An Interview with Jang Jun-hwan

Many moons ago I was a member of the amazing team at the website Kung Fu Cult Cinema (also known as KFC Cinema due to its web address and nothing to do with fast food!). Unfortunately the website is no more, but the archive of reviews is now being transferred onto the forum at FilmSmash.com.

Back in 2005, KFCCinema writer David Leong was lucky enough to be able to interview Jang Jun-Hwan – the director of the great movie Save the Green Planet. Sadly David is no longer with us, having passed away in 2006, so here in memory of both David and KFCCinema is the complete interview as originally published on 25/04/05.

As Save the Green Planet gets a release in the United States, currently playing in New York City and later in San Francisco and Berkeley, California and Rochester, New York in May, Kung Fu Cult Cinema’s David Leong had the opportunity to interview the director Jang Jun-Hwan about the film and other topics. Special thanks go to Goran Topalovic for facilitating this interview.

[KFCC]: What was your inspiration for Save the Green Planet?

[Jang Jun-Hwan]: Save the Green Planet was born out of two ideas. I remember enjoying the film Misery a lot when it came out. When I was watching it I was so immersed in the story that my palms were sweaty, but by the time the movie was over I felt a lack of something. Throughout the whole film there was never a moment where we could sympathize with the Kathy Bates’ character. Her Mrs. Wilkes was depicted merely as a deranged monster to avoid and run away from at all costs. That’s when I decided that one day I’d have to make a movie from the viewpoint of a character like Mrs. Wilkes.

The other idea came to me when I stumbled onto a magazine article on an anti-Dicaprio website. The website was devoted to hating Leonardo Dicaprio who was extremely popular at the time, and the site abounded with theories of Dicaprio being an alien with the mission to conquer our planet by seducing our women. They also claimed that his long bang at the time was used as the antenna through which he communicated with other aliens. I found these outrageous claims hilarious. Out of these two disparate ideas came the seed for the Save the Green Planet.

[KFCC]: What kind of budget did you have for the film?

[Jang Jun-Hwan]: It cost about three million dollars to produce. At the time this was considered a bit higher than the average budget for a feature film in Korea.

[KFCC]: The film didn’t quite catch on in Korea. Any ideas as to why? Too ahead of its time perhaps?

[Jang]: I think there were many factors leading up to that. Although Save the Green Planet is not everyone’s cup of tea due to its unfamiliar nature and aggressiveness, the most important factor that contributed to its poor performance at the box office has to do with the marketing. There was a boom for light comedy fares in theaters at the time in Korea, and our marketing team devised a way to ride that wave. They emphasized the comedic elements in the film, but suppressed the darker and more serious strains of the story. But the audience was already growing tired of such light comedies, and that marketing strategy was an attempt to hide the essence of my film. Therefore my film was branded as a less than appetizing option for most of the audience, and for the rest that went in expecting a light comedy came out of the theater disillusioned.

[KFCC]: Did you have to do much research to come up with the psychopathic characteristics for Lee Byong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun).

[Jang]: No. I became deranged in the process of writing it, and that was enough.

[KFCC]: Are any character development elements based on actual case study (mental case studies, UFO abduction, persecution complexes, etc.)?

[Jang]: Hmm… I didn’t do much research in this area either. If anything, after I came up with the basic structure of the script I attended a meeting organized by a religious group called the “Raelian Movement.” They believe that we are descendents of aliens, and that one-day we will be saved by them. I was surprised at the parallels between their version of human history and the version I had in mind. It was quite an interesting experience.

[KFCC]: What was the most memorable aspect to shooting the movie for you?

[Jang]: Well…what comes to mind is how difficult it always was. Just the sheer amount of shooting was overwhelming, but also we were attempting things that were never done before in Korea. Everyone was in overdrive. We also had to wait through many bad weather days. But I guess there is nothing as gratifying as getting over these hurdles, and completing.

[KFCC]: What made you take on such a challenging topic for your first film as a director? If you had it all to do over again, would you select Save the Green Planet for your directorial debut?

[Jang]: Yes.

[KFCC]:
What are your major non-film and film influences?

[Jang]: As it is evident in the film I was influenced by many different movies I grew up watching, but I don’t think there is one particular director who exerted more influence. As I mentioned before, Misery… and Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Blade Runner, 2001 Space Odyssey, Usual Suspects and movies of Hitchcock and Woody Allen… plus many Korean and Japanese comic books I read as a youngster, and various magazines for teens and sci-fi magazines all influenced me. Perhaps that’s too much.

[KFCC]: What aspect of filmmaking is most enjoyable for you? And, the most annoying parts of filmmaking for you?

