This is an article translated by Ching and myself based on the Chinese translation by Ping.
Million thanks to Ching for helping to finish the translation and Ping for translating from the original Korean version.
CINE21.com interview with Lee Byung Hun
Lee Byung Hun: It’s time to re-discover myself now.
Lee Byung Hun of “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”, “I Come With the Rain” and “G.I. Joe”
Lee Byung Hun is currently one of the busiest persons in the Korean film industry. 2007 was a busy year and it doesn’t seem to be any better this year. After a short rest in 2006 when “Once in a Summer” had finished filming, he started with Director Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” at the beginning of 2007. Then in early summer, there was the collaboration with Kimura Takuya in “Hero”; he worked with Director Tran Anh Hung in “I Come with the Rain” from mid-summer to autumn, at the same time having his Japan Arena Tour concerts and also decided on the Hollywood blockbuster “G.I. Joe”.
He was on board the plane to the U.S. immediately after finished shooting his parts on the 10-month long project “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”. On 23 January, when his filming were completed for “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”, he packed his luggage at the filming site and left immediately for Incheon International Airport. To begin with, he has to go through training in the United States for “G. I. Joe” and at the same time has meetings with various parties to discuss a number of global projects which it is not the right time to disclose anything yet. He is moving slowly from “Hallyu Star” to “World Star”. Since the middle of last year, an interview with Lee Byung Hun was being planned and thanks to all that it finally happened on 20 January, just 3 days before he left the country.
Q: Since the start of filming “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” last April, physical and mental fatigue has accumulated.
A: Perhaps the busiest year. Besides filming “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and Director Tran’s “I Come with the Rain”, I was traveling to and fro China and Hong Kong, and at the same time having the “Arena Tour” at 4 cities in Japan. The initial plan was to do it after completing both movies but things were changed due to the increase in the filming schedules.
Q: How do you take on the character at “GBW”, it is not the first time that you acted as a villain? It is not a typical type of villain but the appearance gives that impression. Is it a burden?
A: Not sure since when this ‘I will cross the bridge when I come to it’ idea has started? Before this I always consider and question various things closely when a work is decided. I have to experience many trial and errors then. By the way I thought I wasn’t late even now. So I want to give myself more choice now. If in the past, when I got a difficult role or which I was not interested in I will reject it. Now I feel that I should try something new. The ‘Bad’ in GBW is the first villain role in my 17 years of acting. It is coincidental that in ‘I Come With the Rain’ I also portrayed a bad character. Storm Shadow of G. I. Joe also appears to be a villain superficially.
Q: Was the decision made after “Once in a Summer”?
A: Not because of “Once in a Summer”, the decision was made during my break after “Once in a Summer”.
Q: How did Director Kim explain the character?
A: He talked about the situation at that era. As the most important thing in Chang-yi’s(The Bad) life is the reckoning of honor and he will fight for the best till he dies.
Q: What do you think of acting the villain for the first time?
A: Very interesting, the so-called rational and sentiment are working at the same time. I did not want to maximize the emotional part. It seems that the characters in ‘GBW’ should not be restricted to distinctive and natural performance only. It needs a little excessive and more expressive style, but must be exactly in line with the director’s requirements. So it is necessary to do correct and rational judgment. Just like when I did my first album recording, as I tried out every expression. When checking the performance from the monitor I can see facial expressions that I did not expect and felt that I can hate that feeling, really like a bad guy. Anyway, this is how I feel about the movie; it is full of fun.
Q: This is the role of a villain, do you have that feeling?
A: Because this is a villain role, I am already feeling part of it. There might be actions that are not the director’s requirement, or my pre-set performance. When seen at the monitor it turns out to be the all conceivable action. It is exhilarating feeling.
Q: According to the staff they also said it looks like a villain role.
A: Yesterday during photography, the director had also said that. There are two close-up shots of me smoking. First one is in the train, very cool. In the latter part, similar scene appears with very evil facial expression and sinister gaze. If comparing the two scenes, I do not seem to be acting coherently. But the director said, “The change is according to his reaction to the situation, not the change of character in the role.”
Q: Was there a lot of thing to learn in order to prepare for “The Good, the Bad and the Weird” You have to learn how to ride a horse for the first time?
