16,000 extras! 242 days of production! 57,000 bullets fired! A 250-square-mile set! The numbers thrown around in the press notes for the World War II drama "My Way" haven't been seen since the days of Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean, but perhaps that's why South Korea is going through a golden age of cinema right now and it's arguably due in large part to the film's director Kang Je-Kyu, whose 1999 actioner "Shiri" changed the trajectory of the nation's filmmaking fortunes when it became an international hit. Since then, Kang's films have only gotten grander in size and scope, though they've naturally taken longer to produce, which has meant that it's been seven long years since he last helmed the war film "Tae Guk Gi."
But "My Way," Kang's return to the battlefield both in a literal and figurative sense, is as epic as movies come, telling the story of a Korean long-distance runner named Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) who is forced to fight for the Japanese army and sees himself later conscripted to serve in the Soviet and German military after one front falls after another. Kim’s fate is intertwined with Tatsuo Hasegawa (Joe Odagiri), a similarly fleet-footed son of Japanese diplomat who rivals Kim on the track before ultimately becoming his superior in the army, though the ravages of combat will switch those positions more than once.
With extraordinary action sequences that take every possible angle into account, from underneath the base of a tank to the perspective of the soldiers from cameras affixed to their helmets, “My Way” is the result of what Kang says is an “expansion and evolution of his personal vocabulary of film” that occurred in his years away from the big screen and a desire to do “something the audience had never seen before.” On a rare trip to the U.S. where “My Way” will be debuting this week in selected cities, Kang spoke to me through a translator about how he first discovered the story that inspired his latest international cinematic journey, what fears he had of such a large-scale production, and how he got into filmmaking in the first place.
This is inspired by true events. How did you come across the story?
I came across the story first about five years ago when I saw a basic script about it and I thought that’s interesting – how could the story even be possible? The story didn’t seem like it was possible. Then actually about a year later after that, there was a documentary covering the original story on SBS and that really moved me and caused me to think this is a movie that I want to make. The original story and the documentary were both actually about a single Korean man being a soldier through the three different armies, but I really wanted to include the Japanese side of it as well because it was Koreans standing side-by-side with the Japanese in the Japanese Army, but also to have a Korean soldier and a Japanese soldier and go through this journey together.
Before this film, you were actually considering making a science-fiction film in America with an international scope. What happened to that project and was doing something involving many countries appealing to you?
The sci-fi film that I was working on, it actually boiled down to having two large obstacles. One was the story that I wanted to really tell versus the story that the studios were interested in, there was a disparate point of view on that. But ultimately, more than that, it was probably about the budget. We were trying to do something at a middle-budget level and even then, that was something that the studios themselves were avoiding. Either something very cheap or something huge. So it became difficult to realize.
But the international character of “My Way” is not [because] I wanted to start off telling that story. It was wondering what moves me and as I said, that documentary, when I saw it, I thought how could this even be possible? The history, the people within history, it was something that I became very passionate about and it led to a film of some scale and size and an international cast in order to tell that story.
Did you know what you were getting into in terms of the size of it?
Because of my past experience of making a war film “Tae Guk Gi,” I did have an idea of what it would require to do this kind of work. Actually, it scared me. Just having one war film under my belt, I knew how difficult it would be to bring this long journey, the scope of the story, to the screen and I will say that I had fear going in, but I’m very proud of what we managed to accomplish at the end.
The themes of war and of the bond between men are ones you’ve carried over from that film to this one – was there something about that which drew you back?
Speaking of the relationship between two men, in fact I think they’re very different. The first one [“Tae Guk Gi”] is about obviously two brothers, so it’s a family relationship and then this movie kind of blows that scale up and it’s really about people approaching each other – one is Japanese, one is Korean. “Tae Guk Gi,” my focus was about Korean people and warring amongst ourselves and how it tears a family apart. This, obviously, set in the background of World War II is much larger than that and I was trying to think of the characters themselves have been, from birth, destined to be enemies and grew up as such. In order to build a new future for Korea/Japan, in creating a new relationship going forward, how could we look at our past and reconcile that to move forward? That was a focal point for me.
