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Kang Woo Suk, Master of Modern Korean Cinema

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Few filmmakers personify modern Korean commercial cinema quite like Kang Woo Suk. Frequently noted as one of the most powerful men in the nation's film industry (topping Cine21 magazine's "50 Most Powerful Men in Korean Cinema" list from 1998 to 2004), Kang has undoubtedly played a vital role in shaping Korean cinema, not just as the helmer of some of the biggest blockbusters of the last two decades, but perhaps more importantly through his role as producer and financer. Indeed, despite not being particularly well known internationally and having directed a relatively modest 19 films to date, his influence can clearly be seen in the fact that he has been responsible for investing in or planning over 120 productions.

Although he's been involved in a wide range of genres, as a director Kang is mainly associated with a canny ability to tap into popular social and political issues, often tackling injustice in tough fashion or through a dark vein of satirical humor, resulting in works which are intelligent without losing their mass appeal. As such, there's a definite pattern visible in his career, with hit films such as Silmido, Public Enemy, Hanbando, and most recently Glove not only entertaining, but providing a fascinating reflection of changing values and concerns in modern Korean society. It's partly this air of relevance, coupled with his solid skills as a storyteller and as a purveyor of thrills, that have seen Kang and his films consistently striking big at the box office, no mean feat for a director whose first outing behind the camera was back in the pre-New Wave days of 1989.

Early Comedies

Kang Woo Suk was born in 1960 in Gyeongsan, and took his first stab at directing with the 1989 comedy Sweet Brides, having made his debut in 1986 as screenwriter on Dancing Daughter. Following two friends who run into an endless series of troubles while trying to meet girls, foolishly unaware that a couple of women they work with are after them, the film starred Choi Jae Sung (recently in the popular Korean historical television series Empress Chun Chu) and Choi Su Ji. Very much in the style popular at the time, the film was a hit with audiences, as was his immediate follow-up Happiness Has Nothing to Do with Student Records in the same year, another wacky comedy which also starred Choi Su Ji, along with Lee Mi Yeon and Kim Bo Sung, who would go on to work with Kang several times in the future.


The director continued churning out commercial successes over the next few years in a series of different genres with the drama I Stand Up Every Day, the thriller Who Saw the Dragon's Claws?, the family film Teenage Love Song, starring legendary actor Ahn Sung Ki, and the illness-themed I Only Want to Live to 20. Kang scored a major hit in 1992 with Mister Mama, a romantic farce featuring popular duo Choi Min Soo and Choi Jin Sil and revolving around a single father salaryman who ends up having to take his baby to work after his wife leaves him. Balancing a genuine social concern with laughter and melodrama, the film was the second highest-grossing film at the domestic box office that year, and proved hugely influential, inspiring a new trend in Korean comedy.

Two Cops and Cinema Service

Kang went on to another even bigger hit with his next film, the action comedy Two Cops, which reunited him with Ahn Sung Ki as a rather amoral detective saddled with an idealistic, by-the-book young partner, played by Korean megastar-in-waiting Park Joong Hoon, who slowly becomes even more willing to bend the rules than his colleague after falling for a beautiful woman. Also starring Kim Bo Sung, the film was very much in the style which the director would become known for, being a highly commercial crowd pleaser, whilst at the same time dealing with the serious theme of police corruption in an even handed and engaging manner. Such a topical premise struck a chord with viewers, and the film was one of the biggest of 1992 and a landmark shot in the arm for the sluggish local box office, beaten only by Im Kwon Taek's acclaimed Sopyonje.

