We spend a day in the presence of Korean action director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Berlin File, City Of Violence) and find out more about what makes him tick…
On Saturday 8 June, director Ryoo Seung-wan came to London to interact with the UK audience and introduce his latest film and by far biggest budget action thriller, The Berlin File. Starting with a masterclass on “directing action films”, he followed through the day with an interview with the UK press, a screening of his film, a public Q&A, and a party at the East Street restaurant.
Counted among the most influential directors of his generation, it is quite unique to have such an opportunity to spend almost the whole day with him. His charisma and cleverness have made it even more enjoyable to listen to the stories and experience he has gathered over the years.
The early beginnings of a master in action direction
Asked about his origins as a director and where the idea of entering such a path came, Ryoo Seung-wan replied with lots of modesty. He mentions always having been very interested in imagining characters and was especially fascinated by action hero after seeing Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. He was also a film-addict watching all free-spirited films available in cinemas, from Hollywood films, French film noir and of course Hong-Kong martial arts films. He had even started taekwondo and was planning to become an action star himself. But, one day, while reading a magazine, he saw a picture of John Ford directing John Wayne, and realized acting was not the only way to contribute to the making of films. Directing seemed to him even more admirable.
In 1992, after dropping out of high school to support his family financially, he started to focus on making short films with friends – with the 8mm camera he had spent three years to save for. An early fan of Park Chan-wook’s films (since his debut feature The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream in 1992), he set to meet him and forged a new friendship that has lastest until today. They actually recommend each others on scripts, and Park was the one to suggest Ryoo to make his own short films.
When Ryoo wanted to direct action films, there were few genre films in South Korea and industry peers were looking at him in a weird way. His first short film, Transmutated Head, did not attract much interest from the festivals and he was to end his career there. But, after working as assistant director on Whispering Corridors and Park’s film Trio in 1997, he decided with his wife to give it one last try. Due to financial circumstances, the making of that film was spread over 7 years with 4 short films which would eventually been brought together. His first short film, Rumble, almost did not make it, being selected at the last festival he was targeting: the Busan Short Film Festival. He eventually won the Best Short Film award for it and with the money earned; he was able to make the three following sequels. The second short film, Modern Man, was named the audience’s favorite and best short film at Korea’s Short Film Festival in 1999. Those short films were assembled to form his first feature, Die Bad.
Such success provided him with the credibility to continue making films. But he explains that it also proves that everyone can become a director as long as you have the patience and passion to do so. Whatever status he has achieved to date, he remains humble and considers it is an honor for him to be invited (again) to a festival event in London (he already presented The Unjust at the London Korean Film Festival in 2011, indeed).
Ryoo Seung-wan’s approach to creating Korean action films
At the time he started, there were no established techniques for action films in South Korea. He initially learnt production and assisted directors on other genres, horror (Whispering Corridors) or comedy/crime (Trio). Then, it was up to him to create the techniques to make action films from scratch.
Back then, Hong-Kong action films were very popular, although French film noir and Hollywood blockbusters had also made their way in the South Korean theatrical market. He repetitively watched the films he liked and used his knowledge of martial arts to feed his inspiration and create fight scenes. Through experience and seeing what worked or not while editing, he gained valuable knowledge. Still today he enjoys experimenting on set, and considers he is still learning, making him feel awkward to be invited as a “master” of action.
His involvement in all production stages
Although The Berlin File was a production of much larger scale, he maintained the same approach, being careful with the budget, preparing the crew and actors as much as possible before shooting action scenes and scouting the locations with the team.
As the scale does not influence his “learning-by-doing” approach, the team would sometimes feel the work with him quite burdensome. He regards the Korean tradition of a “not-all-powerful” director as fruitful, since it brings positive outcomes although there could be some disagreements on set.
In particular his long working relationship with action choreographer Jung Doo-hong has been very precious for him, as he appreciates a lot how stubborn the latter can be when providing creative input in the action scenes.
Ryoo mentions that, when conflicts happen, he tends to leave the set and return only when they are solved. If there are technical areas he does not know too well, he does not feel incompetent anymore, and appreciates good advice from the specialists. Not knowing everything is ok, even for a director: that is why a film is teamwork.
Directing action scenes: an art that matures with years
Thanks to his 10-year experience of making films, creating action scenes has become easier for him. He is used to ask the actors to perform most of the action scenes, and actually admits he prefers they do the most dangerous ones – because most important in the film – letting the stunts do the minor ones. On The Berlin File, he especially enjoyed working with Korean actors as they were giving their best without worrying about themselves.
For an action film director, he truly believes in experience as to improve the technique of directing action sequences. He also holds as important the need to be as close to reality as possible and to “be impactful with emotions rather than explosions” – something he has come to learn with experience. In short, his definition of an action film is to be packed with emotions of all sorts.
