Cannes: Dangerous Price for Realism in South Korean Cinema

"A Hard Day"
"A Hard Day"
 Showbox/Mediaplex

In 2003, South Korean actor Park Joong-hoon made headlines for demanding a "Hollywood-style contract" for Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield, as he specified strict working hours on the set. The actor, who was one of the first local stars to be cast in U.S. films in the 1990s, made the gesture in hopes of implementing structure in the rather "flexible" Korean filmmaking process -- but over a decade down the road Korean cast members remain largely exposed to compromising situations on the set.

"Korean cinema has a long way to go," said Jo Jin-woong about filming action scenes in A Hard Day. The film has been noted for its raw, intense sequences and is being shown at the 2014 Cannes Directors' Fortnight.

"The dangerous moments you see in the film were actually dangerous situations [captured on camera]. And the scenes where characters are in pain, we [the actors] were truly hurting. It really was very difficult," he said.

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But the actor was far from sounding resentful, adding that the pain "is like medals of honor." His co-star Lee Sun-kyun, who was exposed to even more danger on the set as the lead of a violent cat-and-mouse chase, shared a similar attitude. "For the part where [Jo] slams a piggy bank down on my head, I was thankful we completed it in one shot," he said.

The film's director Kim Seong-hun feels "eternally grateful and apologetic to the actors."

"When I told the martial arts director what kind of action scenes I wanted, he told me that [the actors] would have to get beaten up for real," said the director, adding that he apologized ahead of shooting a long skirmish sequence. "Actors must be protected at all times, but there was mutual agreement about this concept of the film. The physical pain that characters feel can be felt skin-deep by the viewer."

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Filmmaker Kim Ki-duk stopped making movies for a while following an accident on the set for the 2008 fantasy drama Dream. Actress Lee Na-young nearly choked while filming a suicide scene without proper safety equipment. Fortunately Lee wasn't critically injured, but Kim shudders to this day when he looks back.

"At first the mise-en-scene was so good that I didn't realize things had gone awry," he said. "Lee fell unconscious so she actually wasn't aware of the situation, but I was so shocked I went to cry by myself in another room." He eventually deleted the problematic scene.

"I asked, what is so important about cinema, to endanger someone's life like that? I wanted to rethink the meaning of filmmaking, so I stopped working and took the time for self-reflection," said the filmmaker. He voluntarily went into solitary confinement, after which he returned with the controversial Cannes-winning self-portrait Arirang.

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Meanwhile, the Korean culture ministry has stepped up to prevent such hazards, and began funding emergency care on film sets this month. The state-backed Korean Film Council will share costs with a given film's production company for an ambulance and medical staff. Ministry officials took the cue from the Seoul production for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

"We were deeply impressed by the Avengers: Age of Ultron team, which didn't go into production unless a fire truck and ambulance were ready," said Vice Culture Minister Cho Hyeon-jae. "It's better late than never to enhance the working conditions and help implement staff for Korean cinema."

"Efforts must be made to increase awareness about safety among filmmakers, producers, crew members and investors, and to implement necessarily regulations and systems," said Choi Eun-hwa, head of the Producers Guild of Korea.

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