“Right in the middle”: writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan on the search for balance

Interview conducted during the 0th edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF), October 2015, where he was promoting his latest film Veteran.

Ever since he debuted with Die Bad in 2000, Ryoo Seung-wan has been the ‘Chungmuro action kid’, with a rambunctious filmography that includes No Blood No Tears (2002), Arahan (2004), Crying Fist (2005), The City of Violence (2006), Dachimawa Lee (2008), The Unjust (2010) and The Berlin File (2013). I caught up with him at the inaugural London East Asian Film Festival where he was attending the UK première of his latest film Veteran – about the face-off between a dogged police detective and a ruthless corporate heir.

Anton Bitel: What, for you, was the starting point of Veteran?

Ryoo Seung-wan: The last two films that I did before Veteran [The Unjust, The Berlin File] were quite dark, so I wanted to do something lighter. Those previous films were about the good man losing, so I wanted to do a film where the main character wins. I wanted to do a film about what I thought as a child to be heroic. A heroic policeman. I wanted to write a story where the villain is defeated by the heroic figure, and so the villain is what I see as most cruel and most evil. It seems like a film that has a mix of different genres, but rather than having it all quite light, I wanted to bring some meaning to it. I wanted to add the story of what it’s like in real society.

AB: Veteran is a very engaging action comedy, but it uses these palatable genres to sneak in a lot of social commentary. Was it hard finding a balance between these different elements?

RSW: It could have been a dangerous attempt, because the balance could have failed. It could have fallen apart very easily. You can’t explain it theoretically. I keep the balance with my own agility and ability, so it’s not something that I plan. It comes from my personality as well: I’m not used to something being serious throughout, or something comical entirely. I like to talk about something that’s funny, then serious, then funny immediately after – a mix of seriousness and funny. To put it in a bad way, it means you’re indecisive. If you look at it in a good way, it means you’re well-balanced.  I believe that I’m the latter. [he grins]

AB: Like 2010’s The Unjust (which also starred Hwang Jung-min as a Metropolitan police detective), Veteran is concerned with the workings of justice and corruption. Are your films ‘just entertainment’, or do they present for you a form of social protest?

RSW: It’s both. With The Unjust, I was trying to give more straightforward expression of my social protest.  As a responsive adult, I wanted to show and discuss with other responsive adults how we could make society better. Then I saw myself being with people from the next generation. As my kids grow up, we watch films together. I wanted to find a way of interacting with them. So the settings in both films are no different: there’s inequality, socially unacceptable economic gaps, and things like that. So the setting is the same. In reality we try to negotiate with those bad things that are happening, and the adults know what’s going to happen. The world still goes around. We cannot pass that onto our children’s generation. I wanted to express in the film what would happen if we make a protest against that corruption. So Veteran is like my earlier film trying to interact with the next generation. It’s such a dark story, if you look at the setting of it, and I wanted to make it more interactive with the younger generation, so I needed comedy as the seasoning to bind it.

AB: We see Hwang’s character, Seo Do-cheol, as a hero and an incorruptible champion of justice, but we also see him fabricating evidence and beating suspects – much as you present a police force that is systemically influenced by the interests of the wealthy. Was it important for you to show these contradictions and struggles in Do-cheol’s character?

RSW: It’s more about Seo Do-cheol developing as a character throughout the film. In the beginning of the film, the character uses violence. He’s like a member of a gang with a licence to do violence. The end of the film, where he is being beaten by the villain, is a scene that I had already decided was going to be in it when I started making the film. I did not want the film to be like Dirty Harry. I wanted the character to develop into a heroic and courageous policeman. At the end, even though he gets into a violent fight with the villain, I wanted that to be on the villain. The things that the main character did wrong I believe were not acceptable. Therefore, towards the middle of the film he gets a lot of impact from what he did in the past, and it starts to come back to him. The reason that Seo Do-cheol became a heroic character is that he was able to look at his mistakes and try to change himself, and then become a new person – but the villains in this film weren’t able to do that.

AB: As a member of Korea’s corporate élite, Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in) regards ordinary people as his disposable playthings, and feels himself to be above the law, answering only to the authority of his equally selfish and sadistic father (Song Yung-chang). Do you ever hang with the superrich, and are they really like this?

RSW: I tried to get into contact with a few of them, but I wasn’t able to make direct contact, although I was able to meet some acquaintances. I was able to meet a journalist who writes articles based on the stories that happen. I was able to meet tailors who made the suits for the superrich. Also, some of their friends. So not the superrich, but the level below that. Finally I consulted secretaries that worked with them, and the policemen that were involved in cases like these. That was my source for getting stories about the character.

AB: Through the invented TV series The Female Detective (on which Do-cheol has worked as a consultant), Veteran exposes how Korea’s superrich are at the top of the food chain in Korea’s entertainment industry, bankrolling its productions and partying with its stars. This all feels pretty close to the bone. As a mainstream filmmaker working in Korea today, do you have to be careful how far you go on certain topics?

RSW: The reason why the films was so popular in Korea was that there are many real-life cases, so many similar stories that happened, stories that have been released into the newspapers. The people around me were worried that I could be put under some pressure. But I never felt physically pressured. There were small things. I was trying to film in a particular setting, but I wasn’t getting permission – but I could build the set, so that wasn’t too much of a problem. The funny, interesting thing about this film is that the story is about the villainy of a superrich company, but such a large company has funded the making of the film. So that’s some of the neutralisation of Korean society, where these things do happen.

AB: Your feature debut Die Bad came out in 2000, so that you yourself are now something of a filmmaking veteran. How has Korea’s film industry changed over the last decade and a half?

RSW: The biggest change is that film has disappeared. I feel a great disappointment [in the transition] from film to digital mastering, as this has been a vast change. I’m still trying to adapt to the new environment of filmmaking. And the proportion of CGI used in filmmaking is growing increasingly. Even if you’re not making a film for the Marvel company, you can’t avoid the importance of CGI techniques. I’m in the process of meeting with the next generation. For the past 15 years I have always been a young director – I was part of the young generation. Then one day I realised that there are younger directors that I’m starting to see. With audiences also the age is getting younger – and people involved in important things like politics are becoming more aged. It feels like I’m between that – between the old in power and the young in anger. I’m right in the middle.

© Anton Bitel