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Ko - production in Busan
  • Production Designer JANG Geun-young of ASURA
  • by KIM Hyung-seok /  Nov 07, 2016
  • “I hope the opportunity to work on different kinds of projects”

    The dark olive tone of the set of Volcano High (2001), the detailed visual construction of Save the Green Planet (2003), and the spaces where action with fantasy takes place in Arahan (2004)……. JANG Geun-young is a production designer who witnessed firsthand the rapid changes in film production designs and the development of diverse genres during the early 2000s. 

    Upon receiving his university diploma in arts, he started a career in filmmaking during the mid-nineties and his unique style was one step ahead of his time. Then he suddenly disappeared from the film scene, but it turns out he was actually using that time to prepare his script for his directorial debut.

    He finally returned in 2016, after a ten year break, with The Phantom Detective and Asura: The City of Madness in which he displayed his trademark persistence and creativity. The Phantom Detective boasts a stylishness never seen before in Korean films, while he created for Asura: The City of Madness a perfect ‘noirish’ environment. 

    What made you go back to production design?

    I was being stagnant for almost 10 years, pondering on the direction of my own film when I met by chance the producer of The Phantom Detective. Volcano High had left a good impression on him and so he offered me to take part in his project. When I read the script, I got drawn by its originality and its distinctiveness. 

    The Phantom Detective is a production that effectively shows a unique fantastic style in its production design. Did you face difficulties upon returning to the scene after such a long break? 

    It was easier than I expected. The most important thing with this film was to make it fresh and accessible to the audience. It had to come out as original and something you would have never seen before in Korean films. The director, JO Sung-hee, made himself clear about what he wanted from me, and since we were on the same wavelength we worked in synergy. In that sense, I guess we can say the job wasn’t so demanding. 

    The Phantom Detective makes an impression similar to Volcano High, in the sense that both films heavily rely on CGI and digital environments had to be created for this purpose. How would you say they differ? 

    Despite the 15-year gap, the method of work I employed was almost the same. Such method stopped being in use after Volcano High, but I employed it again for this film. Almost the entire shooting of The Phantom Detective was made on set, and we had to give each space its own different touch, as if we were painting a different picture every time. We made it so that it would match the tone of the images once the computer graphics would have been added.

    It seems like the sets in Asura: The City of Madness were perfectly brought to life. Can you tell us more about the concept behind your approach?

    Since it’s a film that goes tight on the characters, it wasn’t necessary to create large sets. However, the film required a setting that would feel oppressing to the characters, as well as a tone that would fit the film’s title, ‘Asura,’ which means hell. It might not have stood out, but we went for a production design that could naturally embrace and match the characters. In addition, much thought was given to the type of feel we wanted to express with the depiction of this imaginary city of ‘Annam.’ 

    So, what kind of city did you want to show? 

    The first thing that came to my mind when I read the script was the image of ‘beehives’ (multiple low-income housing in attics and basements). I was thinking of something like shanty houses huddled together, filled with occupants, where criminals could easily arrange a worn-down and dilapidated hideout. We could say Annam is a place that has been around for some time, where a lot of people have been living and fighting as it slowly transformed into a corrupted space in decay. 

    The Phantom Detective and Asura: The City of Madness can both be considered noir in style. Do you have a preference for this genre? 

    Not really. I like films of diverse styles, but I don’t have much choice when it comes to the film offers I get. (laughs) What’s more important than the genre, when I’m working on a film, is the part when I discuss with the director and we pin down together which direction and purpose the script should have. It’s my job to make it more concrete. 

    If you were to compare the time when you first started out and now, what kind of changes have you noticed in the Korean film industry? 

    The mood was more progressive and experimental in the past. Maybe that’s the reason why people like me could find opportunity. As the Korean film industry has gradually grown, a new breed of production designers emerged, and the quality of their work is quite impressive. Now, there are rarely any films that don’t have the support of production designs. But the downside of our quest for industrial stability is that despite the diversification of the genres we have lost some of our enthusiasm for new experiments. 

    What are your next projects?

    I’d like to work on films of more diverse styles, like costume dramas, war movies or fantasy adventures. I also wish to work on small-scale productions too, especially teenage romance films. I hope film directors and producers could give me the opportunity to work on different kinds of projects. (laughs)

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