Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
KO-Pick: The Emancipation of Korean cinematographers
Exploring the works of three Korean lensmasters
In the world of cinema, South Korea has earned a well-deserved reputation for producing some of the most visually arresting and slick images. While we often give most of the credit to the directors, it's the cinematographers who are directly responsible for the shape their stories will take on the silver screen. This week, to mark Chung Chung-hoon’s acceptance into the American Society of Cinematographers, an achievement that caps a successful move to Hollywood after decades working in Korea, we turn our focus to three other eminent South Korean cinematographers, Hong Kyeong-pyo, Lee Mo-gae and Kim Jee-yong.
Filmography: Fly Low (1998), Save the Green Planet (2003), TaeGukGi: Brotherhood Of War (2004), Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), The Wailing (2016), Burning (2018), Parasite (2019), Deliver Us From Evil (2020), Broker (2022)
Hong Kyeong-pyo, also known as Alex Hong, is a veteran cinematographer and a pioneer who introduced many techniques into the Korean industry. Born in 1962, he made his debut in 1989 as part of the crew for That Which Falls Has Wings, he took the opportunity to visit the US for on-location shooting as he served as an assistant on Camels Don’t Cry Alone. He eventually spent a few years there studying cinematography, and especially getting accustomed to the Hollywood system of filmmaking. The Harmonica of Grief (1995), a Korean film shot in Los Angeles, became his first work as a cinematographer.
Save the Green Planet
After he came back to Korea, he first worked on Fly Low, a movie entirely set in a closed school in summer. Hong gained recognition for his work starting with Im Sang-soo’s Girls‘ Night Out (1998). His following works, among which Phantom The Submarine (1999) and Il Mare (2000), established him as one of the Korea’s prominent cinematographers, but he had other plans in mind. While the methods are identical for the most parts, what “cinematography” actually entails in Korea differs from the way it is understood in the West. Whereas in Hollywood a cinematographer is in charge of everything that concerns the photography, from the camera setup to the lighting and the color grading in post-production, in Korea the gaffer usually acted as some sort of “director of lighting” who had to work in tandem with the “director of photography”. Hong wanted to change that.
The indie film Save the Green Planet (2003), with its never-seen-before melting pot of genres, this project presented the best opportunity for Hong to start a small revolution and take full control of the film’s cinematography. Not only was he employing the full array of tools he could play with, ie. different lenses, lighting and cameras, he also relied on different film stocks, such as the Kodak Ektachrome which gave the film its characteristic green-and-red look, and he used bleach bypass effect for the first time in Korea for flashback scenes. Just one year later, he filmed one of his most impressive works in the war epic TaeGukGi: Brotherhood Of War (2004), which displayed visuals some compared with Hollywood blockbusters.
While other cinematographers do a lot of color grading work in pre-production, Hong prefers to work directly on what needs to be adjusted based on the footage on hand. He likes to experiment and always wants to use different lenses for each project, but he usually feels frustrated by the small variety available in Korea. As film stock has all but disappeared in favor of digital cameras, he likes to use anamorphic lenses to give movies the texture they lost in the process. This is what he used notably for Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, but also for The Wailing, this time to give it an eerie vibe and to make the natural landscapes stand out, as that type of lens reduces the perceived distance of the backgrounds.
He likes to work as much as possible with natural lighting, For Burning, he and the director Lee Chang-dong decided to work almost entirely with natural lighting, with Hong choosing the days and hours that would best fit each scene. A prime example of his craft appears in the scene in which the protagonist’s friend, Hae-min, engages in a dance performed half-naked against the twilight sky in a long-take with the camera moving to capture her every move.
One of the challenges that Parasite presented was that it had many shots filmed on location and in summer. This meant that the sun was very high in the sky, with its light cast almost perpendicularly reducing the amount of shadow that usually confer relief to sceneries and the faces of actors. Since most of the locations were sets built for the film, he took into consideration the way the sun moves in the sky to decide which way to orient the sets. When it came to film the semi-basement apartment, he spent a whole day checking how the light would penetrate the room through the unique window at different times of the day. After that, he knew exactly at what time to film and where to position the camera in order to get the intensity and direction of lighting he needed for each shot. Similarly, even though it was a set built in a studio, Hong and Bong decided against removing parts of the set to make room for the camera, instead opting to work within the constraints of the space in order to convey how cramped the location is. The choice of the lenses was also key as it allowed for a wider angle of view without making the characters appear too small in the background.
