NYAFF 2013 Interview: Director Jang Cheol-soo Talks SECRETLY, GREATLY

Diva Velez recently sat down with Jang Cheol-soo, the man behind the 2010 horror Bedeviled, to chat about his latest film, Secretly, Greatly, a spy vs. spy, North vs. South film that equally plots itself as a comedy, actioner and drama. A massive hit at home in South Korea, the film had its international premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival before opening in New York and LA this past Friday. For readers that have yet to see the film, be warned, major story points are discussed throughout the following interview [ed. Ben Umstead] 

Twitch: What inspired you to take on this project?
 
Jang Cheol-soo: This film is based on a webcomic [Covertness by Hun] that is very popular in South Korea. After I read the webcomic, I thought I should make this into a film.  The production company started the development and later I was attached as the director.
 
People are fanatical about comic books and whether film adaptations stay true to the source. What were the most important aspects for you to keep and what did you feel you could alter?
 
Above all, the beginning and the end of the story was such a great premise.  The beginning, which is the main character pretending that he's the fool of the village, and also the tragic end that neither the main character nor his comrades could either go to the North or the South was representing the tragic events that have been going on for 60 years after the Korean war was pretty crucial to the story.

Something I wanted to change from the webcomic was that I wanted to portray the characters more like real people.  For example, the main character missing his mother in North Korea and the people of the village having their own story and past.  I wanted to portray that more realistically.
 
"Secretly Greatly" starts with the serious backstory in North Korea, which plays as a counterpoint to the comedy of the super-soldier in disguise as a slow-witted store helper.  But then it turns into a full-on action film and then a very sad melodrama.  Was there any hesitation about asking the audience to go for such an unexpected ride?
 
The beginning with the fool in a village was such a comic concept, so I wanted to give full attention to the comedy genre, but then I thought it was inevitable to end it tragically because the characters' hurt by the separation was so tragic, I couldn't avoid ending it tragically. Because the beginning and the end were two totally different natures - comedy and tragedy - in between I thought I could explore different genres such as action. What I was concerned about when deciding to mix those genres was if it fails to make a great mix, it could actually look too forced. So in order to mix it perfectly, I had to focus very much on the drama.
 
Can you talk about casting Kim Soo-Hyun, Park Ki-Woong and Lee Hyun-Woo as the three young spies? What were the most important qualities you needed from the actors playing each role?

Above all, the webcomic itself has the premise of three handsome, good looking spies, so first I thought they had to match the visuals.  But not only that, I needed actors with enough talent to portray not only the visual, but what the characters are going through inside. It is quite unusual that three young actors are given the leading roles in Korean movies and I did know that it was quite risky, and because of that I wanted to have a good ensemble to make the film successful.
 
There are so many complicated action sequences. Which was the most difficult to shoot?
 
I had trouble with many action scenes because there are so many of them, but I would say the end when they have their last fight on the rooftop, because it was such a long sequence that I had to shoot it for over 10 days, so I would say that was the most difficult one.
 
Did you take much time in training the actors for all the physical work they had to do?
 
Yes, of course,and before the shoot I sent the actors to the gym and had them trained with a stunt team, especially Kim Tae-won, played by Son Hyun-joo, the head of the antagonists.  He had never done action before, so I had to have him especially train hard.
 
There's been a recent rise in number of US films that use North Korea as movie villains. Is it the same in South Korea? Is there more attention being paid to North Korea because of the new leader?
 
In American films, I've noticed that the people from North Korea are simply and flatly portrayed as antagonists; almost using them as a tool in the plot. I find it quite funny. But in South Korea, when we portray the people from North Korea, we don't really portray them as antagonists, but rather focus on the tragedy caused by the situation. Even in my film, I portray the North Koreans not really as the antagonists, but more as those sacrificed and inevitably forced because of the separation and difference in the ideology. Also, in South Korea, films that simply portray the South as good and the North as evil don't really make a success in the box office. Of course the films that get made are affected by the current political status between North and South: For example, years ago when Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun, the previous presidents were in office, the North was portrayed more as the subject that we needed to reconcile with. Nowadays, it kind of has become the subject we are confronting.
 
When showing the film abroad, do you worry that perhaps some of the finer points of your portrayal of North Korea will be missed?
 
I am definitely curious about how foreigners will react to this film.  But even in South Korea, people have different reactions and interpretation of this story because they have different political stances.  Speaking of foreigners; I feel like they would have an even more objective view of the film because they don't really have a direct political stance toward the North and South situation.
 
There's an ambiguous note to the end of "Secretly, Greatly". What did that writing on the wall behind the portrait mean?
 
In the film at the end, the main character flies from the rooftop leading the audience to believe he died, but I understand you're talking about the phrase that was hidden behind the picture. It could possibly have been the main character that wrote the phrase, but I just wanted to leave that as an element that it could've been the main character who survived from the fall that wrote it, or it could've been her real son, or someone else. I just wanted to leave two separate endings open for interpretation.
 
Between "Secretly, Greatly" and your previous film "Bedeviled" [2010], you show a strong sense of individuality in your filmmaking. I wonder if your work with director Kim Ki-duk, who is very individualistic has had any influence on your vision of a film?
 
Yes, I was more or less influenced by Kim Ki-duk, and what he taught me was that films have to have a sharp edge and I should never lose the audience's attention.  When I make films I do focus on those lessons and I do try remembering them.  But if you look at my films, there is a hint of hope and warmness and I would say they are not from Kim Ki-duk, but more of my personal touch that came from myself or my upbringing.

If I have to compare myself to Kim Ki-duk, I think that he portrays the bright side of society and tries to find even that bright side of society there is that dark side. With myself, it's quite the opposite, actually; I try to find the bright side even in the dark side of society.
 
What is next for Jang Cheol-soo?
 
In South Korea, there have been several films that were about the separation between South Korea and North Korea; but for my next film, I would like to tell the story about just North Korea without really South Korea at all.  It would be a melodrama within the North Korean society.
 
This interview was cross-published on Diva's website The Diva Review.
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