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Monday, January 28, 2008

USC Korean Film Festival: Notes from Q&A with Director Kang Je Gyu

Last Saturday, January 19, 2008, the sixth USC Korean Film Festival honored Director Kang Je Gyu with a reception and the screenings of his international blockbuster, Shiri (1999), and the epic tale of human conflict, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004).

Dr. David James, professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, first introduced Shiri, calling it a watershed that now divides Korean cinema into films “before Shiri” and “after Shiri.” The second film screened, Tae Guk Gi, should be required viewing for the world in that it so powerfully and effectively depicts war as a conflict between brothers, blinded to their underlying relationship and love.

Both films were amazing; however, the highlight of the evening was the great Q&A with Director Kang and Dr. James, moderated by Dr. Kyung Moon Hwang, Director of the Korean Studies Institute. At ease and articulate, Director Kang told of his experiences making the two films and commented on Korean cinema, sharing some of his philosophy. Assured by my friend, Young Summers, that the translator was really very good, I took copious notes, a summary of which follows:

Director Kang Je Gyu’s comments on the making of Shiri:
The largest budget for a Korean film had been one million US dollars until Kang presented SamSung with a budget of 2.3 million dollars for Shiri.

The topics of North and South Korea and terrorism were sensitive matters – taboo for that period of time. Also, there was the question of whether the film would be seen as propaganda. At that time, technical skill was not as advanced as today, so that was a worry. Also, there was the worry about presenting North Korea with a degree of positiveness and sympathy for the terrorists. However, it ended up that there was not much of a controversy.

Kang wanted two outcomes: (1) a well-made commercial film that dealt with the North and South, and (2) to transform ideology into a product that sold well. Thus, he blended genres – action, comic, romantic, melodrama - to create broad-based audience appeal. This blending of genres was a conscious act because he wanted to attract a huge audience due to the size of the budget.

What projects are you working on currently?
Kang is now working in Hollywood, preparing for a sci fi project, which he had envisioned before he started working on Tae Guk Gi. He set aside preparations for that sci fi project and started working on Tae Guk Gi after seeing a documentary on the Korean War. Now the sci fi project is again on hold due to the writers' strike.

There’s no kung fu in Shiri. Why didn’t you put kung fu in Shiri to guarantee box office success in Asia?
The audience appreciated Kang’s remark that Korea doesn’t have kung fu – although there is tae kwon do. He stated that he felt a responsibility to clear up some of the prejudices that the US has and that he wanted to appeal to audiences in the West.

What are the differences in tastes in commercial cinema between American and Korean audiences?
Korean audiences are very difficult to please. They expect a lot and expect to take a lot from a film. Even a horror film must still touch them and have a message that they will take with them. They are difficult to satisfy. American audiences enjoy different cultures and are always ready to enjoy a well-made genre film. However, there’s also a bit of a difference in ideas about censorship and the ratings system.

You’re a bright, young man with a vision and a future! How old are you?
He was born in 1962.

What is your view on human nature: Are people born good, born bad, or is that determined by the environment? What was your view of humanity when you made Shiri?
Kang commented that the view of humanity in Shiri is not a matter of good and evil but of ideology. He didn’t want to get into who caused the war and who’s right and who’s wrong. He emphasized that people in the North are still our family. "We share the same blood and are from the same country." He added that he wants to believe that people are born good.

What about the casting of Shiri? Many of the stars have gone on to become famous.
Kang humbly said that that is purely coincidence. When casting, he only thought about who would be the right choice for the characters. He commented that the actors in Shiri are, indeed, doing very good work now.

Which film makers have inspired you?
There was no big inspiration. When he was young he couldn’t go to films until he was in middle school. Then, when he saw Dr. Zhivago, he couldn’t sleep for a few days. He was impressed that human beings could make that. He thought if he could do that, that would be great!

He commented on the difficulty of becoming a film maker in Korea, then added that he’s a very positive person. He believes that if he works hard and does his best, he’ll have a positive outcome.

What about filming the stadium scene in Shiri? How was that done?
At that time, CG was not that well developed. About three to four months before filming really started, there was going to be a World Cup qualifying match, and Kang hoped to get audience shots then. He asked the Football Association, but they wouldn’t give him permission. So, he shot the scenes without permission. They pretended they were a TV crew. They had the actor, Han Suk Kyu, hide in the restroom, then brought him out and filmed until people started to recognize him, disrupting the filming. Then they hid him again!

They didn’t have storyboards prepared at that time. They had some chopper shots, but couldn’t use them.

What keeps you motivated? What’s your goal: entertainment or the message?
As a film maker, you know I don’t make many movies. By making a film, I like to change things. Making Shiri, I did change things. I change myself through making movies. I feel good about it, and that drives me to make my next film.

Why do people create a war?
Human beings do not accept that we are one. We think we are different, but we are all the same – and equal.

Regarding translation and subtitles, don’t the subtleties of what is lost in translation affect the success of Korean films abroad?
The Korean film industry is still developing although we have developed a lot so far. It is a matter of marketing. For example, I’m dependent on the translator here with me this evening, but how good is he actually?!? (The audience laughed - the translator just kept going!)