Did you gain a greater understanding of Japanese culture as a result?
Obviously, because of the historical nature of the film, we did a lot of research into the records of the time as well as interviews with people who had participated in the war, so there was a lot of pre-production work on that. But beyond that, I was really interested to see and to gauge how people in Korea and Japan might receive this work. Even at the stage after we just finished the script, we took it out to people in Japan as well as Korea, had them read it, had them react to it, to see that we were accurate to their culture.
In addition to the 250 square miles you used to recreate the Siberian gulag and the Korean and German fronts, what was it like to work in a different country with a different crew when you went to Latvia to recreate the beach at Normandy? In general, you’re working with plenty of foreign cast and crew.
Actually, the very experience of the variety of it is something probably that I valued the most from this whole experience. I had trepidation about working with staff and actors of different nationalities, but ultimately, it just boiled down to we were all working together as people on this film. I really came away with this positive reinforcement that we were united by the fact we were just people who love film and we’re all filmmakers in this together. I really learned a lot from the experience and it’s something that I value.
Did you feel like a general yourself at times, presiding over so many extras on a production like this?
During the filming process, it wasn’t something I thought of myself as a general, but to see amongst the staff at the end of a day of filming, it’s hard work. So they would take it upon themselves when we’re going off to eat or to a restaurant, they would kind of march in formation and then when they saw me, they would salute to me. [laughs] So it was a funny experience [of] me thinking, “Wait a minute, I guess I am a general of an army here.”
There seem to be a few nods to some famous films such as the cornfield sequence in “North By Northwest,” the bomb’s eye point of view in “Pearl Harbor,” or “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” Were these actually influences for you?
I wouldn’t say that I took any shots that were a specific homage to any particular films, but if you do see these kind of influences, it’s probably all because of something that has just kind of melted into my own psyche and comes out of my subconscious as well. I do see what you’re talking about.
How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
Actually, I grew up on the countryside and so when I think about the whole thing, I wonder myself how I ended up in film. It’s kind of an amazing thing. But I did start to want to be a director and thought about filmmaking from the time I was in high school. It was through photography that I got into it. There was a very interesting thing when you hold a camera, the photo that you take and reality are not one and the same. It’s a record of reality and yet it’s different. The world that you see through that lens is quite something new and I had a lot of personal contemplation and things like that, going through puberty as everyone does. But the lens and the camera provided beautiful solace and that was my gateway into filmmaking.
I’ve read before “Shiri” came out, there was a time you nearly gave up on film. Of course, the success of “Shiri” changed that, but what was that time like?
Before “Shiri” came out, not just for my films, but Korean cinema in general was not very active. It was hard to see whether there was a future in it. On a realistic basis, am I going to be able to live and eat and support my family by doing this was a cause of true concern. At the same time, television production and the advertising side, people were calling me, saying “Hey, come on over,” so it was just a brief period, but I did go through a period of reflection before I decided [I should continue]. And “Shiri”’s success obviously made a lot of things happen.
Each one of your films has only gotten bigger and bigger. Have you felt the need to top yourself?
I think I did have that responsibility or pressure in the past, but going through that process itself made me really reflect on what it is that I enjoy, what is my happiness as a filmmaker? For a while, there was an inverse relationship as the films got larger, it was harder and harder to do. I think what’s come back full circle is just figuring out as a filmmaker what’s the story that I want to tell and that will make me happy.
You probably need a break after such a major production, but is there anything in the works?
Speaking about taking a break, the time between “Shiri” to “Tae Guk Gi” was long and then between “Tae Guk Gi” to “My Way” was even longer than that. That came partly out of the sense of pressure and this idea that I had to top myself from my previous work and that itself, I think, slowed down my productivity. At this point, I think I want to be easier and maybe freer about the process. I’m just looking for a good story and bringing that to the screen. I’m actively looking right now.
“My Way” plays once more at the Dallas Film Festival this afternoon and will open in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ridgefield Park, New Jersey and the California Bay Area on April 20th before expanding on May 4th. A full list of theaters is here.