Before moving behind a camera, Lee Byeong-heon worked as a writer, script editor and actor. He gained huge popularity in 2015 when he released Twenty, a coming-of-age film starring Kim Woo-bin, Lee Jun-ho, and Kang Ha-neul, the biggest stars of their generation. After Twenty, he went on to direct web drama Be Positive (2016) and romantic comedy What a Man Wants (2018). This year has proven fruitful once again, as Lee went behind the director’s chair for another comedy: Extreme Job. Following a team of police officers as they run an unexpectedly popular chicken shop while working under cover, the film became the 2nd highest grossing production in the history of Korean cinema, and was positively received worldwide.
During the 14th London Korean Film Festival, we had a privilege to interview, along with other journalists, the director. Reserved and soft-spoken, Lee talked about Extreme Job, how he got into filmmaking and his thought on the South Korean film industry…
Photo © CJ Entertainment
Hangul Celluloid: If you look back to the New Korean Cinema wave of the late 90s and early 2000s, thrillers and dramas telling stories of gangsters vs. cops with comedic undertones were hugely prevalent and popular. In subsequent years that popularity waned somewhat, but has seen a resurgence in recent times. Where those classic NKC films part of your background, were you a fan, and did such films play a part in your motivation to use the comedic side of the gangster genre for your latest feature?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: While I didn’t rewatch any of those classic NKC wave films as research or anything when making Extreme Job, they did come at a time in my life where I probably watched the most movies. That was the period where many new genres appeared and there was ready investment from big companies, and Korean cinema became more vibrant than it had ever been. That was when I was in my late teens and early twenties so, yes, I’m sure I was influenced by them. I wasn’t heavily exposed to foreign language films, but in a way, I was watching a lot of Korean films that were themselves influenced by Western movies. I think Korean films, and indeed directors, are strongly influenced by foreign cinema in a positive way, so regardless of my taste I tried to watch a lot of those films at the time. Extreme Job was simply a story I wanted to tell, but subconsciously that influence may indeed have been there.
View of the Arts: In your films, you always have fantastic female characters, in Extreme Job especially with Detective Jang and Seon-hee. They are such badasses, so how do you, in the writing process, ensure you have such great female characters?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: When I thought about the story, I wanted to create a typical detective team of five, you know stereotypical, just normal, especially at the script stage. I wasn’t sure if I had a deep thought on creating strong female characters, if anything it was a cinematic approach and not particularly intentional. With the character of Seon-hee I wanted to create an image that has never really been seen in Korean cinema and make her as strong as detective Jang so when you see them together it comes across as something Korean cinema has rarely shown. The character of Seon-hee was ideal to achieve that.
Photo © CJ Entertainment
View of the Arts: In both Twenty and Extreme Job you have quite elaborate, hilarious fight scenes and they are so intricately choreographed I wondered was it ever a challenge to make sure you got the funny moments right and what was it like to film those scenes?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: I think Twenty and Extreme Job are very different especially in terms of the action sequences. I don’t feel such scenes in Twenty are actually action per se, they are much more emotional to me, coming as the characters are becoming adults. They are turning 21 which is I guess the official age of adulthood with 20 being almost a gap year. They have such confidence and pride about entering the real adult world and they are scared too. So that first sequence isn’t really action, it’s more comedic and emotional and that was what I was focusing on. With the action in Extreme Job what was important was that these ordinary people were turning into superheroes. I wanted to express that most of all to give great satisfaction and cathartic experience for the audience. This was the first time I actually did a proper action scene and I discovered they require a great deal of preparation time, and I’m not actually sure if I’d want to shoot another action scene because it was so hard! It certainly wasn’t as much fun as other scenes in the shoot.
Hangul Celluloid: In watching Extreme Job, from the very outset where a character is being chased leading to a massive pile-up of numerous cars, it’s instantly clear that not only is the film explosive and expansive but also hugely expensive. In terms of budget, what sort of constraints did you face, and how difficult, or easy, was it to get the green light for scenes that would make film company executives’ eyes water at the thought of the cost alone?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: Yeah, it was a trial and error project for me because investors saw this film as a comedy film, not an action film, and there were some budget constraints because of that. Because of those financial constraints, the car chasing and crashing scenes were a huge challenge from the very outset. Also, on the day we were shooting it was the hottest day in Korea for something like 110 years. So, if actors were required to run they had to take 30-minute breaks. Physically and literally I wasn’t wholly convinced it would be possible at all. I had huge headaches about that. So, we really had to create something out of nothing and for a scene like that a lot of fast cuts are required but we really didn’t have enough time to get the full amount of cuts we needed so we kind of had to do a minimalist take overall. As a director looking at the scene now I find it a little clumsy, and I’m almost embarrassed to a degree, but looking at the intense and superb work the staff and actors did in the scene I also feel very proud. So, I have very mixed feelings about it overall.
