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TRIVIA - HERO, Korea's first original musical film

Mar 06, 2023
  • Writerby Eunji Lee
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Eight pieces of trivia about JK Youn's latest


(Image: CJ ENM)



Hero is the first original musical film to be produced in Korea, based on the original musical of the same name. The film recounts the final year in the life of Ahn Junggeun, a martyr of Korean independence movement against Japan. He was sentenced to death by Japanese court for the assassination of Itō Hirobumi in Harbin in October 1909, from the time he was preparing his rebellion up to the moment he faced his demise. Chung Sunghwa, who played the role of An in the original musical, is reprising the role of Ahn Junggeun for the film, whereas Kim Goeun is taking on the role of Seolhee, and Na Moonhee is playing An’s mother, Cho Maria. Jo Jaeyun plays Woo Deoksoon, Bae Jungnam plays Cho Doseon, Lee Hyunwoo plays Yoo Dongha, and Park Jinju takes on the role of Ma Jinjoo, now you have a perfect cast.


Hero is director JK Youn's directing effort after Ode to my Father (2014). Youn is best known for his couple of 10-million sellers, Haeundae and Ode to my Father. Many were left perplexed when the project was announced, asking ‘why’ Youn would want to direct a musical film, a less popular film genre in Korea. This anticipation couldn’t be separated from concerns; anticipation as to what shape a musical film of JK Youn would take. The only question has been ‘why’ by far. To get the answer to this question, and hear about behind-the-scenes, we met director JK Youn.   




  • Why a musical, of all film genres? 

This was obviously the issue needed to be addressed first: ‘Why’ a musical movie, Mr. Youn?  But Youn's answer was surprising and we might have been asking the wrong question. It wasn't that he specifically wanted to film a musical, but he wanted to bring the musical Hero to the big screen. We had the wrong idea about which came first than the other. Hero came to his mind first, and the piece of work that he wanted to recreate as a film happened to be a musical.  



  • Youn’s First Encounter with Hero

JK Youn’s first encounter with the musical Hero dates back to his time as the executive producer of the movie Dancing Queen in 2012. It all started with Chung Sunghwa, one of its cast, inviting everyone in the Dancing Queen team to his performance of the musical Hero. Highly impressed, Youn promised, “One day, I will turn Hero into a movie”. The project started in 2018. Youn went through a lot in the meantime, but the work that was the closest to his heart was Hero the whole time. 




  • Crisis

Although he is a well-known director who crossed twice the 10-million-admission mark over his career, Youn really had his work cut out for him to secure initial investment for his musical film. There was no point in asking, “Even for someone like Youn?” The director said, “There was never a time when Hero wasn't facing difficulties.” Indeed, troubles started right from the moment he pitched the project to investors. Not only did he often hear them react by asking ‘why a musical film, of all things?’, many tried to persuade him to do something else instead with the promise of bigger investment. Some even said that it was ill-advised bravery coming from Youn. And yet, he still wanted to push ahead with it. “Every director must know that feeling. If it isn’t love at first sight, I will never be able to do it in a million years. I can produce it if you want, but I will never be the one filming. Each project is a full-time job from one to three or four years, so you are going through hell if you are working on a project you don’t want to.” 




(Image: CJ ENM) 



  • Chung Sunghwa

Looking at the final product, it would be difficult to imagine a version of Hero without Chung Sunghwa. However, Youn said that it was not easy to offer him the role. Chung was naturally his first choice. What kind of conversation did the two have about the film adaptation of Hero at first? Oddly enough, they didn’t even bring up the casting. Even after he decided to direct the film himself, he could not offer him the role. He had set his mind on this project and he already had a script, but he wasn’t confident if he could secure funds. “You should not make empty promises to an actor. You may think you can just carelessly tell them something and ask for their forgiveness later and everything will be fine, but for the actor who receives such an offer, their whole life depends on it. So how could you possible take this matter lightly?” It was only a while after the project was funded that Youn finally offered Chung the role. 



(Image: CJ ENM) 



  • Na Moonhee

Just as essential a character as Chung Sunghwa is Cho Maria, played by Na Moonhee. Most actors display outstanding singing abilities in musicals, but no one would have recommended Na Moonhee for her singing. And yet, beyond the fundamentals of singing, her emotion resonates through her voice like no other. Rumor has it that this could already be felt during the table read. 


For Hero, all the musical numbers were recorded ahead of the table read. In the first read-through, the actors delivered their lines, and every time the script had them break into a song, one of the recordings was played instead. All the actors performed excellent singing skills. However, something else brought everyone to tears that day. That voice that made everyone cry despite being off pitch, off beat and cracking at times was Na Moonhee’s. Na said she had been thinking of playing the role of Cho Maria someday.


  • Pre-recording, live, and re-recording

For each musical number in the movie, a total of three methods were employed to film and/or edit it: in lip sync over pre-recorded vocal tracks, live on set with on-set recording, and re-recording in post-production. Which one of these versions offered the best results? The ones with pre-recorded tracks; in these versions, each was singing at their full potential as they could be exclusively focused on their voice, before they were in their roles. Youn explained that the takes with the vocal performances recorded on set were better at bringing life to the settings, but they also contained breaths full of emotions and environmental noise, while the takes edited with re-recorded tracks couldn’t capture the actors’ singing at their best, with all the emotions, since they have already distanced themselves from their character.  


However, more than 70% of the takes Youn kept for the film were recorded on set. The reason was evident: it was for them to feel as authentic as possible for the audience. This choice was as a direct consequence of this film being an adaptation of a musical, as Youn tried not to disappoint the audience of the original musical. As you would expect, in hindsight Youn can confirm this was the right choice. It is clear now that using the pre-recorded or re-recorded tracks would have ruined the immersion. 



(Image: CJ ENM) 



  • Musicals and Movies

Trimming and focus are de rigueur when turning a stage musical into a film. The most important elements in the musical genre are the numbers. ‘My Dream for You’ sung by Kim Goeun, was not in the original musical and was created for the movie, in the scene where Seolhee, wearing a red dress, sings in a banquet hall. On the other hand, there are numbers that were part of the original musical but were not included in the film. Two songs by Hirobumi Itō are missing in the movie. When inquired about this omission, Youn said, "I didn't feel like going as far as to show Itō’s psychology in the movie. This is because the movie focuses on the story of the mother, not the confrontation between Ahn Junggeun and Itō.” 



  • JK Youn's intention

Youn had two goals for Hero. One was that people who enjoyed the stage musical should not be disappointed when they see the movie, and the other was to create Korea's first musical movie, one that should not become a source of embarrassment once released around the world. Commercial success was not what he hopes for. As he said, this one is a matter of fate, so the only thing you can do is pray earnestly.  


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