Korea’s action man plans to scrub the grit off the screen
Mr. Shin still winces at the mention of the scene. “Shooting that scene was the last straw. I thought I’d never do action scenes like that again, but oddly enough, it’s become my trademark,” he said. It’s also become the trademark of Korean action films. Mr. Shin’s style of action is often called “real action,” implying hard-boiled street fighting and eschewing the fancy footwork seen in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
With the comeback of Korean action films in the early 1990s, action sequences have kept getting grittier ― and bolder. The recent box office hit, “A Dirty Carnival,” starring Jo In-sung, abandons smooth, elegant action scenes in favor of bare-knuckle fist fights and gangsters brawling in alleys. “I wanted to stay true to the script and what the director, as well as the audience, wants,” said Mr. Shin, who also worked as a choreographer for that movie.
Although Hong Kong action and martial-arts movies have kicked their way across the globe, particularly in the United States, a difficult market for foreign films, Korean action flicks have not met equal success. The first Korean director to have made a mark internationally in the action genre was Chung Chang-wha, whose movie, “Five Fingers of Death,” released in April 1974 in the United States, became a huge hit, breaking the box-office record for foreign films. Since then, though, no Korean director has matched his status.
Mr. Shin, who has done action choreography for numerous Korean movies, including “Spirit of Jeet Keun Do,” “Die Bad,” “Typhoon,” “Friend” and “Let’s Play, Dharma,” has his own solution to Korea’s action-flick anemia. “Korean action films have been on a downward spiral for quite a while. There are too many rip-offs. For many reasons, the action in the scenes has not had any significant stylistic change,” he said.
The first reason, he said, is that Korean production companies still lack funds and resources. “Wire action, the stuff seen in recent Hong Kong and Hollywood movies, costs a lot of money. Second, we don’t have actors like Jackie Chan, who is versatile enough to do his own stunts, as well as be funny and dramatic at the same time. Last, Korean audiences are geared more toward realistic action scenes.” Viewers here don’t go for action that incorporates fantasy elements, he said.
Korea’s “real action” style, however, has not significantly changed for decades now. After a stagnant period in the 1980s, the 1990s were met with the wildly successful “The General’s Son” (1990), directed by Im Kwon-taek. A string of films followed, such as “Terrorist,” “No.3” and “The Rules of the Game,” all of which produced decent figures in Korean box offices. The most noticeable characteristic of Korean action films during the 1990s is that they blended dramatic and humorous elements into the storylines. Also, many Korean action films during this stage had a film-noir quality ― the heroes were lonely, melancholy outsiders disillusioned with society. The focus of most of these movies was the dramatic plot, in which action scenes merely served to illustrate the bleakness of the characters’ lives.
From the late 1990s on, gangster movies, such as “My Boss, My Hero,” “Kick the Moon” and “Born to Kill,” were the rage. Even dramas, such as 1998’s “A Promise,” had Park Shin-yang as both a romantic lead and a gangster. Fight scenes moved away from individuals and staged large group battles. As this change took place, the scale became much grander, with many more extras and complex settings and scenery changes.
The success of 2001’s “My Wife is a Gangster,” tried something new for a gangster saga by mixing in comedy. Following its romp up the charts, numerous other comedy-action films tried to copy the feat, only to fail to impress in each genre.
In a 2005 two-part documentary made by Super Action, the action movie network on Korean cable TV, the announced called the 2000s a “Dark Age,” and was followed by the famous movie critic Shim Young-sup, who said movies then had loose plots and turgid styles.
“However, the scene is improving. Well, hopefully,” said Mr. Shin, as he mentions his respect for directors like Ryu Seung-hwan and Ryu Ha, “who have independent spirits and creativity to make a new sort of action.” Mr. Shin stresses that the future of Korean action lies in the strength of the script and a director’s willingness to take a risk. “Although the atmosphere has improved, I hope that Korea will open up a bit more to the works of young, up-and-coming directors,” he said.
In “Arahan Jangpung Daejakjeon,” by Ryu Seung-hwan, the director aimed to incorporate wire-action, modern martial arts styles and realistic fistfights. Also, action scenes in movies like “Volcano High” and “Ghost in Love” attempted to use digital special effects to add some fire to their action scenes.
When asked about the future of Korean action movies, Mr. Shin said, “I’m so tired of people asking me to only do ‘real action.’ I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall. Actually, I’ve been sick for the past 10 days because of the stress of this,” said Mr. Shin. “I want to try new things and further my scope as an action choreographer.” Mr. Shin has justs finished his work in the new movie ― a musical, believe it or not ― called “Gumiho Family,” and is working on the movie “Su,” starring Ji Jin-hee, a male television star.
He mentions that these movies will show another side of his action choreography ― less brutal and more stylized ― and that he will be much more selective about his projects from now on, saying he has turned down dozens of “real action” scripts. “Actually, I’m good at fancy choreography as well, where the action is dramatic and meticulously planned,” he added.
Is this the end of Korea’s “real action” genre? As he talked about the evolution of Hong Kong action films, he smiled slightly and said, “It will change for Korea, too.”
by Cho Jae-eun