In Conversation with Pil Gam-sung, Writer and Director of “Hostage: Missing Celebrity”
In recent years, Korean cinema has been very successful not only with releasing hits on the big screen, but also with producing a new generation of superb, first-time filmmakers. One of those talented filmmakers is Pil Gam-sung, writer and director of Hostage: Missing Celebrity, starring Hwang Jung-min.
“Hostage: Missing Celebrity is Pil’s feature film debut, and it is impressive how well made it is for a first production. The story flows effortlessly from one twist to another and the action rarely stops to let viewers take a breath, it’s almost like Pil wants the audience to feel as tense as Hwang is throughout the film. Pil’s previous experience as a film editor has clearly been put to good use in his first feature film as it is a powerful thriller from start to finish, and the remote locations add to the dramatic nature of the production”, said one of our film critics.
There is no denial that Hostage: Missing Celebrity is one of the most entertaining releases of 2022. And while we were attending the Udine Far East Film Festival, Roxy and I had the pleasure to sit down with the director and talk about the film’s production, its creative process, as well as the casting of Hwang Jung-min.
You wrote and directed Hostage: Missing Celebrity. You have one of the biggest stars of Korean cinema, Hwang Jung-min, starring in the film. What was your experience of making this film?
Pil Gam-sung: Of course, it was very exciting. It was very stressful at the same time, because, as you said, [I had] such a big star in the film. Also, I made this film with the help of a major production company. As a first-time director, there was a lot of pressure, however, I made an effort to enjoy the process of shooting the film. I think that you can feel that energy in the film.
Hwang Jung-min plays himself in the film and it was a genius move. I wonder, was there anything he added and was there anything he didn’t want to do while filming?
Pil Gam-sung: I cannot remember if he didn’t want to do anything. However, he added many, many things. For instance, there was that one scene in the front of the convenience store. My script said that Hwang Jung-min was insulted by some young people, and he simply walked away as he didn’t want to get in trouble with them. But the actor said that “I’m not like that guy, I would fight back”. But I said to him that we can’t fight back, otherwise the movie would finish [laughs]. So, in the end, there wasn’t a physical fight, but we provided enough tension for the audience to feel like there would be a fight.
What do you think made Kim Jae-bum suitable for the role of Choi Ki-wan?
Pil Gam-sung: For that part, I’ve seen around 300 actors during the audition. Kim Jae-bum was introduced to me by a casting director. Also, Hwang Jung-min did a musical with Kim and he introduced him to me as well, however, the audition was the very first time I saw Kim. What attracted me to the actor was his appearance, his eyes. I have never seen such an actor before; his intensive, almost scary [uninviting] look was really impressive. And as I haven’t seen this kind of actor before, I had certain expectations. After auditioning him three times, I just couldn’t forget that look.
When it came to his physique, he’s just an ordinary skinny man, right [laughs]? But for Ki-wan’s character, I didn’t want a big man because that would have turned him into a cliché. After watching the film, a few members of the audience told me that when they were watching Hostage: Missing Celebrity, they thought Ki-wan was an extra, a passer-by in the first scene, but after a short time, they realised that he was the boss of the kidnappers. The most common reaction was “what’s going on?” and this is the reaction I wanted.
Hwang Jung-min is such a versatile actor, he can adapt to any kind of role. However, did he find anything challenging by playing himself?
Pil Gam-sung: Yes. Playing himself was pretty stressful for Hwang Jung-min. Some viewers might think “that would be pretty easy as he is playing himself”, but according to the actor, he was playing Hwang Jung-min in the film without showing much of the real Hwang Jung-min. He had to find the balance between the real Hwang and the actor Hwang. It was very challenging for him.
For me, it was also very interesting to see Hwang Jung-min in this sort of role. For those who know the actor, they often see him in cop roles or as a gangster, a macho character. It was good to see a new side of the actor, but it was also challenging for me as a first-time director to bring something new onto the screen.
It’s also quite funny as Hwang Jung-min’s wife said that there is no way that he is the way that he is in the film [laughs].
How much did the location impact the filming, was it difficult to shoot in the forest? Particularly the chase scene.
Pil Gam-sung: That was a funny part of the shooting. Wasn’t easy, but it was funny [laughs]. You know the scene where Hwang Jung-min escapes with the young girl? Imagine this: Hwang is over 50 years old and Lee Yoo-mi is in her 20s. Yoo-mi was telling me “don’t worry about me, I can run really fast”. But when we start shooting, Hwang Jung-min was really fast. Yoo-mi was actually very slow [laughs].
How many times did you have to shoot that scene?
Pil Gam-sung: We had to shoot this scene many times as I had to get many different angles. But Yoo-min was already exhausted and she couldn’t run. Hwang Jung-min, on the other hand, was very passionate about the shooting and was telling Yoo-mi “you are in your 20s, come on” [laughs].
In regards to the scenes that take place in the forest cabin, how did you organise the production of that? The place gave such a claustrophobic, uncomfortable feeling.
Pil Gam-sung: That was actually made in the studio, it was built by our production designer, Chae Kyoung-sun, who was also responsible for Netflix’s Squid Game. She really did a great job. We really wanted to achieve that claustrophobic feeling. It was challenging for me and the production designer to accomplish that, so I appreciate that you have mentioned it.
I know you touched on the subject a little bit at the beginning, but since it’s your debut feature film starring a big star, how did you feel while being on the set and making the film?
Pil Gam-sung: I was writing the script for a long time, so I didn’t feel awkward while filming. I am truly happy that I was able to make Hostage: Missing Celebrity as my feature debut. And as long as everyone was doing fine on set, the whole experience was worthwhile.
As the film is very tense and features well-balanced action, what was the most difficult process during the post-production stage, for instance, editing?
Pil Gam-sung: I didn’t cut many scenes, however, there were some stories about Choi Ki-wan [that I wanted to tell], but I decided to cut them out as there were too many different threads. Ultimately, deleting those scenes allowed me to put more emphasis on Hwang Jung-min’s story.
So, in relation to the editing, how did that go? Did you stay in the editing room with your editor? What was the process like?
Pil Gam-sung: Almost all Korean filmmakers sit next to their editors [laughs]. You know, before my feature debut, I was working as an editor, so I was very understanding when we were editing my film. But there was another challenge: Covid. We had to postpone and then reschedule the release of the film. This film was initially scheduled to come out in 2020. So, during the pandemic, we had nothing else to do but to keep editing the film [laughs].
I was wondering, were there any other top stars that you considered for the role before choosing Hwang Jung-min?
Hwang Jung-min was my first choice, and thankfully, he loved the project. I was relieved when he said yes. If he said no, I would have had to choose another actor. Hwang Jung-min just knew how to bring the tension to the narrative. And he is also a very easy-going guy, working with him was great.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler & Roxy Simons
Featured image © 2022 Alice BL Durigatto