Seen in Jeonju

Director Oh Sang-hoon

16th January 2010

oh sang-hoonOriginally posted October 17, 2007–In the course of making my exams this semester, I was going through my computer files when I stumbled upon a series of articles I translated years ago from the magazine Film2.0.  I had done them just for practice and had looked up every other word in the dictionary until I understood everything. This first interview was originally conducted by reporter Lee Ji-hoon and appeared in Korean in the October 31 issue of Film2.0.  If you wish you can view the original article here:  It was written at the time when his debut film, The Greatest Expectation was released in 2003. Oh has since gone on to release Cracked Eggs and Noodles in 2005. 

I know that you began your career as the assistant director of <Man With A Gun> in 1995, but what did you do before working on that and how did you get into movies?

When I was a high school student, I decided that I was going to make a movie.  I started writing a scenario when I was in my first year at Gwangseong High. I would work on it right through some of the more boring classes. One day, in my final year of high school, my classmate, Park Shin-yang(1) asked me about majoring in movies and the performing arts. I asked him, “Why? Are you going to be a director, too?” But he said no. I suggested that he apply to Dongguk University and that’s where he ended up going. I had heard that Jungang University had an excellent film department so I applied there, but I failed to enter. I felt terrible. I decided to take a year off to rest and then try to enter Hanyang University. The next year, when the application period came around, I asked my mother for the application fee. It was only W8,400 (2). I will never forget that price because my mother refused to give it to me.

Did she think it was too expensive? Or was she against you majoring in film?

No, it wasn’t that. My mother sometimes has these prophetic dreams. She’s actually pretty good at making predictions.  She said that I would fail if I applied to Hanyang. It was partly that and partly the fact that my two older brothers and my sister had similar experiences when they re-applied to colleges after failing to enter the first time. Anyway, she didn’t give me the money and I was furious.  That same evening, my sister called.  She had a friend who was a sophomore at Jungang University and she had arranged a meeting for me with the teacher assistant in the film department. To this day, I don’t know why the teacher assistant agreed to meet with me. I was afraid of being rejected again, but I was told that I wouldn’t fail a second time. The next day, I told my mother that I wanted to apply to Jungang University and she handed over the application fee without a word.

It seems you had a hard time entering school. You must have studied hard once you were in.

I wasn’t so interested in studying. More than anything, I wanted to make a movie. Here’s the story. It was my first semester at the university and I learned that the school had a policy about not allowing the freshmen to use the school cameras or other equipment.  I was so bored because of that rule. The classes were boring too.  I wanted to make a short movie right away, but I had no money. I looked for a way around this situation. I heard that the Board Of Human Rights supplies three scholarships to students in the amount of W100,000 each. I went to the teacher’s assistant and said to him that I wanted to receive those scholarships but he told me that they were based on need and were reserved for poor students.  I told him that I was the poorest of the poor, I was so poor I couldn’t even eat…. Not only to him, but I told this sob story to each of the students who received the scholarship and I wound up with the W300,000. Getting the film was no problem. I told the teacher’s assistant that I was going to make a movie and needed film. The school had recently changed over to buying color film so there was this huge surplus of black-and-white film that nobody wanted. The camera was more difficult, but I kept pestering him until he let me borrow one. After making the film, I had about W30,000 left over so I used it to buy drinks.

You like to live dangerously!

I guess you could say that, but I always consider the circumstances.  I think the most dangerous thing I did was when I was in the army (3). Don’t tell my mom this story, she would go crazy!  I had to go to the army after my sophomore year, but to me it felt as if I had gone to prison. I was always thinking of some way to get out of there. Then, someone in my corps got TB so he was excused from boot camp. I thought to myself, “That’s how I will get out of here! I will catch TB!”  I had never been very bright but that was just crazy. Whenever I had a holiday or a leave of absence, I would go to the hospital dressed as a student and try to find a way to catch tuberculosis.

Are you crazy?

Well… I think so. Anyway, I couldn’t find anyone who had TB.  I realized I was being an idiot and gave up. But, just a few days later, someone in my barracks developed appendicitis and got a leave from the army so he could receive surgery. My superiors said that it was usual to get a lengthy leave when one had problems with their appendix.  I thought, “Ok! This is it!” From that day I began to pick up pebbles from the ground and swallow them to irritate my appendix. I would eat about three or four a day. Why didn’t I get appendicitis? My friend eventually came back to active service but by that time I had adapted pretty well to military life.

So, you started to make movies after you were discharged?

