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Designing the Worlds of Korean Cinema

Nov 16, 2020
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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Korea’s Top 5 Production Designers

There’s no shortage of creativity in Korean cinema, an industry that has reinvented genres such as the crime thriller and zombie horror, and brought its own culture and color to the screen through fascinating period-set stories. Yet while directors and screenwriters have been busy creating imaginative new worlds on the page, someone else needs to bring these worlds to life. That job is left up to production designers, the people responsible for creating the sets of these stories and dressing them (or outside locations) with the elements that create the look and tone of the film. 

On Korean sets you will have a props master and their team, who are in charge of sourcing the various props required by a production, while the production designer - called misul gamdok (art supervisor) in Korean - will oversee the whole art department. Some major productions also employ an additional art director (the Korean title is transliterated directly from the English) but they work under the production designers, despite employing a similar title.

This week at KoBiz, we’ll be taking a look at some of Korea’s most prominent production designers, technicians without which the creative visions of many Korean classics might never have been realized. 

Ryu Seong-hee

Korea’s most celebrated production designer is, without a doubt, RYU Seong-hee. After graduating in production design at the American Film Institute, RYU worked on short films before making her way back to Korea, where she worked on SONG Il-gon’s Flower Island (2001) and then RYOO Seung-wan’s No Blood No Tears (2002). Her work with RYOO earned her the notice of none other than BONG Joon-ho and PARK Chan-wook, which led to her being charged with designing both Memories of Murder and Old Boy in 2003, and the rest is history. RYU continued to work with BONG and PARK, as well as KIM Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life, 2005), YIM Pil-sung (Hansel and Gretel, 2007) and KIM Tae-yong (Late Autumn, 2010) in the following years. Over the past decade she has brought some of Korea’s most challenging period productions to life, including JANG Hun’s Korean War drama The Front Line (2011), YANG Woo-suk’s The Attorney (2013), JK YOUN’s decades-spanning melodrama Ode to My Father (2014) and CHOI Dong-hoon’s Colonial Era spy action-drama Assassination (2015). Among her most acclaimed works are the ornate sets she has designed for PARK Chan-wook on Thirst (2009) and especially The Handmaiden (2016), which earned her the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist at the Cannes Film Festival. RYU, who most recently worked on the period drama The King’s Letters (2019), has been more selective with her projects compared to her peers, as she devotes herself completely to every project she takes on. 

CHO Hwa-sung

Among Korea’s most experienced and prolific production designers, CHO Hwa-sung got his start as the head of an art department back in 1997 with the comedy Hallelujah. He worked steadily over the following years until his reputation received a massive boost after working on PARK Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Since then he has become the go-to production designer for action and crime thrillers, partnering several times with RYOO Seung-wan (The City of Violence, 2006; Veteran, 2015) and most notably KIM Jee-woon, having designed all his Korean projects since The Good, The Bad, The Weird in 2008. From the gruesome interiors of I Saw the Devil (2010), to the memorable period train carriages of The Age of Shadows (2016) to the near future cityscapes and submerged unground tunnels of ILLANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE (2018), his work has been instrumental in bringing KIM’s hard-boiled worlds to life. CHO also works regularly with PARK Hoon-jung, from New World (2013) to The Witch : Part 1. The Subversion (2018), and WOO Min-ho, from Inside Men (2015) to this year’s The Man Standing Next. His most recently completed work was HONG Won-chan’s summer action-noir hit DELIVER US FROM EVIL.

LEE Ha-jun

Originally active in set design departments for stage work, LEE Ha-jun, a graduate of the prestigious Korea National University of the Arts, eventually found his way onto the set of Scent of Love (2003) and later graduated to production designer on the 2007 period horror Shadows In The Palace. After dabbling in a variety of genres, he embarked on IM Sang-soo’s The Housemaid (2010), a reimagining of the 1960 classic of the same name. The sleek, multi-level home of The Housemaid (2010) set him on a path of designing a series of modernist sets for contemporary, icy thrillers such as LEE Hyeon-seung’s Hindsight (2011), JUNG Ji-woo’s Heart Blackened (2017) and LEE Hae-young’s Believer (2018). He’s also worked on CHOI Dong-hoon’s The Thieves (2012) and HAN Jae-rim’s The Face Reader (2013), but his most celebrated partnership began in 2014, when he worked on SHIM Sung-bo’s sea-bound thriller Haemoo. That film was produced by none other than BONG Joon-ho, who hired LEE again to design his globe-trotting eco-action-drama Okja (2017) for Netflix. Following that worldwide phenomenon, the pair worked together again on the historic success Parasite (2019), winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and four awards, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards. LEE became the first Korean person nominated for Best Production Design at the Academy Awards and though he did not win the big prize there, he did win Best Production Design awards from the Art Directors Guild in America and the Asian Film Awards.

HAN A-reum

One of the newer faces on the scene, HAN is also a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts and worked under LEE Ha-jun for seven projects until The Face Reader (2013), after which he scored his first production design credit on Another Family (2014). Following that smaller social drama, HAN worked on a number of ornate period works, creating sumptuous sets for LEE Hae-young’s The Silenced (2014), as well as Memories of the Sword (2015) and LOVE, LIES (2016), both from director PARK Heung-sik. His striking, detail-oriented art design has also been a major part of acclaimed contemporary thrillers such as BYUN Sung-hyun’s The Merciless (2017) and this year’s BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS from debut filmmaker KIM Yong-hun. Yet, his high point to date may well be the sprawling political epic 1987: When the Day Comes from JANG Joon-hwan, for which he designed memorable 1980s locales, from a musty district attorney’s office to the dank interrogation rooms used by the KCIA to torture protesters.

LEE Hoo-kyoung

Getting his start under RYU Seong-hee in the art departments of both Memories of Murder and Old Boy, Hongik University graduate LEE Hoo-kyoung scored his first credit as a production designer on the gangster drama Sunflower (2006). Following some other mid-level works, LEE finally made his mark when he began collaborating with NA Hong-jin on the director’s second film The Yellow Sea (2010), with its cramped interiors, among them smoky mahjong parlors, contrasting with the film’s wintry exterior chase scenes. LEE once again worked with NA on his memorable horror-thriller THE WAILING (2016), which turned a rustic village into a site of terror, carnage and rituals. He has since worked on larger set-based projects, creating the collapsed tunnel in the disaster drama Tunnel (2016) and recreating the cramped industrial Hashima Island in the labyrinthine sets of RYOO Seung-wan’s The Battleship Island (2017), for which he won several prizes at local awards shows.
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