Opposites: Kang Je-kyu and Hong Sang-su on Film-MakingWith less than three films to their credit, Kang Je-kyu and Hong Sang-su are leading figures in the Korean film industry. Both men were born in the early 1960s, both studied theater and film at Joongang University, and both made their directorial debuts as film directors in 1994. However, the similarites end there.
While both were at this year's Cannes Film Festival, they were there on what could be considered as opposing artistic sides. Hong Sang-su was at Cannes to show his recent work "The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors" in the non-competing category 'Un Certain Regard'(prestigious acknowedgement by the Cannes committee for exceptional work), while Kang Je-kyu was there peddling his two Korean blockbuster hits "Gingko Tree Bed"(1996) and "Swiri"(1999) during the run of the Festival.
Film critics at Cannes praised Hong for his artistry calling him the "jewel of Korea's Art films". At the same time, Kang Je-kyu was being touted as the director whose movie "sank 'Titanic'", a reference to his movie "Swiri" overtaking "Titanic" for the number one spot when the two were released in the Korean market.
In Korean film circles, Hong and Kang stand at opposite ends of the spectrum with one catering to small audiences and film critics with artistic flair and the other to large audiences for entertainment as well as commercial value.
Kang Je-kyu broke all domestic records with his blockbuster hits "Gingko Tree Bed" and "Swiri". His first film,"Gingko Tree Bed", attracted 700,000 people in Seoul alone while his second film, "Swiri" saw ticket sale numbers top 2.5 million. Hong, on the other hand, films attract smaller numbers, less than 100,000 seeing his movies "The Power of Kangwon Province"(1998) and "The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well"(1996). He, however, maintains an indomitable presence within the Korean film industry for his artistic vision.
In response to what has been called less than artistic movies, Kang said, "We tend to shed a negative light on entertainment for entertainment's sake alone. People criticize entertaining movies for their lack of meaning, but do we really look for meaning in everything we do? It's not as if we look for meaning everytime we eat something tasty. Besides, entertainment can be meaningful precisely because of its entertainment value."
Kang also expounded on his own ideas on what a movie should have: "A good movie should not necessarily be one that appeals to a small audience of movie cognoscenti and critics, but should be one that appeals to the masses as well."
Hong, however, shows distaste for blockbuster movies in the Hollywood mold for which Kang is known. Hong said,"Why ride something as obvious as a roller coaster? You know beforehand where you're headed: up and down. There's no fun or meaning in that. Hollywood-style films tend to produce formualaic characters and stories that guarantee success at the box-office. I don't find that extremely unattractive. However, following a formula set by others is just not my style."
At one time, Hong severely criticized Quentin Tarantino and his hit movies "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction". He said: "Tarantino's movies work for those who can't deal with reality. I think audiences fall in love with the fictional elements that offer them some sort of vicarious satisfaction. It's entertaining for sure, but what else does it offer? Nothing. Why? Because those kinds of movies make no observation on real life."
The large difference in movie ideology between Kang and Hong can be discerned in their personal background as well.
Kang Je-kyu was enthralled with movies from an early age when his father's friend brought him to his first movie theater in Masan. All through middle and high school, Kang was deeply involved in photography; however, dissatisfied with still pictures, he moved on to 8mm films. During his final year of undergrad at Joongang University, Kang began working under director Jeong In-yeob of "Madame Aema" fame (a series of B-movie films made in the 1980s). At that time, Kang started writing movie scripts for political thrillers and action movies with "Who Saw the Dragon's Claws"(1991) and "Rule of the Game"(1994).
After seven years of script writing, in 1993, Kang founded his own production company and started filming "Gingko Tree Bed".
Hong Sang-su's directorial formation took a different route. He comes from a famous group of directors who received their film education and training abroad and not going through the 'Chungmuro' system, an area in downtown Seoul heavily dotted with film production companies and agencies. Hong is famous for incorporating various elements of his personal life into his films. In "The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors", the main character, played by Moon Sung-geun, is a movie producer who cajoles friends into financing movies in hopes of becoming a famous film director. In real life, Hong worked as a producer for a small television production company. In 1983, he dropped out of Joongang University and went to the U.S. to study at the California Institute of the Arts and the Chicago Institute of the Arts. It was at this time that Hong became deeply committed to experimental films.
Upon finishing his studies in the States, Hong left for Paris and spent a year studying film. He returned to Korea in 1992 and after doing various stints as a television producer, he found work at a movie production company.
After two long years of preparation, Hong came out with "The Day a Pig Fell into a Well". With no famous actors nor directors to boast, the movie garnered encouraging reviews from audiences and critics alike. The same year, Hong received the 'Best Picture' award at the Rotterdam Film Festival and the 'Dragon and Tiger' award at the Vancouver Film Festival becoming one of Korea's premier film directors.
Although at opposite ends of the film world, both Kang and Hong hold one belief in common. Both have as a goal the creation of something wholly novel and original.
Hong stated,"I try to stay away from what everyone else was doing. I constantly attempt to create scenes from different angles. If movies generally show something from up close, I show it from far away." Kang, also, said, "Whether in genre or in theme, I try to create a movie from something no one has ever done before."
On location, both display signs of absolute professionalism. Those who have worked with Kang never cease to be amazed at his neat attire. "I'm a little anal about how I look on location. When I was working as crew with other directors, I found their disheveled appearances rather unattractive." Those who know Hong voice his tendency for shooting an excessive amount of footage, always trying to get the perfect shot. The perfectionist in both Kang and Hong seems to be the secret to their success.
by Lee Young-ki