Just before the North American premiere of his latest film, The Villainess, I sat down with director Jung Byung-Gil at the Fantasia International Film Festival to talk about the action juggernaut. Director Jung is a former stuntman, and his affinity for action is gleefully presented in the ultra-violent, high body-count, Korean action film.
The very first scene of The Villainess feels just like a video game, mostly due to the first-person camera and nonstop violence. How did you create this feeling, and why did you want to make it feel like a game?
I’ve enjoyed video games since my childhood, and I got inspired by them. In the games I played, characters used a lot of guns, however I wanted to use more swords than guns. I thought this would make it more intriguing, interesting. In these games, there are many sequences where the character just passed by each gang leader. You fight each leader, and then the leader is killed, and then the more powerful leader comes. It goes on and on like that. I tried to build that scene like that.
I also wanted to show the single shot sequence, using a specially rigged camera. I attached the camera here (points to the chin/throat) to a helmet. The helmet was worn by a stuntman. We don’t see the actress’s face until later. I wanted to show the specific camera skills in this way.
There is a bit of a reveal in the film when we discover this assassin is a woman. Action like this is typically a male space.
Don’t the breathing sounds give you an idea that it is a woman? But yes, I made it mysterious on purpose who this assassin would be. When the audience sees them, they might not know who the person is. I intentionally designed that. However, it is more shocking to find out it is a woman when the perspective shifts from first person to third person.
In Korea, however, the audience absolutely knows it is a woman. They know the starring actress.
What made you want to tell a woman’s story?
I wanted to show a story of a woman. A good woman. A sympathetic woman. A woman who has to become a villain - a villainess. It is destiny that she should kill, and become a bad person. But she begins as a good person. It’s ironic to use The Villainess as the title. She wanted to lead a good life, but all of the circumstances surrounding her made her villainous, and that’s her destiny. I wanted to show that.
There is an entire system and organization conspiring to turn her bad.
I wanted to give an idea of how big the power is behind such an organization, compared to the power of just one individual. We don’t get to see all of the big power; it is overwhelming.
The film is not afraid of darkness or nihilism, (which is a compliment, from me). Did you every have an impulse to make it lighter or easier on the audience?
The darkness of each of my films comes from the themes of the writer. For example, my first film was a comedic documentary. The second movie I made was a thriller, but with a little bit of comedy. But The Villainess is dark. I wanted to show the darkness of destiny. The darkness of a ruling, dictating power. Along with this, I needed to be consistent with my direction.
As you are a former stuntman it is no surprise that the stunt work in the film is absolutely amazing. The camera itself deserves a stunt credit. What unique expertise from your prior career did you bring to working with stuntmen?
During the action scenes I use a lot of handheld rigs. The cameramen used the cameras along with the actors, so that the audience feels like the camera and the actor are the same thing. This makes a dynamic effect. Rather than depending on a specific technology, I wanted it to feel like real life, through using the handheld cameras. For each scene the feeling is different. Sometimes the camera trembles more, sometimes less. If I relied on computer effects, it would always feel the same. But because it is handheld, it can feel different. For example, when the actress went under the car, the camera really went under the car with her. I think the audience likes these effects.
The stuntmen who performed in the movie are my friends. I could ask them to do some specific things that I knew how to do, and they would know precisely what I meant. Because I know all of the specific skills of stunting, the communication went very well. Another director might not know anything about stunt work, and the techniques. And if the stuntman does not know exactly what the director wants them to do, they cannot do it. We could communicate so well.
Stunt is a language.
(laughs, and nods) Yes it is.