On the other hand, Snowpiercer was mostly shot in studio with artificial lighting. This didn’t make Hong’s work any easier, as lights had to be constantly changing in direction or obscuring in intervals in order to create the illusion of decors contained in a moving train. The scene when the train suddenly exits a tunnel, with the bright light blinding everyone inside, was particularly difficult to get right as they had to install powerful lamps in front of each window along with shutters that would open instantly.
Filmography: A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003), The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (2008), I Saw The Devil (2010), Asura: The City of Madness (2016), The Battleship Island (2017), Illang: The Wolf Brigade (2018), Emergency Declaration (2022), Hunt (2022)
Lee Mo-gae was born in 1972 and studied photography at Chung-Ang University before tackling a master’s degree in film from the Korea National University of Arts. He started out as a member of the film crews of earlier projects by authors who would come to define contemporary Korean film, such as Lee Chang-dong’s A Peppermint Candy (2000) and Hong Sang-soo’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000). He was also cutting his teeth in cinematography with several short films, until Kim Jee-woon put him in charge of directing the photography of his horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003). Lee’s talent was immediately acknowledged by the Korean Association of Film Critics which chose him as the recipient of the Best Cinematography Award.
A Tale of Two Sisters
He has since remained a frequent collaborator of Kim, with whom he has realized some of his most remarkable works. The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (2008) earned him many awards in Korea and abroad, while I Saw The Devil (2010) was lauded for its visually striking images. What lies at the heart of these esthetic choices is how to make the audience feel like they are characters in the film. Key among his approach to cinematography is his constant aim to “erase” the camera, i.e. position and make it move with so much freedom that the audience doesn’t feel its presence. Of course, in real life, cameras are bulky and heavy, bound by the limits of physics. Which makes the scene of the fight inside a car in I Saw The Devil, with the camera revolving around the actors, an impressive illustration of Lee’s style.
I Saw the Devil
Over the time, he has become one of the most sought after cinematographers for Korean blockbusters, having contributed to the spectacular images seen in Secret Reunion (2010), My Way (2011), The Tiger (2015) and The Battleship Island (2017). Especially celebrated for his action scenes, he received Best Cinematography from the Blue Dragon Awards for his depiction of a rundown and decadent city in Asura: The City of Madness.
In Emergency Declaration, Lee and director Han Jae-min decided to give the whole movie a documentary esthetic for realism’s sake. Instead of having actors moving on a predetermined path around the camera, the camera was set far from the action, which tried to capture with a zoom lens. Another technique they used to achieve that look was to purposedly add some halation effect, which appears like orange haloes near bright areas resulting in a warmer, more analogue look reminiscent of movies shot on film.
Filmography: A Bittersweet Life (2004), Hansel and Gretel (2007), Silenced (2011), The Royal Taylor (2014), The Age of Shadows (2016), The Fortress (2017), Swing Kids (2018), Decision to Leave (2022), Cobweb (2022)
The younger of the three, Kim Jee-yong, born in 1976, was studying in the US when he landed a job as in intern in a movie company, which led him to apply for a cinematography program at the American Film Institute Conservatory. Director Kim Jee-woon entrusted this newcomer with his ambitious thriller A Bittersweet Life, and the neo-noir esthetics and tightly choreographed action instantly turned Kim Jee-yong into a new talent to keep an eye out for.
A Bittersweet Life
It wasn’t until he worked on Silenced (2011) that he adopted the Hollywood approach to cinematography work and took over lighting responsibilities; a system he finds faster and more efficient. For The Fortress, his main concept was to visually convey the cold of the setting but also the grim prospects brought by this this dark chapter in Korea’s history. This is why the color blue appears as the color that pervades most of the shots, while light sources such as bonfires and lanterns were chosen over artificial lighting as they provide as much warmth as they accentuate the darkness that surround them. Such considerations gave the film a sense of place that differentiates it from the Korean historical movies that came before. This work earned him plenty of awards in Korea, but most notably it allowed him to be chosen unanimously over Lucas Jal’s Cold War and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma to receive the top award at Camerimage International Film Festival, the only festival dedicated to cinematography.
For Swing Kids, which follows a troupe of tap dancers in a POW camp during the Korean War, the tricky part for Kim was to strike the right balance between the joyful atmosphere of the premise and the tragic backdrop it is set against. On one hand, he took inspiration from pictures in 1950 magazines that had turned reddish with time, and on the other he tried to capture a more “analogue” texture for the image by mounting a lens made in the 1970s on a digital camera. As a result, he earned another recognition for his cinematography, receiving Best Cinematography award from the Blue Dragon Awards.