Save the Green Planet Director Comes Back with HWAYI: A MONSTER BOY
How did he manage to discipline the talent we saw in his debut feature for so long? The public attention surrounding Hwayi: A Monster Boy
is largely due to the fact that this is the first feature film in a decade for filmmaker JANG Joon-hwan since his 2003 debut Save the Green Planet
. Over the course of the past ten years, Save the Green Planet
has increased its status as a ‘cult movie’ in the truest sense of the word within the Korean film industry.
To briefly recall this science fiction film, it told the story of Byung-gu, who is convinced that planet earth is endangered by aliens. He kidnaps KANG Man-shik, the CEO of a chemical company. Although the police and a number of people treat Byung-gu’s claims as outlandish and see him only as a mere kidnapper, he refuses to abandon his convictions and stubbornly tortures Mr. KANG to get him to reveal the alien conspiracy.
Through the conflict between Mr. KANG, who has nothing but money and power, and Byunggu, who has nothing but the will to fight for what he believes in, Save the Green Planet freely navigated through different genres that spanned comedy and science fiction to thriller and melodrama, in a real setting where a minority with capital and power rules the majority, even manipulating public opinion. The film was made on a budget of KRW 3 billion (USD 2.8 million), a hefty amount considering the time it was made in. The results were miserable at the box office, yet the film earned JANG Joon-hwan a reputation as a filmmaker of unique imagination.
Acclaim for Save the Green Planet was not limited to Korea as the film went on to a more international arena which included an award for Best Director at the 25th Moscow International Film Festival, an award for Best Picture at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film, and a showcase at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section. Furthermore, the film was seen by a larger international fan base when the UK-based distribution company specializing in genre and independent titles, Tartan Films, released Save the Green Planet on DVD through its “Asian Extreme” label in 2005.
Likewise, for domestic and international fans who have anxiously awaited his next film, JANG Joon-hwan’s return is definitely good news. He has kept himself busy in the interim by directing the short film Hair in 2004, and another work for the omnibus project Camellia in 2010 as well as working on a sequel to Tazza: The High Rollers, which was eventually cancelled. It took him a decade to come back with his latest feature, and Korean Cinema Today met with JANG, who is awaiting the release of his new film Hwayi: A Monster Boy (Hwayi).
- It has been 10 years since you made Save the Green Planet . How and why did you get to work on Hwayi?
The original script of Hwayi was great. The story was powerful and there were many interesting episodes in the script. It was something that you could read easily through at once without stopping. It even seemed commercially appealing, with all the genre traits. But I felt like something was missing, something important that was already there but I couldn’t find. Some kind of core that drags me deeper into it, even though it can be painful, you know. So I thought for a month or so about whether I should do this or not, and decided to give it a try.
- So the fact that something wasn’t there, the missing link, became a starting point?
You can say that. I felt like whatever the core is, it should be there already. I worked on it for about ten months, and then this A-ha! moment came: Right, what I’m going to talk about in Hwayi is that I don’t know about this subject. I mean, it’s quite difficult to actually understand such darkness in humans. It’s not something we easily experience in our daily lives. It is a tough story, but is also attractive because of that. Something that, if you dig deep enough, you can strike a vein of ore.
- What was your basic approach to Hwayi and how was it different from Save the Green Planet?
I thought a lot about what the basic nature of this film should be like. Is it a horror film? We do have some scenes that resemble horror, including the opening. Because this film is about a boy’s horror, among many other things; a boy who lives through his horror and fear to grow up, which makes it a coming-of-age film as well. I thought it would be more interesting to mix different genre traits as such. Of course, it was not easy to walk this thin line, juggling with different genres and tones. When I was working on Save the Green Planet, everything was pretty clear in my mind. I was very confident and that seemed right. But with Hwayi, it was like walking on a tightrope. I was eager and uncertain at the same time to deal with something very deep and hard to grasp. So I let things remain more open, and discussed with and listened to my staff and actors, to their own interpretations of the story and characters, which was a different experience from Save the Green Planet.
- For those who loved Save the Green Planet, your move towards Hwayi may seem somewhat unexpected as the film is much darker.
I’ve felt like, if I get deeper and deeper into that ‘dark force’ of the film, I can reach some kind of core which is as hot as the earth’s core. Dig until the end and you will reach something hot inside, that was how I approached Hwayi and what I expected from the experience.
- How was working with the two actors who played Hwayi and Suk-tae, the largest axis of the discord in Hwayi?
KIM Yun-seok is a very talented person. KIM has an eye for the beautiful, probably because he has many experiences other than acting, having worked as a director and staff member. KIM and I agree that Seok-tae has something special and is an extraordinary character. We exchanged opinions about the key points of the film, such as how to express the character. That is to say, we worked as if we were partners. It was a tough challenge to cast actors and actresses for the film. In particular, Hwayi is a young person who looks gentle but is tough inside. But YEO Jin-gu is a very powerful actor. YEO is a mentally and physically healthy actor. So, YEO was able to go the distance. I am very grateful to YEO for that.
