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This summer, Younggu Art's Dragon Wars: D-War battled its way to the top of the Korean box office, and made a formidable dent when released in the United States. Producer James Kang talks about the process of making and marketing a film that refuses to be categorized, culturally or artistically.
When I first heard about the action blockbuster D-War in the summer of 2007, like most people, I conceived of it as a "Korean" production, even though it was an English-language film set predominantly in Los Angeles. To me, it seemed to be just another Asian film set in the United States.
But two facts got me thinking that perhaps the story wasn't so easy. First, D-War (re-titled Dragon Wars) was opening in the U.S. on an unprecedented 2,200 screens, meaning that this production has the ambition to be more than an "Asian" film. Second, much of its production and administrative crew was made up of Los Angeles-based Korean Americans, further complicating previously fixed ideas of "Korean" or "American" cinema.
Amongst those Korean Americans is James Kang, a determined thirty-something who studied creative writing at UC Berkeley and ultimately found his way to the L.A. branch of Korean effects studio Younggu Art, symbolically located between Beverly Hills and L.A.'s Koreatown. There, he became the producer of comedian/director Shim Hyung-rae's high-concept monster movie, D-War. Kang's contributions helped the film become one of the highest-grossing films in Korean box-office history (number five, at last count). With the rest of the Younggu Art Los Angeles crew, Kang launched a U.S. campaign that managed to land the film in the top five in its opening weekend, not a small feat for an independent film with no major stars and a meager advertising budget.
APA interviewed Kang at the Younggu Art Los Angeles headquarters, a shockingly modest set-up that looks more frat house than effect house, yet has a low-key charm that seduces visitors with its residents' can-do spirit. The spontaneous, yet distinguished feel of the environs matched Kang's demeanor. As the producer, he's also a businessman when answering questions; however, at the same time he's unafraid of candor, providing his thoughts on Dragon Wars' unusual brand of humor, the film's less-than-enthusiastic reviews, and the undying dilemma of the Asian American audience. --Brian Hu
Interview with James Kang, producer of Dragon Wars: D-War
Interview by Brian Hu and Oliver Chien
September 19, 2007
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you say something about your background and how you got involved in filmmaking?
James Kang: My background is more in literature and creative writing. I was writing fiction at the time I met director Shim [Hyung-rae]. The moment I saw the commercial reel -- the pre-viz material -- I thought, wow what an ambitious scope. What an undertaking. Of course, I knew the director beforehand as an important entertainer and a popular comedian. I was pretty familiar with his fame and celebrity.
A number of years had gone into prepping before I was introduced to the project [D-War]. I knew that there was a lot of work left to do -- this was before casting and a finalized script. When I came on board, I was really more of the assistant to the executive producer in the Los Angeles branch of Younggu Art. And gradually, by befriending the director and becoming more invested in the direction of the picture, I became a bona-fide producer of the project. Seeing the future of the film in the United States [market], the director and I envisioned the path together.
We put together a fully-experienced, Hollywood IATSE crew; we worked with SAG, the Directors Guild, we hired teamsters. Preceding our production as a Korean company, there's been a history of a lot of crooked Korean companies that have exploited the labor of local filmmakers and fled without paying. A bad reputation preceded us. So you can imagine how rounding up a non-union crew is difficult enough, but going after very experienced crew members through IATSE wasn't easy, and convincing them that we were going to pull off what we set off to took a lot of negotiation. SAG made allowances for us to shoot as a low-budget picture. We did what we could to make sure we shot the film out. That was the most critical part of it. We had a very limited budget, but you have a big company in Korea with lots of people on payroll, so you're burning through a lot of money monthly.
APA: Did you hire Korean crew in Korea?
JK: The Korean production side of it mostly was shot by Korean crew, although the cinematographer was hired here first and came with us to Korea. He really did a very commendable job in working with the Korean production and commanded their respect and made friends there.
APA: How much of the crew in LA would you say was Korean and how much of it was local?
JK: In terms of the visual effects, we had our studio guys from Korea come over and set up all of the plate shots and to guide the actors in front of the blue screen. They were an important part of the production at all times. But our camera crew, lighting crew, and grip were all IATSE crew from the United States. When we were shooting in LA, all of our actors were obviously English-speaking. 95% American. We had a pretty mixed cast; we had a number of black actors (the co-lead was Craig Robinson), we had Elizabeth Peña and Aimee Garcia also. It was a very-Los Angeles demographic, shot in Los Angeles, made by Koreans. It was filmmaking of the 21st century in many ways.
