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Ko - production in Busan
  • HEO Myeong-hoeng, Action Choreographer of ASURA: THE CITY OF MADNESS and MASTER
  • by KIM Hyung-seok /  Mar 16, 2017
  • Paving a New Path with Each Step

    In Korea, if there have been three major changes in the field of film production to take note of since the turn of the century, these would be the launching of the new concept of production design, the advancement in computer graphics, and the settlement of action choreographer system.

    Ever since Swiri was released in 1999, ‘action’ has become a significant factor in the commercial success of Korean films. Starting with JUNG Doo-hong (Veteran, 2015), a considerable number of young action choreographers came out after the mid-2000s. HEO Myeong-hoeng also emerged from this group of new recruits to become one of the most popular film professionals in Korean action films. 

    He began his stunt work career in 1998 and subsequently worked his way up to become a key figure behind most of the heavyweight action scenes in film after he made his debut as an action choreographer in The Restless (2006). His filmography includes The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (2008), Woochi (2009), I Saw The Devil (2010), Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (2012), New World (2013), No Tears for the Dead (2014) and TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016). 

    Recently, he crafted impression action scenes in Korean cinema such as Asura : The City of Madness (2016) and Master (2016). The following is his take on the past and present state of action choreography in Korean films. 

    Which came first in leading you to your career in action choreography, your interest in films or action?

    Initially, I wasn’t that interested in films. But when I had an opportunity to watch them, it was the action scenes I paid attention to, most of them being in Hong Kong films. The Korean films I usually watched were also action films such as IM Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son (1990), The Rules Of The Game (1994), Born To Kill (1996) and Beat (1997). But I never imagined I would actually work in film. I always thought that things like stunt action were only done by people with great talent.

    So what got you interested?

    Although I didn’t go to a sports high school, I’ve continued my training in Taekwondo since I was a teenager. When asked about what my future would be in school, I always wrote down a masculine occupation like a police detective or PE teacher. PARK Ji-hoon, who has been working as an actor to this day, was my best friend in high school. He used to say he wanted to become an action star and took lessons at the Seoul Action School run by action choreographer JUNG Doo-hong. When I was in my last year of high school, I followed him there just to see what it was all about. My friend taught me about stunt action moves, and we choreographed fights and imitated Jackie CHAN moves. It was a lot of fun. For the first time in my life, I found a dream that I wanted to turn into a reality.

    So was your dream to become an actor?

    Not at all. I just had so much fun, and I wanted to become a stuntman without so much as a second thought. That was around 1997, and the following year, PARK Ji-hoon went to college and I was left behind. So I visited JUNG Doo-hong and told him I wanted to learn all about stunt acting starting from the bottom.

    What was your first film?

    Scent of a Man (1998) in which I was cast as a neighborhood bully. I also appeared in the costume TV drama HONG Gil-dong (1998), and then became a member of the stunt team on Swiri in 1999. 

    Swiri is always mentioned as the birth of modern stunt action in Korean films. From this point on to recent times, you seem to have experienced every significant moment in Korean stunt action. How would you concisely describe the changes that have occurred?

    Until the early 2000s, stunt action was not so different from what I saw in my teens. I believe the shift in costume drama stunt action began with Musa-The Warrior (2001). Korean-style sword moves were realistically choreographed in the film. The most important thing was the change in screenplays. A realistic dimension was applied to the characters. When you take a look at films such as Public Enemy (2002), the protagonist KANG Cheol-jung (SUL Kyung-gu) is a former boxer. In the past, characters, instead of being given a specific history, were just lead figures who happened to be good at fighting. That’s why the stunts and action they performed were always the same. However, when you give a history to a character, it makes it possible to create a specific action style. Subsequently, occupations such as secret agents and ex-special agents appeared along with a major change in stunt action style.

    Which film had a strong influence on you?

    The Bourne series. You can say that many hand-to-hand combat films that came out after this series were influenced by it. It’s by applying those martial arts skills that Korean films have evolved their action scenes as well. The Man From Nowhere (2010) and The Suspect (2013) are just some examples.

    The action in Musa-The Warrior is still quite impressive when seen today. What is the most memorable thing you remember when you were working on the set of that film?

    In fact, I’d like to work on another film like Musa-The Warrior. The entire stunt team was trained like true warriors, and we were all filled with so much determination. I think that’s why that kind of stunt action came out. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure I can do it again.

    There’s been considerable technical advancement on action film sets. Wire action mechanisms are being used on a regular basis as well as computer graphics, while the camerawork has become very sophisticated. Has this kind of change had any influence on stunt work?

    It’s made things easier. However, I still believe it can’t live up to the quality of practical techniques. It’s difficult to apply a practical method to a film but when you take a look at the results, practical methods are far superior. Of course, the current trend is to present an action style that combines computer graphics. One thing I’m concerned about in regards to this is that movements created through body techniques are slowly losing their place, which means that stunt skills will deteriorate as well. We aren’t at this stage yet, but in the next ten years, the time will come when dangerous stunt action will not be required anymore. I’m actually afraid that it will become that way.

    What’s the difference between a stuntman and an action choreographer?

    They are… totally different fields of work. (laughs)

    The first film you participated as an action choreographer was The Restless. What was it like?

    I showed director CHO Dong-oh what I came up with after studying each scene that required stunt work and choreographed the fighting scenes. Then I made revisions based on his feedback. The entire process took me ten months. You can say the director was the one who trained me. The stunt work in The Restless required advanced techniques, but through the course of the film, I started seeing what the right rhythm of stunt action was and what good camera angles were. We shot for almost an entire year. I definitely learned a lot from that film.

    After that you continued working on big budget films.

    Filmmaker KIM Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, And The Weird was my next project. By the time I was done with that film, I was fearless. I found a number of solutions for the stunt work I was striving for. After that I worked on CHOI Dong-hoon’s Woochi.

    Do you think that in order to create a new type of action scene, the action choreographer should get involved in the directing process?

    Frankly speaking, I’ve been doing that since The Restless. I believe it was possible due to the path that was paved by JUNG Doo-hong who constantly fought for perfect stunt work. That’s why I like it when a director or film crew tries to bring out the most out of a stunt choreographer. That way there can be various discussions.

    When you look at films like Cold Eyes (2013) or No Tears for the Dead, you seem to have a knack for city action scenes. 

    First of all, city actions scenes… are difficult to shoot. (laughs) In the past, films used to be shot in abandoned factory sites or warehouses, but this is so unrealistic. That’s why we shot car action scenes in the middle of downtown Seoul in Cold Eyes. I prefer attempting new things even though you’re making a mistake rather than shooting a scene well in a predictable manner. I don’t believe that action scenes should be shot for ‘the sake of action’. Whichever method you choose to go for, what matters is getting a good reaction from the audience. There’s no need to follow conventional methods.

    The stunt action in confined spaces as performed in films such as I Saw The Devil, New World and Asura : The City of Madness are impressive.

    The scenes in these films have to be realistic. There’s no special technique. It’s just an issue of who stabs who first. I think these kinds of realistic situations hold more appeal to the audience.

    What about working overseas?

    I recently worked on BONG Joon-ho’s Okja, and I’m always open to the idea of working overseas. However, after working on several films, I realized it’s not so easy to match myself to the system an overseas production requires. Primarily I still have working opportunities in Korea. I’m happy with this, and for the time being I think I should focus more on this side.
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