Director CHOI Dong-hoon is king of the caper film in Korea. With the success of his first two films, <The Big Swindle> (2004) and <Tazza: The High Rollers> (2006), CHOI became one of Korea’s star directors. Even though his latest film, <Jeon Woochi>(2009), a science fiction movie based on a superhero from a classic Korean novel, performed disappointingly at the box office and frustrated his fans, he still remains a director that Korean investors are willing to open their wallets for. Moreover, he is still coveted by many producers, who enjoy his reputation as being easy to work with.
For his fourth feature he has returned to the caper genre, his old forte. The title is <The Thieves>, and it is currently in post-production. The cast includes a number of famous Korean actors and actresses such as KIM Yun-seok, LEE Jung-jae, Gianna JUN and KIM Hye-soo, as well as Hong Kong performers such as Simon Yam. The production budget totaled roughly USD $10 million and filming took place in Hong Kong, Macau and Seoul last year. The movie will be released in Korea on July 26th, 2012. The combination of CHOI’s reputation and the star-studded ensemble cast has created high expectations. The film is being produced by Caper Films, whose CEO is AN Su-hyeon, the wife of CHOI. AN has produced a number of acclaimed Korean films, including <You’re My Sunshine> (2005) and <Thirst>(2009).
What was different in making <The Thieves> compared to your two previous caper movies, <The Big Swindle> and <Tazza>?
It was different on a practical level. Since so many big stars appear in this movie, I felt somewhat stressed. The shooting itself was quite arduous, and yet I had much more fun shooting this film compared to the other movies I’ve directed.
This was your first time shooting abroad as well as your first time working with foreign performers. Were there any difficulties?
At first, I was worried about how we would communicate. But soon I realized that actors and actresses are pretty much same everywhere. The Hong Kong performers had studied in advance about how to work with Korean actors or actresses. They got along so well that they made me feel like my initial worries were for nothing. Without knowing KIM Yun-seok, the veteran actor Simon Yam once asked me how long KIM has acted and what movies KIM had appeared in. But by the time he came to Seoul for shooting, he had watched all of KIM’s films.
So did you see potential for more international projects?
There were no differences between the actors and actresses. But the system of film production was different. Korea has adopted the Japanese system. On the other hand, Hong Kong could be called a small Hollywood. In other words, film people in Hong Kong would only stick with the agreed upon schedule, unlike the way crews work in Korea. That might be reasonable, but we should remember that it is often the case in film production that some of the best results can come from an unscheduled and improvised shoot. Nonetheless, upon returning to Korea from Hong Kong, I decided to stop shooting 24 hours a day, which we used to do. I thought such a crazy schedule was a stupid thing. So I tried to apply the Hong Kong schedule to our shoot here. Maintaining good working conditions, we made an effort to shoot less than 12 hours a day in Korea. I learned a great deal from working with the system in Hong Kong. The benefits of shooting on schedule was one of the lessons I learned. It was also fun. But I still think that an international project can be risky.
Was there any particular reason to cast Simon YAM, the Hong Kong star?
I have wanted to work with him for a long time, ever since seeing Johnnie TO’s <Election> series (beginning in 2005). Simon Yam made a great impression on me. In <Exiled> (2006), he proved he was good at comedy, while in <Sparrow> (2008), he showed such ease and composure as a leader of pickpockets. After seeing these movies, I thought that he was one of those actors who fought against time, and won. I was so happy to work with him this time around. When we shot in Hong Kong, he took great care of the Korean actors and actresses. Even after his scenes were over he did not leave, staying off camera to help the other performers act and get a good eyeline match. He was a really good actor. He only had one condition when he signed the contract. His request was to ensure that a room in his hotel would be airing the Premier League, an English professional football league, while shooting in Korea. But it is easy to find channels airing Premier League matches in Korea, so it wasn’t a difficult request.
This film has already been sold to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. Did you think about the international market from the beginning?
No. I didn’t think of international sales from the beginning. When I went to the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I had a chance to look around Hong Kong and Macau. Then I began to think that I wanted to film there. I have always thought that Hong Kong is a city of cinema. Perhaps it is because I grew up watching so many Hong Kong films. Due to this influence, I felt that Hong Kong is not so much foreign as familiar. So I formed a story in which a Korean thief meets a Hong Kong thief. Also, I felt certain that the Korean audience would be interested in a movie set in Hong Kong and Macau.
How do feel about returning to the caper film? Did the experience of filming <Jeon Woo-chi> turn out to be helpful?
I don’t think that I feel particularly comfortable returning to the caper film genre. The primary principle for directing this film was ‘fun.’ I did realize that I wanted to make a movie with an emphasis on a solid storyline, but also feature powerful and interesting characters. <Tazza> was helpful when I was shooting <Jeon Woo-chi>. Likewise, <Jeon Woo-chi> was helpful for making this film. It is very natural that you always find a reaction against your most recent film when you are on a new film. I know there has been harsh criticism of <Jeon Woo-chi>, but I am not sure whether it was such an awful movie. It seems that the audience had a certain preconception about the director when they judged the movie. There is one thing I learned from the case of <Jeon Woo-chi>. It is that the audience wants a movie to look like one short story after all is over.
People call this film a Korean version of <Ocean’s Eleven>. How is this film different?
However much I disagree with those comparisons and say that the films are completely different, people will still say that about the film. I don’t think it is fair, but caper films with this kind of story have always suffered that comparison. Even <The Big Swindle> was called a Korean version of <Ocean’s Eleven> before it was released. <The Thieves> is very different from <Ocean’s Eleven>. The factor crucial to the entertainment value of <Ocean’s Eleven> is to show how the protagonists complete their heist. <The Thieves> unfolds a different kind of drama with a different focus.
In Korea, a movie with a budget of USD $10 million is considered a blockbuster. The budget of <Jeon Woo-chi> also exceeded USD $10 million. I wonder whether you have felt pressured due to budget issues.
Compared to <Jeon Woo-chi>, I felt less pressured with this movie. It did require a big budget, but this movie’s main attraction is actors and actresses. While <Jeon Woo-chi> focused on visual spectacles, <The Thieves> focuses on performers. Perhaps that is what I learned from making <Jeon Woo-chi>. Of course, I still fantasize about the visual spectacle of a film, and I myself enjoy that aspect. While making The Thieves, I also realized that the face of an actor or actress can become a magnificent spectacle. I felt enraptured even when they blinked for a split second.
This was your first time working with your wife, AN Su-hyeon, CEO of Caper Films. How was it?
I used to feel ambivalent about it. I felt equally strong about both wanting to work with her and not wanting to. But once we started working together, it was very familiar and comfortable. It was almost as if I was working on the movie 24 hours a day. It helped me to diffuse the tension from work. At work, my wife and I discussed the movie, and at home we continued the discussion with an objective distance from it. It was good that we talked with each other frankly and in a straightforward manner; it gave us a better approach to the core of filmmaking.
Do you have any plans for your next film?
There are so many items and ideas shelved on my desk. But I am not the type of person who starts with a big plan. I always search for what attracts me most at any given moment. With a few different stories in mind, my thoughts keep moving from one to another. Directors that I aspire to be the most like are Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. I don’t want to be confined to only one genre of film. I want to experiment with many genres. Of course, I will always diligently study other films.