Kang stated that people in the Korean government and film industry recognize the importance of translation/subtitles and want to develop that. Kang thought that translation/subtitles would get better soon.

In Shiri, was the blue tone of scenes splattered with red blood symbolic?
Kang commented that before his generation, the ability to apply technology to make lighting or color corrections in post-production was very limited. Until the 80s, colors would come out a different way from when they were shot. Since Shiri, it has become easier to reflect those kinds of things to bring out the emotions of the actor, etc.

What motivated you to make Shiri despite the sensitivity of the North and South Korea situation?
Kang said he wrote his first movie, Gingko Bed, in Beijing in 1993. He went there because he wanted to do a melodrama with a global feel to it. While he was there, he spent time with about 20 North Korean students. They would eat, drink, and play ping pong together. Over a period of three months, he got to know them and realized how real the situation is and what it means that Korea has been separated for 50 years.

He added that he intentionally made Shiri an action movie to try to attract a younger audience, thinking that young Koreans, people in their 20s, might not be interested in the realities of the situation. However, bringing them in to see an action film would still expose them to the ideological issues and the reality of the situation.

In the opening sequence of Shiri, you have the North Koreans training to kill by practicing killing real people. Did you just think that up yourself or did you hear of it happening somewhere?

Other than two or three small shots that he thought up, it was a re-creation of real data that they received.

Dr. James invited Director Kang to make a few comments to introduce Tae Guk Gi:

Shiri had a budget of 2.3 million dollars. Since then, the Korean film industry has boomed. Tae Guk Gi had a budget of 13.6 million dollars and did very well at the box office.

He added that the guns in Shiri were rented from L.A., and that one bullet cost $1. He would give each actor 3 to 5 bullets. He learned how to manage the budget carefully and believes that he had the luxury of a 13+ million dollar budget for Tae Guk Gi because of the success of Shiri – and what he’d learned.

As you can see, it was a great discussion! Kudos and thanks to the many programs and departments at USC that co-sponsored this event, especially the School of Cinematic Arts and the Korean Studies Institute. Dr. James specifically acknowledged the tremendous contributions of Dr. Elaine Kim, Associate Director of the Korean Studies Institute. Also, thanks for the delicious Korean buffet, provided by Nak Won Catering (323-465-3409). I'm sure all who attended look forward to the seventh USC Korean Film Festival next year!


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Favorite Restaurants (mostly Korean)

Just adding now: Tender Greens (9523 Culver Blvd., Culver City): http://www.tendergreensfood.com/

Banchan a la Carte (141 N. Western, LA): http://losangeles.citysearch.com/profile/45654877/?brand=smx_restaurant-nc Enjoyed their delicious chap chae with grilled veggies!

San Ya (2897 W. Olympic Bl. between Normandie and Vermont - exact cross street is Fedora): They have an 'unlimited' special for $14 right now.

***ChoSun Galbee Korean BBQ : http://www.chosungalbee.com/

***BCD Tofu House:



***Dong Il Jang Restaurant (3455 W. 8th St., LA): http://la.foodblogging.com/2006/01/21/korean-bbq/

***Bon Juk Porridge Shop: near Kingsley and Wilshire

***Mu Dung San Restaurant: http://www.ktownsearch.net/details.asp?id=230

***Cafe MAK: See link below in "Sweet Spots"

Recommended Sweet Spots:

***Union Bakery in South Pasadena (1138 Fair Oaks at Monterey Road): http://www.insiderpages.com/b/3711088944

***Bulgarini Gelato in Altadena: http://www.bulgarinigelato.com/

***Vanille in San Marino: http://www.insiderpages.com/b/3710358077

***Perfectly Sweet in Alhambra: http://www.cityofalhambra.org/about/dining/Sweet.html

***Cafe MAK in LA: http://losangeles.citysearch.com/profile/42539398/?brand=smx_restaurant-nc

***Jin Patisserie in Venice (recommended-can't wait to go there!):http://www.jinpatisserie.com/

A Persistent Passion: Episode Two

By Sharon Allerson

Episode One (Re-Cap):

Two summers ago, our heroine found “My Lovely Sam-Soon” while channel-surfing, and “tiny” Korea jumped off the map and into her life! From “Sam-Soon,” she went on to “Winter Sonata,” and moved from awareness and fascination to…..love, not just for Bae Yong Jun, but for Korea itself! During that year, she watched dozens of Korean dramas, sharing her newfound love with her family and friends. Most got hooked, staying up till 4 or 5 a.m. to watch DVDs she lent them. (You’re reading this, so you understand!)

She made new friends, too: Choonhee, the librarian at her college, and June and Wally (aka Yun-Suk), owners of a neighborhood bakery. They tried to teach her to say “Anyeong Haseyo” and “Gamsahamnida,” but her tongue tripped badly on the new sounds. Given our heroine’s bigger, better world view, she wanted to learn more. When Choonhee recommended the Korean classes at the Los Angeles Korean Cultural Center (KCC), our heroine’s addiction was about to lead her way beyond her TV……

Episode Two: Close-up of our heroine, during break at Korean language class, awkwardly picking up kimbap with chopsticks.

