With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Thursday, February 28, 2013

ACF 1823: Interview with South Korean director RYOO Seung-wan

RYOO Seung-wan (center) with actor HAN Suk-kyu (right)

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to engage in a long-distance email interview with RYOO Seung-wan, the writer/director of The Berlin File, a high-octane espionage thriller that opened nationwide in the U.S. on February 15th. (My review of the film here.) I submitted my questions, which were then translated into Korean. Director RYOO's responses were then translated into English and sent to me.

AsianCineFest: How did you come to write and direct an espionage thriller set in Berlin? 

Director RYOO: Korea is still a nation going through a cold period between the South and the North even after the Korean War. Also, there are no movies treating the stories of spies due to political logic. That was the interesting point. Even though we're talking about the present, it felt like people from the past were leading us into the story. In addition to that, my imagination was triggered when I saw people living with hidden identities in a 3rd nation, not their own.

Berlin is a city connected to lots of big cases that can't be ignored in Korean history. Also, it’s a place that represented a separated nation along with Korea in the Cold War period.

I think my personal interest and the symbolic representation of the city Berlin met, and the result was this movie. 

AsianCineFest: This was the first film you shot outside of South Korea, correct? 

Director RYOO: Yes, it was my very first shoot abroad. 

AsianCineFest: Did shooting in Berlin pose any problems or challenges you hadn't previously experienced? Would you consider shooting another film outside of South Korea? 

Director RYOO: Food, Jetlag, Language, Homesickness... On top of everything, not being able to go home. It was not an easy journey. It was a very difficult process, but if my next film also has a background in a different country, I'll have to do it. I didn't make The Berlin File because I wanted to shoot abroad, I shot abroad because I was trying to make the film The Berlin File. 

AsianCineFest: There is dialogue in Korean, English, and some German, I believe. Did the Korean actors learn their English lines phonetically? HAN Suk-kyu, whom I greatly respect and admire, did seem to have some trouble with his English. 

Director RYOO: Experts of each language translated my scenario, and then coached the actors. The Korean actors had lots of dialect, which called for a dialect coach on the set at all times. The problem wasn't the actors, it was with me. I couldn't understand what the actors were saying.... It was brutal. 

AsianCineFest: There's at least one rooftop scene with South Korean intelligence agent JUNG (Han's character) and North Korean operative PYU (played by HA Jung-woo). Such a confrontation almost invariably brings to mind such films as Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002) and more recently JANG Hun's Rough Cut (2008). Did you have any particular reason for including such a rooftop face-off between the two prime antagonists? 

Director RYOO: I like the space of a roof. It's strange, but I like the feeling that it's open to everything. I think that must be why I enjoyed filming characters meeting and fighting in such a place ever since my debut film. First of all, my taste probably had lots to do with it, and secondly, I thought it's too obvious that a character tries to run from a building and the enemy comes up the stairs to catch him, so I thought of a new scene where the main character tries to jump to another building, and having the two characters run into each other on the rooftop. 

AsianCineFest:. JUNG Doo-hong, who has worked with you on some of your other films, served as the action coordinator on The Berlin File. In what way, if any, where you involved with the creation of the action sequences, which I must say were terrific. 

Director RYOO: My part was asking the simple questions about where and how the characters will fight. If I propose questions, then the Action Director Jeong will think about it and give me several answers. Then I pick among some of them, or I ask again with more specific questions. If there is my influence anywhere, it's agonizing the experts to give a better answer. 

AsianCineFest: The Berlin File, which I think will be quite successful, concludes with the clear possibility of a sequel. If it does as well as I expect, will we have, say, The Pyonyang File to look forward to in the near future? In any case, can you say anything, even something very general, about upcoming projects you are considering?

Director RYOO: As of now, there is no plan for a follow-up. The Berlin File was not really a film I made with an intention to make a sequel. Regardless of the movie's success at being a box-office hit, I think the temptation to make a follow-up for The Berlin File would be a sweet poison. For now, I am just looking for people I can cast as main characters for the next film.

There are many ideas, but none confirmed. We will just have to try our best to make a better movie than The Berlin File.


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