Of course I wanted to. However, most men have difficulty readjusting to civilian life after the army and having to re-enter school.  I was no different.  I decided I wanted to make a movie, but I was in the dark as to how to begin. I didn’t feel like I had any choices in my life and that things were beyond my control.  I was feeling very nervous; my pulse rate was always over 120.  As time went on, I couldn’t sleep, my head would be spinning and so forth. Then this day came where I was supposed to take pictures for my friend’s wedding. I was all set to go but my mother told me that we had to go to my hometown–in Haenam!  I said, “What am I supposed to do about the wedding? I promised my friend!”  But it didn’t make any difference and I went to Haenam.  There, my mother had arranged for me to be at the receiving end of an exorcism with a shaman(4)! Actually, I found it very interesting. I watched what they did very closely–they splintered branches, jangled some bells and spit a lot–it was a little weird but fascinating.  When it was finished, we returned to Seoul.  And, believe it or not, I felt like I had recovered from my nervousness. I was feeling positive about everything.  Before the exorcism, I was afraid of meeting people and I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had felt that even beggars were better off than me.  But within one month of that ritual, everything was great. I was on top of the world! Life was wonderful! Anyone I looked at seemed joyful to me and I would think, “Ah, how happy he looks!”

So, after this turning point you joined the crew of <A Man With A Gun>?

No. After I graduated, I made a tv drama, a show called Global Music, and a few others. I worked at these for a few years but I felt like I was going crazy.  I really wanted to get out of that. I thought to myself that I ought to make a movie, but I didn’t know where to start and I had no plans. Then I remembered that directors Kim Ui-seok and Jang Hyun-soo had been just a few years ahead of me at school. By that time, director Kim had made a few movies so I looked him up. I begged him to take me on. He let me work together with him on <A Man With A Gun>.  But after we finished, I didn’t feel as if I had achieved anything.  At the end of the shoot, Director Kim went with Kang Woo-seok to Cinema Service and I was left to find my own way.  That’s when I saw the two Jangs. That is, directors Jang Sun-woo and Jang Hyun-soo.  Jang Sun-woo was in the middle of making his documentary <Cinema On The Road> so I could not join with him. I instead approached Jang Hyun-soo who was working on <Born To Kill> and I met director Song Hae-seong, who had a minor role in Jang’s film. Director Jang allowed me to join the crew, but I still felt frustrated. Why were other people my age succeeding and I was still stuck like this? So after the filming concluded, I left.

So you had nothing to do?

Nothing to do? I wouldn’t say that. I worked continuously. I just didn’t get paid! From that time until now, I was hungry and unemployed. That lasted for seven years. Immediately after <Born To Kill> wrapped up, I started working together with Song Hae-seong. He was preparing to film a movie set in Incheon and I had to move there. But the movie went bankrupt and I was screwed. I was not going to let that happen again. I would prepare in advance. I decided to write a book and began working on a melodrama called <The Second Autumn>.  I wrote it together with <The Greatest Expectation>’s producer Song Chang-yeong. He told me these stories about a taxi driver, but not all of the episodes were interesting. But then there was the time when I turned on the radio and caught one of the stories I sent in being read on the air. It was so moving! I suggested to Song that we bind together five chapters as a book. I thought that would be good enough . That Saturday, Han Seong-gu called me. He was Cha Im-pyo’s manager at that time working on the tv drama, <You And I>.  He had read my book and it had made him cry. He said that we had to meet the next day. I didn’t want to leave my house on Sunday, but he insisted that I had to meet him somewhere. I finally told him that if he bought me a drink, I would meet him. So we drank.  I took the best story of those five chapters and years later, Popcorn Film where Han works, made it into <Lover’s Concerto>.

But <The Second Autumn> was never made into a movie.

We couldn’t make it. Han Seong-gu wanted to produce the movie himself but he failed to gather investors although that didn’t cause the end of the project. Song had also gathered a line of investors but the two sides couldn’t see eye-to-eye and the production fell apart before it got started. However, during the year that this was going on, I grew very attached to that manuscript. I developed a habit of editing the book everyday, even if it were only one word. Even with all that, there was still one part of the scenario I was unhappy with. I just wasn’t satisfied.  One day, while sleeping on the roof, I heard thunder in my dream. I woke up with a start and went down to my desk.  I sat down and I wrote and edited. It was strange because everything was going so smoothly. I finished it all with no strain.  When I looked at it the next day, I thought that it was perfect. I was ready to push forward and make it a movie, but as I said, I failed again. Why? Because it was the late 90’s and melodramas had gone out of style.

You failed twice to get that book made into a movie. Do you continue writing?