- Unexpected humor and SF-based fantasy were among the major characteristics of your previous films.
Those are indeed some of the things that fascinate me. (laugh) There is barely any of those elements this time though, well, except for a couple of times towards the end, where the audience may feel confused whether to laugh or cry. So yes, I do have some of those characteristics in this film. Not as much as in Save the Green Planet, though.
- Hwayi deals with a story which is much more down to earth, indeed. So you had little room for such elements this time, I guess?
I do love those codes, but I have had a totally different attitude at Hwayi. I am not such a logical or academic person, so it is hard for me to put it in a coherent manner, but let me put it this way: I guess each story has its own way. If you insist on your way, that story does not necessarily get better because it already has its own way. Also, if you go for the style and form too hard, the content, I mean the story, kind of disappears. I could sense it right away. Hwayi is very heavy and classic in a way, so it’s important to find the right form to fit this, as opposed to just forcing the story. That’s how I felt from the first moment that I read the story. The approach had to be totally different than in my previous works. Those who enjoyed my previous works may find it disappointing, but they can instead find a thick aroma of, say, black coffee, and I hope they may enjoy it too.
- Were there any influential works that you felt had a similar approach or question to Hwayi?
There may be many such films, but I don’t have a specific one to name. Roughly speaking, Hwayi sometimes feels like Greek myths, Shakespeare plays or The Godfather. Very universal and deep, even though some may have different standards of depth. The film feels very heavy. Some parts are like parts of plays. Its horror parts reminded me a bit of those in Hitchcock films.
- You made the short film Hair and Love for Sale inserted in Camellia, the closing film of BIFF 2010, but this is your first feature in 10 years, which is a very long time.
Where should I start? Even before Save the Green Planet, I developed a special taste in a strange melange, like, when you put, for example, pine cones in fried food and come up with something strange and funny, but real nice. I wanted to be that kind of chef. I presented a little bit of such taste in Save the Green Planet, and they were like, if you cut it down a little, you’ll be the owner of a great restaurant! Why would you want to add weird herbs and stuff? (laugh) But that difference, that gap between me and the world around me explain a lot about the last 10 years, I guess.
Of course you can make a simple but great dish, like a wonderful and delicious salad, but I would want to boil it for three days, and see what it’s like. (laugh) It seems as though I wanted to cook with the ingredients that are already thoroughly cooked. That’s why it took me so long, I guess. You may ask why. Why do I want to cook it so long and as a result destroy the natural taste of the ingredient? (laugh)
It’s totally like the Korean cuisine. Kept for long, fermented and smelly. But at the same time, I found such taste fascinating. It was great fun. People may wonder if I really have to ferment kimchi for as long as three years but I was curious and excited to find out what final product such fermented ingredients may bring. In fact, that’s what gives me the strength to go on. I guess it was hard for me to work with such differences and that’s why it took so long.
- That reminds me of your long-fermented project Fart Man, which you have had in your mind since the 1990s.
Oh, Fart Man is a dream project I've always wanted to realize someday. It is about a boy who is born with a gift he never wanted; farting big and often. It has elements of a superhero film as well as those of a coming-of-age film. I heard Inception was such project to Christopher Nolan, something that he dreamed of for a long time, but could do only after making The Dark Knight first. I'm not sure yet if I can make it happen like Nolan did, but if it does, Fart Man will be the ultimate sci-fi fantasy yet rooted deeply in our real lives. (laugh)
- Have you considered trying low budget, independent way of filmmaking?
Well, I started Save the Green Planet as a low-budget film in the beginning. Most of the events in the film took place in a basement and I thought that wouldn't cost much to shoot in a set. But you know how it turned out to be. The thing is, if I imagine something and try to realize it for a film, the cost easily gets higher.
- Save the Green Planet introduced you to overseas audiences.
Yes, I made Save the “Green Planet” and that makes me “global”. (laughs) In fact, I was surprised to see that some foreign audiences liked the film despite the cultural differences. I was happy to think that my film worked regardless of nationality. So I really appreciate the foreign audience support for the film. I would like to thank foreign audiences who still remember me, if any. But don’t expect too much. (laughs). Hwayi is different from Save the Green Planet. Of course, I will be very happy if domestic and foreign movie fans enjoy my new film.
- What do you think about taking on joint international projects or working with overseas studios? It was said that you may pull together with Fox International.
If conditions permit, I am willing to do so. In the case of Fox International, they make investments in local films for local markets. So, the nature of Fox International’s projects is somewhat different. If I am given such a chance and there is no big pressure for realities, I may work with them.
By HWANG Hei-rim • Photo By OH Kye-ohk