Veteran: Interview with Ryoo Seung-wan

During a recent visit to the London East Asia Film Festival for the premiere of his latest film Veteran, South Korean writer, director and producer Ryoo Seung-wan was kind enough to make some time for an intimate group interview.

Along with Andrew and James from easternKicks and Paul from Hangul Celluloid, we discussed this new film with the man himself and got some great insight into a movie which has now become one of the highest grossing films in Korean cinema history - an amazing feat by any standard.

Director Ryoo has made a major impact with international audiences through both high-grossing and critically acclaimed work in popular thrillers like The Berlin File, right through to action pieces like The City of Violence, Crying Fist and Arahan. What's more, having interviewed him in my book Life of Action, I finally had the opportunity to catch up with him again and hand him a copy, which was great.

Here is the group interview we had ahead of the Veteran UK premiere. Thanks again to Andrew, James and Paul and it was fun to collaborate on this one.

easternKicks: Where did your inspiration for Veteran come from?

The two most recent films I made prior to Veteran were very dark and the main characters always seemed lost. I wanted to make a movie where the main character actually wins for the first time. I wanted to recreate those heroes that I grew up watching in films as it’s really hard to watch those characters always lose. I was inspired by real life events relating to rich people who are heirs to big conglomerates and I wanted the audience to feel that they were ultimately in charge, imagining the lead character coming to life on behalf of the audience.

Mike Fury: What did you feel was different about the subject of Veteran, compared to your previous work, and what did you hope to do differently?

In the past, I was always influenced by emotions I felt in real life and it has always been difficult to escape from that. In reality, it is also incredibly difficult to win against those who are rich and powerful and I was influenced by this fact. This time around, I wanted to change this so I focused on the imaginary hero winning against these powerful and corrupt individuals. Since I was working within a fictional movie plot, rather than telling a factual story, I felt freer than I have in the past. So, the story is based on real facts but with a twist.

Hangul Celluloid: Considering the huge popularity of Veteran and the fact that it has more humorous elements than your previous work, do you see this as proof that Korean film audiences are looking for something different with a more light-hearted edge than in the days of No Blood, No Tears and City of Violence? And do you feel the wants and needs of Korean audiences have changed over the years, and are you consciously aware of that change when making a new film?

I do feel that Korean film audiences prefer light-hearted popcorn movies. The success of Veteran is partly down to this but I think it’s more to do with the fact that I touched on something that audiences want to see happen, but cannot do in reality. I think they felt joy seeing something they would never see in real life. I can’t put my finger on what changed for Korean film audiences that resulted in Veteran being so successful, but I think I touched a new level in terms of my relationship with audiences. I found it especially interesting to see teenage audiences liking the film. I didn’t expect that at all. Obviously, I can’t say definitively how or why they liked it so much since they are so young and I cannot remember what my thoughts were when I was that age. But I was also able to touch people of all ages in certain ways, but it may have been different for different age groups. The screening in Toronto was the first time I was able to see international audience reactions to the film and it has been said in the past that reactions of younger Korean audiences are similar to those of international viewers. So, I’m really hopeful that foreign audiences will also love the film.

easternKicks: Your two lead stars (Hwang Jung-min and Yoo Ah-in) appear in two of the most popular Korean films this year, in terms of box office. Was that deliberate or accidental on your part? And how did you come to cast them?

Hwang Jung-min and I worked together on The Unjust and we had a really good working relationship and when I was writing Veteran I actually had him in mind. When Hwang Jung-min saw the script, he knew that the main character role was written for him... it was so obvious that the character dialogue, actions, they were just ‘him’, plus the character was influenced by Hwang-Jung-min himself. In real life, Hwang Jung-min believes justice is vitally important and he likes to help others, so he really was perfect to play the good cop.

Yoo Ah-in was already famous before he joined my movie but he was particularly known for his bold moves and opinions, on social media for example, where he is known to make very bold political comments. He wasn’t the first person I had in mind for the role of the villain in Veteran. However, young actors often avoid roles like this because they might get hurt so I had trouble casting the role. I understand that playing these villain characters is hard and many actors avoid these roles because they want to protect their commercial image. I met Yoo Ah-in at the Busan International Film Festival, in a social capacity, and he seemed very interested when I told him about the film. He asked to see the script and I was so worried he’d reject it so I changed it to add explanations of why the character was bad. Yoo Ah-in called me a couple of days later and said he’d really enjoyed reading it but he wanted to know why so much explanation of his character was necessary, then he was actually the one who said “Why can’t the character just be evil, without explanation?” and I was really grateful for that.