In the case of City of Violence, he specifies it took him 12 weeks to shoot the last action scene, and most action scene in the middle of the film took him 5 days and nights. Behind that, there were 2 months of preparation to make sure the actors were in physical conditions. In other words, for Ryoo Seung-wan, preparation and taking the time to shoot scenes are critical.
Director Ryoo used to be envious of other directors who direct very well-crafted action films, like Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. But, with maturity and experience, that has become more mutual respect and jealousy has vanished.
HD technology: apparent loss in realism, gain in convenience
The Berlin File was his first film entirely shot on HD. A traditional supporter of 35mm film, Ryoo Seung-wan explained his difficulties to get to grasp digital technology – especially the frame speed. He truly believes that 35mm provides a better realistic feeling, especially in terms of capturing the light, quality and texture – which is indescribable – while digital feels like just recording information. However, he admits the sizeable savings and fastest capture with digital for both production and delivery of the materials to cinemas. For instance, loading the film to the PC is almost instantaneous with digital, allowing him to work faster.
He is still adjusting to the technology – which is changing too quickly for him. For the Berlin File, he had to shoot in darker exposure, with a minimum or partial lighting, to then brighten the image in post-production. That was a major problem for him during action scenes, as he had to familiarize with the capture of the light and experiment with the digital data.
According to Ryoo, nowadays, there are no more South Korean films being shot on 35mm, except maybe Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.
Casting action actors: a matter of fit, attitude and recognition
Director Ryoo explained that his brother, Ryoo Seung-beom was cast accidentally in one of his first short-films, Dachimawa Lee, because the lead actor dropped out and his brother, who was idle at home, displayed – to his surprise – good acting skills. Although he does not cast him systematically for his new films, when a role suits him it is easier for Ryoo to think of his brother. After working together for more than 10 years, the frontier between personal and professional areas has become less blurry, and they have deepened their mutual knowledge from a professional stand-point: Seung-beom understands accurately what Seung-wan has in mind and is able to express it, while director Ryoo knows his brother’s abilities as an actor. In some way, beyond being brothers, they have also become partners. In the case of The Berlin File, Ryoo Seung-beom appeared as a good fit for the role of cruel and cold-hearted Dong Myeong-soo. Ryoo Seung-wan also sometimes act in his own films, but recommends against it as it was very difficult for him to check and blame anyone else for his own mistakes.
When it comes to Korean actors, he gets to think of suitable actors when writing the script – if they pop up naturally from among the leading actors in the local industry – or of people he met in real life. He remains open to new talents and amateur actors, as he prefers lines to be told in a natural, sometimes hesitant or even awkward, way rather than having a perfectly spoken speech. In the case of The Berlin File, he was driven by a need of well-known actors to counter the dark theme and the fact the lead actor is North Korean. In S. Korea, like anywhere else in the world, famous talents drive the audience to cinemas – exactly like Secretly Greatly’s success greatly owes to Kim Soo-Hyun’s (Dream High 1&2) appearance in the lead role. Of course, he would only take celebrities if they display good acting skills.
In the specific case of The Berlin File, for foreign actors, he got recommendations from a local talent scout, which short-listed actors who could fit the character based on the description and their acting skills. For the director, who does not feel comfortable enough in English, their attitude was primary; as it mattered to him that they would be willing to work hard, and for a reasonable fee. After an image casting, he flew to Berlin to audition the actors personally. He would assess whether those foreign actors would be flexible to work with staff of another culture, eager to try their best in an environment which is not the easiest and look at the characters for that.
The training of actors for action scenes
With humor, Ryoo mentions a rumor that he gives a crual and demanding training from his actors. But, actually, he is very open to their ideas, and takes 46 weeks of intensely developing the action scenes, before starting the training of the actors and the conceptualization of the idea by them. The early involvement of the actors is to allow them deciding on what equipments they would need to strengthen the action scenes. The location hunting would start simultaneously. While the set design is completed, a copy of the set is produced with the action team to allow the actors to practice there. That period of practicing takes about four weeks, using the same camera equipments as for the actual film shoot and try the editing to see what it looks like. Then the night before the actual shoot, the team would get together to do a last rehearsal. The last changes are made, and thanks to the preparation, the rehearsal proceeds quite quickly.
Han Suk-kyu could very well in the role of South Korean agent Jeong Jin-soo in The Berlin File acting as a reminder of Shiri’s Jong Won Yu about ten years later, after losing his beloved to North Korea and leading a very bleak and impoverished life.
Also, an ex navy officer in North Korea he interviewed for a documentary for MBC ended up being the model for the lead character in The Berlin File. He prompted meetings in real life with the actors with that man, but also former National Intelligence Service agents, North Korean defectors and specialists on North Korea to help shape their characters and familiarize with their stories, mannerism and behaviors.
