Interview: The director behind S. Korea’s second-highest grossing film of all time

November 10, 2015
Director JK Yoon (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Director JK Yoon (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

By Tae Hong

The director behind South Korea’s second-highest grossing film of all time is a believer in Korea’s new role as a trend leader, not follower.

JK Yoon’s “Ode To My Father” is a decades-spanning epic that took its 14.2 million viewers by their tearducts upon its release late last year.

The 46-year-old filmmaker visited Los Angeles last week for CJ Entertainment’s 20th launching anniversary, which also invited “Miss Granny” Director Hwang Dong-hyuk and screened a selection of some of Korean cinema’s greatest hits through the weekend.

Yoon made his movie in a fast-growing South Korean film industry — it surpassed $1.8 billion in revenue for the first time in its history last year, with domestic tickets breaking yearly records since 2013, according to the Korean Film Council — which has seen more and more of its exports exposed and seen in overseas markets, the United States being no exclusion.

A genre-crossing filmmaker who’s known to jump onto sex comedy (“Sex Is Zero”) after mobster flick (“My Boss, My Hero”) and disaster (“Haeundae”) after sports drama (“Miracle On 1st Street”), Yoon has for years been an example of a director heavily influenced by Hollywood.

“Haeundae” was billed as the country’s first disaster movie. “Sex Is Zero” is often called Korea’s answer to “American Pie.”

Foreign reactions to “Ode To My Father” — a Korean film if there ever was one, rife with cultural references (complete with popular singer Nam Jin and late fashion design icon Andre Kim) and historical snippets — with audiences in tears and in laughter, despite a cultural and language barrier, gave him perspective on what it means to create a global project, he said.

Yoon pointed to the popularity of Hallyu and K-pop in how a “something Korean” element has appealed to millions around the globe.

“Instead of trying to fit a standard or a global trend, I think [Koreans] if we could make well-made films doing what we are already good at, and what we like, then it will be enough for the world market,” he said. “We could lead the trend instead of following it.”

Although he’s now an award-winning Chungmuro mainstay, Yoon started out as a 32-year-old late bloomer who landed in a director’s chair after years working at a large corporation as a salaryman.

If anything has guided his filmmaking compass since he took up the job in 2001, it’s been the birth of his two children, now 8 and 10 years old.

“At first I was all about making fun movies,” Yoon said. Those were the days of “Sex Is Zero,” an awkward romp — somewhat literally — through young adulthood. A few years later, he helmed “Miracle On 1st Street, a heartwarmer about a gangster who is transformed after meeting a female boxer and a group of children.

“When I became a father, I realized my kids would grow up to see my movies,” Yoon said. “I began thinking that I didn’t want to make movies that I would be embarrassed for them to watch. So the film I made after the birth of my first-born was ‘Miracle On 1st Street.’”

When Yoon took his 5th-grade kid to the premiere of “Ode To My Father” last winter, the feedback was simple: “Dad, was our country really that poor?”

The film spans half a century in the life of a man, Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min), whose journey takes him from escaping North Korea as a child and losing family members during the Korean War to arriving in Busan, traveling to Germany to work as a coal miner, serving in the Vietnam War, finding his long-lost sister through family reunification efforts via television, and ending up as the owner of an imported goods store in the Gukje Market.

While “Ode” has taken hits from critics who call it a vehicle for idealizing the past, Yoon has maintained a stance that the film is simply, as its English title suggests, an ode to his father and his father’s generation.

“I wanted to give comfort to the older generation — my parents’ generation — through this movie,” Yoon said. “I also wanted to provide a look into what Korea was like 50 years ago, and how far we have come since then, from being one of the world’s poorest countries to what we are now, to younger people in their teens and 20s who don’t understand what their parents and grandparents went through and how hard they worked to create the country we now live in. When my kid asked me that question, I thought, ‘It’s a good thing I made this movie.’”

Depicted in the film, through the eyes of Deok-soo — who travels to Germany as a coal miner and who meets his future wife, a nurse, there — are the struggles of his fellow Koreans desperate to provide a better living for their families.

A significant number of former coal miners and nurses who worked in Germany now call Southern California home. In September this year, the Korean government awarded 185 of them certificates of appreciation through the Consulate General.

“I want to tell them ‘Thank you,’” Yoon said. “I want to tell them that I’m truly thankful, and that I’m proud.”

He has a similar sentiment toward Koreans in Los Angeles, especially immigrants.

“I have two thoughts when it comes to Koreans here,” he said. “One, I’m grateful. Everyone around the world knows how hard Koreans work, and I’m proud of them. Two, I’m sympathetic. I know they are working hard, even in a country that is not their own. I want to let them know that they have my support.”

The last few years have brought prominent South Korean directors to Hollywood projects, from Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” to Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” and Kim Jee-woon’s “The Last Stand.” Is Yoon up for the task?

“If the opportunity comes, I want to challenge myself,” he said. “I have a long way to go, but if the opportunity comes I would give my all to create a well-made project.”

“Challenges” are key for the director.

“I have no fear of challenging myself,” Yoon said. “Even from the beginning, when I started making films, it was a string of challenges for me. Without creative challenges, there is no development for a creator.”