[Jang]: The writing process is the most excruciating. You’re constantly flagellating yourself when you’re writing and it can be mentally and physically exhausting. There is something to enjoy in everything else.

[KFCC]: With the film to open in the U.S. later in the month, do you have any expectations with Save the Green Planet in the U.S.?

[Jang]: I don’t expect too much. “Higher the expectation the bigger the disappointment…” This is a line from the Save the Green Planet. Anyhow I am personally thrilled that the Save the Green Planet virus is landing in United States too. I am extremely curious how the audience from the most powerful country on this planet will react to my film.

[KFCC]: What would you most like U.S. audiences to come away with after seeing Save the Green Planet?

[Jang]: Well…As I just said, the United States is the mightiest nation on Earth. I think their perspective on this movie may be slightly different. But most of all I’d like people to enjoy this movie as a human being living on this planet. We are all human beings before we’re Americans or Koreans. Through this I hope we can all think about how our aggression hurts ourselves.

[KFCC]: What do you do when you’re stuck and need to come up with an idea or solution to a problem?

[Jang]: I sleep. Many ideas come to me as I fall asleep or as I am waking up. When I have a writer’s block I often sleep on purpose.

[KFCC]: Do you have any aspiration to work in Hollywood? Why? or Why not?

[Jang]: Well… I haven’t seriously thought about it yet. I do have an ambition of some day collaborating with the world-class professionals, but story always takes precedence over the technical aspects. I’m afraid Hollywood might deem me too weird.

[KFCC]: What are your thoughts about all the remakes being done in Hollywood and the lack of originality?

[Jang]: Hmm… Doesn’t it seem like Hollywood has just gotten too big to take risks or experiments? Personally I prefer the Hollywood movies from when I was growing up.

[KFCC]: The cinematographer did an outstanding job of giving the film its dark and foreboding look. What kind of instructions did you give, if any?

[Jang]: Kyung-Pyo Hong (aka Alex Hong)… He and I did many test shoots to find the most fitting visual tone for the story. In this film, with the exception of digital effects, all possibilities of expression with film stock were mined. We employed techniques such as negative silver retention, step-printing and altered shutter speed. For scenes of Byung-Gu’s past we even used the ektachrome film to express the intensity of these moments. Ultimately these techniques were mere tools in most effectively visualizing Byung-Gu’s story. Anyway my collaboration with Alex Hong was a happy one.

[KFCC]: What are you planning next? What story would you most like to make into a movie?

[Jang]: I want to do a new take on a super hero movie. I want to introduce a different kind of hero, the kind no one’s ever expected. Watch out!!

[KFCC]: Who would you most like to work with in the film business? Korean and non-Korean.

[Jang]: As far as Korean actors are concerned there are too many to list. Among American actors I’d like to work with people like Jack Nicholson, Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. I wouldn’t mind working with cinematographers like Janusz Kaminskie and Darius Khondji (DP of Seven) as well.

[KFCC]: What are your thoughts on the current state of Korean cinema?

[Jang]: Right now the kind of energy that Korean films have is hard to find anywhere else. There is a diversity of perspectives in Korean cinema. We have directors like Chan-Wook Park, Jun-Ho Bong, Sang-Soo Hong and Ki-Duk Kim who are actively making movies with their distinctly individual style. However the downside to the expanding Korean film market along with opening of multiplex theaters is the waning chances for smaller films (Independent films and some experimental commercial films) to be seen. This in turn prevents more and more risky, but progressive ideas to be realized. This is a real pity in my opinion.

[KFCC]: What are your thoughts about the recent surge of popularity of Korean films, and Asian cinema in general, throughout Asia and other parts of the world?

[Jang]: Well…this is not an easy question… there was a dark age for the Korean cinema where political censorship was in place, which in turn made everything quite difficult. During those oppressive years young people with dreams of making different kinds of movies were hibernating, waiting for the Spring. I think now that we have none of those restrictions from before all their pent up creative energy has exploded. And that kind of energy manifests itself in many great films we’re seeing coming out of Korea today. I think the world audience is discovering alternative ways of storytelling to the assembly line movies of Hollywood.

[KFCC]: Is there anything that you want to say or ask outside the questions I’ve posed?

[Jang]: I want to urge the future audience of the Save the Green Planet to stay seated until the movie is completely over. You’ll leave the theater with a lot more if you sit through the end credits. Please stay seated even just for the other people in the audience.

[KFCC]: Any closing statement?

[Jang]: I am grateful for your interest in my film, and I will come back when I make my next movie. Until then please enjoy the Save the Green Planet and leave many comments. I look forward to reading them. Thank you.

[Thanks to Filmsmash.com and in memory of David Leong]