Director of 'The Big Swindle
' introduces heist genre to Korean moviegoers
By Yang Sung-jin
"The Big Swindle
", a heist movie now blazing a trail at the box office, was inspired by a true story. A group of real-life swindlers defrauded the Bank of Korea in Gumi in 1996 and successfully made off with 900 million won.
Viewers will be interested to know that behind the fictionalized plot lies another true, untold story: The film's director, Choi Dong-hoon
, also fell victim to fraud before going on to make one of the best crime movies in Korea.
In 1997, Choi was a director-wannabe, getting by as a part-time teacher at a private institute in Mok-dong. When his landlady refused to pay back his 18 million won security deposit, Choi met with a lawyer and tried to get his due, but to no avail. Thanks partly to what he considers an embarrassing brush with a crook, Choi at 33 made an impressive debut as a young director. Critics say Choi has kicked wide open the door to a heist genre that has so far drawn little attention from local moviegoers.
Reviews have been largely favorable, especially with regard to the film's intricate and well-organized plot. But his success didn't happen overnight.
"During my school days, I applied for almost every film script contest in Korea, only to see my scripts rejected one after another", said Choi in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Although his talent went unrecognized, Choi nevertheless gained basic sceen writing skills and in 1998 he enrolled in a two-year film academy. Upon graduation, Choi went to work in October 1999 as an assistant director for Im Sang-soo
, an established filmmaker who was then making "Tears".
Then Sidus, a major film production house in Korea, noticed Choi's talent and assigned a few projects to him. The turning point in his career was in October 2001, when Choi set about writing the script for "The Big Swindle
The project took two years to complete and required 17 revisions. Finally, in August 2003, Choi produced the final draft.
"Some of the audiences feel the film is like a Hollywood flick, and I think the reason is that the story is fast-paced, and there are lots of scenes. In fact, it's a sort of a 'scene' blockbuster since the film has about 200 scenes", Choi said.
Choi drew attention from critics and audiences with the crime scene, in which the bad guys enter the Bank of Korea to steal 5 billion won.
"At first, I thought 1 billion won would do, but people around me said it was not enough. So I increased the amount - but not too much since 100 million won weighs about 11 kilograms and if it was too heavy, the swindlers might not be able to pack and get away with the money", Choi said.
The film's opening scene, which shows cars speeding away along the narrow roads in the southeastern port city of Busan, also created a buzz. It looks as if the scene was filmed from a helicopter, but it wasn't.
"We couldn't use a helicopter to shoot a scene in downtown Busan for technical and safety reasons, but I wanted to show the situation in detail. During the one-week shooting, we used three zoom cameras to capture images, and the result was good. That's why some viewers think it was shot from a helicopter", Choi said.
But there was an accident during the shooting. Two cameramen were injured and a camera was destroyed when a car used in the scene went out of control.
"When an accident takes place at a shooting site, it's really depressing. But the two cameramen, who were taken to a nearby hospital, came back in just two hours", Choi said.
Great acting also helped the film succeed. Park Shin-yang
plays two brothers - devil-may-care swindler Chang-hyuk and timid bookshop keeper Chang-ho - giving the audience a clue as to the outcome and switching smoothly between the two roles.
"There was a risk in having Park play the two brothers because people might get confused about the characters' identity. But it turned out that the audience follows the story line relatively well and can tell the elder brother from the younger brother, though they look very much alike", Choi said.
He said he took great care to make sure people could tell the brothers apart, chiefly through makeup.
"Park had to sit for five hours, from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning, for 21 shootings for scenes where the elder brother appears. The total cost of the face makeup was about 40 million won, or 2 million won a pop. But money aside, Park showed his professionalism by sitting through the painstaking process", Choi said.
In the whodunit film, Chang-hyuk, fresh out of prison, first approaches Mr. Kim (Baek Yoon-shik), one of the most notorious swindlers in the nation.
Choi said the way Chang-hyuk persuaded Mr. Kim to participate in the scheme was the key to understanding fraud and cheating.
"If Chang-hyuk had begged Mr. Kim to join in the theft, who knows whether the offer would have been accepted? Instead, Chang-hyuk took advantage of Mr. Kim's weakness, namely his ego. Chang-hyuk lies to Mr. Kim, saying some people think Mr. Kim has lost his nerve and turned into a coward, which makes him angry and resentful. His pride is hurt, and he is determined to prove he still has guts. All of this means Mr. Kim has fallen into a real trap", Choi said.
The film weaves a revenge motive into its plot - but not too much. Details about Chang-hyuk's reasons for seeking revenge are sketchy because the focus is on fraud. And it's not a vicious, hard-core revenge.
"Chang-hyuk just wants to get some baddies behind bars, not kill anybody. But as in real life, things get complicated and eventually get out of control. But Chang-hyuk enjoys a 'cool' game in the name of revenge for his dead brother", Choi said.
Choi said he was impressed by the acting of Yum Jung-ah
, who plays a temptress who connects the two brothers and Mr. Kim. "We expect famous actresses to be very vain and pretentious, but she isn't. She's comfortable to talk with, and just like an old friend, even though she's a Miss Korea beauty contest winner!" Choi said.
Suh In-kyung, played by Yeom, is a self-styled femme fatale who has had an affair with Chang-hyuk and learns that his older brother is set to benefit from his life insurance policy.
Choi said Yeom's role was fairly challenging. In her scenes, she responds differently to each character, with her attitude changing constantly depending on whom she is interacting with.
"Each swindler in the movie has two sides - a true personality and a swindler's facade. But Yeom transforms her image in each scene. At one point, she's a yawning cat, and at another, she's an irresistible temptress", Choi said.
Suh In-kyung has her own version of events.
"Suh's descriptions of past events cannot be trusted at face value. Truth is, after all, understood only when all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are assembled and scrutinized", Choi said.
For his next project, Choi says he is going to make a movie about family, piecing together comedy and tragedy. "The fundamental question is family. Hopefully, I will shoot the film next year", he said.
While the baddies in Choi's film get justice in various ways, real life doesn't always offer such a reprieve. The culprits in the Bank of Korea fraud in Gumi still remain at large, and there's no news yet from the landlady who pocketed Choi's money.