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Director Yoon Je-kyun turns ‘Hero’ independence activist musical into film

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From left, actors Lee Hyun-woo, Bae Jung-nam, Park Jin-joo, Kim Go-eun, Chung Sung-hwa and Jo Jae-yoon pose for the camera at a local press event to promote their film “Hero” at Yongsan I’Park Mall branch of CGV in central Seoul on Monday. [YONHAP]
From left, actors Lee Hyun-woo, Bae Jung-nam, Park Jin-joo, Kim Go-eun, Chung Sung-hwa and Jo Jae-yoon pose for the camera at a local press event to promote their film “Hero” at Yongsan I’Park Mall branch of CGV in central Seoul on Monday. [YONHAP]

Director Yoon Je-kyun already dedicated a movie to his father with his 2014 hit “Ode to My Father.” Now, his upcoming film “Hero” is an ode to his mother.

“Hero” is a musical film describing the last year of the life of the independence activist Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) leading up to his assassination of Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, at a railway station in Harbin, China, in 1909.

Yoon is a key member of local production studio JK Film, an affiliate of the entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM behind his films “Ode to My Father” and “Tidal Wave” (2009), and took helm of the project. Both films sold over 10 million tickets, a milestone for a commercial hit in Korean cinema. Yoon is known to have participated in numerous productions by JK Films, such as “Confidential Assignment 2: International” (2022), “The Negotiation” (2018), “Confidential Assignment” (2017) and “The Himalayas” (2015).

The film is based on a musical production with the same title that has been taking the stage since 2009. Ahn will be portrayed by Chung Sung-hwa, who has starred as the lead protagonist in the musical production for over a decade.
“I first met Chung when he starred in [JK Film’s] ‘Dancing Queen’ [2012],” Yoon said at a local press event at the Yongsan I’Park Mall branch of CGV in central Seoul on Monday. “The musical ‘Hero’ was going on at the time, and Chung invited me to see his performance. I cried a lot seeing the production. More than feeling pride or respect, the overwhelming emotion I felt was sorrow. I was sorry that we couldn’t protect them, and it was then that I decided I should turn the musical into a film.”

The film stars actors Kim Go-eun, Jo Jae-yoon, Bae Jung-nam, Lee Hyun-woo, and Park Jin-joo as fellow independence activists fighting for the nation’s freedom during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.

Veteran actor Na Moon-hee stars as Cho Maria, Ahn’s mother.

Chung Sung-hwa portrays late independent activist Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, at a railway station in Harbin, China, in 1909.[CJ ENM]
Chung Sung-hwa portrays late independent activist Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, at a railway station in Harbin, China, in 1909.[CJ ENM]

Na Moon-hee portrays Cho Maria, Ahn’s mother. [CJ ENM]
Na Moon-hee portrays Cho Maria, Ahn’s mother. [CJ ENM]

“[The other reason why] I decided to do this project was because of the narrative between Ahn, not as the usual figure that is an independence activist but as a person, and his mother,” Yoon said. “Their relationship really touched my heart when I first saw the musical. If ‘Ode to My Father’ was dedicated to my father, then I can say ‘Hero’ is about my mother.”

Chung, along with the rest of the cast, said that they had difficulty juggling both singing and acting. All of the musical numbers in the film were sung by the actors as they were on the set.

“On stage, every meticulous detail of the sound system was adjusted for the convenience of the actors and also for the audience,” Chung said. “But on set, that’s difficult to adjust, and sometimes the actors had to sing while barely being able to the background music. Also, in the film, sometimes our facial expressions would look unnatural when we’re hitting the high notes, so we had to walk that fine line between singing and acting in close-up scenes so that it wouldn’t hinder the audience’s screen experience.”

Director Yoon Je-kyun’s musical film “Hero,” adapted from the musical production with the same title, will hit the local theaters next month. [CJ ENM]
Director Yoon Je-kyun’s musical film “Hero,” adapted from the musical production with the same title, will hit the local theaters next month. [CJ ENM]

Korean musical films in the local box office have not seen much commercial success due to the seemingly forced transition between singing and acting, which Chung says the cast was well aware of.

“One aspect that I worked really hard on was trying to sound natural when I was both acting and singing on the set,” Chung said. “During singing scenes, I didn’t try to compose myself [to sing better] but instead focused on the emotions of the character. I was worried that such portrayals would seem overwhelming or excessive when it gets adapted to the screen, but I also tried to make them sound natural.”

The film, which was originally set to be released in 2020, was pushed back for almost three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When released next month, “Hero” will be competing for ticket-buyers coins with the much-anticipated sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” by James Cameron, 13 years after “Avatar” (2009) came out. “Avatar” also saw huge commercial success in Korea, which sits at No. 8 for all-time box office hits, having sold over 13 million tickets.

“Somehow, we are releasing the film around the same time as ‘Avatar,’” Yoon said. “To be honest, I hope both films do well so that it can be a turning point in the recovery for local cinemas, which have been in a slump.”

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]