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Ryoo Seung Wan: Korea's Action Kid

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Screaming their hearts out before the start of every game, supporters of the legendary British football team Liverpool always sing Gerry & The Pacemakers' You'll Never Walk Alone to welcome their heroes to the field. That song perfectly describes the career of Chungmuro's former enfant prodige and action kid, Ryoo Seung Wan. With today's brand of maverick auteurs making it seem as if directors are lonely generals commanding an army of invisible faces, those precious personal relationships Ryoo developed for most of his directing career ended up greatly helping him in the long run.

Ryoo Seung Wan was born on 1973 in Onyang, a small town in Chungcheong Province. Those were the days when extreme government censorship coupled with the first Golden Age of Korean television brought Chungmuro to its last legs. With the choice of domestic films mostly limited to propaganda and hostess films, young Ryoo often opted for the more kinetic and free-spirited action films from the Shaw Brothers canon. But it took one actor to turn him into a fan for life: Jackie Chan. Watching Jackie Chan's films, Ryoo started building his knowledge and love for Hong Kong action. He began taking taekwondo lessons, and between matinee showings of Drunken Master and the occasional 70s Korean action flick, his dream of becoming a film director was born.

Shooting short films with an 8mm camera bought from three years of middle school lunch money, Ryoo eventually entered a film workshop in the early 90s. He started making his first important acquaintances in the business, one of them being a young unknown director named Park Chan Wook whose debut had failed big time at the box office. After shooting the crazy 1996 short Transmutated Head, Ryoo made his acting debut in Park's 1997 film Trio, which consisted of him eating ramen noodles next to the two stars (Lee Kyung Young and Kim Min Jong). When you have no money to spend, asking one of the assistant directors to pitch for a few minutes beats casting an extra. The important thing for Ryoo was that through working as assistant director on films like Trio and Whispering Corridors, he finally gained precious experience to jumpstart his own career.

Ryoo's debut was initially planned as a full-fledged feature film, but various issues forced him to instead shoot separate short films sharing common characters and themes. His first short, Rumble, won a few awards at important film festivals. More importantly, it won him a contract to develop a feature film out of his shorts, and Die Bad was born. In an era when blockbusters like Shiri and Joint Security Area were the rage in Korean cinema, this ultra-low-budget (65 million won) action dramedy became an instant sensation. Starring in the film himself along with some industry friends and even his little brother Seung Bum, Ryoo became an instant cult hit, praised left and right for his masterful debut.

With the country experiencing tremendous growth in high-speed Internet penetration, a few companies tried to bank on this momentum by producing online short films starring big names, such as the maligned MOB2025. Ryoo's online film Dajjimawa Lee was a little different: the only recognizable face was Ryoo Seung Bum, while the rest of the cast consisted of theater regulars like Yim Won Hee and some of Director Ryoo's friends, including Park Sung Bin. Titled after industry slang (Dajjimawa Lee refers to "tachimawari", a part of Kabuki theater plays that involve spectacular action scenes), the little short was a wild and hilarious parody of the films he grew up with: Korean action films of the 60s and 70s, Bruce Lee and Shaw Brothers flicks, the machismo kitsch of old Korean melodramas, and of course Jackie Chan. Coupling over-the-top voice dubbing with deliberately mistimed action, Dajjimawa Lee was an enormous success online, making Yim Won Hee a minor star and the Ryoo Brothers even bigger names.

Big expectations often lead to equally big disappointments, which is what industry insiders and critics felt about Ryoo's first real feature film, the gritty action noir No Blood No Tears. The film mixed big stars like Jeon Do Yeon with talented actors from the theater world like Jung Jae Young and Yim Won Hee, and even brought back some old greats like Baek Il Seop and Baek Chan Gi. Joining Director Ryoo once again was his younger brother Seung Bum, who was starting to make a name for himself in the industry independent of his brother. Misunderstood as a Guy Ritchie or Tarantino clone, Ryoo's film was an exhilarating mix of all the elements that made Die Bad one of the best debuts films in Chungmuro's recent history, but it also added a nasty streak of ultra-realism. You'd think someone who loves Jackie Chan films would be more inclined to go for rushes of cinematic action rather than gritty streetfight-style violence, but someone else was responsible for that, someone who had worked with Ryoo for all his career and had developed his own action style - Jung Doo Hong.

