Once hot, director now in hot seat

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Once hot, director now in hot seat

Gwak Gyeong-taek took the world by storm last year with his film "Chingu" (Friend), but he is now one of the most troubled men on the peninsula. Mr. Gwak, 36, is wanted by prosecutors in Busan for giving money to a gangster, and is being sued by the star of "Friend," Yu O-seong.

Selling 8.2 million tickets, "Friend" is Korea's most successful film ever. Not surprisingly, expectations were high for Mr. Gwak's follow-up film, this year's "Champion." Again Mr. Gwak teamed with Mr. Yu. "They were good friends in real life as well as on screen," says Kim Jang-wook of Korea Pictures, the agency that distributed the film.

With "Champion," the director tells the tale of the boxer Kim Duk-koo, who never regained consciousness after his fight with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in Las Vegas in 1982. The film opened June 28, as the World Cup was winding down, seemingly a good time for an ambitious movie to open. "Everyone in the industry said 'Champion' would rewrite the history of Korean films," said Mr. Kim at Korea Pictures. "The only question was whether it could beat 'Friend.'"

No one thought "Champion" could lose -- but that's exactly what it did, attracting merely 1.7 million viewers and limping off screens in mid-July. "The problem with 'Champion,'" said a movie critic, Sim Yeong-seop, "is that the story itself is too hackneyed; there is just not that much new there."

The lead actor, Mr. Yu, was naturally unhappy with "Champion," but especially displeased with the director. For starters, Korea Pictures signed a contract with a sporting goods company to run an advertisement featuring his image. Mr. Yu filed suit against the agency in early July for using his image without his consent. The agency and Mr. Gwak were enraged. Mr. Gwak made a phone call to Mr. Yu's agency, JM Line, asking why the actor was "being so greedy." Mr Gwak said, "Do you think we're gonna just sit back and do nothing?" JM Line recorded the conversation, and Mr. Gwak was subsequently accused of threatening Mr. Yu.

If that weren't enough, Mr. Gwak is wanted by the Busan Public Prosecutors Office for giving 250 million ($210,000) to a real-life mobster in July. Mr. Gwak regularly goes into seclusion while writing scripts, so it's not unusual that authorities have been unable to locate him.

"Friend" was actually based on Mr. Gwak's friendship with a gangster. Prosecutors say a Busan gang, Chilseongpa ("seven stars group"), extorted the money from the director. But Mr. Gwak said that he voluntarily gave the money to a gangster friend. The gangster's family was strapped for cash and he wanted to be of help, Mr. Gwak says.

The film agency took counteraction late last month, by suing the actor. The agency says Mr. Yu hurt ticket sales by sparking disputes with the agency while the film was in theaters.

Mr. Gwak said that he will see the prosecutors early next week. He is reported to have said, "Truth wins out in the long run. I'll reveal the truth."

by Chun Su-jin

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