The sixth incarnation of the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF) saw its traditional director retrospective bring to town the ‘action kid’ Ryoo Seung-Wan. Now in his late thirties, the self-taught filmmaker grew up during the military dictatorship in the small town of Onyang where the martial arts movies of Hong Kong’s finest Bruce Lee, John Woo and King Hu provided escape from the heavily censored and propagandistic South Korean fare of the Eighties.
Ryoo Seung-Wan in front of a collage of stills from his films
After graduating from High School in 1992, Ryoo made friends with film critic Park Chan-wook, ten years his senior, and started to assist him in his early films before the critic-turned-director became globally recognized with his third feature Joint Security Area in 2000 - and moved on to his successful revenge trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.
At the same time, Ryoo had turned four of his self-financed short films shot over three years in the late nineties, into the omnibus film Die Bad which propelled him into the local limelight, while the international recognition of Park has, till now, escaped him.
In the decade since, Ryoo has directed seven features, six of which are based on his own scripts. His budgets have increased, together with his box office receipts. But the critical acclaim of his debut feature has continued to haunt this former enfant terrible, making it difficult for his audience to recognise the versatility of his output. As the director said in a 2010 interview for Hancinema, “I myself don't see that many similarities in my work. Except for the fact that Ryoo Seung-bum (his actor brother) appears in them a lot and there are a lot of fights. (laughs) If you think about it, Crying Fist (2005) and Dachimawa Lee (2007) don't have anything in common and The City of Violence (2006) and Die Bad (2000) don't fall within the same genre either. So I feel good about hearing people say The Unjust (2010) is different...”
Thanks to the LKFF retrospective, I was able to watch five of the seven Ryoo Seung-wan films.
An Astonishing debut: Die Bad (2000)
Shot in grainy 16mm footage begged, borrowed and stolen, Die Bad brought the gritty urban realism of poor high-school truants sliding into a world of crime to South Korean cinema, these days more often than not synonymous in belated western perceptions with slickly grafted visuals and highly stylized violence. It is an un-romantic tale in four episodes – four short films - of two childhood friends and their slide into mob crime and police brutality where they can only wind up Dead or Bad (the literal translation of the Korean title).
Rumble introduces protagonists Seok-whan (played by the director, Ryoo Seung-wan) and Seong-bin. In the midst of a nasty run-in with art students in a billiard room, Seong-bin accidentally kills one of them. In Nightmare Seong-bin is released after seven years in prison. Visions of the murdered art student haunt him and when he saves the life of mobster Tae-hoon by chance he takes the opportunity offered for a life of crime. Our Contemporary inter-cuts mock interviews of Tae-hoon and Seok-whan, now a cop, with an extended fight between them during the arrest of the mobster. The final mini-film noir Die Bad sees Seok-whan and Seong-bin's clash over the cop’s kid brother (the debut of the director’s own younger brother Ryoo Seung-bum) and his friends’ recruitment into the mob as ‘knife fodder’.
The film thrives on the economy of the narrative plus the performances of a mixed cast of experienced character actors like Bae Jung-shik as mobster Tae-hoon and talented newcomers. Ryoo Seung-bum and his mates’ foul-mouthed banter on their chosen slide into the world of crime feel especially authentic. Add to this the director’s obvious visceral pleasure in the choreography of extended man-on-man combat – I do like the blurring of fists, knifes, sticks, limbs as the camera closes in on the action thanks to real film’s slow, as compared to digital cameras, shutter speed. You can see how Ryoo earned his nickname, ‘action kid’.
Two for the audience: City of Violence (2006) and Dachimawa Lee (2007)
When Die Bad came out, Korean critics celebrated a fresh vision that seemed able to combine hard-hitting social commentary with even harder hitting screen action. Ryoo Seung-Wan however protested that he was just a genre filmmaker, a martial arts fiend at that, as shown in his 60s set spy spoof short Dachimawa Lee which was huge on the Korean internet in 2000, making stars out of his brother as well as Lim Won-hee who plays the Austin Power-like title character.
Ryoo’s first two films after Die Bad were genre pieces with ever-rising budgets, gritty film-noir gangster chic flick No Blood No Tears (2002) and Arahan (2004), an updated kung-fu wire action extravaganza. Both left critics unenthused but found their audience. With his fourth feature Crying Fist (2005) Ryoo arguably responded to those who asked him to go back to more serious work, and a pattern seemed to emerge: one film for the critics followed by two for the box office.
Thus Ryoo’s fifth, City of Violence (2006) was again an unabashedly commercial film operating within the perimeters of the Asian action genre but filled with film-noir characters.
