Still only 50, Choi Dong-hoon has been a front-runner among Korean directors for at least the past 15 years, with hits under his belt including “The Thieves,” “Assassination” and “Tazza: The High Rollers.” Now he is driving the Korean industry’s exploration of sci-fi.
The film is a genre-bending caper in which two gurus from the Koryo Dynasty search for a time-bending blade and unexpectedly cross paths with modern-day folk hunting down a dangerous alien hidden inside a human body.
The result has plenty in common with “Jeon Woochi,” a period actioner that is another of Choi’s hits, but amped with richer visuals and cleverer VFX. The scale of its ambition fits the billing as the first part of a two-film franchise.
Choi spoke to Variety after recovering from a bout of COVID that prevented him travelling to the New York festival.
Variety: Please explain the thinking behind the criss-cross story in “Alienoid.”
Choi Dong-hoon: “I don’t believe there is any 100% new story. But it is a film director’s job to make sure that stories are told with a brand new structure. In the case of “Alienoid” these two worlds, past and the present day, meet somewhere. I wanted to make sure that the structure of that meeting would be thrilling to watch.
Similarly, whenever I work on action scenes, I want to make those sequences ever more thrilling and fun to watch.
As a director you always have choices. You could have an alien spacecraft land in the middle of an urban area and go to battle in the middle of a city. We’ve seen that before. But what if I put that spacecraft into an underground parking lot? It is a space we all feel very familiar with. Somewhere we go every day. That’s when the true invasion happens, the invasion of your private space.
There seems to be a growing interest in Korean cinema in the sci-fi genre. What is happening here?
Unlike the western world, Korea has no history of sci fi novels. In the West, sci-fi novels came first. And sci fi films followed the literature. The sci-fi trend within Korean cinema today comes purely from the directors’ curiosity. What kind of things can we make, what kind of stories can we tell within this genre?
I believe that “Alienoid” will be a reference for other sci-fi films that come later. But that doesn’t mean that I have to take responsibility for them. Other directors’ work comes from their own imagination and preferences.
With shooting spread over 13 months, this must be one of Korea’s longest and most expensive film productions Why was that?
Living through the pandemic and making the film during the pandemic, was so difficult. We were always washing our hands. Sanitizer went with us everywhere. But if you think about it, films even get made during war time. So why allow ourselves to be stopped? The CGI portion was always going to be a big component of this film and it was a bit of a burden for me. But as soon as we started shooting, I realized that the key was not the CGI, but the characters.
Similarly, all my actors initially felt a little uncomfortable, acting in front of the green screen. But we all understood that we were making a film about people, that the CGI would be around us and that our film was not there to show off CGI technology. Once I figured out the process, that became quite fun too.
And at the end of the day, everybody who was involved in this project, learned something.
As an example, the Madam Black character uses a mirror to enlarge her fists and grab the alien. When we were shooting that scene, our focus was not the realization of the hand itself, it was more about how someone could put their hand through the mirror without hurting herself.
How will you make the jump to Part Two?
All the characters in part one will now travel to the present day and embark on a new adventure. And some of the mysteries that were presented in the first part will be explained in the end.
Think of that scene at the end, with all these people whose roads are intertwined, they will end up departing and getting on with their own destiny. We plan to complete it next year.
How confident are you in the future of Korean cinema and the theatrical experience?
Movie theatres are experiencing huge chaos. And there’s growing doubt about whether theatres will be the place for mass entertainment. So, today, a lot of creators, including screenwriters and film directors, are leaning towards streaming today. However, I strongly believe that movie going experience will last forever.
Theatres have the ability to deliver a collective experience that is only possible inside a cinema. When I was little, right before the film started, I remember my heart always beat a little faster. Those moments when an audience inside a dark theater laughs together or is surprised together are moments of pure joy and timeless happiness.