Award-winning art director discusses craft

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Award-winning art director discusses craft


Art director Ryu Seong-hie, who was been rewarded with the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist for her work on “The Handmaiden.” [JOONGANG ILBO]

Although the recent film “The Handmaiden,” directed by Park Chan-wook, could not capture an award at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, the art director of the thriller, Ryu Seong-hie, was able to nab the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist. Ryu is the first Korean to receive the award.

A good amount of creativity was required for Ryu to reinterpret the English novel “Fingersmith,” set in London in the 1860s, in a Korean manner. While difficult, she was able to create a mansion in the film that strangely yet beautifully blended both Asian and Western styles.

Ryu’s latest work has been highly acclaimed by locals and foreign media alike. According to the magazine Variety, the mansion’s interior, which is decorated in a hybrid British-Japanese style, combines British decorative luxuriance and Japanese elegance with symmetrical grace. In addition, according to the Indiewire, the heroine’s mansion adds a sense of mystery to every scene.

After returning from France, the 48-year-old shared a few stories about her time spent working on the film and recalled her 16-year career path.


The Handmaiden (2016), The mansion in the latest film has been highly acclaimed not only by locals but also foreign media for its strange yet beautiful blend of both Asian and Western styles. Art director Ryu says that the library inside the mansion is “the most satisfying work she has achieved throughout her entire career.” The library is not only beautiful, but also implicitly reflects the nature of the character Kouzuki, who is the uncle of the film’s main female character, Hideko. [CJ ENTERTAINMENT]

According to Ryu, “The Handmaiden” was a highly challenging work. Even though she has worked on other films with similar time lengths, such as “Assassination” (2015) and “Ode to My Father” (2014), her latest piece was different in that she also had to implicitly express character and the hidden meanings of the story through her art.

That difficulty, however, is what drove her to become more attracted to the film.

In order to work on the recent film, Ryu travelled to Japan to find a mansion with the right design. During the trip, she was able to spot a mansion in Kuwana that she thought was appropriate for the film. After taking pictures of it, she used computer graphics to give the mansion add some Western flavor.

She said she put the most effort into creating the mansion’s library, which is not only visually stunning but symbolically meaningful, as it directly portrays the character Kouzuki’s ambition and vanity. Even the director, Park, who is well-known for his deadpan manner, expressed his warm approval of the library.

In order to help actors become more engaged, Ryu sometimes brings a touch of reality to her film settings. In “The Handmaiden,” for instance, there is a fireplace in which she rigged an actual fire to burn.

She says that she always has two things in mind before creating a film setting. The first is how the audience will perceive a certain space, and the second is how actors will feel when first entering the scene. She says she firmly believes that if a set can trigger an emotional reaction in an actor then this will be directly reflected on camera.


Assassination (2015), Ryu was able to reproduce Gyeongseong, a name for Seoul during the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), based on her efforts and imagination. It was inevitable that she would need to apply a little imagination as there was not enough information on department stores back in the 1930s. Regarding the Mitsukoshi Department Store from the movie, which was created at a studio in China, Ryu said that it was the biggest individual setting that has ever appeared in a Korean movie in terms of its scale, and added that for the first time ever, she felt overwhelmed by a movie set. [JOONGANGILBO]

Ryu, who hopes to continue her work until she grows old, says that she believes she now understands the industry and that she now grasps why many Hollywood movie crews reached their heyday in their latter years, mentioning the renowned production designer Henry Bumstead.

Even though many movie crews in Korea are generally very young, Ryu says she wants to work until she is very old, like the famous cinematographer Roger Deakins, who produced numerous hits such as “Sicario” (2015) even after he was 60.

As a person engaged in the film industry, she has seen many movies over the years, and the one that influenced her the most is “The Conformist” (1970), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, often considered to be one of the greatest Italian directors of all time. The film, which was directed when Bertolucci was in his late 20s, is, according to Ryu, perfect.

“Everything from direction to mise-en-scene and wardrobe was perfect,” she says. “To me, the film is a miracle.”

Ryu majored in ceramics at Hongik University, one of the nation’s top art schools, in western Seoul. After graduating, she decided to study at the American Film Institute (AFI).

“I have always had great respect towards craftsman, ever since I was very young,” Ryu says. “I was amazed at how an artist’s work, which requires a great amount of time and endurance, could be condensed into a single final product.”


Oldboy (2003), The budget was not large enough to create a luxurious penthouse interior for the character Lee Woo-jin, and therefore, the art director suggested “showing the audience a completely unfamiliar view.” In order to reflect Woo-jin’s obsession with his drowned sister, a flowing waterway was added to the interior. By adding this detail, the interior also became uniquely desolate and suffused with a sense of isolation that was dominantly featured throughout the movie. [JOONGANGILBO]

However, she adds that she feels quite sad about how some works can perform so well financially merely based on their appearance, regardless of artistic meaning.

But the art director’s desire to communicate with people is what truly drove her to the movie industry.

While studying in the United States, she learned about AFI from a friend, and decided to attend the school in 1996, where she learned professional knowledge regarding the technical art of films. She returned to Korea in 1999 after completing her degree in the United States.

When asked why she returned to Korea back at a time when the movie industry here was not yet developed, she says that she wanted to try something new in the Korean movie industry.

“While studying at AFI, I felt like I was struck on my head when I watched ‘Ashes of Time’ (1994), [directed by Kar Wai Wong],” she recalls.

“Even though the plot was not chronologically ordered, the film’s imagery was overpowering,” she says, adding that at the time she had studied logical stories and therefore the film came as something of a conceptual shock.

This surprise, and her ambition to try something similar, are what drove her to return to Korea despite the movie industry’s state at that time.

But her ambition was not enough to land her a job at first. Ryu, who up until then had only worked on one short film, made many attempts to work for renowned film companies.

She was so desperate she even changed her surname from the softer-sounding Yoo to the stronger-sounding Ryu, as the movie industry revolves primarily around men.

The first film director to accept her was Song Il-gon. Ryu was given the opportunity to work with Song on a film titled “Flower Island” (2001).


Memories of Murder (2003), Although the film director, Bong Joon-ho, wished to shoot the movie at a real police station, Ryu insisted on creating a police station with the backdrop of a rural 1980s scene. Ryu says, “I wanted to make the film look like a real world in every way, from its location to the details of each scene.” Ryu insisted strongly enough to persuade Bong, and thanks to her perseverance, the film is now remembered by the public as a visually vast experience that is beautiful yet lonely. [JOONGANGILBO]

After successfully completing the work, she got to work with another film director, Ryoo Seung-wan, on “No Blood No Tears” (2002). Ryoo then introduced her to other directors such as Bong Joon-ho, who was looking for a person to work together on “Memories of Murder” (2003).

Bong then introduced Ryu to another film director, Park Chan-wook, who was preparing for his film, “Oldboy” (2003). Working together with these hit directors in the early 2000s was a like a spring shower for her budding career.

To those students who look up to her and wish to follow the same career path, Ryu advises them not to become overly concentrated on the technical aspects of the art. Instead, she explains that it is just as crucial to gain experience in other areas as it is to study technical skills.

“In order to create a new world within a movie,” she says, “you should not forget that there are many different kinds of worlds out there, each of which can function as a source of inspiration, or a blueprint, when creating the new worlds that you will make in your movies.”

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