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Hey all, I had the great pleasure of an exclusive chat with the director of two of Koreaís biggest movies, Shiri and Taegukgi.  Director Kang Je-gyu returns after a seven-year absence with My Way.  The blockbuster World War II epic tells the story of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the unlikely bond between a Korean peasant forced into battle and a Japanese soldier.

Director Kang talked about the pressures of creating the most expensive Korean film ever made, the tense relationship between Japan and Korea, and his international cast, including stars Jang Dong-gun, Odagiri JŰ and Fan Bingbing.

Dig it!

 

My Way

 

Director Kang Je-gyu

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  Thank you so much for this deeply affecting film.  Before we begin discussing it, I think your fans would like to know where youíve been for seven years?

Kang Je-gyu:  I donít know where the time went myself.  I want to become smarter and a little more efficient in the future and make a lot more films. {Laughs}

 

LMD:  How did you discover the real life story that inspired you to take on this tremendous endeavour?

KJ-g:  The script came to me about four and a half years ago and it actually came through Warner Brothers.  The background to that is about seven years ago this picture kind of emerged and this story became kind of a sensation in Korea of a Korean man who was captured at the front in Normandy.  Everybody was just amazed, like ĎHow could that possibly happen?í {Korea had no troops in Normandy}  There were different efforts that happened around that, so a different screenwriter had written a script based off of that story and thatís what I was first presented with.  Later, SBS {Korean broadcast channel} made a documentary around it.  It wasnít the script so much but when I saw the documentary was when I decided I wanted to make this film.  Thereís even a novelisation around this particular picture. So, starting with this picture, all these different people garnered a lot of interest.  Iíd like to note that this is the first film I havenít written from the beginning myself.  I took another personís script and then worked a lot with it, revising it.

 

LMD:  Has the man in the original photograph World War II photograph ever been identified?

KJ-g:  No, heís still not identified.  Weíre still trying to find him because we think thereís a high likelihood he lives in the US, if you can imagine that.

 

LMD:  My Way covers a segment of history that much of the West might not be aware of and I wondered if exposing that time period to the world was one of your goals?

KJ-g:  The historical background is important, as you said, but it wasnít so much to talk about the Korean experience.  In my thinking of history in general; 1945 is when Korea became liberated from Japan, so weíve been an independent country now for almost seventy years.  In geographic terms, the two countries are extremely close; theyíre almost right next to each other.  The trade between the two countries is very large; itís one of the largest trade relationships on the globe.  Thereís lots of cultural exchange from them.  And yet, you can tell that peopleís hearts are still closed to each other and itís a very difficult relationship, even now.  I was very fortunate to have my previous films welcome in Japan and I always felt this thirst to try to tell a story that could draw a real friendship between a Japanese and a Korean person.  So, when I came across My Way, it really kind of spoke to that thought I already had.  My personal idea is that itís really necessary for us to overcome our past and have a reconciliation in order to build any sort of new future.

 

LMD:  That leads perfectly in my next question because sometimes the relationship between Japan and Korea is fine as you said, but there are other times when thereís animosity and then we see the Japanese are protesting Big Bang {Korean pop group, extremely successful in Japan}.  It runs very hot and cold.  Did you have any hesitation or worry about the way you presented the Japanese occupation of Korea?

KJ-g:  We were concerned about how people would react to it.  After the script was completed, just at the script stage, we did some testing.  We did have people in Japan as well as Korea react to the script to be better aware of cultural issues that might be out there.  That said, the reaction to the script and then the reaction to the final film that came out were very different.  And so, as if the reason for making the film was to create this relationship and really create this friendship and bring these two countries closer and have people open their minds; on the extreme sides of it, the reaction to the film may have actually enflamed the issue a little more and brought these issues to the fore.  And in that, thereís only two possible answers to that; either I and the film itself have failed to do their job, or, we as people are just not ready.  Weíre still not ready and these issues and these feelings run much deeper than even I had suspected.

 

LMD:  The battle scenes in My Way are some of the most spectacular Iíve ever seen.  While they are all intense, each one is very different in the tempo and staging.  How did you approach each of the battles in Korea, Russia, or Normandy?  Did you look at each one as a different piece and consciously stage them in different ways?

KJ-g:  As you said, the Nomonhan front, the Russo-German war and Normandy are three very different war fronts that are covered in this movie and I had to recreate these three different war scenes.  I was really looking for help.  I looked at as many documentaries, other movies and historical sources out there that would give me a leg up on just being able to make it happen.  What I found was that thereís really not a lot.  There was really not a lot of material out that really could help me do it, so I went a couple layers deeper by doing a lot of historical research and into technology that was used at the time, different historiansí tellings of these different war fronts and what happened.  I felt almost a sense of duty for anybody else who was going to do a movie about these things that my movie could serve as research for them and give them some aid.  So this idea of being very, very true to the historical circumstances as much as possible and being historically accurate was a really important part of making those scenes happen.

 

LMD:  The problem with being away for seven years is that when you have a new film, people will always remember your last one.  Since Taegukgi was also a movie about war and close relationship in the midst of battle, how conscious were you about not repeating the way you developed the relationships in My Way as you did in Taegukgi?

