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Kim Tae-ri in a still from Alienoid, A Korean sci-fi film directed by Choi Dong-hoon.

With sci-fi Alienoid, hit Korean film director Choi Dong-hoon is returning to fantasy genre

  • Filmmaker Choi Dong-hoon has had a string of box office hits, and his latest movie is a two-part time-travelling science fiction story
  • He tells the Post about the lack of a history of sci-fi in Korea, how Netflix changed that, and his own love of the genre

One of the most bankable filmmakers in South Korean cinema, Choi Dong-hoon has been responsible for a string of box office hits during his 20-year career, including The Big Swindle (2004), Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), and The Thieves (2012).

For his latest outing, Choi returns to the fantasy genre for the first time since 2009’s Woochi, with the two-part, time-travel, science fiction epic Alienoid. As part one arrives in Hong Kong cinemas this week, Choi spoke to the Post in an interview about his influences and experiences making the film.

“After making two very grounded, realistic films,” he says, talking of star-studded blockbusters The Thieves and Assassination (2015), “I felt this growing desire to go to the opposite end of the spectrum. I always wanted to make a science fiction film, to go back to that unknown world of Woochi.”

One of the biggest hits of 2009 in Korea, Woochi is an action-packed martial arts fantasy starring Gang Dong-won that was hailed as Korea’s first superhero movie.

Alienoid presents an even more ambitious prospect, combining a 14th century Goryeo-era adventure with a present-day alien invasion plot that play out across both timelines simultaneously.

“I reconnected with the child inside of me,” enthuses Choi, “all those films I watched in the cinema when I was in high school, like Alien, Back to the Future, The Terminator. I still remember how thrilled I was, the exhilaration. I couldn’t sleep for days because I was so happy.”

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It quickly becomes apparent that Choi is a huge science fiction buff whose knowledge and influences extend far beyond the Hollywood blockbusters of the 1980s.

He excitedly name-checks literary greats like Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, specifically the latter’s third law, which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

This is a motif that appears throughout Alienoid, as Taoist wizards from Korea’s distant past come into contact with futuristic alien technology they struggle to explain.

Director Choi Dong-hoon on the set of Alienoid.

“To me, the science fiction world and traditional Korean fantastical world are quite similar in the end. [In Alienoid] the material world and the psychological world come together in a big explosion. That was the point I found the most thrilling,” he says.

Choi’s enthusiasm for science fiction raises an interesting point. Before the recent explosion of high-concept genre movies in South Korea, triggered by Yeon Sang-ho’s horror-hybrid sensation Train to Busan (2016), hardly anyone there was making such films, and the rare exceptions, such as 2009: Lost Memories (2002) or Natural City (2003), did not make much of an impact.

With a budget of 33 billion won (US$25 million), Alienoid arrives as one of the most expensive South Korean movies ever made, but surely budgetary restraints can’t be the only reason for the local industry’s reluctance to venture into fantasy-film making?

“Yes, there is a reluctance to explore this genre because of the budget of course, but you can always make a good sci-fi film with a small budget,” Choi concedes, although he seems unsure about why this has been the case.

Kim Woo-bin in a still from Alienoid.

He adds: “There is also the lack of a long lineage of science fiction literature in Korea, even though lately there are some young writers who have written great sci-fi novels.

“I guess Korean creators and Korean film directors don’t have such a history or tradition to look to. But there are many Korean directors who want to make sci-fi films and are working on new projects. So there is definitely growth in the genre in Korea and it is definitely expanding.”

The advent of streaming services such as Netflix has shaken up movie and TV production in South Korea, giving filmmakers unprecedented opportunities to indulge their interest in sci-fi; the result is movies like Time to Hunt (2020) and Space Sweepers (2021), as well as shows such as The Silent Sea (2021), and of course, Squid Game (2021).
I reconnected with the child inside of me
Choi Dong-hoon, film director

Choi suggests that the issue may simply be a hesitancy within the industry’s old guard to try something new. “These days Korean directors, especially emerging directors, are talking about science fiction quite a lot.

“Fifteen years ago there was a party, where 40 or 50 directors got together and we were all asking each other about our next projects. One young director said he wanted to make a zombie film, and the older generation said ‘No, don’t touch that genre. It’s never going to work’, and look what happened?!”

Choi is quick to deflect blame from his predecessors and mentors, however. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the older generation discourages emerging directors from trying new things, I’m just saying that 15 years ago the general preconception was that high-concept films won’t work in Korea.

Concept art for the film Alienoid.
Artwork for Alienoid.

“But now there are so many high-concept films coming out of Korea that are definitely pushing the envelope, expanding the market and nurturing creativity too.”

Alienoid seems to embody this new-found confidence. Following in the footsteps of Kim Yong-hwa’s Along With the Gods (2017), the film has been structured in two halves, with the concluding part of Choi’s ambitious diptych arriving next year – although the director is tight-lipped about the details.

“All the characters from the past – including those played by Ryu Jun-yeol and Kim Tae-ri – will travel to the present and complete their adventure there. Lee Hanee’s character will play a much bigger role, but in terms of additional characters or big names, I cannot reveal that right now,” he says.

Ryu Jun-yeol in a still from Alienoid.

“We still have 10 months of CGI work to complete,” he says and, with a chuckle, adds, “and my producer is staring right at me.”

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