Seoul-based cop Tae-su receives the shocking news that his childhood friend Wang-jae, a retired wise guy, has been stabbed to death by a handful of punks. Tae-su travels back to his hometown Onsung to attend Wang-jae's funeral where he learns that their old buddy Pil-ho, now a big shot gangland chief, is involved in a scheme of forced land evictions to profit from a casino development orchestrated by Seoul mobsters. Tae-su reluctantly teams up with the short-tempered Seok-hwan (played by the director) to avenge Wang-jae's death.
Taekwondo aficionado Ryoo casts himself in an ironic second-fiddle role to Korea's most renowned stunt choreographer Jeong Du-hong whose martial arts specialty outfit Seoul Action School co-produced the movie. Jeong’s signature is very much evident in the film’s high-kicking and bloody fight sequences. Make no mistake, action is what City of Violence is all about, not plot or characterization which remain archetypal and paper-thin, or acting which is wooden with the exception of Lee Bum-soo’s portrayal of key villain Pil-ho whose monumental sense of inadequacy makes for the film's best laughs.
The real marble of the film comes with an extended chase scene during their early search for the teenage punk who allegedly murdered Wang-jae. The City’s youth strike back and the two ‘heroes’ are pursued by hundreds of teenage thugs of different urban tribes, attacking them amongst others with BMX bikes, baseball bats and breakdance moves - the sequence choreographed more like a dance number in a Bollywood movie than a martial arts slugfest, which adds to the fun.
Lim Won-he as super spy Dachimawa Lee
More of the same but different is Dachimawa Lee (2007) the feature length extension of Ryoo Seung-wan’s internet short film from seven years earlier. This is a spoof film of the South Korean spy film genre of the late seventies. The plot sees super-spy Dachimawa Lee dispatched to recover a Golden Buddha statue that contains the list of all of Korea's secret agents, which has fallen into the hands of the Japanese. There is a love triangle as Lee struggles to be true to the memory of his beloved colleague Keum Yeon-ja (Kong Hyo-jin) who perishes in action in the film’s opening sequence, in the face of tempting rookie spy Ma-ri (Park Si-hyeon). Dachimawa Lee thrives on its combination of top notch action pieces with a comedy of the over-the-top characterization of both heroes and baddies. The caricatures of evil Japanese and Chinese villains may just seem racist if you’re not aware that the joke works by taking the racist portrayal of the original genre and making it even worse. You might be a bit at a loss if you don’t know any of the films that Dachimawa Lee references, or as a young western viewer, can’t make a connection to similar Cold War fare.
Two for the critics: Crying Fist (2005) and The Unjust (2010)
Rewind to 2005 when after making two commercial genre films, Ryoo seemed to listen to the critics and gave his audience two serious boxing movies rolled into one in his fourth feature film Crying Fist. Two because the genre usually sees an underdog triumph against the odds and an overpowering antagonist to win a belt, his self-respect and the love of those close to him. What, the writer/director seems to have asked at the outset, if we had to root for both corners?
In the cinematic answer to his own question, Ryoo Seung-wan gives us two underdogs and spends considerable time building audience empathy for both unrelated losers. In an inspired piece of casting, the eventual contenders are played by acclaimed veteran actor Choi Min-shik of Old Boy fame and one of the brightest stars of the younger generation, you guessed it, brother Ryoo Seung-bum. The film successfully displays the harsh realism which made Die Bad so impressive, and much of it is about the day-to-day experiences of the two.
Choi Min-shik as human punchbag
Kang Tae-shik (Choi Min-shik) once won a silver medal at the Asian Games but his past glory is worth near to nothing in the present day: he earns his money in a shopping mall by acting as a human punch bag for any frustrated passer-by with a bit of cash to spare. This slide down the social ladder has led to the failure of Tae-shik’s marriage and made his young son ashamed of his dad. Especially moving is the boy’s initial excitement of bringing his champ along for ‘bring dad to school day’ and his embarrassment when his father presents himself as a rumbling idiot. Thus Tae-shik’s motivation to return to the ring when the chance presents itself is of course to make his boy proud of his father once again.
That motivation is mirrored in the story of his eventual contestant. Here it is a son, Yu Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-bum), who gets by on petty crime in his disaffected neighbourhood. A robbery has serious consequences when the victim dies of the beating received and Sang-hwan is put behind bars. Full of anger, he gets into his fair share of fights and is reluctantly persuaded to join the boxing class. While inside, his father who had been quite understanding of Sang-hwan’s delinquency, is killed in an accident, and sometime later his grandmother is taken to hospital seriously ill. Looking for a way to make his family proud of their disappointing son, Sang-hwan begins to take boxing more seriously.
All the genre conventions have been expertly exercised by Ryoo, not once but twice over, and when the bell finally rings for the first round I’m in agony. Each punch hurts as I care much for both characters. Do I want the red corner to succeed or the blue one to win the day? Who do I cheer, for a punch that finds its target? So much is at stake that unable to give a sympathy vote, I end up counting actual hits while speculating during the excruciating long and bloody match that surely it must end unresolved. However, Ryoo made a decision and gives us a winner for the fight, although not the right one according to my count...