A: There were many things to learn. Unfortunately on the evening before my first horse-riding lesson, I missed my steps at home, fell and fractured my ankle and was taken to the hospital. It was a happy thing that I got to play “Lost Planet” the computer game which I have endorsed while recuperating at home. While the whole crew was busy preparing, I decided to tone up my muscles. The character is someone with large muscles? The character is someone who is very muscular and will give people the feeling of wickedness with just plain clothes. Hence, I got a trainer to help me when my leg was still in cast. The trainer required me to be sensitive and it was really hellish training.
Q: Many people were concerned with the issue that Jung Woo Sung and Song Kang Ho are friendly people. If everyone put in their utmost effort in their characters, won’t there be competition?
A: Don’t think so, there was no competition. Everyone knew the fact that all are very unique and excellent actors with a lot of acting experience. Everyone is conscious of the challenge and doing the best.
Q: How did the proposal to act with Kimura Takuya in “Hero” come about?
A: I was invited to a cameo role in “Hero” as I knew Kimura Takuya’s manager. I felt sorry as I had rejected a few invitations to SMAPXSMAP and therefore decided to take up the offer as I thought that it was nothing wrong to take part in the movie.
Q: Let’s talk about Director Tran Anh Hung’s “I come with the Rain”, how did it came about?
A: The Good, the Bad & the Weird was decided first. In 2006, we met when the director visited Korea. He said he liked the novel “His Son” and was planning to produce a movie based on it. I like the novel when I read it in my first year of university and was hoping to have a chance to act in a movie based on the story. I started to panic when I got the scripts later. As expected, it is not easy because it is an art movie (laugh).
Q: Why did you decide to do it since it is difficult?
A: Although there were some parts that I could not understand, I accepted the character and tried to comprehend it. I am thinking what kind of thing would I get from the director’s movie world? And also anticipating what I would be able to feel myself. I feel the challenge in playing this villain role. I want to try finding those things which I don’t understand when I was young.
Q: Why did the director choose you?
A: He said it started when he watched “A Bittersweet Life”, that captivated expression, exquisite emotion is not easily found in Asian actors…It could be that the role is a Hong Kong organization boss which is similar to “A Bittersweet Life” (Laugh)
Q: What type of story is “I come with the Rain”?
A: It is too complicated to explain clearly and I can’t reveal the production matter. To make it simple, the main character Kline became a detective after he was forced to leave the police force, went to Hong Kong in search of the missing son of a Chinese man from San Francisco. He was in contact with a Hong Kong police who helped him to secure some criminal information; Su Don Po is a gang leader, someone who is cold and heartless. On one fine day, Su met Shitao (Kimura Takuya) while he was looking for Lily, the woman who lives with him.
Q: Concurrently filming “The Good, the Bad and the Weird”, is the work load heavy?
A: About 15 times shooting. It was initially said to be twice only but in the end I was in Hong Kong for 5 or 6 times. Nevertheless, come to think about it, if only travelling between China and Hong Kong is just like travelling between Seoul and Jeju. But it actually took 13 hours per trip. Shooting location of GBW is in other cities. When I need to travel from the filming site of GBW to Hong Kong, I need to fly to Shanghai or Beijing first for my connecting flight to Hong Kong. And taking the flight so frequently that I feel like I am a pilot. (Laugh)
Q: It is in a foreign country with an art film director, is there any difference in the on-site atmosphere?
A: Yes, very different. The deepest impression is that there is a detail filming schedule and reporting time of actors for the next month to ensure the smooth running of the system. During shooting, there was some rain too. Of course this is the unique style of the producer, putting the busiest actors together. The most difficult thing is the love scene with Lily. She is the actress of Cyclo and Green Papaya and also the director’s wife. I felt embarrassed when the director is just beside us watching while he said “a bit more, add some more…” (Laugh)
Q: The deal for Josh Hartnett as the main cast is special. As a Korean Top Actor, do you feel inferior?
A: Maybe there is such a feeling at times, but is it necessary? Because he is affable like a friend, when the first time I went to Hong Kong for photography, Josh Hartnett took the initiative to greet me happily. It seems that this person had just watched “Bitter Sweet Life” DVD in the car. We cordially discussed about the remake of “Bitter Sweet Life” in US. Because this is the first time to use English during filming I was worried. But I think it’s all the same when come to expressing human feelings.
Q: How is the proposal to go into G. I. Joe being done? Accept the script first?
