shoot of <My Way> as well.
Weapons of emotion and spectacle
For director Kang Je-kyu, whose previous films made use of emotion and spectacle as their primary weapons, creating spectacle hitherto unseen in Korean cinema was probably the biggest task. Not only did they build an actual 12-meter building and manufacture Japanese army trucks and jeeps, Red Army BT5 tanks, German army motorcycles and armored vehicles, Allied forces’ Higgins amphibious landing boats, they designed various new shooting methods.
In addition to five cameras - two Red MXs, an Arriflex 435 and two Canon 5D Mark2s, the crew also mobilized a Body Cam that could attach to a helmet or be worn on the body, as well as rotating and propeller-style wirecams. They also developed a pressure shooting system to shoot from the point of view of a rapidly flying bullet. It’s a system that sets up a camera on rails and uses air pressure to shoot it forward to stop exactly where they want it to.
But what most directly reveals the spectacle of <My Way> is the landscape of war seen through aerial shots. Because of the strong winds in the Latvian location, the production brought a team called Blue Sky, aerial filming specialists from Norway. Well-known for their skilled work in Hollywood, the company also did the aerial filming for David Fincher’s <Girl With the Dragon Tatoo>.
Upping the game
Director Kang Je-kyu’s filmography in Korea reads like the story of a boxer who continually rises to the challenge of going up in weight class. From <The Gingko Bed> via <Shiri> to <Taegukgi>, Kang’s films endeavored to expand in terms of size, technology and genre and each time they raised the weight class of all Korean films. And <My Way> is the project with which Kang and Korean films try to get the heavyweight title.
The film had Korea’s highest ever production budget of KW28 billion, the participation of multi-national actors, foreign and domestic locations, and a story that leapt beyond Korean history into the globally historical tumult of World War II.
As with his previous films, looking at <My Way> in terms of the entire Korean film industry, the film inevitably has a significance that goes beyond that of a single release. This is why so many film industry people are closely watching the challenge of <My Way>, regardless of whether they are directly or indirectly connected to the film.
As a film whose true aim is to see what kind of evaluation it can get not just in Korea, but in the global market, <My Way> has to take part in a bigger game now. Starting on Jan. 14 in Japan, the film is set to open in more than 20 countries including China, the US, the UK, Germany, and Australia. CJ E&M has predicted, “It’s hard to reveal a concrete sum as yet, but it will definitely be the highest sales record for a Korean film ever.” Toei and CJ E&M will handle the Japan distribution together, while CJ will directly distribute in the US. Will <My Way> really be able to become a catalyst for Korean films to shift dimensions? Kang Je-kyu and Korean films are back in the ring again.
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