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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Kim Ji-woon in London: bigger, faster

Friday night’s screening of The Good the Bad and the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈, hereafter Nom Nom Nom) was followed by a screen talk with director Kim Ji-woon and actor Lee Byung-hun, chaired by Tony Rayns. Lee Byung-hun was late for the chat, either tied up with promotional activities for his upcoming films or maybe just lost in the Barbican labyrinth.

Rayns is the UK’s longest established expert on Korean film, and organised a Korean film festival at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts almost 10 years before Jonathan Ross ever heard of Park Chan-wook. He knows many of the big names in Chungmuro personally, and has even conducted an interview with maverick director Jang Sun-woo half naked in a Korean sauna. So twenty minutes with critic and director, before the heartthrob actor arrived, was quality time.

Kim started by describing some of his influences in making the film. Clearly the film is a nod to Sergio Leone, but Lee Man-hee’s 1971 Manchurian western Break the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라) was of equal or greater importance. This is a film not widely known in the west and not currently available on DVD. According to Scott Foundas over at the LA Weekly, Break the Chain is

a roaring comic Western, set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in which a spy (whose wardrobe consists of a zebra-striped fur coat and battered fedora), a “trustworthy” hired assassin, an acrobatic escaped convict and a no-nonsense barmaid traverse a desert expanse in search of the coveted Buddha statue that bears the names of anti-Japanese resistance fighters. Packed with exuberant barroom brawls, allegiances that turn on a dime and a rogues’ gallery of wily self-preservationists, the picture suggests Hawks by way of Leone. And if that doesn’t sound to you like something close to movie heaven, may God have mercy on your soul.

Not a million miles away from Kim’s own film, then. Kim recalled how he handed out videos of Lee’s film, plus Mad Max, Road Warrior and Ben Hur, and told his production team he wanted Nom Nom Nom to be “bigger and faster” than all of them.

How did he feel about filming in North East China in temperatures of 40ºC, with the cast wearing winter clothes? Kim said that the main lesson learned was not to work with loads of horses and three big stars.

Kim Ji-woon, sporting a poppy
Kim Ji-woon sported a poppy for armistice day

The 3 stars were carefully selected for their roles. The Good (Jung Woo-sung) apparently had to have long legs. The Bad (Lee Byung-hun) had to be able to sustain a more emotional, moodier persona, while the Weird (Song Kang-ho) would have to be a strong lead who could control the flow of the film. Kim said he tried to use different editing styles and camera angles for each character: Jung Woo-sung in general having longer shots and faster edits, Lee Byung-hun generally having slower edits, and Song Kang-ho benefiting from a mixture of techniques.

Each one of Kim’s films has been in a different genre. Kim modestly said that he’s trying to find out which genre he’s best at. On his to-do list are a spy movie, a Blade Runner style sci-fi movie, a dark thriller and a Coen Brothers style comedy.

The quality of questions from the floor reflected the growth of Film Studies as a discipline and the wider and deeper interest in Korean film in this country. When Park Chan-wook introduced Lady Vengeance to a London audience at the Curzon Soho a couple of years ago, questions from the floor – and indeed the chair – were embarrassingly shallow, showing little knowledge of Park’s back catalogue or the rest of Korean film more generally. This time around there were some diligent students who seemed to have selected Kim Ji-woon as a topic for an undergraduate project. At least one of them was digitally recording the session for his subsequent researches.

Rayns gave us the benefit of his long experience of the Asian film industry, for example recounting a story of chairing a discussion with Miike Takashi (“I make five films a year”) and Kim Ji-woon (“I make a film every five years”) about Miike’s remake of Kim’s Quiet Family.

In fact it was noted that four out of Kim’s five films have been, or are being, remade1. Kim was diplomatic about his attitude to remakes. Not having seen The Uninvited (the remake of Tale of Two Sisters) Kim wouldn’t comment specifically, but he suspected that the mood would be different from the original. Todd Brown at Twitch is less restrained.

Tony Rayns, Lee Byung-hun, Kim Ji-woon and translator
Tony Rayns, Lee Byung-hun, Kim Ji-woon and translator

Other students asked about the importance of the family in Kim’s films and why Korean film directors seemed particularly attracted to classical themes such as fairy tales and stories of revenge. Kim didn’t really answer these questions, though he said something non-committal about the importance of the family in Korean society. Maybe he didn’t agree with the premise of either question (he wouldn’t have been alone), and Rayns suggested the latter one would be better directed to a Korean film critic. Indeed, some people thought we were straying too far into the realm of next week’s essay topic for the film studies class, and were relieved when a fan asked Lee Byung-hun to sing us a song. (He declined).

The Q & A in fact offered something for everyone. Rayns helpfully provided background for the novice and asked some good mainstream questions of both actor and director, while fans and students alike were given the opportunity to pursue their own line of interest. And bloggers and roving photographers were able to record it for posterity. Thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre and the Barbican for making the evening possible.

And thanks to Jo Seong-hee for the photos.


  1. Quiet Family (1998) remade by Miike Takashi again, Happiness of the Katakuris (2001); Tale of Two Sisters (2003) remade by Charles & Thomas Guard in the confusingly titled The Uninvited (2009); Bittersweet Life (2005) in an unauthorised Bollywood remake and an upcoming remake by Fox; and Nom Nom Nom remade by Miike Takashi, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) []

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