The financial success of Two Cops allowed Kang to start his own production and distribution company, Cinema Service, which he used to invest in a variety of different commercially minded projects, and which would go on to become one of the largest in the Korean industry. Through this, the rest of the 1990s saw Kang moving increasingly into production, working on a number of comedies, romances, and dramas such as Mom Has a Lover, Holiday in Seoul, Love Bakery, Masterpiece of Love, and Last Present. Probably his two most interesting films as producer during this period were Jang Jin's eccentric hitman action comedy Guns and Talks, and Kim Tae Kyun's crazy teen martial arts epic Volcano High, both of which went down well with audiences overseas as well as at home. With most of these films performing healthily at the box office, the 1990s were an important time for Kang, establishing him as one of the most prominent forces in the Korean industry and showing him to have a finely tuned sense for what audiences wanted to see.

Busy with the production side of the business, his output as director did slow somewhat, though he did manage a few notable films of his own, including the comedy of errors To Kill My Wife in 1994, which reteamed him with Park Joong Hoon as a hapless man attempting to rid himself of his other half, eventually going so far as to hire a hitman to do the job for him. This was followed by the amusingly titled drama 7 Reasons Why Beer is Better than a Lover in 1996, as well as the inevitable Two Cops 2 in the same year, this time without Ahn Sung Ki, though with a returning Park Joong Hoon and Kim Bo Sung. Kang stepped back into a producer's role for Two Cops 3 in 1998, which saw Kim having to deal with a beautiful female partner in Kwon Min Joong.

Although the sequels might have been accused of cashing in on the success of the original, they did at least represent Kang continuing his approach of mixing brash entertainment with social commentary, tackling gender politics, morality, and of course, corruption. The same was true of the Bedroom and Courtroom, his last film as a director in the 1990s. Again starring Ahn Sung Ki, the comedy is about married lawyers who end up facing off against each other in a strange case revolving around a woman trying to sue a corporation for ruining her lover's sex-drive.

Public Enemy

2002 was arguably the year when Kang really hit his stride. After serving as executive producer on Im Kwon Taek's award-winning historical drama Drunk on Women and Poetry, he ushered in a new age of Korean blockbusters with his mega-hit Public Enemy, which starred future Kang regular Sol Kyung Gu as a corrupt and violent, though strangely righteous cop on the trail of an upper-class murderer (Lee Sung Jae, recently in Natalie). The film was a perfect fit for Kang, combining tough action and hard-hitting satire as it tackled the Korean justice and class systems, with an awesomely driven and dogged protagonist in Sol's always angry and frequently brutal rogue detective, an excellent performance which deservedly won him Best Actor at the Daejong Awards. Stylishly shot and tightly scripted, the film set a new standard for the genre and duly reaped the rewards, pulling in more than three million admissions at the box office and proving that commercial cinema was capable of far more than dumbed-down, lowest common denominator entertainment.

Next in 2003, Kang stuck to the hard-edged approach with Silmido, a harsh, punishing 1970s set Cold War, men-on-a-mission style military thriller which followed Sol Kyung Gu, Ahn Sung Ki, and Jung Jae Young as part of an ensemble cast of 31 death row convicts trained on a remote island as a suicide assassination squad, who turn against their own government after being betrayed. Dealing with the weighty theme of the North-South Korean divide and with an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, the film was a taut, violent affair that pulled no punches in its depiction of desperate men being treated with equal ruthlessness by the powers that be.

Whilst Kang's films had never been hugely popular with the critics, the ten billion won budgeted Silmido bucked the trend, winning him the Jury Award and Best Production at the Daejong Awards and Best Director at the Blue Dragon Awards, the director's first official accolades. The film also struck box office gold, being the first Korean film to break the mighty ten million admissions barrier, a record which would be broken by Taegukgi the next year. Kang also continued his production work in 2003 with director Lee Kwang Hoon's The Legend of Evil Lake, a glossy fantasy historical romance starring Jung Jun Ho and television actress Kim Hyo Jin, which again showed him perfectly comfortable in every genre imaginable.