Occasionally an actor, Jung is better known as the best action choreographer in the country, a reputation he built with over 15 years of hard work and dedication, starting as a stuntman in early 90s actioners like Im Kwon Taek's The General's Son. Although the contrast between Ryoo's cinematic sensibilities (more directed towards fantasy) and Jung's extreme realism might seem like a possible cause for chaos, the duo's perfect balancing of contrasting elements always proved one of Ryoo's biggest charms as a filmmaker. Still, No Blood No Tears was a flop at the box office and panned by critics wondering where the guy who made Die Bad had gone. It was a difficult period for Ryoo, who clearly felt betrayed by the same people who had put impossible expectations on his shoulders.

After that disappointment, Ryoo collaborated again with Jung Doo Hong and brother Seung Bum, along with newcomer Yoon Soy. The four embarked on what's still the director's most commercially successful film: Arahan. Part modern-day wuxia and part local comedy, the film certainly had its share of little problems, but it also exuded great energy from all involved and a superbly fun atmosphere, taking jabs at all the master-pupil cinematic cliches Ryoo grew up with. Despite success at the box office, critics still weren't pleased, continuing to lament the loss of Chungmuro's enfant prodige. Where was their action kid?

It took another two years for Ryoo to come back, but it became pretty obvious the wait was worth it. 2005's Crying Fist was in many ways his graduation project, the proof he had matured beyond easy labels and traditional genre boundaries.Ryoo was more than just an action kid. Starring that typhoon of charisma known as Choi Min Sik, the film saw the official birth of a new star, Ryoo Seung Bum. Steadily impressing critics and audiences since his debut in 2000, Ryoo displayed amazing energy and range in the film, such that he often overshadowed his older, more prestigious colleague. But the real star of Crying Fist was none other than Ryoo Seung Wan. Finally stripping himself from genre tropes, he was able to draw an incredible emotional portrayal of two people winning the most important boxing game of their life: the match against their own inner demons. More a story of survival than a simple sports drama, Crying Fist opened on April 1, 2005 against Ryoo's old friend Kim Jee Woon's A Bittersweet Life, offering one of the best double-headers of 2005. The two films garnered (finally!) excellent reviews, but ended up canceling each other at the box office, selling a little over a million tickets a piece.

Ryoo finally won the battle against the demons that had walked with him for most of his career, the expectations of a press hungry for another Die Bad. Yet that little 2000 film continued to be his one and only double-hitter, doing well (relative to its budget) at the box office and with critics. Waiting to start production on his first zombie film, Yacha, Ryoo decided to take his friend of a thousand battles Jung Doo Hong for another challenge. Little brother Seung Bum had become way too big for his plan, making one last salute to the pure action flicks he grew up with and gave him his nickname. The two had some acting experience, Jung mostly in Ryoo's films and Ryoo with Die Bad, a supporting role in Lee Chang Dong's Oasis, and a couple of cameos in Park Chan Wook films. But The City of Violence was another story: for the first time, Jung and Ryoo would be the stars.

Produced under CJ Entertainment, The City of Violence is a low-budget HD action film meant to show the potential of the new technology and to finally satiate Ryoo's old fans, who kept asking for another Die Bad. But it's not simply an action flick with a laughable baddie and two unlikely heroes thrown in the middle. As Ryoo described it, The City of Violence is like a Jackie Chan-style pure action film with characters from a Chang Cheh film in a world similar to that of Roman Polansky's Chinatown. Sounds strange? Maybe, but it simply means 90 minutes of bone-breaking action set in stylish locations with characters you can relate to, pure action cinema the way Ryoo Seung Wan intended it. The film brings to a final duel the two conflicting philosophies of the longtime partners (the Korean title of the film, Jjakpae, means partner), Ryoo Seung Wan and Jung Doo Hong. Fantasy and realism, outlandish technique and brutally raw streetfight-style action, combine to form pure cinematic flow.

Looking back at the last ten years of Ryoo's career, from Transmutated Head to The City of Violence, the young director has finally fulfilled that longtime dream of becoming an important director. He did so by making the films he wanted and not bowing down to trends or marketing strategies, no matter what the result was. But beyond solid box office, positive reviews from critics and audience alike, and the international scene finally warming up to his work (his latest film did quite well at the Cannes Film Market), what remain from these ten years are the relationships - Jung Doo Hong, who gave Ryoo's cinematic vision a form that balanced his penchant for fantasy with gritty realism, his little brother Ryoo Seung Bum, who finally cut a niche of his own as one of the country's most talented young faces through top notch performances in Crying Fist and Bloody Tie, and people like Yim Won Hee, Ahn Gil Gang, and all those actors who have become regulars of Ryoo's films. Add to this illustrious mix his friendship with directors like Park Chan Wook, and this former action kid, now one of the best directors in Korea, will never walk alone.

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Published October 5, 2006

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