Actors Choi Min-shik and Ryoo Seung-bum after the fight
Crying Fist is such a simple variation on the standard formula, but it causes the whole generic structure of viewer loyalties and triumph-against-odds expectations to crash down like a house of cards. It is an outstanding achievement for Ryoo Seung-wan despite overplaying the empathy stakes in the final act with cutaways to the families’ journeys to the ring and especially the overly pathetic music which actually takes you out of the ring rather than into the fight, something the first round achieves so well when only grunts, punches and their impacts are heard. In the Q&A after the LKFF screening, Ryoo confessed that, given the opportunity to re-cut the film, he would tone down the emotional manipulation of the audience.
His seventh and latest film The Unjust (2010) based on an original screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong of I Saw the Devil fame has given Ryoo the chance to do something similar.
Yoo Hae-jin as ‘the unjust’ police officer Choi Cheol-gi
This time the opponents are a police captain and a public prosecutor. There is not much sympathy lost between them or even for them. Both are as corrupt and rotten to the bone as the world they operate in. And this is a world where the president’s office goaded by the media puts direct pressure on the police to conclude the investigation into the murder of several primary school girls. After arresting officers shoot the main suspect by mistake, captain Choi Cheol-gi (Yoo Hae-jin) is seconded to find an ‘actor’ to stand in as the serial killer.
Soon he and his team have found a plausible suspect, and a confession is extracted by a mobster for whom Choi in return removes the rival businessman for a lucrative building contract. Choi is happy and expecting promotion, so are the police commissioner and everyone else on the ladder right up to the president. Only problem is that the public prosecutor Joo Yang (Ryoo Seung-bum) assigned the case owes much to the businessman who has lost out on the skyscraper contract. Joo knows where his loyalties are and discovers that he can help his sponsor if he shines a light on just how the police got their confession. Thus a game is opened in which many actors try to outsmart each other.
Instead of punches, Ryoo choreographs stratagems. He expertly weaves narrative information to give us a picture of the society his characters live in, and how little room for manoeuvre or morals there is when powerful interests come out to play. Fascinating to watch is the change of status depending on just how well or badly the characters’ schemes play out. Of course, there is plenty of bowing to the ones above and kicking, often literally, the ones below. But it is most interesting when the stakes are turned, for example in the scene where Choi is forced to throw himself at the feet and mercy of Joo.
This is a society, South Korea 2010, where powerful business conglomerates (chebols) - and there is not much of a distinction here between those of the legal and illegal kind - exercise undue influence on the executive. Those in the lower ranks are forced to play along and replaced once they are no longer useful.
Director Ryoo with film critic Tony Rayns and interpreter
At the LKFF closing gala, the audience had its chance to put questions to him on corruption, art mirroring reality and on just how he managed to get this film off the ground in South Korea’s vertically integrated, chebol- controlled film industry. The director closed every answer by saying that South Korea is a great place to live in, assertions met with the laughter of recognition by the mostly Korean audience.
To the west and beyond: The Berlin File (2012)
In Ryoo we have an outsider, a self-taught filmmaker from a small town far removed from the Seoul-based film industry who by his talent and will to succeed has carved out a place for himself.
His characters often carry some of the underdog resentment that Kim Ki-duk (The Isle, Bad Guy, 3 Iron, etc.) developed to its extremes but at the same time Ryoo’s background is too much aspiring middle class for him to embrace the role of outcast entirely. Unlike Kim he wants to belong to what he criticizes. This informs the serious side of his filmmaking. The other side just wants to have action. There is still a hyperactive child in the man, that wants to share with its audience the fun he had re-enacting the martial arts movies he saw growing up.
Next up for Ryoo Seung-wan is a journey to Germany where his new film The Berlin File will commence principal photography early next year. This contemporary story, as far as I can glean it from various internet fora, tells of a South Korean couple working in the Berlin embassy, the wife as an interpreter, the husband helping with arms smuggling for a key diplomat who might also work for the North Koreans. When some shady deal fails to please Pyongjang, an assassin (Ryoo Seung-bum) is sent to Berlin who threatens to expose the wife as a double agent. The husband is given the stark choice to give her up or to betray his boss. He collaborates on setting up the latter but then learns that it has all been a ploy to get at his now pregnant wife. Will he be able to save her?
What will Ryoo make of this? Will he turn The Berlin File into another spy spoof, a Dachimawa Lee 2, or will the action kid put on his serious hat and give us a spy thriller that takes his considerable skill for tightly weaving complex nets displayed so well in The Unjust, to new international levels, both in story line and critical acclaim?
Michael Dominski attended the LKFF for www.shatterjapan.com.
All images reproduced courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre UK.