Of course. There’s no other way for a director to get his debut. After <The Second Autumn> failed, I went to a certain production company so they could read my work. They came back with things like, this story is good, but you should lose this part. When I showed him my next draft, his expression while reading it was just lukewarm.  I lost my temper and swore. If they didn’t like it, then I wasn’t going to worry about it. I could work alone.  Around that time, someone gave me a script to read.  I looked at it and thought that it was the worst thing I had ever read in my life. But as time went on, it grew on me and I said, “Ok, let’s do it.”  We did have a problem though. Neither of us had any experience.  I was just a beginner and had only the passion of a novice to guide me. We read and studied the script for six months and then we finally gave up. Over those seven years I would often start projects only to abandon them before they got off the ground. Those seven years were a really long, hard time for me. Finally, though, I was able to put together my current team and make <The Greatest Expectation>. The original idea belongs to producer Song. I wrote the first draft along with Kim Hyeon-cheol who gave me the nickname ‘Booting Diskette’, and the screenplay was completed by brothers Lee Won-hyeong and Lee Won-jae.

Was it possible to live like that for seven years?

Absolutely. I had only bus fare in my pocket during two of those years. I starved all morning until I made my daily trek down to the Chungmuro movie studios. I would be so hungry but I couldn’t say anything directly. If my stomach rumbled and made noises I would laugh and say “What is wrong with my stomach.”  I survived this time only because I had no shame. One of the good points about Chungmuro is that there are many places where you can drink soju at night.  I ate more of the sidedishes that came with the soju than I did rice.  Alcohol became my staple. I lived like a drifter. Then one day, a friend told me that he was going on a backpacking trip to India. He asked if I could watch his house for him. So, I was able to stay at his house on top of a mountain. His original plan was to stay three months but then it became six months. I told him to take his time and come back whenever he wanted.  Finally he returned after a one year trip. Once while I was staying there and very hungry, I found a package of ramen noodles.  I boiled the water to cook the noodles and when they were ready, I just sucked them right down without even chewing. After finishing I was still hungry. I had so many difficulties at that time.   When I left there I went to live with my good friends Hae-seong and Kim Hae-gon. Hae-gon and I couldn’t be closer than if we were real brothers. We used to try to get jobs together. After Hye-seong left to make the movie Failan, the two of us continue to rent a room together.

So you’re not married yet?

Married? What are you talking about? I can’t afford to fall in love. In the 37 years that I have been alive, do you know how much money I’ve saved? All together about 1 million 500 thousand won. How can I get married on that?

Then let’s try talking about The Greatest Expectation. Tell me about the casting.

Actually, I didn’t handle that part of the project. That was done by Kim Tae-gu, director of <The Last Defense> and <Emergency 19>. How could I be entrusted with casting after I had failed so many times? Anyway, I was finishing up on the script and everything was moving so fast. At first, we thought Im Chang-jeong and Kim Jeong-eun would be best as the leads.  They are respected actors. We sent the scenario first to Chang-jeong and he agreed to do it immediately but he had one requirement. He wanted us to contact a large distribution company so we got in touch with CJ Entertainment.  Within a day after sending them the scenario, CJ agreed to handle distribution.  The company also suggested Kim Seon-a as the lead actress.  I have to admit that she has a very different image than what I expected. When we met to discuss a contract, I saw how thin she had become.  Afterwards, I sat down with the other writers, Won-heong and Won-jae to discuss what kind of humorous defect we could bring to her character. We wanted to make it something that the audience would feel comfortable with. What was there about Kim Seon-a?  Then it hit me.  We could compare her mouth with a butthole and once we give her that image it would be fixed in the minds of the audience.  Seon-a accepted the suggestion without protest and you can find these comparisons here and there in the movie.

It was funny when Kim Seon-a’s mouth was compared with an anus– and her acting in that regard was quite natural.

The movie was funny on that point. Even though I’m the director, I would often have to re-shoot a scene because I was laughing too hard.  We made a lot of bloopers but I never lost my temper with the staff. Then there was Seon-a’s first scene where Mi-yeong was eating noodles in the comic book shop.  It reminded me of that pizza commercial that she had made so I said to her let’s make this scene like the pizza ad. I told her to eat all the noodles at once and then realize that they are too hot so you spit them all out. So that’s how we shot the scene and we did it in one take.  It was as if she had been practicing it for a long time.  From then on, Seon-a was the mood-maker on the set.  If you’ve ever made a film, you know that most of the staff are embarrassed while they are acting, but while making this film, we all laughed all the time.  Actually, I think that sound is more important than image.  I spent about sixty percent of the time not watching the monitor and only listening to the scene.  That is especially true of the scene at Hwang’s house where Im Chang-jeong’s character Chang-shik goes to look for Mi-yeong.  I was seated far away and only listening to it through the headphones. The sound was wonderful. It was going so well. But at the end of the scene we made a mistake. So we shot four more takes and finally on the fifth take we got it sounding the same as the first. I asked Seon-a, “What do you think?” and she said “Isn’t it the same as the first one?” So I said, “Ok, let’s go with this one.”  Seon-a looks as though she doesn’t know what’s going on, but inside she is aware of everything.  Chang-jeong is really smart.  I often let him adlib his lines.  Not only him, but also Kim Su-mi and some of the other actors.  They did a great job. I don’t think that a director necessarily has to give directions, he just has to do the preparations.

