Entertainment

Korea’s Ryoo Seung-wan Interview: Reinventing the Cop Movie


Ryoo Seung-wan has been a pillar of the South Korean film industry for over 20 years, respected there for his keen social observation and thrilling action. But Europe’s great film festivals have feted him conspicuously less than some of his more internationally well-known peers. The Cannes Film Festival recently took a step toward correcting that record in 2024. 

Ryoo, 50, made his first and only trip to Cannes back in 2005 with the gritty boxing drama Crying Fist, co-starring his brother, Ryoo Seung-bum, today a major star, and Korean cinema icon Choi Min-sik, then riding high thanks to his iconic role in Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003). 

Crying Fist was very well received, but since we were in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the festival, it wasn’t screened in Cannes’ Grand Lumière Theater,” Ryoo recalls. “Back then, I was much younger and everything just felt fresh, fun and exciting. But I remember seeing the Lumière and thinking to myself, ‘I would love to screen a film there one day.’” 

That day has finally arrived. 

“I didn’t think it would take me 19 years to do it,” Ryoo says with a laugh, adding, “I was starting to think maybe they wouldn’t screen another one of my films in Cannes until after I died.” 

On May 20, Cannes premiered Ryoo’s 14th feature, I, The Executioner, aka Veteran 2on the Lumière’s giant screen as part of the festival’s Midnight Screenings section, which is dedicated to especially accomplished genre cinema. The film (also known as I, Executioner), which received unanimously strong reviews from Cannes’ critics, is a sequel to Ryoo’s 2015 smash hit police action movie Veteran, which earned $92 million at Korea’s box office and remains the country’s fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time. In the nine years between the two installments, Ryoo has made three other successful films, including the political thriller Escape From Mogadishu, South Korea’s official submission to the Oscars in 2021. 

The first Veteran starred leading man Hwang Jung-min as an infectiously rough and tumble police detective tasked with taking down a corrupt and sadistic third-generation tycoon (played by an unforgettable Yoo Ah-in), whose family’s wealth makes him seemingly untouchable in Korean society. The movie balanced humor and breathtaking action with a searing critique of corruption and inequality in Korea, which were then live-wire social issues in the country. 

The sequel reunites Hwang with the rest of the first movie’s wildly entertaining ensemble cast of cops — Oh Dal-su, Jang Yoon-ju and others — as they attempt to track down a suspected serial killer. As rumors about the killer’s identity proliferate on social media, plunging the whole country into a state of chaos, the hero detective and his team are forced to question their methods and assumptions. 

Ahead of the I, The Executioner’s Cannes premiere, THR connected with Ryoo for his first interview about the film to discuss his ambitious vision for the sequel — a movie that deconstructs the usual moral logic of an action flick while still delivering all of the genre’s thrills. The film is due in theaters in the second half of 2024 courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

The original Veteran was a huge hit when it was released back in 2015. There was some press coverage around that time suggesting you were keen to make a sequel quite quickly. But it ended up taking nine years. What was the journey? 

Well, first of all, when I made the first Veteran, I did not anticipate how successful it would be. My real intent was to create quite a humble film. I just made the film I wanted to make — a genre film faithful to my own style that could provide some joy and escape for the Korean audience. But, coincidentally, some social controversies emerged that overlapped with the happenings of the film, and so it became a huge box-office phenomenon. In the beginning, I was quite happy with the enthusiasm the film was receiving but eventually, I became quite scared by it. I didn’t have a story in mind for a sequel, but I really fell in love with the characters. If my goal was to continue the box office success, it would have been much better to create a sequel right away. I thought that if I created a sequel right away, it would actually be taking a step back and being complacent with the success that I was enjoying. You can’t see them on camera right now, but I have two producers sitting right next to me here and they both just sighed heavily when I said that (Laughs).

So, why did it take me nine years? The thought that dominated me was that I had to create a better film than the first one. And after the success of the first Veteran, a lot of films and TV series came out in Korea in the same genre and also saw success. So I didn’t really feel the need to replicate what I had done, but it took me a long time to figure it out another approach. I wanted to create something different, something that’s new and deeper than the first film — a film that can really leave a long-lasting impression on the audience. And, you know, I think I found my way.