APA: Often when we think of films made in Asia about America, they tend to really stereotype Americans: everyone has blonde hair and blue eyes. Whose idea was it to go with diversity?
JK: I think we had a very good casting director named Christine Sheaks, who cast movies like Fargo, Barton Fink, Hudsucker Proxy, Boogie Nights. A lot of those are made independently. She has a talent to really recruit actors who see a project for what it is, and how they fit into it, and what they bring to it. She brought us Jason Behr, with whom she'd worked with in previous pictures. And Robert Forster she brought in.
We were really tossing back and forth between Robert Forster and Cheech Marin. Why Cheech Marin? If you look at the movie, there's an element -- I don't like to call it campiness because it has underhandedly suggests "b-movie" cheesiness or whatnot -- but a kind of humor that's translated humor from a comedian who writes and performs slapstick and gags for the stage. To have that kind of humor translated through American, English-speaking actors, only came off as sometimes what people call "wooden acting" or "bad acting." There's a level of subtlety and real comedy that a lot of people really aren't getting. So when I talk about my wanting to cast Cheech Marin, it's not simply the over-the-top kind of comedy, but a kind of comedy that you really haven't seen in American filmmaking quite yet. I don't want to call this movie a big hit cult film either, because even that has its own strange connotations too, but it's a combination of all of that: camp, cult, and big fantasy, tent-pole movie style. Who's going to take a risk in Hollywood over this kind of oddball film with huge production value? I don't think any executive in Hollywood is going to make that kind of movie. I thought we had a really unique film.
APA: Since the film was written in Korean, did you feel that the translation of the dialogue into English would be mistranslated?
JK: So many people have had their hands on it: we had American editors finish the film, wrestling with the director's vision, challenging the director's vision. I'm hoping that the director's sensibilities can become known. I look at the blogs and the internet responses, and what I see is that a lot of people just not getting it: they expected something else and got something else. I just feel that the general audience isn't willing to lend a sense of humor to the movie. They want a classic monster movie like Godzilla of the Toho variety…. I'm still trying to analyze the disconnect between audiences here.
APA: I was looking at the blogs too and it seemed like a lot of people didn't know what to do with a Korean legend as the basis of the movie. I could see how that's a tricky thing: allowing the legend to be funny, but also to treat it respectfully. I think a lot of people took it as something really bizarre. Was that something that was in the back of your head while you were planning the movie?
JK: The legend wasn't constricting at all. The legend is folklore. It's not even as prominent as it is in the Loch Ness Monster or something like that. People talk about it -- less so in urban Seoul perhaps, but in the provinces people still say "I dreamed of an Imoogi or a dragon and it bodes well," so they'll buy a lottery ticket, or they think they'll get pregnant. It's just one of those types of things. It's prevalent in the public consciousness enough that the director felt he could base the plot on mythical lore. That's really what it was: just taking a popular phenomenon in Korea and generating a story that can be universally told.
It's premised on the reincarnation of a Korean person 500 years later into a white person in Los Angeles. It's a jump, but it's asking for a complete suspension of disbelief, because it is a fantasy that's based on a legend. It is what it is; how could you not get that? Monsters from legends in the modern day battling tanks: it's really a stroke of brilliance as well. How do you take a very very Korean story, and how do you bring that story into the Los Angeles skyline? How do you cast English speaking actors? It's just one way to have done it, and I think it's really a brilliant way to construct a plot.
APA: I agree that having them reincarnated in Los Angeles is very provocative -- even scandalous -- because it's not the same as the Loch Ness Monster or something European being reincarnated here. That jump from Asian to American is pretty big for a regular American audience to take. But I think that's what makes the movie provocative. I don't know if I'm being crazy here, but Jason Behr's character is almost like an Asian American: an American with an Asian soul or something.
JK: Yeah, yeah. He has to deal with the fact that, "Oh maybe I was Asian back then. What is it about me? I'm so weird." Yeah, it's a "let's get over it kind of thing." [laughs]
APA: To me, that's a huge jump, and I think for a lot of people, that takes a huge suspension of disbelief. You say it's universal, but I don't think it's the same way as if, say, he was reincarnated from Europe.
