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[Interview] "The Fortress" Director Hwang Dong-hyuk by The Lady Miz Diva

2017/11/11 Source

It's a rare honor when a filmmaker has the opportunity to make cinematic history even once in their career. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk has had two nods; first with "Silenced" {"Dogani"} his harrowing account of real-life events, which created such outrage that new laws against child abuse were enacted. He went on to something completely different with "Miss Granny", which broke box office records, not only in South Korea, but in various blockbuster remakes around Asia.

Director Hwang returns with his historical epic, "The Fortress", spotlighting one of early Korea's most pivotal and tragic moments. Featuring some of South Korea's greatest stars and a score by Oscar-winner, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hwang spoke with me about balancing the film's thrilling action sequences with its heartfelt story.


"The Fortress"

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk


The Lady Miz Diva: What was your inspiration behind adapting Kim Hoon's novel for this film?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: After I read Kim Hoon's novel, I realised that there is so much in this history that I didn't know about, and I was surprised about that. More importantly, I was so drawn to these two characters who represent two idealisms: The first one is more like a pacifist; people pursuing peace and trying to avoid war. In Korean it is a political ideology called "Juhwapa." The other ideal is called "Chukhwapa", which is in opposition of this, is more for war and more about rejection of the peace. With the war, he feels he is fighting for their beliefs.

So, these two ideals are represented by these two characters: Kim Sang-heon and Choi Myung-kil, and I was so attracted by them. These heated conversations and arguments that they had together in the novel were so attractive and they had so much power that I was just drawn into it. They were so passionate and heated, and there was so much philosophy in their conversation, but at the same time those words were so beautiful, it was so poetic. So, I wanted to take the beautiful language and the passionate conversation and arguments, and I wanted them to be represented by the best actors on the screen. That's how is able to visualise the concept of these characters into a movie.

The second reason was, that as you saw in the movie, in the novel it depicts the winter scenery around "The Fortress", and the whole thing is so tragic and so painful, but at the same time, when you look at the landscape covered by the snow and ice, it's rather beautiful. It's kind of ironic what I felt while reading the novel; I wanted to take the beauty of the landscape and the scenery onto a big screen through my camera.

LMD: You are not a filmmaker who shies away from making social statements with your films. There was "My Father" and "Silenced", which both had messages. Was there a contemporaneous or societal reason that you wanted to release "The Fortress" at this time?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: While I was writing and making this film, I kind of realised that the situation nowadays is not that much different from that of Joseon of 380 years ago. Back then, the existing power was Ming, and the Qing Dynasty was the rising power nation. If you look at today in South Korea, too, there is the existing power which is the US, and the rising power which is China, and we are caught in between. We are considered more like Joseon back then, which is a small, less powerful country. There is so much similarity between back then and now, so I wanted to kind of show the comparison and how much it's similar to back then, and how much it's not so different.

Also, there is this King Injo, who was caught in between, and was very incompetent; he was struggling between all these threats and whatnot. Injo was very similar to previous presidents we have had in South Korea. I wanted to show the people in these days how we can learn from the past; by showing them the history first, and have them realise what went wrong, what we can learn from it, and which paths we are going to choose.

LMD: This is not a glorious moment in Korean history. Why did you feel like you wanted to showcase it? Was that tone and sad subject matter a risk in making this film?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: I don't know? {Laughs} It's a tragic story. It's a tragedy in Korean history; I just couldn't make it happy. {Laughs} Back when I started making this film, I didn't feel very sad. I felt happy. Like you said, there was a lot of concern; people were worried if people would come out to watch this film. And also this movie had a much bigger production budget than we may have expected. So, we were concerned about making profits, as well. But I was thinking, 'Okay, we don't have to make profits.'

This movie felt to me like I was destined to make this film, and I felt a kind of responsibility to bring this film to life. I also felt that this movie was my opportunity to visualise and tell the most tragic and the saddest story in history, and to bring in the biggest production budget and to make it into probably the most perfect film for this story. But it was more that, I was thinking as a creator more than as a businessman; this came from my ego as a creator, rather than someone who wants to sell more box office.

LMD: You have a wealth of riches with your cast, some of the finest actors in Korea. I felt like you could have transposed those characters amongst any of the actors: Park Hae-il could have played Go Soo's role, Lee Byung-hun could have played Kim Yun-seok's part, etc. Did you have any reconsideration for who would play which role, or did you have those actors envisioned for those roles from the start?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: The parts were chosen for the specific actors and I never changed my mind. To begin with, Lee Byung-hun, I had him specifically in mind for the Choi Myung-kil role. I thought there was no other actor who could play this role apart from Lee Byung-hun. If you look at Choi Myung-kil's character; the character itself has no changes over the time within the movie: There was no wave of emotion. He is consistent and he's very subtle. All of these subtleties and emotions that he has to express, there is a leveling in there, but it has to have some impact, and it has to have the person's sincerity in his words and his facial expression, and his voice. The voice is very important to this role; Lee Byung-hun's voice is perfect for the role. There was no other option besides Lee Byung-hun for that role.

With Kim Sang-heon, his character is more like a fire. He tells his story very strongly. I mean, in the beginning in the movie, he kills a guy in cold blood from the get-go. At the same time, towards the end of the movie, he has to express sadness from within, and he shows weakness at the end. So, it's gotta be someone who can express these two extremely different feelings and emotions, and I thought Kim Yun-seok was perfect for the role.