The choice of projects: own scripts & Korea-focused
Ryoo Seung-wan would really appreciate to receive a good script. However, that is not so common, and even if a script is good, it would require him too much time to re-write in his own style. That is why he prefers to direct his own ideas, sometimes derived from cultural references – such as The Count of Monte Cristo for The Berlin File: a man who was falsely accused, and has to go through hard times because of a woman he loves – and that break with his previous films (like using spies in that case).
To choose a script, he thinks is good, Ryoo Seung-wan first looks up to his wife, producer Kang Hye-jeong. He also researches a project which all the crew and cast can be proud and happy working on. Of course, he does care about his main target audience South Korea – where he currently lives.
The international potential of a film is not something he considers, as he firstly targets a Korean-speaking audience. Such audience is in majority based in South Korea, which he desires to reach, although he is aware of a Diaspora abroad (in North America, the UK and Germany mainly). Ryoo explained that his fascination for Hong-Kong cinema of the 1980s has slowly shrank, and that he used to be one of the few to be really inspired by such cinema initially (although Korean directors had tried to make “spaghetti” martial arts films then). Yet, he would only consider Hong-Kong as a backdrop for his stories – like Choi Dong-hun did for The Thieves – if it were compatible with his focus on the South Korean market.
In any case, he sincerely believes that a good film shall be able to overcome any barrier of culture and language. As such he watches films from any culture and learns from good and not so good films from all over the world for his inspiration.
He personally prefers open-ended stories as to counter the consumerism of the shopping malls where multiplexes are located and where moviegoers tend to forget the feeling of the film very quickly. In that way, for The Berlin File, which also has an open end, they could hang on a few more minute and still feel the adrenaline pumping. However, the director denied any sequel to the film.
As an anecdote, director Ryoo has never ever shot neither a kiss nor a sexual sequence, because he personally does not feel comfortable doing it and considers himself better at directing action and “killing people”.
Ryoo Seung-wan among other Korean directors and the international challenge
Director Ryoo Seung-wan made his debut at about the same period as the most influential Korean directors, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon. Working next to such talented directors is a source of pride but also frustration for him. Pride, because it puts a light on Korean films, frustration because it difficult for him to stand out from a crowd of masters. He would use their films as a way to get motivated in making better films. Sometimes, he would even receive feedback from his mentor, Park Chan-wook, and return the favor. Ryoo Seung-wan thinks for instance that Park’s US debut, Stoker, was a perfect fit for him, but himself is doubtful of following a path leading him to Hollywood.
Shooting an action film abroad: the case of The Berlin File
If Berlin is where most of the story of his latest film happens, for financial and practical reasons, he decided to divide the shooting between Riga, Berlin and Seoul (where scenes were recreated). He also optimized actors’ preparation and rehearsals to save time but also helped him get more familiar with the shooting locations.
He initially chose Berlin for both the knowledge he gained of the city while attending the Berlin International Film Festival, but also for the cities’ symbolism of the divide between North and East, communism and capitalism which still is reality in the Korean peninsula. John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold describes Cold War era Berlin as a spy city with 60% of its inhabitant being spies – which seemed a perfect setting for a spy action thriller. Also, the history of Berlin with Korea is meaningful: South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, kidnapped by the North Korean army with his wife Choi Eun-hee, escaped there during the Berlinale in the 1986; that is where there is the largest North Korean embassy worldwide and during the 1980s North Korean students studying in Berlin who participated in anti-dictatorship movements were arrested as falsely accused as spies.
The business of film: at the cross-road between artistic and commercial logics
Ryoo sees the sponsoring by major companies positively as they allow projects to take shape. Such support by CJ Entertainment allowed The Berlin File to be made, and Ryoo stresses all the business being made at Cannes and through CJ to offer both commercial and indie Korean cinema to find a life abroad.
As the majority of the audience goes and watch films for the purpose of having an entertaining moment, commercial films dominate the cinemas’ screens. But many festivals exist to provide a venue for arthouse and independent films. The market has always been this way, and there shall be a place for every film, in either category.
The Berlin File was screened on 8 June as part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013, which also included a free masterclass (for ticket holders) and a Q&A after the film.
Ryoo Seung-wan – Masterclass, June 8, 2013;
Ryoo Seung-wan – Group Interview, June 8, 2013;
Ryoo Seung-wan – Q&A after The Berlin File screening, June 8, 2013.
Paul Quinn, Ryoo Seung-wan – Group Interview, Hangul Celluloid, June 8, 2013
Paul Quinn, Ryoo Seung-wan – Interview, Hangul Celluloid, November 17, 2011