Mr blockbuster of Korean cinema, Kang Je-gyu
Of Kang Je-gyu's four films, three have been blockbusters. He's gunning for more
Tomorrow marks 14 years since Shiri opened in Hong Kong. The spy action-thriller, widely considered South Korea's first blockbuster, arrived here after ousting Titanic as the box-office record holder at home.
But Shiri's stars were so little known in Hong Kong that posters promoting the film highlighted its explosive action rather than its actors.
These days it's a different story: Han Suk-kyu (The Berlin File), Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) and Kim Yun-jin (credited on the American TV series Lost as Yunjin Kim) are now household names in Hong Kong and around Asia.
Similarly, its director, Kang Je-gyu, has gone on to win greater recognition. Even though his output is relatively sparse with just four features, one of those is Taegukgi, a 2004 war epic that also broke box-office records at home.
Kang was in town recently for special presentations of his latest film, My Way, at the University of Hong Kong, and Shiri as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Cine Fan programme.
The 50-year-old filmmaker also took part in a question-and-answer session with his Shiri audience. When he learned that a large percentage of the audience was watching the film for the first time, Kang was happy to explain its impact.
"Korean cinema can be seen in terms of 'before Shiri' and 'after Shiri'," he says of his film about a female North Korean sniper sent to wreak havoc across the border and the two South Korean agents tracking her down.
"Before Shiri, Korean films were viewed as art films. After Shiri, they are seen as commercial and entertaining. From the audience's perspective Korean films are now better. Viewers expect them to be interesting, exciting. These days, 60 per cent of films shown [at home] are South Korean."
In 1998, the year before Shiri's release, local films had a 25 per cent share of the South Korean market, according to the Korean Film Council. So it was a leap of faith by investors to entrust Kang - who had made just one film, The Gingko Bed (1996) - with a US$2.2 million budget, more than twice that of the average Korean movie at the time.
The scriptwriter/director first started suspecting that he had something special on his hands when a producer at Samsung Entertainment Group - which financed The Gingko Bed - contacted him after reading just two-thirds of the Shiri screenplay. "He rang me and said, 'Let's do the movie' … he was worried that someone else might take it" while he was still reading the script, Kang says.
"While making the movie I did feel it might do quite well, but I did not expect it to become such an explosive hit. I had a realistic aim for it … [with] the basic calculation coming down to needing to do twice as well at the box office [as its total cost]."
The pressure for the film to do well was intense. "During post-production, we held a screening. The crew loved the film, but I didn't - I thought [then] that it might end my film career. I thought that maybe I should become a cook! Then at the premiere, the people sat there looking like they were in shock," he recalls.
As he soon discovered, however, it was a "good" kind of shock. "The audience didn't know how to react as they were encountering their first Korean blockbuster. It left them speechless," Kang says, laughing at the memory.
Looking back now, the director is proud that Shiri has the characteristics he thinks of as being particularly Korean. "The characters in the movie - Korea is probably the only place with such characters. The content too - the movie deals with the separation of North and South. That's uniquely Korean," he says.
"Korea was not separated by our own choice. It was a very painful separation for Korean people. The war was basically started not by us, but by the superpowers back then and we were forced into killing each other. The scars caused by that are still very big."
Although Shiri was definitely a success at home, Kang became concerned about how his film was marketed internationally. He learned two painful facts. "The first was when they were releasing it in Japan. Their idea was to not let people know it was a Korean movie because at the time, Korean movies were not very well accepted. So they said, 'Let's just show the interesting bits [in the trailer] and hopefully people will come and watch'. That made me very, very angry."
The second was the promotion of the film overseas. Posters and home video covers in territories such as the US - and even in advertising for the HKIFF Cine Fan special presentation - featured a woman with long hair in a revealing dress.
Posters are supposed to be a concentrated view of the movie, Kang says, so "the image was a bit embarrassing. I called the distributors to get them to change it but they didn't accept my request. It was unfortunate."
Although he has twice broken his country's box-office record, Kang is reluctant to name a favourite. Of his four movies "there's not a single one for which I would congratulate myself and say that I've done a good job", he says.
"That's why I want to make more movies - so that eventually I'll make one where I can tell myself, 'I've done a good job, I've made a good film'."