“I was opposed to this project, in the beginning,” Korean megastar Hwang Jung-min says of his harrowing war film The Battleship Island, which he made alongside director Ryoo Seung-wan. A production that was three years in the making, and focuses on the brutal mistreatment of Koreans -and their eventual uprising- against the Japanese on Hashima Island at the end of World War II, it’s no wonder that the actor was apprehensive at first.
Taking on the role of musician/swindler Lee Gang-ok, it’s hard to imagine the film without him, as he lightens the mood with his comedic take on the character in an otherwise bleak setting. His relationship with his daughter So-hee -which is reminiscent of the classic Italian film Life is Beautiful- is also the most poignant. Although the film was originally released last year, the pair have brought a special Director’s Cut to the Udine Far East Film Festival, as well as their modern classic action film Veteran, and we cannot wait to talk about these two projects with them.
Given the scope of the atrocities committed against Koreans by the Japanese in World War II, why did you choose to focus on Hashima Island in particular?
Ryoo Seung-wan (RSW): “I think I started the project because of the shock that I experienced when I saw a picture of the island, because I didn’t even know about it. So, I started the project because I wanted to know more. Also, there is more to the island than the general image that it has, it doesn’t encompass everything that happened there.”
What was the preparation process like, given that this is such an ambitious project? How much did you need to prepare before the shooting even began?
RSW: “The first time I talked about this project with Hwang Jung-min was before we even started to work on Veteran. It was 2013, but because of the scale of the project, and the subject matter, we agreed that we needed to do a lot more preparation. While we were shooting Veteran, we talked about this project and began to prepare, so we gathered all the materials we needed and interviewed many people. Hashima Island has such an important place in our history, so that meant a lot of preparation was needed so I also got help from a historian. Now, in my opinion, the person who knows the most about Hashima Island is my assistant director!” (laughter)
Hwang Jung-min (HJW): “I was opposed to this project, in the beginning.”
HJW: “Because of the hard work!” (laughter)
The image of the atomic bomb at the end of the movie came as a real shock. It changed the balance, and it showed that the real evil was not Korea or Japan, but war itself. Would you say this is correct? Also, why did you use a song by Ennio Morricone?
RSW: “Thank you for saying that, that was really what I wanted to show in my film. As for Ennio Morricone’s music, incidentally while preparing for this project I listened to his music quite often. For me the music feels very sad but, at the same time, very violent, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was so drawn to his music while I was editing, and I felt that it was a good fit for the film so I decided to use it. I contacted Ennio Morricone and he generously said yes.”
“I think that cinephiles might notice some similarities with this film and Italian cinema, especially the relationship that Lee Kang-ok (Hwang Jung min’s character) has with his daughter because their relationship is like the one between the father and son in Life is Beautiful. There’s also a scene that I only put in the director’s cut – where the face of the manager of the island overlaps the Koreans trying to escape, with fire all around them – which was inspired by the horror films by Dario Argento. The music he uses is very sensitive, while the image itself is very violent.”
Hwang Jung-min, you said that this film was hard work, but your character was also very complex because he brought a lot of lighter tones to the film. How did you find a balance between the comedy and tragedy of your character?
HJM: “Of course, life on that island was hard, but they were all real people – life must go on and people should smile. Sadness was the base of my character, but he had to endure things so that he could give hope to his daughter, to show her that her father is determined to hang on to life. That was the balance that I wanted to maintain.”
Talking about clever things – everything in Veteran is so perfectly timed, especially the comedy and action scenes – how did you achieve that, and what was the most challenging part?
RSW: “It just happened, we went for it and it turned out that way.”
HJM: “He has a natural born gift, especially for choreographed scenes. When you see the continuity of such scenes, and the division between actors and stuntmen blends, it is all very clear-cut. People who watched Veteran would say to me: ‘Oh, you must have suffered a lot’, but it was all very clear-cut and smooth so nothing was difficult for me, I really mean that.”
RSW: “The medium of film can be audio-visual, but I try to make films that has a concept of time. The structure of a narrative in film is different from literature or making a painting, because there is a limited running time. So, I believe time – and timing – is very important.”
You are an amazing actor, with a versatile repertoire of roles in action films, comedies and thrillers. Was there ever a role where you couldn’t detach yourself from your character?
HJM: “No, I haven’t had trouble doing that with any of my characters. After the shooting is done, I just let go. I can even go to the screening of the film and enjoy it as much as the audience, because the character on the screen feels like a different person.”
Read more of our Udine Far East Film Festival coverage:
• The Battleship Island: Director’s Cut REVIEW
• 20th Udine Far East Film Festival: Inuyashiki REVIEW
• 20th Udine Far East Film Festival: Forgotten REVIEW
• 20th Udine Far East Film Festival: Forgotten’s Jang Hang-jun Interview