INTERVIEW: Born Again; "Shiri" Beats Hollywood at Its Own Game

by Augusta Palmer

(indieWIRE/ 02.04.02) -- In 1999, with a budget of only $5 million, South Korean director Kang Je-Gyu's "Shiri" sank "Titanic" at the Korean box office, caused a nation-wide craze for tropical fish, and became the first Korean film to break into Hong Kong and Japanese markets. Not bad for a sophomore effort whose funders fully expected it to fail because of its unpopular subject matter - the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea.

This Friday IDP will make "Shiri" the first Korean action film to be released in the U.S. Named after a fish native only to Korea, the film is part ear-splitting, glass-shattering action flick, part espionage thriller and part romance -- with all three wrapped around the little finger of a mysterious North Korean femme fatale. The reason for the success of "Shiri" is hardly a mystery, however. Kang has created a film that has more polish and excitement than most Hollywood features with ten or twenty times its budget. The film's cinematography is as slick and fast-paced as its its editing, carefully crafted to make viewers forget all about their popcorn. Its atmospheric interiors echo the tropical fish tanks the film uses as a recurring motif: lush and peaceful at first glance, but easily shattered by the explosive gunplay which punctuates the film's final showdown between North and South Korean agents.

With three new projects in the works, including a sci-fi film with big-name Hollywood stars, Kang has been busy producing films, writing screenplays, and improving his English. Augusta Palmer met with Kang in New York to talk about the importance of character development, what spies are really like, and how "Shiri" changed the face of South Korean filmmaking.

"When I made 'Shiri,' the filmmaking environment in Korea was very poor -- people simply didn't make their living working in film. But after 'Shiri,' people started seeing filmmaking as a business that could actually generate revenue and be a marketable product."

indieWIRE: People often say that national cinemas don't have much of a chance against the behemoth of Hollywood, but with "Shiri" you certainly proved them wrong. Why do you think "Shiri" has been so successful in Korea and all over Asia?

Kang Je-Gyu: Beating Hollywood films at the box-office had been my dream for a long time. I grew up watching them and began to analyze the secrets of Hollywood filmmaking, but when I became a filmmaker I realized that I have my own Korean stories. I also know the Korean audience really well and I wanted to make a film that would entertain them as much as Hollywood does. Because of technical limitations, I needed to think more and work harder, so this film is the fruit of that labor: my dreams, thoughts and well, even my suffering.

iW: What kind of training prepared you for this challenge?

Kang: I majored in film at university, which was an important part of my film education. But after I graduated, I worked on several screenplays, and I think that's how I really learned about filmmaking. I learned the importance of narrative structure and character development from writing screenplays.

iW: You've said "Shiri" is about the hope that North and South Korean people will someday cross the border with as much ease as the fish in the film is named for. The film's primary image of reunification, however, is quite negative because of the acts of terror committed by "evil" North Korean characters. Was the film criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of your Northern neighbors?

Kang: The majority of the negative feedback that "Shiri" received was about our portrayal of North Koreans. And, frankly, putting myself in their shoes, I can see why people raised that question. But, as a filmmaker, and after doing quite a lot of research on North Korea, I felt that my portrayal was a realistic one.

iW: You've admitted elsewhere that the brutality of the North Korean training exercises portrayed in the film's opening sequence came largely from your imagination, because in actuality trainees engage in combat with pigs in order to avoid injuring people. So, what research made you feel that the violent training you portray is "realistic"?

Kang: People have said that my depiction of the North Korean dream to unite the country through war is too much like something out of a textbook. I certainly don't think that all North Koreans feel this way, but when I was doing research I found plenty of indications that the North Korean military still has a strong will to reunite the country through war and violence. So that's why I still feel my portrayal is realistic.

I also applied my research to the portrayal of the South Korean spies. The movie is about espionage. When people think about spies, they expect them to be extremely cool, but when I had the opportunity to meet with South Korean secret agents, they were not very cool at all. In fact, if they had a special look, it would be hard for them to blend in and do their jobs. They were actually just normal looking guys. So that's why I ended up casting Han Suk-Gyu as Ryu and Song Kang-Ho as Lee; they both look like the guys next door.

iW: Why did you chose actress Kim Yun-Jin, a native New Yorker who had attained instant celebrity in a Korean mini-series, to play the role of Hee, the North Korean assassin?

Kang: First, the character of Hee has more than one side, and I wanted an actress who could play a multifaceted character. Also, because she plays a spy in South Korea, I wanted the actress to have a certain mystique, and a type of freshness. So, I didn't want to use an actress who had been in a lot of other films because she would carry the baggage of those earlier roles, and it would be harder for audiences to believe her in this one.

"I feel like the film and I have both been born again. It's like a person who's been very sick, near to death even, and then comes back. I feel like I have a chance at another life."

iW: You've said that it would be difficult to make a film like "Shiri" for only $5 million now. How do you think "Shiri" has changed the Korean film industry?

Kang: First of all, when I made "Shiri," the filmmaking environment in Korea was very poor -- people simply didn't make their living working in film. But after "Shiri," people started seeing filmmaking as a business that could actually generate revenue and be a marketable product. As a result, there's more money and crews get paid more. There was a real industrialization of the Korean film industry and film market as a result of "Shiri."

iW: Has that industrialization made it easier to produce films in South Korea?

Kang: Even though costs have gone up, I think it made it easier to produce films in Korea. The industry has become more confident because "Shiri" broke the wall of Hollywood imports that existed in Korea before. It made Korean filmmakers realize that we can try out these different genres. Because people realized that films can make a profit, there are more investors willing to put up money. And, because there's been more money around, special effects have improved. The domestic market for Korean films really grew as a result of all this.

iW: I would have thought that after all the domestic success it would have been able to find financing for almost any project you wanted to make. But I've heard you actually took two years off from directing because you needed to make some money. Is that true?

Kang: I'm the head of my own company [Kang Je-gyu Films]. So, instead of depending on other people's money, I wanted to firm up the finances of the company to produce my own movies. I produced two films during that two year period, and I was involved with writing six screenplays, too. Actually, it took me two years after my first film, "Gingko Bed," to start production on "Shiri." It's partly because I'm not good at directing other people's screenplays and insist on writing my own. I've realized it's really been taking me too much time to start my next project, and that's why I worked on the six screenplays and became an executive producer for other films.

iW: Is it strange to be talking about "Shiri," a film that was released in South Korea several years ago, as if it were a "new" film?

Kang: Actually, I feel like the film and I have both been born again. It's like a person who's been very sick, near to death even, and then comes back. I feel like I have a chance at another life.

[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who teaches film history at N.Y.U. and Brooklyn College and is currently writing her dissertation on the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China in the 1990s.]