The Art of Watching and Being Watched
JOH Ui-seok and KIM Byeong-seo, the co-directors of Cold Eyes, were once classmates at the School of Film, TV and Multimedia in the Korea National University of Arts, where both majored in cinematography. They have long been best buddies, or seonhubae (a Korean word for a close senior and junior at work, school, etc), but JOH made his film debut long before KIM did. His film debut Make It Big (2002) was an action comedy, featuring the mishaps that three high school boys went through, when they accidently earned a big sum of money on the street. In 2006, he made The World of Silence which was a mystery introducing a duel between a detective and criminal, taking place over across the serial murders of young girls. Cold Eyes is his third feature.
KIM has been a promising name in camera direction in Korean cinema and has worked as a cinematographer on several films, including …ing (2003), Go Go 70s (2008), Castaway on the Moon (2008), A Good Rain Knows (2009) and Dangerous Liaisons (2012). Cold Eyes is his first film as a director, for which he was also in charge of cinematography.
Their co-directed film Cold Eyes is an adaptation of the Hong Kong original Eye in the Sky (2007), directed by YAU Nai-Hoi and produced by Johnnie TO. It presents the rivalry between a professional robbery crew led by James (JUNG Woo-sung) and the surveillance team within the Korean Police Forces Special Crime Unit. Easy going but insightful leader Hwang Sang-jun and a promising rookie Ha Yoon-ju are the two main people in the team. This movie features personas with distinctive characters and eye pleasing action scenes taking place against many landmarks in the city of Seoul.
For this latest work, KIM came up with the initial idea and JOH laid the groundwork for the script while they both handled pre-production and finally, co-directed the film. “We did our dose of fighting during the pre-production, so there was little to disagree on once the actual shooting began. No more fights,” confessed the two, implying the pre-production was a very careful and thorough job. As a result, we have had one very appealing film this summer.
Its box office performance has also been strong. Since its domestic release on July 3rd, more than 5 million viewers have seen Cold Eyes. The film was pre-sold at the Cannes Film Market to major film countries in Asia including Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Korean Cinema Today met KIM and JOH, names you will want to remember for the Korean popular film scene.
- Cold Eyes is based on the Hong Kong film Eye in the Sky (2007) right?
JOH Yes, what I liked about the original film was that it was about a rookie, a young woman detective, and how she changes and grows up. I liked the theme of ‘watching people’ as well. KIM is the one who saw the film first and told me about it. He has always been a camera director but I knew he was interested in directing too. So as I talked with the production company, I introduced him and convinced them that he should work on directing as well as shooting for this film.
KIM I have always been a great fan on Hong Kong movies. I happened to see Eye in the Sky and thought it was an interesting film. Like JOH, I appreciated the fact that it was focused on the maturing of a rookie female detective, but what I liked also was that it looked into the world of professionals. The plot itself was not big in terms of scale, but very carefully and intensively structured, never letting go of tension throughout the film. So it occurred to me, OK, that film features Hong Kong, then what if I translate it in the Korean landscape? Eye in the Sky focuses on destiny and emotions. I thought it would be very interesting if we re-organize it with culture-specific personas in Seoul.
- Rendering Seoul in the film was important for you?
KIM/JOH Absolutely. We wanted to feature Seoul as a megalopolis, and also introduce the culture specific landmarks. In other words, the city of Seoul itself is among the main characters of the film. The first thing we did when we were working on the script was to buy a map of Seoul. We drew the outline of the city and tried to look for the stand out features of each administrative region in Seoul. In doing so, we realized that every distinctive region has its own style, including the generation and fashion of the mainstream people who inhabit there and the local architecture.
We wanted to feature the downtown streets like Cheonggyecheon, Seosomun and Tehran Boulevard as the center of action scenes, adding reality to the film. As a result, in the film, major landmarks of the city are featured and particularly the human traffic between the landmarks. It was our ongoing focus to expand the small and intensive atmosphere of Hong Kong into a larger landscape of Seoul.
- Human traffic and perspectives are very important in the film. How did you design them?
JOH We focused on the concept of creating certain layers between groups of people. What I am saying is, in the film, there are those who watch and those who are watched. I was thinking of presenting them as two different groups, in two different layers, so to speak.
For James, I wanted to feature him as a watcher looking over from the rooftop, and for HWANG Sang-jun, to be a commander on the ground. I employed a certain visual difference between the two groups. For James, bird’s eye view was dominantly used, while for the people on the ground like HWANG and HA Yoon-ju, eye level shooting was consistently maintained. What is interesting is that at the climax of the movie, their positions kind of switch, placing James, who has always been watching down from the rooftop, below the watchers on the ground. The overall tempo and psychological close-ups were also among the things I worked hard on.
KIM For me, lively human traffic was very important. A lot of the time, the camera was freely placed so that it was in fluid communication with the relationships of the characters, such as the chaser and the chased, and their tension. As a camera director, I believed the rhythm was most important in this film. As a result, I wanted to create many different points even in one single take, making them overlap with each other. I tried to create the rhythm through a collision of shots, their different sizes, different movements, and so on.
- What do you think was most important in adapting the characters from the original Hong Kong film into your rendition?
JOH In the Hong Kong original, HWANG had a cold persona. However, SEOL Kyung-gu turned him into a more human and warm character. When I was writing his lines in the script, I mimicked his voice and read them out loud. He is an analogue person, as opposed to the modern, digital person, if you like. For HA, I wanted to make a female character that female spectators would love - An independent and righteous cop. James was a petty criminal in the original, but I wanted to turn the character into a more charismatic figure.
- JOH, would you say you have succeeded in making a more interesting film than your last effort?
JOH As a joke, I would say that it could be my last work. That’s how desperately I worked on this film, and as such it is all the more dear to me. However, I was not quite expecting this kind of passionate reception from the audience. I am still somewhat puzzled.
- KIM, you have now made your debut as a film director. Are you planning to work on both directing and shooting in the future?
KIM Yes. I’ve always felt some kind of thirst as I worked as a camera director. I wanted a bigger involvement in films. So this film is in a way a reflection of my own growing up in filmmaking. Directing was a totally different world than what I used to imagine, but it was so much more fun and rewarding. I would love to work on both if I possibly could.
- Could you tell us about your next film?
JOH I have a costume drama in mind. Actually, I am attracted to every genre, including melodrama and horror. For a while, I want to make the kinds of films that the audience would want to see, rather than what I wanted to see.
KIM I will be working on a film as a camera director later this year. It is going to be something that brilliantly steals the audience’s mind, so to speak. I would love to experiment in different genres, within their formulaic structures. Let me put it this way: I want to be a pitcher with his own killer ball.
By JUNG Han-seok