Park Hae-il plays King Injo, and this character of King Injo is very fragile, pale, and weak. He is not bad, he is not evil; he is just weak. I felt like Park Hae-il was the only person who could play Injo's role, as well. So, everything was destined from the beginning.

LMD: When you have a cast with this much power, how much actual hands-on instruction do you need to do? Tell us about working with these artists to get the performance or characterisation you wanted. Were there special instructions or things you wanted each actor to keep in mind for their character?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: We talked about it. We talked so much from reading the scenario stage, and they had a great understanding of their characters, and we kind of agreed on how to play each role. So, overall, we were all on the same page. During the shooting stage, I only had to correct various details, such as 'This emotion is too overpowering;' in some scenes or sequences I would press it down, or vice versa. The only intervention that I made was to control the flow of emotions during the shooting, and the rest, they did a great job.

LMD: Each of the actors is very in-demand. How much time did you get to rehearse before shooting?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: We only rehearsed once or twice. I don't like doing too many rehearsals, myself. If we rehearsed too much and too many times, sometimes becomes very cliché. I like improvisation and I like very impromptu acting on site. So, we rehearsed to take on the major parts once or twice, and did not for the rest of the shoot.

LMD: You have some very intense battle scenes, but those moments when the advisors - particularly Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee - are pleading their cases before the king are also explosive. Which was more challenging?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: So, you're asking which one I focused on more, or which one was more difficult between the actual battle scenes, or the scenes in the court? I can say that the actual battle is war of swords, and the battle within the court is the war of words. If you ask me, neither is more important, just because they are all intertwined. If you think about it, depending on the result of the war of words, the actual battle can happen. Depending on the results of the actual physical battle, it also causes the war of words in the court. So, I cannot say which one is more important, because they are both important.

It was difficult for me to shoot those two different scenes for different reasons; because with the war of words, I have to focus on the emotions of the advisors, and I have to bring up the tension and thrills from those words.

Then with the battle scenes, it was more challenging physically, because it calls for a lot of the resources; you have to shoot for long hours, with so many people, and so much money. So, we had to manage everything perfectly, and to get the best shot that I wanted, it was more physically challenging work.

LMD: The score is nearly as heartbreaking as the scenes before us. Tell us how you came to work with the great maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto? Having interviewed him last year, I know he is a man of great feeling and sensitivity. How much did you have to instruct or direct what you wanted the music to invoke?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: I was a fan of his to begin with. After I watched "The Revenant", it created more of an urge to work with him. I reached out to his agent to New York, I sent all the information about the film and said I wanted to work with him, and it worked out much easier than I imagined. What I discovered later, was that he was had been interested in working for an Asian film, and that he himself was a fan of this Korean drama called "Dae Jang Geum" {"Jewel in the Palace"}. It worked out really well, better than I imagined. There were two key pieces that I got the inspiration about this film from; it was "The Last Emperor" and "The Revenant", and coincidentally, Sakamoto worked for both of the films. It was destiny! {Laughs}

To describe the working process, because he is based in New York and I am in Korea, we exchanged most of our conversations via Skype and email. We met through Skype and went through the overall tone of the movie. When he worked on his pieces, he would send me his work via email, then I would listen to it and give him my feedback, and we did this over and over. Most of the score I really loved, and it was perfect. It was just three parts of the score that I felt maybe were not quite attuned to the emotion and atmosphere of the scenes, so we had to go back and forth for those three songs only, but the rest, it was a very flawless process.

LMD: You have swung back and forth between serious subjects with the intense and haunting "Silenced", to the comedic "Miss Granny", to serious again with "The Fortress". Is that how you prefer to work; to switch up moods from project to project?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: I didn't do it intentionally, I'm just the kind of person who is easily tired of something. Once I'm making a film about something, then I'm kind of sick of it, so for the next one, I think to myself, 'Let's try something different.' After "Silenced", let's do something more brighter, more funny, so I chose "Miss Granny". Then after, I was like, 'I'm done with comedy, let's do something else.' I didn't do it intentionally, it's just I'm that kind of person. So maybe I'm not gonna do a period piece ever again? I've done enough with "The Fortress". {Laughs}

LMD: There is something I've wanted to ask you since "Silenced": What was that like for you to have made a film that so affected the public that it brought justice to many victims and resulted in new and better child abuse laws being passed in South Korea?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: That was quite a shock for me. I was really surprised about what happened after the movie was released. I never expected that they would make a law about it. To be honest, I tried to have some impact on society with "Silenced"; that was my intention, but I never expected that big an impact.

I'm proud of it. I'm proud of what the film has done. I didn't do it; I never intended it, but the film did it, and the audience did it. That was a great experience. I'm never going experience that kind of feeling again, it's impossible. The movie - just one movie coming out - it moved the whole nation and changed everything in like two months. That was just amazing. It changed my everything. {Laughs} How can I expect more as a director; the film I made just changed the whole thing. That's just like a miracle.

LMD: What is your next project?

Hwang Dong-hyuk: I have no idea! I am totally burnt out. I spent more than 2½ years making this one film. It was the most time for me that I spent making a movie. From the very beginning, when I started writing the script, it's been almost 2 and half years. I put everything on this; I went all in {Laughs}.

I would say no to everybody who wants to give me a script. I have no power to make a single word, so please wait until I get some of my energy back. Maybe next spring when it's warmer, I'll do the job of reading again. But right now I need to find time to rest. {Laughs}


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