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Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, which last from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945, remains a sensitive issue in Korea, and it was only recently that local filmmakers began to fully — and freely — explore the entertainment value of stories set during that time.
Warner Bros.’ first local production in South Korea, The Age of Shadows is the latest film to resonate with Korean audiences even though it is set during the era. The film about a high-ranking Japanese police officer who must come to terms with his Korean roots and former days as a freedom fighter is garnering $54.2 million and counting at the Korean box office, and expects to rake in more revenue as it hits theaters across more than 40 other territories around the world. It will also vie for a spot in the Oscar race as Korea’s entry for the best foreign-language film category.
Director Kim Jee-woon sat down with The Hollywood Reporter as his spy action-drama continues to bow at a string of international film festivals, from Venice and Toronto to Busan before hitting London and Hawaii. Kim shared his hopes to show a different facet of Korea’s colonial past through the film and plans to return to Hollywood to follow up his 2013 English-language debut, The Last Stand, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Unlike traditional colonial-era stories, the characters are not so black-and-white in terms of playing anti-Japanese heroes versus Japanese villains. This also marks a stark contrast with your previous films like I Saw the Devil that explore the inherent roots of evil.
I wanted to show how the colonial period was a very complex era, when people were forced to change or make certain choices due to the circumstances of the times. People sometimes are forced to play evil roles because they belong to a certain network or organization, rather than as a result of their moral character. I left room for the audience to pity even traitors. Some may say the film justifies betrayals, but I wanted to portray the sense of ambivalence and degeneration an individual can experience.
It was important for me to present a more objective and holistic perspective of the era. I think it would be meaningful if non-Korean audiences watch my film and can get an idea of where modern-day tensions in Korea-Japan relations stems from.
The movie breaks away from the extreme darkness of your other films, and also has an overall different look and feel.
The film is certainly driven by a sense of hope, and characters move forward harboring a fantasy that their missions will succeed. I wanted to give it a different look and feel, and used a cooler color scheme of grays and blues. Most films set during the colonial period feature lots of warm brown, magenta and amber hues because wooden buildings were most common then.
You have experience working in Hollywood with The Last Stand. What was it like to work on a local production by a Hollywood studio?
I’ve seen the pros and cons of working both in Korea and the U.S. There is a very standardized, rational system in Hollywood, whereas Korean productions allow for a more sentimental approach and making movies feels more personal. So I appreciated the experience of working with a Hollywood studio at home in Korea, where I could feel more at ease. I believe local productions by Hollywood studios really provide the benefits of the two industries.
Do you have plans to return to Hollywood?
Definitely. The director has been set for the U.S. remake of A Bittersweet Life and I will be taking part as a producer. There are also talks about doing an English-language version of The Good, the Bad, the Weird. I also am looking at scripts to direct, because I have an avid curiosity about American actors as well as the wealth of subject matters available in the U.S. I think there could be very interesting cinematic results, when American issues are viewed through foreign eyes like mine. I am also fascinated by the extremely diverse physical and cultural landscapes that encompass the States.
Your film was chosen as Korea’s entry for the Oscars’ best foreign-language film category. How do you feel? Your film’s lead actor, Song Kang-ho, became one of the first Korean members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and played the title role in last year’s Korean Oscar submission, The Throne.
It’s very flattering that my film was chosen to represent Korea, but I honestly don’t have any expectations for an Oscar nomination. That said, however, I think it’s great that Koreans have been admitted to the Academy.
Please tell us about your next Korean film Inlang, which is known to be a live-action version of the Japanese sci-fi animation Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.
The setting is Korea, where a cat-and-mouse chase unfolds between the police and an anti-government organization. It’ll be very noir, like most of my films, sort of like The Dark Knight featuring elements of a spy movie. There will also be sci-fi twists featuring special power suits, again like Batman.
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