JK: I guess at one point, I was a graduate student, heavily involved in Asian American history and the writing of it, the representation of Asian Americans, and all of that. Obviously, I could have analyzed this "jump" to death -- this seamless traversing of racial identification. To me, I think it's not to trivialize racial identification at all, but to say, well it's sometimes incidental -- how you're born, how you speak. That's just really where I come from, politically. I don't dismiss it; quite the contrary, I'm a student of racial histories in the United States, and I've written about racialized social movements and all that stuff. But this is a movie. And I think I never had a problem with making those leaps.
APA: Well, I think the idea is that people could be open-minded to this -- as open-minded as you are.
JK: Yeah, in some ways, I prefer to see it as utopian in desire, to not have these racial boundaries. They only become a problem when it's prejudice or discrimination. It suggests that anybody in the present who imagines back in history -- to a point when it becomes mythical or legend -- then race doesn't matter.
APA: We've been talking about the American context; do you think race matters in Korea, as when audiences see white characters in a Korean film?
JK: It surprisingly hasn't been one of the issues at all. It's not that people don't care, it just hasn't been a problem. The negative bloggers don't complain, "How come they're born as white kids?" It just hasn't been an issue at all.
APA: Do they even see it as a good thing?
JK: The people sort of say, "Where's the plot in the movie? The movie has holes." That is part of the plot, and part of the mechanism of the plot (the reincarnation). It's a big plot point, and it's there. It's not like there's no explanation. There is enough explanation why Jason Behr is a reborn Korean person.
APA: Monster movies are often studied such that the monster is supposed to stand for a political or social problem. Did you feel that people would interpret the Asian army attacking LA as reflecting a kind of anxiety about Asians?
JK: Some of my friends who I talk to regularly sometimes analyze the Imoogi (the big snake) as the "return of the repressed, rage, anger." But it's not really, because I know the director intimately, and he has a very deep love and affection for American culture. And I think he knows that Korean modern history is very intertwined with the U.S. presence in Korea to this day, and understands fully that the U.S. was integral in shaping the future of modern-day Korea. He's not dismissive of the hegemony of the U.S. in Korean culture, or that sort of thing. He grew up loving big, large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Ten Commandments. He's a big fan of Spielberg, and he strives to become a Spielberg or a Lucas. So I think he's more embracing of things that are good about American culture, so it'd be too simplistic to say that this giant creature reflects subconscious desires or rage or anger. In a way, it's more funny: he's here to take over, not in an invasion, but he's here to make a presence known. He wants to be part of Hollywood and a very global entertainment industry. It's not really about rage, even though even if you look at the creature, it does seem full of rage. [laughs]
APA: A reason I ask, is that I think a lot of people will be thinking about The Host when they watch the film, for obvious reasons. In that film, the creature is seen as to stand for some anti-American sentiments.
JK: I think people do see that film as an allegory of the mutations that have taken place in Korea as a result of callous attitudes of the military people. But that's also just a premise to launch a film. It's kind of like a Spielbergian film as well. Just as War of the Worlds is about a dysfunctional family, it's the same thing as The Host. It's just a premise. I think the analysts of The Host really make too much of it. It's a premise, just in the way we can say the reincarnation is just the premise of Dragon Wars. Where do you see the military in The Host continuously in the story? I don't. It's just where the creature came from, but in no way does it consistently represent political resentment of the Koreans against the Americans. I think it's giving the film a little too much credit to take it that way.
APA: Going back to the Korean presence in the film. I think a lot of people noticed that in the trailer and ads downplay the fact that there's a Korean legend behind, and that it is even a Korean production. Is that a marketing strategy?
JK: It's a marketing strategy based on limitations of budget. We're competing with studio P/A spending that quadruples ours. We have a very limited window of opportunity to expose the film to American audiences. The film was originally titled D-War. Because the film was in production for so long, and in Korea it was already well known, "D-War" has caught on from the get-go. In the advertising campaign to put this across the nation, it would take two months at least for the general audience to figure out what the D in D-War stands for. So the decision was first of all to change the title to Dragon Wars.
We have 30 second TV spots, 15 second TV spots, and a 90 second theatrical trailer. In the theatrical trailer, you do see ancient Korea, because we have a little more time to introduce some of the storyline. You do see that it's a movie that starts in another time and another place. In the 30 second TV commercial, you don't have the opportunity say this is a story that takes place in Korea 500 years ago, and these people are reincarnated. To track the audiences and represent the movie as a summer-blockbuster movie was really what the marketing decision was about.
