Known around the world for his role as the gambling addict Seong Gi-hun in the breakout South Korean web series Squid Game, actor Lee Jung-jae sat in the director's chair for the first time with a spy thriller this year. Initially roped in as an actor, Lee went on to write and direct the new Korean espionage movie Hunt set in the 1980s.
At the 75th Cannes film festival to present his first directorial venture in the festival's official selection, the celebrated Korean actor talked about the phenomenal success of Squid Game, and the unique work ethic and content that makes Korean films and series connect with global audiences. Excerpts:
How has the global success of Squid Game changed your life?
I wouldn't say that my life has changed so much, but my career certainly has. My lifestyle still is the same. I used to be known in Korea, but now I am known globally. I could also now work in overseas productions, thanks to the success of Squid Game. Overseas projects are reaching me and they want to work in Korea... I have been in this business for a long time, but it now feels like a new start for me.
The international success of works like yours and your colleagues in South Korea is making the global film industry, especially in Asia, want to remake Korean films and series. What is the work ethic and content that makes Korean content connect with audiences worldwide?
I think it is all about the story. I think we have some fun novels and unique stories, and within these stories there are novel characters. That is exactly why a lot of overseas production houses want to remake Korean films and content.
'Squid Game' was shooting at the same time as 'Hunt'. How difficult was it to change between two drastically different characters?
I have 30 years of experience in this field (laughs).
Did you anticipate the phenomenal success of 'Squid Game'? When did you know it was going to be a global hit?
I knew it was going to be a success in Korea, but I didn't think it was going to be a success globally. But director Hwang Dong-hyuk wanted to make it a success in the United States, so he put a lot of thought into that when making the show. He didn't know it was going to be this globally big, but he wanted to do well in the United States.
What were the factors that influenced you in becoming a director? Will you be directing more films after 'Hunt'?
Initially I just wanted to produce the film and really didn't think about writing and directing. But I couldn't find the right director and the scriptwriter for the project and took it into my own hands and I started writing the script. While writing I realised that I knew really well about the scenario and I should be the one directing it. That is how I came to write, direct and act in this film. Writing the script was very challenging for me and I am not sure about directing another film. The scriptwriting was so challenging, I am not confident about directing another one yet.
'Hunt' is a spy thriller set in the 1980s, but its story is relevant even today in a world of autocrats and dictators. Were you thinking about the contemporary world when you were making a film set in the 1980s?
The original script had a different subject matter and there was only one main character. After I started to write the script it took me a lot of time to find the subject matter for this movie. I said to myself that there is so much information nowadays, but inside them there is so much misinformation and fake news. The original script was set in the '80s and I thought it was correct that I should keep it that way because in the '80s, not only Korea, but other countries also controlled, processed and manipulated information. This actually happens now as well. I think we have to question ourselves, do these misinformation and fake news shape our values without us knowing.
What is the impact of the tensions between South Korea and North Korea on everyday life?
The relationship between the South and North is not good and not bad. It is mediocre and it has always been like that. I think we are progressing towards the positive side in the long run. I have the strong belief that sometime in the future we will be reunited.
What is the budget of 'Hunt' and how does it compare to other Hollywood spy thrillers?
I can't tell you exactly what the budget was, but it was nothing compared to Hollywood films. At the same time we are going to release the movie in the summer season, so I have to compete with Hollywood films. So my bullets were not budget, but ideas. It was really challenging, but in Korea we have some amazing technical staff and we gathered the best to create a great movie.