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SEOUL — One of Asia’s top screen superstars, 42-year-old Jang Dong-gun has been in the spotlight for over 20 years. With Korean pop culture proliferating around the globe, his reach is wide: When South Korea’s president once toured Mexico, Latin American fans staged a mass mock protest, demanding that the actor pay them a visit too.
As if answering that call, Jang has mostly appeared in international projects in recent years, including his Hollywood debut The Warrior’s Way opposite Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush and Chinese co-production Dangerous Liaisons alongside Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung.
He has finally returned home as a ruthless assassin facing a Hamletian dilemma in No Tears for the Dead. Director Lee Jeong-beom has been noted for pioneering a new brand of persona-driven, noir actioners, and it came as no surprise that he chose Jang to be his latest “muse” in No Tears. “I needed someone capable of portraying conflicting inner struggles, not just a one-dimensional killer,” Lee said about casting Jang.
The actor sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to speak about returning to local cinema, training FBI-style for his new role and being called the “Korean Brangelina” with his wife, actress Ko So-Young.
You’ve seen Korean cinema grow during the past 20-odd years, and have also taken part in international co-productions as the local industry became more globally significant. What do you think is the power of Korean movies?
When you look at Korean movies, there is a variety of genres. It has grown richer and more diverse over the years. There is always talk of Korean cinema being in crisis, but I think this is very relative. Such talk disappears when well-made Korean films come out and then reappears when less satisfying films are released. But most of all, I’d have to say that the expectations of Korean audiences have become increasing high, and movies have been developing to match them.
Do you feel pressure about box office returns, especially since Dangerous Liaisons and Warrior’s Way were not as successful as expected?
I don’t think I’ve chosen films with box office in mind, but quite frankly I didn’t think Dangerous Liaisons was a commercially-driven project. It was a film by [the iconic romance helmer] Hur Jin-ho based on a classic novel, allowing me to reinterpret a role previously played by John Malkovich opposite such wonderful actors as Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung. So it was a highly covetable and meaningful project as an actor. So I wasn’t thinking about box office success while working on it but it eventually turned into a project that required tickets to sell.
I think I was perhaps a bit selfish until now, and realize that commercial success is something that always trails behind actors. If I had to decide between commercial success and critical reception I’d choose the latter, but box office success is also very important.
What do you look for when choosing films, and does this vary depending on whether it’s a local project or an international co-production?
The character or film itself has to be first and foremost appealing. But each film does have a different purpose, as a popcorn entertainment or a tearjerker. Because co-productions are designed to reach a diverse range of audiences across multiple cultures, they have to touch upon broader, more universal values rather than go for messages with extreme depth. But just because they aren’t very deep doesn’t mean they are light and meaningless either.
What drew you to No Tears for the Dead?
I’ve always had a certain fascination with noirs, and my top three favorite films are The Godfather, Scarface and Once Upon a Time in America. I was impressed by how [Lee Jeong-beom] said he plans to make only noir films.
Your new film features a lot of action sequences involving guns, which is rare in Korean films since these weapons are tightly controlled here. How did you prepare for your role?
It’s true that gun action scenes seem rather removed from actual life in Korea, but I tried my best to realistically portray my character, who grew up in the United States. I wanted to break away from the stereotypical killer in movies. I learned how to handle guns with the martial arts director at a camp located in a desert about three hours away from Los Angeles, where the CIA and FBI actually train. I was told that all the gun scenes you see in Hollywood movies are far from reality.
No Tears for the Dead is rated 19 and over. Now that you’re a father of two, do you feel inspired to take part in films that your children could actually watch in the near future?
Certainly. Johnny Depp is very famous for explicitly choosing films to show his children. I can understand that very well. If the opportunity arises in the future I would love to take part in a project that I can watch with my kids.
How would you feel about appearing in the same work with your wife, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, since people have likened the two of you to Korea’s “Brangelina”?
We can’t be the only ones having fun; we’d have to think about the audience. To be honest, I think it might be difficult for viewers to separate our marriage from our on-screen personas — and we might have trouble getting into character ourselves.
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