Korean producer Kang Hye-jung of Filmmaker R&K discusses her long collaboration with director husband Ryoo Seung-wan — including their local box-office smash Veteran — and the challenges of finding new Korean directing voices.

The Veteran

Korean producer Kang Hye-jung still can’t believe the massive success of her latest film Veteran, directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, her husband and partner at Filmmaker R&K. With more than 13.4 million admissions, it is now the third most-viewed film in Korean box-office history, after Roaring Currents and Ode To My Father.

“When the film’s release was postponed, well… we wrapped the shoot July 1, 2014 and it was supposed to open in early October, but CJ said that it was too good to release in the slow season,” says Kang. “That’s when I realised this film was getting acknowledged. I was hoping the total admissions would be a little more than The Berlin File — it was hard to hope for more. At the time, 2.8 million admissions would have been enough to hit the break-even point. Now that this has happened, it doesn’t feel real.”

Film-making couple

Kang met Ryoo at a workshop in 1993. Like many who had been student democracy activists in college, she wasn’t going to be able to join the mainstream workforce and was teaching at a tutorial school when she happened to see a flyer for a 16mm film-making workshop.

“I paid kw350,000 [$300] and as if by fate I became a student again after graduating college, and my husband was the teaching assistant,” she says. “We met and did a film together and then dated for about five years.”

Although Kang had gone to one of the top universities in Korea, Ryoo was a high-school graduate who, from his early teens, had raised his younger brother Ryoo Seung-bum (who features in his films including Die Bad and The Unjust).

“People tried so hard to pull us apart that we became even more solid in the process,” she says.

Ryoo worked as a director’s assistant to Park Chan-wook while Kang learned the ropes of marketing and producing. In 2000, she produced Ryoo’s feature debut Die Bad, which grew out of a short that so impressed the industry that a number of professionals gave their time and effort almost for free to help him expand it into a feature.

“I always say it would be hard for a married couple even if we were running a street cart together,” says Kang. “Ryoo Seung-wan wants things that a director wants. I’m a producer and our roles will clash, as well as our personal tastes. But those are difficulties you have, whoever you work with.”

R&K’s first production, The City Of Violence, did reasonably well at the box office, sold to The Weinstein Company and garnered critical acclaim.

But their second production, Dachimawa Lee, flopped. The bubble had burst on the rush to finance Korean films, investors wouldn’t take their meetings, and the couple’s production house was in danger of shutting down altogether.

Dachimawa Lee was a big hit in 2000 [as a medium-length film that became a cult favourite] and we arrogantly thought if we remade it like this as a feature, settling for a safe bet, it would do well,” Kang recalls.

“Instead, it totally flopped. You have to add something new and different each time, something you can get excited about.

“We thought long and hard about why it is we want to make films and how,” she continues. “The Unjust was what saved us, and we made that film with our teeth gritted. We know now that if ever there’s a worst-case scenario where we can’t make films again, we will until that day make films that give happiness and are worthwhile and valuable. We decided this then and we won’t abandon this because back then we really thought it would come to that — having to quit.”

Moving on and up

With 2013’s The Berlin File, Kang and Ryoo set out to make a thrilling espionage adventure, although the task proved difficult, leading to a change of focus for their subsequent project, Veteran.

“Director Ryoo was thinking that in order to talk seriously with a lot of people, you have to make a film light and mainstream,” says Kang.

Veteran, about an incorruptible police detective going up against the scion of a big-business family whose wealth and connections have protected him from criminal prosecution, struck a chord in Korean society.

“It became a commercial hit that people come out of saying they had a good time but also found something that stayed with them,” observes Kang. “It wasn’t didactic, it was fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the confidence Ryoo has gained from this is reflected in his next film.”

Ryoo is currently working on the script for Gunhamdo, about forced Korean labourers who escape from the titular island during the Japanese occupation. The film is about to go into pre-production with the intention to start shooting next spring.

“Director Ryoo has declared it has to be completely different from Veteran, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” Kang says. “It’s about history so it will be earnest, but he won’t make it heavy.”

When it comes to working with other film-makers, Kang says they don’t seek out a particular kind of project or director. “What’s most important is what kind of story they want to tell and why,” she says. “We try to get to know the person and don’t just rely on the script to make a decision. We look for people with character who can tell their stories well.”

They are currently working with young director Kim Tae-yong, whose autobiographical feature debut Set Me Free, about a teenager struggling to stay in foster care, was a local arthouse sensation. “The Korean film industry has matured and it’s hard to find new film-makers with something to say,” notes Kang.

“The older ones are honing their craft, and there are plenty of directors who can make commercial films “well” - according to the formulae that have developed in the industry, but there are fewer energetic new ones. So Kim Tae-yong stands out.”

Kim’s second feature, Misbehavior, is in post.

Kang agrees the international market for Korean films has changed. “It’s not like when buyers were picking up Korean films like hotcakes and of course not like the climax of the bubble of 2005-06,” she says. “But I think Korean films are recognised abroad for their quality. The established directors are recognised. But because the films are local-language-based, they aren’t thinking of bigger markets when they make them.

There aren’t many complete newcomers, but the directors who make good films get more opportunities. You get questions from overseas about how come there are no newcomers or about the stagnation in the industry, but you have to have lived a certain kind of life and young people these days haven’t in most cases. That’s why Kim Tae-yong’s films seem so real.”