'Assassination' Director Choi Dong-hoon Talks Success, Pressure of Colonial-Era Movie (Q&A)

South Korean Director Choi Dong-Hoon - P  2015
Courtesy of Showbox/Mediaplex

The action drama has resonated across South Korea and is reaching U.S. and European shores through a string of film festivals.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and, for many Asians, the defeat of imperial Japan. In South Korea, by the time its 70th Liberation Day came around on Aug. 15, more than 10 million moviegoers, or a fifth of the population of 50 million, had seen Assassination

The spy actioner set during the colonial era (1910-1945) went on to debut at No. 4 in neighboring China ($6.7 million), which had also been under Japanese rule (it also helped that lead actress Gianna Jun, a.k.a Jun Ji-hyun, has a cult following there). Well Go USA handled its distribution in the U.S., where the film became one of a handful of Korean films to gross more than $1 million at the box office.

Assassination's blockbuster performance, however, means much more than just the success of yet another star-studded, homespun action film. The scars of colonialism still remain deeply embedded in many Koreans, and no film tackling the sensitive subject has managed to resonate strongly across moviegoers. This story, about Korean independence fighters crossing paths with hit men while trying to assassinate top Japanese officials, has nevertheless become one of the highest-grossing films of all time at the Korean box office ($98 million).

The Showbox/Mediaplex title marks a turning point in not only local cinema history but also in the filmmaking career of Choi Dong-hoon — from snazzy, entertainment-driven blockbusters into the heavier stuff of Shakespearean drama.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the writer-director as Assassination began a trip around the international film fest circuit, closing the 19th Montreal Fantasia Fest and making its way through Busan and London before it is due in Sitges, Korean film showcases in Frankfurt and Paris and, finally, Hawaii. Choi shared his thoughts on how similar filmmaking can be to cooking and how he finds inspiration in 1970s American cinema.

This is your second film to cross 10 million admissions after The Thieves in 2012, and you are only the second Korean filmmaker to have more than one title cross the box-office milestone. Assassination coincidentally reached the number on Liberation Day.

It once again proves how powerful Korean moviegoers are. Assassination was different from The Thieves in that it provoked a group mentality. Theater attendance was driven by values and emotions shared by the masses, rather than pure entertainment. I am grateful that I was able to succeed in communicating with the audience through such different pieces. It's an aspiration of mine to make movies that last. Amadeus, for example, was made in 1984 but people still rave about it. [My 2006 film] Tazza: The High Rollers is almost a decade old, so I'm happy that it's still relevant, and I can only hope for the same with Assassination.

There must have been a lot of pressure writing and directing Assassination after the blockbuster success of The Thieves.

The pressure was enormous but not so much because of living up to expectations of The Thieves as it was because of the subject matter. I've wanted to do this story since nine years ago, and my four previous films have served as great practice, such as handling VFX or learning to work well with actors. But there was that jinx [about colonial-era stories flopping]. Koreans are not comfortable with this era and $15 million is a big budget for local standards; frankly many people thought it would fail. Fortunately, I am usually able to cast off the stress when the camera starts rolling because shooting movies is so much fun. Pressure, for filmmakers, is like a friend. You just have to live with it.

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook emphasizes how filmmakers must be responsible and keep in mind that they are often working with a budget that can feed a entire generation of a given family.

I was working with the amount of money that can feed a family for a good century, so I felt responsible. I worked on the first script for about a year but something didn't feel right. I had a pretty good dish but something, like a spoonful of olive oil, was missing. So I started over. The second version wasn't much different, but I managed to find the right seasoning. Filmmaking is a complicated process; many directors are satisfied when the actors or investors are happy. But I tend to be harder on myself and I push further if there is room for improvement. I try to work like a sculptor, by chipping away what is unnecessary. I tried to simplify the complicated elements and to add layers to the simpler parts.

How did you balance the fictional and historical elements?

Comparing filmmaking, again, to cooking — I used to cook a lot before I got married [to producer Ahn Soo-hyeon (Assassination, The Thieves)] — historical facts are like the bowl and the story is the food itself. Everything in the film is fiction and it had to be fun and tasty. I wanted to focus on the dramatic tension and mix in some humor and tears in between. It required extensive historical research, but in the end, when you're done watching the movie, or eating the meal, what's left behind is the bowl. It's meaningful to me that the film helped spotlight a time and people who fought for a cause.

What seems to make Assassination more universally appealing, in spite of its historical backdrop, is that it is very Shakespearean — as one could describe in Western parlance — in its exploration of the human condition. You were a Korean literature major in college.

I wanted to talk about honor, about people who were honorable and those who weren't. Because I was a lit major I often wonder about what it means for something to be Shakespearean. I think it's really about fate and the individual. Like Macbeth or Hamlet, the characters in my film are unaware about their fates but the audience knows. Can someone overcome his or her own fate? I think yes, and that it depends on whether or not one chooses to accept one's circumstances.

Assassination also stands out for being a rare Korean action film driven by a female protagonist. How was it like working with actress Gianna Jun in her lead role as an independence fighter? This is your second time collaborating with her since The Thieves.

Women are incredibly strong. But my film wasn't so much about portraying strong female characters as it was about showing how traditionally oppressed Korean women could step up as leaders in a situation where incompetent men have basically sold their country short.

Gianna Jun is an incredibly intuitive actor. She is a beautiful superstar, but she breaks those stereotypes by demonstrating flashes of amazing genius. I learned this about her through The Thieves and wanted to explore it more, and it was amazing how she could turn into this sniper who learns how to dance for the first time. I think it's important for actors to provoke the curiosity of the directors they're working with, and I was extremely lucky to work with such a great cast [including A-listers Ha Jung-woo, Lee Jung-jae and Kim Hae-sook.]

You've often spoken about your love of 1970s American movies. Do you have plans to work overseas or on international projects?

There is something incredibly savage, forlorn and beautiful about 1970s Hollywood films. I also love 1940s films. I love Korean cinema because the drama is so intense; usually things peak at the climax but a lot of Korean films start off with a blow. That said though I would love to work [abroad] if the chance permits. It's going to be such a challenge. I really think it's important not to repeat yourself and to seek change and experience something new.