It really didn’t feel like a new film festival. We were opening in a venue that felt familiar, a lot of the faces front of house and on stage were known to the audience, there were plenty of photographers and TV cameras as well as a red carpet outside, and the bar upstairs was full of many of the people you were expecting to see. The experience of the festival director Jeon Hye-jung, who led the London Korean Film Festival for nine years, had evidently been put to good use. It was also good to see the Corinthia Hotel supporting the festival (as well as maintaining its support for the Korean film festival coming up in November).
The opening movie itself, Veteran, was a big-budget crowd-pleaser which is South Korea’s biggest box office draw this year, which also contained enough social conscience to make it not just a formulaic genre film. We were fortunate to have both the director, Ryoo Seung-wan, and Producer, Kang Hye-Jung, to answer questions afterwards in a discussion chaired by chief programmer Chris Fujiwara.
Ryoo has an impressive track record of action movies which combine bone-crunching martial arts with comic moments, and this was probably LKL’s favourite of all of Ryoo’s films. Like his 2011 hit, The Unjust, the plot focuses on the seeming inviolability of the criminal super-rich. In the Q&A which followed Veteran Ryoo made similar comments to those that he had made after The Unjust which screened at the London Korean Film Festival in 2011: that the inspiration for the story was real-life instances in Korea in which rich criminals have escaped justice. In The Unjust, the story ended bleakly as the public prosecutor had been corrupted by the criminal. In Veteran while the rich chaebol family’s contacts extend into the police force and almost manage to derail the investigation, the audience leaves on a high because the little guy and the justice system wins in the end.
Ryoo acknowledged Buster Keaton as one of his inspirations, and the slapstick is particularly evident in the fight in Busan docks when the police arrest the car smugglers early in the movie, and he also noted that we could probably see echoes of Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard in the movie. But he also noted that there might be elements which would not be so understandable to a western audience – the way the police investigators remind their boss of their support for him at various family events over the years, in order to persuade him to back them up and let them continue on the case.
In The Unjust the screenplay was written by someone else – Park Hoon-jung – but Ryoo himself wrote the script for Veteran. He seemed to particularly enjoy himself with the character of Cho Tae-oh (played by Yoo Ah-in) the super-rich villain who as the son of a chaebol boss had never had to take responsibility for anything – the family or the company had always covered his back. As a result he had become impulsive, unable to control his anger and thought he could get away with anything in his pursuit of self-gratification. And one of the key drivers of the plot are the botched attempts to cover up the unfortunate side-effects of his pleasure-seeking acts which spiral increasingly out of control.
Of course, this is a Ryoo Seung-wan film and the pampered rich boy also happens to be an expert and ungentlemanly cage-fighter, so his final show-down with Hwang Jeong-min as detective Seo Do-cheol has just as much physical impact as the fight scenes in his epic action movie City of Violence. You find yourself cheering or laughing at some of the action then groaning or wincing the next moment. And the car chase is pretty brutal too.
At the beginning of the evening Ryoo warned the audience to eat their popcorn there and then, because once the film started there would not be time for anything. He was right: the film was non-stop, but never over-the-top, a truly enjoyable movie and a great way to open a new festival which we hope has a long future ahead of it.
Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완) Veteran (베테랑, 2015)