Present and correct

Korean director Oh Ki-hwan's knowledge of Chinese culture meant a smooth ride while shooting on the mainland, writes Darcy Paquet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 10:47pm

HAVING VISITED THE mainland three times, including in 1999 when he spent time on the set of Kim Young-jun’s Bichunmoo, South Korean director Oh Ki-hwan became increasingly drawn to the country. “Each time, I thought to myself, ‘This is a really interesting place. I’d love to shoot a film here some day,’” the 45-year-old recalls.

So when CJ Entertainment, a major film company in South Korea, came knocking in 2011 with a proposal to remake his 2001 melodrama Last Present for the Chinese market, Oh leapt at the chance.

However, the experience wasn’t entirely what he’d anticipated.

AWedding Invitation is a full Chinese-South Korean co-production. Financed and co-produced by CJ Entertainment, the film has a Korean director, cinematographer (Kim Young-ho), editor (Shin Min-kyung), and composer (Lee Ji-soo), while Chinese talent contributed to the screenwriting, production design, and sound recording.

The contemporary Chinese romantic comedy is shot in Putonghua with rising mainland actress Bai Baihe and Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng Yu-yen. Released on the mainland in April, it opens in Hong Kong on June 6.

The original film starred Lee Jung-jae (The Thieves) and Lee Young-ae (television drama Jewel in the Palace) as a married couple who learn that the wife has an incurable disease.

But Oh hit a roadblock in the early stages of script development. “In communicating with the Chinese side, I soon realised that the story of Last Present would need significant revisions if it was going to work culturally in China,” he says.

In the original film, Lee Jung-jae’s character works as a “gag man” – a sort of television vaudeville performer, of which there are many in South Korea. But there was no cultural equivalent in China, where stand-up comedy is more prevalent.

“At this point, I went back to the main concept behind Last Present, which was to explore the conflict between laughter and tears. One of my biggest inspirations is Charlie Chaplin, who was a master at this,” Oh says.

After a long process of discussions between Oh and Chinese screenwriters Qin Haiyan and A Mei, the structure of the film emerged, in which the first two-thirds play out like a romantic comedy, before taking a tragic turn towards the end.

So many changes were made that they no longer referred to the work as a remake. Instead of a married couple, AWedding Invitation focuses on a young ceramics designer and an up-and-coming chef whose romance takes many unexpected turns.

With a first draft in place, casting went smoothly. Oh says: “I had seen Bai Baihe in her film Love is Not Blind, and was very impressed, so I asked our Chinese producer [Han Sanping] to get in touch with her. After reading the script, she agreed to take part.”

Similarly, the director was struck with the performance of Eddie Peng in the 2012 Taiwanese film Love, and Bai agreed that he would be a good choice for the role. “In a sense, actors are the first audience for a film. When I saw that Bai Baihe and Eddie Peng both liked the script and were enthusiastic about the project, that gave me some confidence,” says Oh.

Shooting the film on the mainland turned out to be quite different than shooting in his home country.

“As in Hollywood, China has a strict 12-hour limit on shooting days. We don’t have that in South Korea, so it’s possible to work longer days and make faster progress.”

With only 35 days to shoot the film, Oh worried that they wouldn’t finish in time. “Ultimately, we decided to shoot with two cameras at once,” he says. “Luckily, cinematographer Kim Young-ho was able to adapt to the Chinese system without too much trouble.”

Oh’s interest in Chinese culture, and his flexible attitude, helped him create a harmonious atmosphere on the set.

As for linguistic barriers, Oh benefited from having studied Chinese characters in the South Korean education system. “I can’t speak the language, but I was able to pick up some listening skills as we went along. By the end of the shoot, the interpreter was translating my instructions, but I was able to understand most of what the actors and crew said without translation.”

Now back in Seoul, Oh is continuing to study Putonghua.

Oh is not the only South Korean director to have shot films on the mainland in recent years. Director An Byeong-ki remade his 2004 horror film Bunshinsaba into a Chinese film of the same title last year.

Director Hur Jin-ho has shot two films on the mainland with mixed casts, including cross-cultural romance A Good Rain Knows (2009) with Korean actor Jung Woo-sung and mainland actress Gao Yuanyuan, and Dangerous Liaisons (2012) with Zhang Ziyi, Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi and Jang Dong-gun.

Not all such collaborations have gone smoothly. Last year, South Korean director Kwak Jae-yong (My Sassy Girl) was replaced during the shooting of Yang Gui Fei after a conflict with producers. But Oh fared a lot better. Released on the mainland on April 12, AWedding Invitation was a significant hit, grossing about 200 million yuan (HK$251 million).

The filmmaker describes his experience of shooting AWedding Invitation in China as “an ideal case”, and says he would be happy to film there again.

The co-production is also a success for CJ Entertainment, which for years has pursued various kinds of collaborations with the Chinese film industry. It previously co-produced the film Sophie’s Revenge (2009), and has signed strategic co-operation deals with major players China Film Group and Polybona. More Chinese-South Korean co-productions are in development.

AWedding Invitation opened strongly in its first week, making Oh one of only a few foreign directors to have achieved commercial success on the mainland.

Was there some cultural element that the director brought to the project which helped it to succeed?

“I’m not sure … I don’t consider AWedding Invitation to be particularly Korean in its sensibility,” says Oh. “It’s true that many viewers looked at the tragic ending and compared the film to South Korean TV dramas.

“But that wasn’t really my intention. Instead, my goal was to take the sensibilities of Chaplin – that mix of the comic and the tragic – and adapt it to a contemporary Asian context.”


AWedding Invitation opens on June 6