I heard that over the course of the shooting, Chang-shik’s character changed from how he was originally written.

That’s right.  I had no idea that Chang-jeong would do such I good job. I didn’t expect it.  But he gave me the form and style I was looking for.  There was no huge differences but as things went on, we would have to make changes, it was often Chang-jeong who carried us through. He frequently helped Seon-a too when she was having a difficult time with her lines or acting. On the other hand, when a scene required sensitive emotions, Seon-a would take the lead.  In fact, there was a lot of give and take on the set of this movie and that is the way a good movie gets made. Through striking a balance between each others strengths and weaknesses.  There was one time when Seon-a was saying all her lines through clenched teeth. I thought she had gone crazy and asked what the problem was. It turned out that she was pretty sick and had to spend some time in the hospital.  The filming schedule ran pretty late because of her.  Honestly though, while their were many trying times on the set, they only made me appreciate when things went well.

As the director, you must have been pretty worried while you were filming.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t.  I don’t think I can be nervous. Some people ask me about my impression after returning to films after a seven year absence.  I tell them that I don’t worry about it.  Before the press screening, none of the staff were able to sleep except me. I slept soundly.  I remember though that I got into a fight in my dream.  I think I am unable to be nervous because of the way I lived my life during the previous seven years.  Did you hear what I said after the preview?  I told the reporters, “Please don’t curse me, I did my best.” That means, “I really did my freaking best and if you say anything bad about this movie, I’ll kill you!”  That’s what I meant.

Are any of Chang-shik’s episodes from your experiences when you were unemployed?

Yes. Of course they are.  You remember the scene where Chang-shik is going to collect the reward but in the morning he finds that his bags have disappeared. I had that same experience and some of what he says is exactly what I said.  Not only Chang-shik. There is some of me in his brother, Chang-hun.  So I said at that time, “Today I am Chang-hun, tomorrow I will be Chang-shik.” Actually this movie, there is not supposed to be a cross-section of an unemployed man. It is a movie which everyone can identify with.

I think this breaks a lot of the stereotypes found in other romantic comedies

I don’t think there is anything special about breaking out of a genre. A genre is just a kind of rule. It’s very easy to break. Just jump that wall and go the opposite direction. But I guess that most people have difficulty in doing that so you get a lot of stereotypes in a genre. A nice thing about genres is that they come in and out of fashion. If you like a certain genre, don’t worry, it will probably be back soon.

I heard that you originally didn’t like comedies.

I really love tear-jerking melodramas.  However, the popular idea about movies are that they are entertainment.  I was able to play around a lot in this movie.  For example, we did a scene where we placed actress Jo Mi-ryeong on a rolling board and pulled her across the set as Seon-a looked in a mirror as a spoof of many horror films. I asked my cinematographer if it was ok to pull off a joke like that and he said it was no problem.  That made me happy.  I was very lucky that I was able to work with many experienced people whom I respect and they all taught me a lot. Actually, the laughs in this film don’t come from outright comedy, but from the situation.  We all felt a strong conviction that was the way to go.

So if <The Greatest Expectation> goes well, you will be getting a lot of money?

Huh? I will just be getting a director’s fee.  If I have a little extra, then I will give it to help out other newcomers who want to break into the industry.  I didn’t get that kind of help.  First of all, though, I will change my apartment and get out of that small rental I have now.  And of course, a director’s job is not steady work so I should save something for my old age.



(1) Park Shin-yang is now an actor and has made such films as <White Valentine> and <The Univited>

(2) The application fee was about 8 US dollars.

(3) All Korean men are required to serve approximately two years in the military unless excused for health reasons. While there is some flexibility as to when, most men serve when they reach 21 years old which generally requires them to take a leave of absence from college between their sophomore and junior years.

(4) Shamans are mystics who can communicate with the dead, tell fortunes, and perform a wide variety of ceremonies to appease the spirit world.  An excellent explanation of shamanism can be found in the documentary <Mudang: Reconciliation Between The Living And The Dead> available on DVD with English subtitles.

I should really thank my friend, Jin Yoon-seok, whom I remember as patiently answering all of my questions about grammar, idioms and vocabulary.

Comments are closed.