Leaving Cinema Service

After again teaming with Im Kwon Taek as executive producer on Low Life, Kang's next outing as director came in 2005 with the sequel Another Public Enemy. Interestingly, instead of simply continuing the (mis)adventures of Sol Kyung Gu as the ever-aggressive cop, the film had the actor take on a different, if similar role, playing a prosecutor who again faces off against a cunning and corrupt upper-class foe, this time played by Jung Jun Ho. This allowed Kang to retain the same basic themes as the original, while in effect taking them up a few notches, attacking the flaws in the justice system and society in general from a different angle. Although this didn't really prevent the film from essentially being a rerun of the first Public Enemy, it was still very successful, and further cemented the director's reputation as a helmer of box office fare with bite. The film was certainly popular enough to spawn a second sequel, Public Enemy Returns in 2008, which returned to the original protagonist.

Perhaps as a result of his finally being properly recognized as a director of talent and vision, Kang's next move was to step down from the presidency of Cinema Service, despite it having become the largest studio in Korea and one of the two most prolific distribution companies along with CJ Entertainment. The split couldn't have been over anything too sinister, as his next outing as director, Hanbando in 2006, was a Cinema Service release. The film itself, however, was a controversial affair, with Kang again tackling the North-South divide, this time in a near future setting with the two on the cusp of reunification, and with the Japanese cast as villains in a plot revolving around the re-opening of the Gyunghuiseon Line.

With an all-star cast boasting the likes of Ahn Sung Ki as the Korean President, Moon Sung Keun as the Prime Minister, Cha In Pyo, and Cho Jae Hyun, the film was Kang's most lavish and spectacular production to date, mixing politics, intrigue, and action. The film's plot caused considerable debate amongst critics, with many deeming it too nationalistic and cashing in on anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, showing a simplistic approach to international affairs. Despite, or perhaps due to this, the film was another box office hit, with Kang again having managed to tap successfully into the public consciousness.

The Moss and GLove

After more production work on the thrillers Modern Boy and No Mercy, the eccentric indie comedy drama Castaway on the Moon, and the highly accomplished, if disturbing drama White Night, Kang unleashed his next blockbuster in 2010 with Moss. Adapted from an internet manhwa comic, the film was a dark mystery thriller with Park Hae Il as a policeman who heads to a remote rural village to investigate his father's death and comes up against sinister village chief Jung Jae Young as a twisted conspiracy unfolds. In narrative terms the film was Kang's most ambitious undertaking yet, with a highly complex plot and a series of deceptions and revelations paced out over a running time of nearly 3 hours.

Exceptionally atmospheric and suspenseful, the film represented a maturation of the director's style, and saw him progressing as a storyteller, being a subtler affair that relied more on menace than on the kind of brutal violence seen in Public Enemy or Silmido. Boosted by excellent performances from the lead stars, the film was a huge commercial and critical hit for Kang, pulling in more than three million box office admissions, as well as earning him another well deserved Best Director Award at the 47th Daejong Awards, where it also took home prizes for Best Cinematography, Art Design, and Sound Effects.

Most recently, in addition to working again with Jang Jin as producer on his heartfelt drama Romantic Heaven, Kang went for a change of pace with the inspirational baseball film GLove. Based on a true life story, the film reunited the director with Jung Jae Young as a mean-tempered, irascible baseball player who is pushed into coaching a team of hearing-impaired youngsters in order to try to resurrect his career. Interestingly, although the film does follow the tried and tested sports underdog story, it was still very much in Kang's tough style, with training scenes reminiscent of Silmido and social commentary revolving around discrimination and attitudes towards the disabled. At the same time, the film had a strong sense of character development and never dipped too far into melodrama or the usual cliches, making for one of the better sports dramas of recent years and again showing Kang to be a man of diverse talents.

This can also be seen in the director's choice for his next project, apparently set to be a historical drama charting the reign of the 15th King of Chosun, based on a script from Old Boy writer Hwang Jo Yoon. With Kang at the helm, finally directing his first period piece, it's certain that the film will be far more interesting than most genre outings and will no doubt see him again making use of his finely honed commercial sensibilities for another crowd pleasing hit.


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Published August 29, 2011


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