KJ-g:  Even though the two movies are both war movies and theyíre similar in that genre, I feel that honestly, if there was a sense of repetition or much more of a similarity between their two topics, I wouldnít have been able to do this film.  I feel they are such different stories; Taegukgi is about a single family and itís set within the Korean War.  This movie is almost about two different countries; it really gets on a much larger basis than that and within the context of the World War.  Thereís the distinction of the message itself, and then as a filmmaker, just the visual story that you can tell.  The Korean War versus World War II is a completely different challenge and that drew me toward this story.

 

LMD:  Thereís been so much talk about My Way being the most expensive Korean movie ever made.  Did that ever weigh on you as you made the film or was it something you were able to wave aside? 

KJ-g:  Obviously, itís a big issue, and as a filmmaker, when you make the film you do have to -- even though thereís this giant budget thatís there and itís an issue and everybody is concerned -- you do need to put it aside.  Because as filmmaker, youíre just trying to make the best, well-made story possible.  To a certain extent it is a big responsibility and a burden, but I wish people wouldnít have focused so much on just the size of the budget to the detriment of the film, and thatís some of what happened in Korea.  They just kept on about how much money it cost.

 

LMD:  Your last three films have been set in wartime.  I wonder if you see war as a fertile ground to tell stories of relationships, or morality, or people coming together.  Do you favour the backdrop of war as a storytelling device?

KJ-g:  I definitely agree with your original point, because in the case of North and South Korea, because of the division itself, {in Shiri} a man and a woman are placed at odds, and in a war as enemies, people are put in extreme odds to each other.  Maybe a disadvantage of it is that these are too dramatic; theyíre almost uncomfortably so, but he reality is, the point at which the most a personís dramatic story can be told --  I mean, people in the most extreme situations is probably war, and as a filmmaker, Iím interested in what happens when people are in those situations and what that says about us, our very race.

 

LMD:  My Way is very much an international production with producers and crew from all over the world and your three main actors are some of the biggest stars from Korea, Japan and China, respectively.  What are the challenges when you have so many participants from so many countries as opposed to if My Way had been an all-Korean production?

KJ-g:  Actually, itís not so much the challenge of making it itself, but the greatest gift Iíve received from having made it, the end result, was this sense of confidence that I could make a film anywhere with anyone.  There were five different nationalities of actors, staff and locations and all these things, and part of the reason for the gap {the seven year break} is I was in development for a film in the US, and that dragged on and on, and so I went back to doing this film in Korea.  But having done it, it was really this international production; I know that I will have no problem doing any film anywhere. So it was a wonderful experience.

 

LMD:  We know that youíve worked with Jang Dong-gun before in Taegukgi.  How has he grown or changed as an actor since then?  Can you also tell us what made you decide Odagiri JŰ would play Tatsuo?

KJ-g:  In terms of working with Jang Dong-gun -- obviously weíve worked before and now -- it wasnít a personal reason to do it, but really, as a director and a member of the audience, I see a lot of beauty and advantages in the career path heís chosen, the work that heís been doing, the work as an individual, the path that he has kept as an actor and I really respect that.  Actually, when I was casting him people asked, ďOh, why are you doing this again? Youíve already worked with him before. You should be making a new star; this is a big budget film.  Jang Dong-gun, maybe his career is on the wane,Ē a lot of things.  And then, actually, even about Odagiri JŰ; heís a very well known actor in Japan, but heís not the biggest box-office star, and so they were challenging me on that.  But at the end of the day, when choosing the cast, I really felt that Jang Dong-gun represented Jun-shik the marathoner; physically, emotionally, he really carried it off and embodied that character.  And then for Odagiri JŰ, the character Tatsuo has this duality and this great transformation and is somebody who is able to start from that almost fanatical worship for the Emperor, to becoming a human being and the softening, that this actor was really able to portray that.  And so, I think that one of the best decisions I made for this film was casting these two actors in these roles.

 

LMD:  I think a third great decision was casting Fan Bingbing as the Chinese sniper.  I loved her character and wondered if there was more to her originally filmed than we see?  Is there a directorís cut somewhere where thereís more of her?

KJ-g:  I actually think that Fan Bingbing may be a case of miscasting for the very reason that the version of the film thatís being released in China, they did add some more of her, but I think that the Chinese audience is still going to feel like, ĎWhere is she? Thereís still not enough of her.í The miscasting of her may have been that she is such a big star and somebody that people really want to see; and part of casting is to satisfy the audienceís desire to see certain actors onscreen and maybe if I had chosen a lesser-known actress, this issue wouldnít be happening.

 

LMD:  I donít want you to look seven years into the future, but Iíd like to know if you have any upcoming projects planned?

KJ-g:  Iím actually reviewing lots of scripts now. In fact, because the previous term between films was so relatively long, Iím very actively looking at scripts and very actively trying to get my next project going.

 

LMD:  Do you have a message to give to viewers about what you would like them to take away from My Way?

KJ-g:  If I have a wish for the film, it would be that thereís so much war in the world right now -- in fact, itís more than before, not less than -- and the ultimate cause of war is that people donít have a sincere understanding of each other and are not able to open their hearts up.  In fact, hatred kind of takes root because people donít have an understanding and that grows and these wars continue.  If you look at the case of Jun-shik and Tatsuo, in some ways the war was their saviour in that it became this crucible in which they actually found each other and find an understanding with each other.  In that way, I hope the movie in general can talk about the nature of war and hopefully create this atmosphere or a message that people take away to have a great understanding of each other and less war.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 11th, 2012

 

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Photos

Exclusive photos by L.M.D.

Stills courtesy of  CJ Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

 

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