A: My management company BH Entertainment overseas marketing manager Charles had been discussing with my US agent about the works for several years. “G. I. Joe” was proposed last year. I feel that it has attraction. After getting the main idea I decided. The script was sent after a period of time. It seems that Hollywood fanatics hid near the studio and stole the computer. They even rummaged around the rubbish bins in the building to find the script. A lot of precautions were taken to prevent the script from being revealed. The script given to me was accompanied with “Do not copy” written in red letters.
Q: Based on what conditions you responded to the performance proposal?
A: To tell the truth, at first the negative reaction was about 60 %. The worrying part was that it is a high standard blockbuster movie with big production cost, anticipated by men and women of all ages. But if I don’t do it, I might come to regret it. And when I asked everyone who always gives advice, all said that I should give it a try since I am given the chance. Director Park Chan Wook also said to me, “It is fitting to do it.”
Q: G. I. Joe is a famous cartoon in the United States. Is the setting of the movie same as the comic?
A: G. I. Joe is created from the beginning as toys and then made into cartoon series, and American soldiers are the main character originally. In Korea G.I Joe was introduced too, known as “G. I. Guerrilla army” not sure if this is the correct term. Movie version of ‘G. I. Joe’ is the story of G.I. Joe team against the evil Cobra force. They are international organizations which gathered members from various nations. Basically it depicts a confrontation between them. Due to the request for security need from Hollywood side, I can’t disclose more.
Q: What type of character is Storm Shadow portrayed by you?
A: As a child Storm Shadow got ninja training from a master who was like a father to him. He was given ninja education together with a western child Snake Eyes. Although they compete with each other their relationship is like brothers. But one day their mentor was mysteriously murdered and Storm Shadow disappeared. Since then, the two destined to be arch-rivals. I heard that these two characters are most popular among the cartoon enthusiasts. Both have strong combat power and are mysterious figures.
Q: There is heated discussion in the Internet about Lee Byung Hun portraying a Japanese ninja.
A: When the casting is proposed my condition is that Storm Shadow should be Korean. Westerners are not able to distinguish nationality of Asians.
Moreover, the Japanese market is big and there are lots of Japanese characters. Anyway, my viewpoint is of course to establish the Korean set up, and the production side has readily accepted it.
Q: Would there be a lot of action scenes?
A: If talking about action scene, I would rather say it emphasizes more on big scale action than the number of scenes. When I was first cast in the story, I already said I am not Jackie Chan or Jet Lee. I absolutely cannot do that type of martial arts. The production side is aware of that too.
Q: Still basic training is necessary.
A: G.I. Joe will start shooting in March till June. I am going to the States now for one and a half month training.
Q: There seem to be several overseas projects at the same time. So the burden has increased?
A: G.I. Joe is different from Director Tran Anh Hung’s movie. My thought is to do different type of movies. I am thinking isn’t it time to find myself again? So I try out everything. Of course, when I have decided to appear in G.I. Joe, my view has expanded. From a different viewpoint, I think it’s really useful for personal development with directors who have different ideas and style.
Q: Do you intend to move your work station to Hollywood or overseas? [/b]
A: No, my work in Korea still has not changed. If there is a chance of encountering excellent director, it doesn’t matter whether it is Hollywood or foreign countries, and certainly immaterial where and what to do there.
Q: I heard that all these overseas projects started from “A Bitter Sweet Life”.
A: I feel that it is fated for me to meet Dir. Kim Jee Woon. Because of this encounter there are lots of changes and I am grateful to him.
Q: Would you feel lonely working in Hollywood?
A: A director sorry, not sure of the name said not to have such thought. Even so, take it as a form of self-training.
Q: As Korea’s top star, you might not be recognized as such in US. Are you prepared for it?
A: Basically I am prepared for it in my heart. There might be friends who don’t really understand me, and not getting the best reception? I am thinking essentially this is the part that I have to submit to.
Q: How you became TV game “LOST PLANET” figure?
A: The game is the type that I like – must be the adventure game. I am no good in playing ball games, like “winning eleven”, I don’t play, because (laughter)the game that I especially like is biochemical crisis. It’s fun to be the model of the game and playing it as a fan. And it is very interesting to manipulate and control myself while developing the game. The photography took two days and not that simple as imagined. I sat before the pre-made machine making angry expression, happy face, and occasionally had NGs (laughter). After that the computer automatically processed them into three-dimensional images. It is a very interesting experience.