No one in the cast or production team thought this movie would be so successful but one thing I found out is was most directors automatically think my films are going to be huge. But, as it never goes exactly the way you want, I just make the films I want to make. I believe and hope that if I put my heart into it then one day people will realise the true worth of my films, even if that is in the distant future with audiences millions of miles away.

easternKicks: With Veteran being so successful, I believe there is a sequel being planned. What fresh areas will you take the film and story after this?

The cast and the production team really enjoyed making the film and I loved the characters. So, everyone agreed that if the film ended up being really successful we would endeavour to make a sequel. However, before the movie came out we were very careful not to mention that publicly because if the film wasn’t a success we’d end up making fools of ourselves. We thought “Just in case, let’s not kill the characters!" Thankfully, of course, the movie has been a big success, so every time I meet the cast all we talk about is when we’ll make the next one and we have now decided to make a definite sequel. What we hope is that it won’t just end with the second one, but will continue beyond that. I hope the lead character can develop and go through a series of events and end up one day as the centre of the story, not just the main cop, and will have the power to stand against the real evil. In order for this to happen, we need to do our homework and make the sequels really good.

Mike Fury: One aspect of Veteran that was very highly praised was the action and fight sequences. What was your process collaborating with the choreographers and the stunt team to really bring this to life?

I have worked with stunt director and his team many times over the years. When we’re off set, we get on really well but, when we’re on set, we just hate each other. He regularly tells people that I nag him and that I’m really difficult but actually it’s the other way round! As I really trust him and his team, I just give him an idea of what I want and after that I’m like a teacher who checks pupils’ homework. He comes back to me with his own interpretation and I’ll just laugh, then every time I see him I say “Do it again, do it again”. That goes on for ages until there’s nothing left for us to discuss or disagree but we end up with such great stunts.

What I asked for this time, in particular, was realistic action sequences and I wanted the audience to feel the pain of the characters. In fact, there was actually a moment when one of the stuntmen almost died. There is a scene where a motorcycle and a car crash head-on and, before we shot it, we went to see the location but when I said I wanted the crash to be head-on, I was told “no”, and it was the first time he has ever refused one of my requests. I said I’d seen similar scenes in international films so why not in a Korean movie? He asked me if those scenes in foreign movies had been on level ground and said that, as we were shooting on a hill, there was a possibility of the stuntman going under the car. However, the location was so visually perfect I really didn’t want to change it so we finally decided to shoot with the stuntman on a wire but, as he was riding a Harley Davidson, even with a wire it would be really hard to pull him out. When we eventually shot the scene, we pulled the stuntman off the motorcycle with the wire but he hit his jaw on the bike’s glass and if it had been just five centimetres lower he would have been killed. Not only that, but he hit then his head on the car and passed out. His face was so ripped that you could see his teeth through his skin. We took him to hospital and I was there to see him wake up and I can’t forget the first thing he said: “Is it OK?” I was really impressed that, even after what he had gone through, he was still thinking about the film. Thankfully, he has fully recovered but I don’t think he’ll ever do another motorcycle stunt!

Director Ryoo Seung-wan with Life of Action

Director Ryoo Seung-wan with Life of Action

Hangul Celluloid: Throughout your career, you have regularly been described as “The Action Kid of Korean Cinema” and, even today, you have been referred to as such in reviews of your recent work and in press packs. What were you’re feeling about the use of such a tag in the past and, as your recent films have far more depth than simply being ‘action films’, what are your thoughts about that label at this point?

I actually like the nickname! I think it’s great and it’s certainly better that “The Action Old Man of Korean Cinema”! The movies that I have loved and been passionate about since I was very young were all action films but I believe even the films of Billy Wilder, for example, are also action. For me, film is the art of moving pictures so I never say "film by...", I say "picture by...". For me, the pictures, the images of a film are as important as the story itself and even a scene where a man kisses a woman is a really good action scene. A kid holding a dying father is also an action scene and so I feel the word "action" is relevant to any filmmaker and very relevant to my work. Action is a way of creating an emotion through moving pictures and action isn’t just a genre, it’s so much more.

Thanks to Claire Marty, the London East Asia Film Festival, EasternKicks and Hangul Celluloid.