Jeon Do-yeon who earned the Cannes best actress award for her part in Lee Chang-dong’s tragedy-ridden “Secret Sunshine” back in 2007 and has long had the reputation as Korea’s most-admired female actor, gets a chance to show her range in “Kill Boksoon.”
The Netflix-backed action film plays in the Berlinale Special section of the Berlin Film Festival and is a witty action showcase that was created especially for Jeon by one of Korea’s best young directors, Byun Sung-hyun.
What were your intentions when you set out to make Kill Boksoon?
Byun Sung-hyun: My previous work before this was a political film. And after filming that, I had no particular intention other than to create something with the amazing actress Jeon Do-yeon. I didn’t give her any kind of text or scripts. I just asked her if she’d do the next film together.
My focus was how to take advantage of this talented actress. Not only is she highly regarded, she’s also living this life as a mother. As I watched her, I created a story to reflect that dichotomy. She’s done a lot of films that are deep and meaningful. I wanted to forego any message conveying that and instead tell a story that she hadn’t done before. You could say that this film was completely and wholly conceived from her.
Was Jeon Do-yeon part of the screenwriting process?
Byun: Jeon did not write the narrative or storyline. I could write the lines of the killers, but there are lines that only a mother could say. Jeon would do improv and I would write down some of her lines.
Jeon: As an actor my work has all been open to the public. However, my private life is kept very private. Director Byun would come over to my home and observe me having conversations with my [one] daughter.
How do you see this role fitting into your career narrative?
Jeon: I became known to the general public through my film “Secret Sunshine” [for which she won the best actress award at Cannes in 2007] and after that was rather trapped within certain boundaries. Darker and deeper, more serious works kept coming my way. I wanted to break through that boundary, but there was nothing that I could do other than wait for the right piece. The character Boksoon is someone who shows everybody that was more to this actor.
That was a long wait.
Jeon: I’ve been ready for a long time. I think it was the directors that weren’t.
Can we maybe contextualize this. It is a female-led film. But is mother and killer a role model?
Byun: For a very long time action films have pertained to male characters only. And as time went on, I think the audience may have gotten rather tired of seeing that. It’s not necessarily that they wanted to see female characters play those roles. But I think it definitely led to an opportunity for the audience and the industry to widen their horizon in terms of how to look at characters.
Did you have to train a lot for the role?
Jeon: It may not all come across. But yes, I trained a lot.
Byun: Usually with action films you don’t use a lot of longer takes. That means you can use a lot of stunt doubles. However, when we did our storyboard, we were clear that there had to be long action sequences, where the actress herself had to be there, because we would focus on her face. She really had to get in there herself. A lot of scenes were very demanding and physically challenging.
Please explain the atmosphere and universe you sought to create. It is dark and violent, but it is treated with wit and humor.
Byun: I wanted to create a graphic novel-kind of mood. A part of it was because my previous film [“Kingmaker”] was so very grounded. I wanted something fictional, but not too fantastical.
I set out to do that from the very first scene where there is a fight on the bridge. This particular bridge is very well known to all Koreans. So to have these absurd things happening there sets the mood for the rest of the film.
The universe of companies who employ killers we’ve seen before in “John Wick,” which was definitely an influence. But I wanted to give it a little taste that is uniquely Korean. The killers in “John Wick,” they’re just so cool. [In “Kill Boksoon”] they’re more rugged, a little bit more like people that you would meet every day.
And as there are two stories – that of the killer and the mother – I had to maintain the adequate distance between Boksoon’s two worlds. If we presented the killer universe in a way that was over the top then it would take away from the reality of her life as a mother. And vice versa.
You seem to play a lot with verbal jokes, only some of which come across in translation.
Byun: Well, yes, the pun between Kill and the character’s name Gil [G and K are written and pronounced the same way in Korean] was definitely intended. Elsewhere, those scenes where the killers get together, or have dinner, I wanted the dialogue to be very nonchalant – “oh yes, I hear he was on a business trip last week and died” – something that you would just hear among regular office workers talking about their everyday lives and work. In ‘John Wick’ you’d hear talk of ‘taking someone out’ or discussion of their cash prizes.
In [“Kill Boksoon”] in those scenes where there is confrontation, the dialog is not grave or menacing. It’s just like, ‘you know, please understand I have to make ends meet’ and the other person’s ‘like, yeah, I get it.’
Using words like ‘show’ instead of ‘execution’ also plays into the deception the mother and killer is playing on her daughter.
Byun: Yes, definitely. Using works like ‘show’ and ‘script’ made it feel like you were walking into a top tier entertainment company or a film distributor and you’re meeting with the head of the company. I brought in a lot of film industry jargon, such as when the characters tell each other that they should have their phones turned off when shooting a scene. Another phrase is the ‘Good work’ phrase that is widely used on a Korean film set.
And where is the Korean entertainment industry headed?
Byun: Korean content is being loved globally. And there is certainly a lot of great content in Korea. But my personal taste admiration and respect is more for the content created in the early 2000s. That’s actually what I aspire to achieve. I also think that as time goes by there is going to be greater demand and higher bar set for the quality of the content that comes out of Korea.
Jeon: After I shot ‘Secret Sunshine,’ I actually got a call asking if I wanted to audition for the next ‘Terminator.’ That’s not the most expected call that you would get after doing a film like [heart-wrenching art-house title] “Secret Sunshine.” But I have to say it’s really not easy because of the language barrier. As an actor, I place utmost importance on what language I use, what kind of dialogue I use as this character. I don’t think I’ll be going into global projects any time soon.
So, no Hollywood agent then?
Jeon: That’s correct!