“But how did you become so interested in Korean dramas, Sharon?” That was Jenny, a communications major from Singapore, just finishing her degree in L.A.

“I don’t know. I just started watching and knew,” I replied as I grabbed a napkin, “knew that true love still exists somewhere in Korea.”

“Oh, Sharon,” she said, evidently concerned about my delusional state. I shrugged, smiled, and we both laughed.

They say that something is love made visible. I don’t remember. Maybe it’s Korean dramas. I do remember another thing people say about love - that it isn’t just a feeling; it’s an action. This past year, I know I moved past the feeling part of loving Korea to the action. As I summarize all of these changes, I will probably amaze myself!

A year ago, when I started studying Korean at KCC, people asked, even KCC asked on the application, why I wanted to learn Korean. All I could say was that I wanted to know more, to understand. In just a few weeks, I was amazed - I could read! I went from not knowing if a storefront sign was in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, to knowing it was hangeul, and I was able to sound it out. I didn’t know what it meant – but I could read! Now I have some basic conversation skills and am building my vocabulary. I can say: Hangook drama-reul sarang hamnida! (I love Korean dramas!)

Korean language classes were just the start! This spring, I attended KCC’s Korean Entertainment lecture series and learned more about Korean dramas, film, and animation. At the last lecture, I got the names and contact info of people who wanted to keep meeting to discuss Korean films and dramas and to explore other avenues of Korean culture – especially those avenues in nearby Koreatown! I’ve organized several gatherings for the “Hallyu Surfers” to have dinner, see films and attend cultural events – surfing the Korean Wave together! I now have my favorite Korean food – bibimbap – and favorite places to go – Chosun Galbee and CafĂ© MAK, where Elisa helps me with Korean! This new leadership role has been good for me – and so much fun! I’ve made some wonderful friends! I’ve also delved deeper into Korean film, doing some research to help prepare for a possible lecture series, even contacting scholars about participating and being delighted by their positive response! Perhaps they, too, crave more opportunities to talk about Korea!

I’ve attended KCC’s art exhibit openings, tea ceremonies, and musical performances. Images related to my experiences with Korean culture now appear in my writing. I hadn’t realized that the connection being formed was so deep. Several poems later, I was writing one screenplay about a kidnapping in Korea and another about a young woman who leaves Jeju Island in the 50s for Seoul and meets a young American soldier – someone like my dad, who actually served in Japan. That story, entwined with my own family’s history, further deepens the connection with Korea.

As I’ve continued to learn more, I’ve gained the wisdom to know that this “Persistent Passion” is not a five-episode drama, like “Freeze.” It’s an epic, like “Dae Jang Geum,” that will have more twists and turns than I can imagine. In fact, just this week I started my first blog, where I share some of my Korean-inspired poetry. I foresee a serious addiction to managing the online discussion on all things Korean!

Back when I was just “in love,” not actively loving and courting Korea, I had this fantasy: Bae Yong Jun would thank me for writing such a great screenplay for him, and I would – oh so eloquently thank him for touching my heart in “Winter Sonata.” Adapting that drama’s metaphor of finding your home in the heart of your true love, I would say something like, “Invisible walls were knocked down as I watched ‘Winter Sonata,’ and my heart grew and grew! Now my heart isn’t just your house, it’s your summer palace, big enough to hold all of Korea – North and South! – and even most of Asia! You can come visit whenever Seoul gets too darn hot!”

Since that fantasy, when an eager fan waited in a breezy, elegant, empty palace for her Yonsama, things have changed. As you can see, I have less time for all my dramas – though I still watch them and continue to get my friends addicted! Now I am busy with a real connection to Korea, one that started out in stories about love, loss, family and friendship in a culture I knew so little about. Once I watched, however, I understood, and it became a part of me. I am so thankful. I wasn’t bad before, but now I am so much better! And if Bae Yong Jun comes to visit his summer palace, he will have to wander the crowded hallways to find me among all the people I’ve come to know and love. When he finds me, of course, I will give him a big hug – one of those “Korean hugs,” when usually the guy pulls the girl close to him, and suddenly they know how much they mean to each other. Then, I’ll say “gamsahamnida, oppa!” - - and let him go....

Bae Yong Jun watches as our heroine walks over to the TV in the palace living room and turns it off so her friends can talk. He is suddenly grabbed by Auntie Lourdes, who looks like she’s going to faint! “When I watched you in ‘Untold Scandal,’ I – I – can’t breathe!” She collapses in his arms! A beautiful young Asian woman, Michelle, rushes over to help. Bae Yong Jun looks on as Michelle revives the older woman. Michelle looks up, and Bae Yong Jun gives a start as he gazes into her eyes. A look of recognition? His long lost sister? A reunion of souls destined to meet? Be sure to watch Episode Three of “A Persistent Passion”……