The first Veteran combined the buddy cop action movie with a rather bold critique of inequality and the callousness of the super rich. How did you come up with the new themes of the sequel? This one struck me as a lot more complex.

The original Veteran was the first movie I’ve made that the younger audience in Korea really loved and sought out. But when I look back on that film, the way that it approaches good and evil — and how the protagonist actualized justice — was quite different from how society actually works. Things just aren’t that simple. That clear distinction between good and evil doesn’t necessarily exist in our actual society. So it was kind of like a sports match, where it’s very clean who you are rooting for. Obviously, that can make for a great film that exhilarates the audience. But the actual issues the film was dealing with are difficult and more complex than that. More than anything else, I’m an action filmmaker who wants to create genre films that a mass audience can enjoy, but I felt like I was allowing people to consume complicated issues for the sake of excitement, and the question of whether that was the right approach really bothered me. 

For most action films, you have a protagonist and an antagonist and they need to face off. But this time, I decided to switch it up a little bit. Usually, action films are about a sense of justice that the protagonist is pursuing, which the audience is made to crave. But this time, I thought, “What if the film is actually about two different definitions of justice that clash?” It could still be an action film that the audience can enjoy with their senses and their bodies, but it could also stimulate them intellectually. I wanted to pose a question with an action film that the mass audience can enjoy. Of course more than anything else, my first goal was just to create a much more fun film.

An entertaining action film that also deconstructs the usual logic of the action film — that’s a very ambitious challenge to set for yourself. With that in mind, I’d love to hear about how you created this film’s villain. Part of the fun of the original Veteran was how purely despicable the villain was. But this new villain is a rather strange character. You seem to have left his motives deliberately opaque and his whole persona is very peculiar. What can you share about your intentions here? 

So, you just mentioned the word ‘villain’ to refer to the antagonist, but I didn’t think of him as a villain in this film.

The way that this film treats evil makes it more horrendous because we don’t provide a clear Axis of Evil. We don’t provide a clear definition of what exactly the evil in this film is. It’s really about this rumor that somehow just begins to proliferate— and we don’t know where it started or who started it. In the end, the entire world believes the rumor to be true, which ultimately drives people to their deaths. I think this is closer to the nature of evil as it currently exists in society — this is the air that the film is trying to encapsulate. And the so-called antagonist of this film, rather than thinking of him as the villain, I just thought of him as a man with different convictions. The reason I left him quite ambiguous is that I wanted the audience to go home and go crazy wondering about why he did what he did. The calculation behind that, you know, is that the audience will want to go see the movie again the next day.

Man, I have to say, as you were saying all that, I was thinking to myself, I have to see this movie again. So it certainly worked on me. 

(Laughs) That’s good to hear. 

Jung Hae-in as rookie cop Park Sun-woo in ‘The Veteran 2’

CJ ENM

So, turning to the protagonist … You made him quite a bit more complicated in the sequel. In the first film, he’s the archetypal scruffy veteran cop, a bit rough around the edges but a total hero. In this one, he’s got a lot more going on. He’s not a very attentive father and husband, which is palpably affecting the people close to him. He makes promises that he forgets to keep — sometimes things that are very consequential to the story. So, he’s very human this time, not at all a superhero.

Everything that you just mentioned is exactly what I intended for that main character in this sequel, so I’m very happy to hear that you got all that. I met the great Hong Kong filmmaker Johnny To at a film festival once and I asked him, “What do I need to do to make films that are as fun and interesting as the films you make?” And he gave me such a clear answer. He said, “your protagonist just has to make mistakes.” That was the best answer — better than anything I ever learned from a book about filmmaking. 

One of the keys to making this sequel for me was that I needed to make the main character more conflicted. It was really important to convey this man realizing that his convictions and his sense of justice — and the violent actions he carries out based on those judgments — sometimes ends up hurting people, and not only others but also himself. This journey of realization was very important for this film. In that sense, you could say that the most powerful villain of the film is the hero detective himself. The words and actions that he’s carried out end up being reflected back to him, and in the end, when he’s fighting the antagonist, you could say that in a sense he’s fighting himself. 

