The one-man factory of Korean cinema

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The one-man factory of Korean cinema

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” has come a long way on screen, from Bela Lugosi’s classic 1931 portrayal to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 update to a 1995 spoof by Mel Brooks, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”
Korean cinema makes its own contribution to the legend this summer: “Galgari Family and Dracula,” featuring a blundering vampire whose only weapon is passing gas.
Since opening Aug. 1, the comedy has attracted about 370,000 viewers, and continues to survive in the competitive summer movie market. Key to its success is its all-star cast from the comedy show “Gag Concert” on KBS-TV, one of the most popular programs in Korea and the source of many of the catchphrases currently heard from Korean children.
“Gag Concert’s” star, Park Jun-hyeong ― nicknamed Galgari, meaning “Grind-it-all,” for his habit of chewing up any vegetable that’s handed to him ― is a comic guru to children, which is why the “Gag Concert” troupe is often known as the Galgari Family. As its title suggests, the film relies on the popularity of the TV show, offering a package of its reliable slapstick tricks, with the only major difference being a storyline in which Dracula attacks a quiet country town.
Last Sunday at a downtown theater, two “sold-out” signs were displayed for “Galgari Family and Dracula,” prompting a number of children to burst into tears. Theaters, which hadn’t expected the film to be a big hit, were only showing it before noon, making the competition for tickets intense. (I managed to get in because I’d bought a ticket in advance, though it certainly hadn’t been the first movie on my weekend agenda.) During its 85-minute running time, I was surrounded by children imitating their favorite comedians at the top of their lungs. I was the only grown-up in the theater who hadn’t brought children along. Even after the show, the theater was filled with the uproar of children. “It was just awfully fun!” gabbled Yang Chang-gon, a 12-year-old with sparkling eyes.
From my point of view, the film was kitschy, crude and loosely structured (and the blood was obviously grape juice). But it occurred to me that when I was these kids’ age, I’d been a big fan of such movies myself. I remembered being an 11-year-old, badgering my mom to take me to “Yeongguwa Ttaengchiri,” featuring the great slapstick comedian of the day, Sim Hyeong-rae. It was essential for keeping up with the Joneses in my class, where it was the movie everyone was talking about.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that “Galgari Family and Dracula” and “Yeongguwa Ttaengchiri” both felt the Midas touch of the director Nam Gi-nam.

At the age of 61, the big- and bright-eyed Nam is a veteran of the Korean film scene, with a career stretching back more than three decades. In that time, he’s averaged more than three films a year. “Galgari Family and Dracula” is the 105th in Nam’s lengthy filmography; his 1989 children’s comedy, “Yeongguwa Ttaengchiri,” was his biggest hit, drawing more than 2.9 million viewers nationwide. No wonder Nam is not so happy with ticket sales for “Galgari Family and Dracula,” which have yet to break half a million.
“I’ve seen every other current Korean film and I’m confident in saying that my ‘Galgari’ is the best,” Nam said last Saturday at the Myungbo Theater near Chungmuro, Korea’s Hollywood. “I feel disappointed with the theater managers who did not have the eye for the film and refuse to show my film all day long. If not for such theaters, ticket sales would grow by leaps and bounds.”
In his way, Nam was as crucial to “Galgari’s” summertime success as the “Gag Concert” cast was. The film’s script wasn’t finished until late April, which made a lucrative summer vacation release date look like an impossibility.
But Nam, a director with a reputation for speed, came to the rescue. “Without Nam, it was impossible that ‘Galgari Family and Dracula’ would have been completed before the summer ended,” says a film distributor, who asked not to be named.
Nam started shooting on May 3 and finished on June 5. Editing and other postproduction work were finished by mid-July, but the film’s opening was pushed back to avoid competition with summer blockbusters like “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”
“This may sound a bit too arrogant, but I guess I’m the only director who’s cut out for this kind of prompt job,” Nam says. He may be right. His speed record for making a film ― including both shooting and postproduction ― was nine days, for the 1984 slapstick comedy “Cheolbuji” (A Mere Child).
Nam, however, is not always so fast and furious. “I’ve taken as long as three months on a film,” he says.
Unlike other Korean directors, Nam says, he doesn’t shoot scenes in chronological order. The first thing he does before shooting is to learn the script by heart, deciding which scenes can be shot with the same background on the same day.
Then he takes complete command of the shooting, and doesn’t mind cursing and swearing if he sees a single staff member who’s idle. Instead of sitting in the director’s chair, Nam goes busily about the set, coaching the actors. “A director should be strong enough to hold sway on the set,” Nam says. “In this sense, I’m not very happy about many of my junior directors who are influenced too easily by others’ opinions.”
Nam learned high-speed filmmaking in the Korean film industry of the 1970s and 1980s, when a quota system gave distributors the right to import foreign films only if they produced at least four Korean films a year.
“Korean distributors in the past looked down on Korean films,” Nam says, “and they used to loaf around until the last minute, and when they were in a hurry, they called me.”
Nam says he got offers from such distributors at the end of each year and always met the deadline, being a “competent movie director who can do a job within 20 days.” No wonder his nickname has been “factory” since his debut as a director in 1972.

In 1959, when Nam first came to Seoul from his hometown of Gwangju, South Jeolla province, he didn’t dream of being a director. He dreamed of being an actor.
Nam used to saunter around Chungmuro’s coffee shops waiting to be discovered. One day, dressed in suit and tie, he stepped into a cafe where he saw Choi Mu-ryong, a major movie star of the 1970s.
“Then I felt myself suddenly blushing and sweaty, for Mr. Choi had this aura as a star, which I did not have,” Nam says. “I went over to the men’s room and looked into the mirror. Then I realized that I would not make an actor ― instead I’ll use actors like Mr. Choi and make films.”
It took time to get there. He spent the 1960s as an assistant director, taking care of chores from sweeping the set to prompting actors on their lines. Being a prompter got him his breakthough.
“I was just too good as a prompter, giving advice to the actors in performance. I slowly but steadily made a name for myself among the actors, who later helped me to make a debut as the director,” he says.
Once he became a director, Nam didn’t let his personal taste decide which projects he chose. Nam is known as a godfather of children’s comedy, but he has worked in every conceivable genre, including pornography.
The only genre Nam hasn’t presented onscreen has been a tear-jerker romance. Not surprisingly, he has one in the can ― “Neo Eomneun Na” (I Without You), for which he’s seeking a distributor.
But he says he feels most at home with comedies for children.
“Just as I’ve been doing for the last three decades, I’ll be making movies for children. Children also get stressed out, and they need entertainment of their own to get rid of the stress,” he says.
He is not likely to win a prize at the Cannes International Film Festival with his quantity-over-quality philosophy, but he says he’s happy being what he is.
“I don’t care what people say about my films. They will point fingers at me as a B-movie director, but I simply do not care what they say, as long as I can give children big laughs.”


by Chun Su-jin
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