Photo © CJ Entertainment
Asian Movie Pulse: What inspired Extreme Job? Did you feel the film was a parody or satire of the gangster/cop genre and did you have particular directors, films or film-makers that you thought of when making it?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: Nothing in particular comes to mind, no films specifically. There were loads of films that I watched from the time we talked about earlier, the 90s and early 2000s and, you know, I watched Lethal Weapon, etc. but since the film Two Cops, I feel like I haven’t seen too many good comedy films, and a lot of the films that were made back then were kind of bad in my opinion. But watching so many films allowed me to be very selective and be able to spot the really good ones, and I think that was a really good learning experience. Sure, there were a lot of new genres happening but also some terrible films. Whether consciously or not, I think I paid homage to some of the films I watched during that period and they probably influenced me. Watching Extreme Job again, I can see some traces of some of those films.
View of the Arts: This film is hilarious for us to watch as an audience, but what was I like for you and the cast on set?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: The grounding character of this film is detective Go, played by actor Ryu Seung-ryong. When his casting was confirmed I felt very confident, and all Koreans would agree, that he was the best choice for the role. Again, once he was confirmed for the part I felt I could play and be more experimental with the other characters, and even with characters I was less sure of, like detective Ma or Jang, I was pretty sure the film would still work. For example, for a character like Seon-hee you would normally want to cast someone with a really tough persona but I cast this very beautiful woman; That choice worked because of Ryu Seung-ryong, who enabled the entire piece to remain strong. Actor Gong Myung is another example: This was his first film so we were both rather nervous, but, again, because of Ryu Seung-ryong I think his character worked as part of the ensemble. The same goes for Lee Dong-hwi, it was a small part but he liked the whole script when he read it, and so he was happy and excited to play the part.
Voice of London: Given Korean audience’s sense of humour can be very different to English comedy because of cultural and environmental differences. Is there any particular brand of humour you want to make a hit or convey to English audiences?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: As in my earlier films, when making Extreme Job I really didn’t consider international or the English sense of humour. Comedy is a genre that doesn’t travel all that well because of cultural and linguistic differences. However, I just had a film workshop with a number of students in the UK and there was an incredible reaction to my film, and they all said how genuinely funny it was. So, for the first time I’m thinking that my film may be able to travel successfully across borders, and certainly for my next project I’ll be thinking about that too.
Photo © CJ Entertainment
Asian Movie Pulse: My question rides off the back of the previous one: There is a Universal Pictures re-adaptation of Extreme Job coming out. What will your involvement in that look like an are you pleased with how it will be. How much control will you have over the project?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: By contract, I can’t be involved in any sense, it’s up to distributors and the producers. I just hope they will adapt my film in a manner suitable to their culture, and make a really funny film.
Voice of London: Is there any particular reason you’ve chosen to dive into the comedy genre? What does comedy mean to you personally?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: Simply speaking, I just really like comedy. I like the stories around me, small stories, and for those laughing is a very important part. I don’t actually laugh too much in my own life so I really enjoy watching comedy films. It’s almost a weapon as a sort of metaphor, the greatest weapon for comedy is great dialogue. I’m just not interested in giant buildings collapsing, or tsunamis, or people being beaten up, I just feel at home with comedy. I can’t even watch horror films because they leave me with aches afterwards.
Hangul Celluloid: The buzz around Extreme Job has been insane. It has been so successful the number won’t even fit in my head. We all speak to a lot of directors each year and independent filmmakers almost always talk about the trouble they have even getting their films screened, because of the hold that large film companies have on the industry. That hasn’t been a problem for you – Extreme Job is commercial and has been screened everywhere around Korea, but what are your thoughts on that, and new legislation that has been brought in to prevent any film being shown on more than 50% of Korean cinema screens in a single day?
Lee Byeong-hyeon: I started as an independent filmmaker and my first film, Cheer Up Mr Lee, had a very small release – I could only secure 20 cinemas around the country, so I know that situation very well indeed. Extreme Job had, I think, 1,000 cinemas, maybe even up to 1,500. I’m actually a bit embarrassed about that, saying it out loud. To answer your question in depth would be a long, long discussion but putting it simply I don’t think criticising large studios and monopolies within the film industry is enough, I think the gap between what these big companies think and want, and the feelings of those making or those who care about independent films is so vast that far more would need to be done to make any difference to the situation. In fact, I think some of the biggest companies actually use that huge gap as a marketing strategy and they have no intention of changing it. They are just salarymen, it’s just their profession, so I don’t believe they actually care. Ultimately, I think there needs to be more government support and I think smaller, independent filmmakers need to have more of an open mind and attitude about how films should be. But equally, those involved in larger commercial productions such as CJ and the like also need to reflect on what they do. Independent and commercial productions are ultimately connected whether they realise it or not, and as such those in the commercial film business should give attention to independent films because the overall diversity of Korean cinema is frankly vital for their business too. All these things would have to be considered together before the needed change could take place.
Written by Roxy Simons
Interview transcribed by Paul Quinn (Hangul Celluloid)