I was especially struck by the story thread involving the protagonist’s son. Because it’s pretty clear that the son is in some real trouble. He’s struggling emotionally and he’s hanging out with some very bad kids — and the protagonist simply isn’t all that engaged with him. Even by the end, in a very realistic way, you get the feeling that everyone is just getting on with their lives.

So, actually the storyline regarding the son partially reflects my own experience. There was a period when my children were struggling, and you know, I wasn’t really sympathetic to what they were going through. I was always telling them, you’re being weak and you need to just suck it up. And you know, I’m a film director, but I would see other dads shooting home videos of their kids and presenting them for talent shows and stuff. But I didn’t do anything like that, even though what I do is make films. Thankfully, my children grew up so well on their own. So, there were these mistakes that I made with my children and through this film I wanted to apologize to them. And I thought that a lot of dads probably have made similar mistakes and could relate to this. I think a true adult is someone who really knows how to apologize for their mistakes, so I wanted this character to embody that.

In the first Veteran, because the villain is so despicable, there are times when you want the movie, as a viewer, to become something more like a vigilante revenge story. But it doesn’t do that. The characters work through the police and legal system to bring him to justice. That struck me as a somewhat optimistic ending, because it suggests that even the mega-rich are not above the law. The sequel, however, left me with a much less clear feeling about how to feel about society and our present moment. Nothing is so easily resolved. Do you think it lands on a more pessimistic note? 

I don’t think this film is more optimistic or more pessimistic than the first film. If you think about the first film, the detective succeeds in arresting the antagonist, but we don’t see what the outcome will be when he goes to trial — and remember, he’s very wealthy. But you make a precise point that the first film is not really about individuals. It deals more with society and the system. With the sequel, I really tried to focus more on the individual than the mass structures of society. In that sense, I’ll mention the epilogue. After everything is resolved, the detective comes home and finds the children of the Vietnamese woman his wife has been helping sleeping in their own home. Rather than touching on grand social issues, I wanted to emphasize the dedication that individuals show. No matter how hopeless a society may seem, if at least one person is fully awake then I think the seeds of hope are already there. Rather than politicians who make grand statements about saving humanity, I find more hope in everyday people who quietly live out their lives, showing care to their family, friends and colleagues.

What was it like getting this ensemble cast back together again for the sequel? Was it as fun as it seems like it must have been? 

When we brought all of the cast together again on set, it definitely didn’t feel like nine years had passed. It felt like we had just finished shooting the first film last week. We actually talked about how all of the emotion and sense of camaraderie that we were feeling was probably something that the audience was going to be able to feel as well. Of course, there were moments when I felt like, wow, nine years is a pretty long time. We’ve all gotten older. After 11pm, for example, all of the actors would just start forgetting their lines.

I was struck by what you said about Johnny To, because watching your films reminds me so much of the greats of Hong Kong cinema — that mixture of irrepressible physical entertainment and incisive psychological and social interrogation.

Of course, I owe so much to all the greats I grew up watching. Hong Kong had so masterpieces in the crime and cop genres that came out in the 1980s and 1990s. I could list two dozen films for you right now. I was also hugely influenced by the incredible Hong Kong stunt players from the 80s. They truly mastered that art and it’s something I feel film history should pay more attention to. But even though I live my life completely drenched in cinema, at the same time, my body is fully alive in the present moment. I try not to steer too far from this reality — this sense of being a body occupying a place on earth right now. When I come to work, or when I’m on my way home, I always try to walk through the back alleys. As much as I am in love with the heroes of the films that I admire, I try to stay close to observing real people. I’ve tried to strike a balance between the life of a filmmaker and an everyday person living a normal life. I chose to locate my office in a quite humble neighborhood [of Seoul] because of that. 

So, it’s probably a little soon for this question, but would you like to make a third Veteran film if given the chance?

I’m actually already in talks with the actors. A third one will happen. I already have a spin-off story. I’d like to expand this universe and I feel like there are many more stories that I can tell. Of course, there’s a very important precondition for all that though. If Veteran 2 flops, none of this will happen. If you want to see a third one, please give this film your support!



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