APA: Were you focusing on certain markets more than others?
JK: Top 25 markets. There's a strategy to buying ads. You can buy ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, and people all over the country can see. But that costs millions of dollars just to have a few ads on whatever program. We can't compete on that level. So even if you want advertising on NBC, you have to buy it through the local stations, and you focus on the major markets. We're expected to show box office numbers, but you have a fraction of the resources that a studio has. But I think that what we did at the box office [the number five ranking for the weekend] is really a success for us, and the studio executives call me up to congratulate me. That's really because they know how much we've spent, and they know what it takes in terms of marketing to get the viewers. For us, it sets us up to become a very legitimate production company set in Los Angeles. People who have been tracking us for a long time will see us as a success. We're not a one-shot-off type of production company.
APA: Given the limits of your advertising budget, to what extent was the Korean American audience targeted or not targeted?
JK: To tell you the truth, that's been the biggest disappointment at the box office. Especially from the Korean immigrant community where there was enough awareness -- at least 50% awareness in the Korean American community. Say there're 1.25 million Korean residents. Including all the transients, businesspeople, and temporary guests here, we're looking at close to 2 million in the United States. We were hoping that the advertising message would reach at least 25% of them. And that would mean 500,000 people. My estimate would is that we probably had about 15,000 or 20,000 Koreans actually occupying seats in theaters. That makes a difference between a 5 million dollar weekend, and a potentially 10 million dollar weekend.
APA: Did you advertise in Korean language media?
JK: They were not bought advertisement. They were more coverage. I was hoping that we'd have a story like The Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the Greek community supported it en masse; that the core audience or the bedrock could be created by Koreans and Korean Americans. I'm surprised to see Korean American bloggers being very disassociative, dis-identifying this film as a "Korean" movie. The level of expectation is so high that you see Korean Americans saying this is not reflective of the kinds of Korean movies that are getting worldwide accolades, like Oldboy. Everyone's going to say that's more representative of "Korean" filmmaking, even though it's based on a Japanese manga. Or Kim Ki-duk, who in my view represents the underbelly, the pariah side of Korean society, in not a very positive image.
APA: And Koreans don't even watch his films.
JK: That's the ignorance of world-wide audiences and festival judges. It's sort of a new Orientalism: in Korea, in the backwater country, these types of gangsters who run prostitution rings, or you know. It's a fine movie, I enjoy Bad Guy too, but for Korean films to only be recognized for those kinds of movies is really leaving out another type of huge ambition. Those are three, four, five films that get world wide recognition -- The Host, Oldboy, Kim Ki-duk's films -- and there are at least 80 to 100 films a year in Korea. So it really doesn't speak highly of Korean filmmaking, in my view. So I say to the Korean Americans who feel like they're only going to identify with movies that are endorsed by the intelligentsia of film, think twice. This is only the start of a kind of filmmaking that reach far wider audiences. The business model for Younggu Art and Yougngu Art Los Angeles is to create the Pixar or the ILM: it's a bigger vision. People can say or think what they want about Dragon Wars and its weaknesses and plot points and acting, but things have to be put in perspective.
APA: Did you guys do tracking for Dragon Wars?
APA: Were Korean Americans part of it?
JK: Yeah, it depended on where our research company pulled their demographics from, some of it is in Orange County and places like that. So it was a very Southern California demographic.
APA: I think this disappointment about the Korean American response stands in direct contrast to Bollywood, where Indian Americans don't care about bad acting. Rather they celebrate it, because it's from India. And there's no press, no publicity, yet they all know when these films are in theaters. Do you think this kind of model is something you can achieve here, or is it not going to happen any time soon?
JK: To be fair to people who are very scrutinous and critical -- in fact, I myself am that way, I just happen to be the producer of this picture -- I understand plenty what the critics point out are weaknesses. There's just an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and criticism, and those speak so much louder than the kind of commentary that says, "you know what, it was a fun movie, and my 12 year-old enjoys it."
APA: I kind of enjoyed the New York Times review of the film; it was a good sign that there is that kind of positive review.
JK: Yeah. I think Andy Webster (the critic for the New York Times who wrote the article) was fully aware of the bloggers and the negative reviews in Daily Variety. He knows of the cultural phenomena that surrounds D-War in Korea. Being aware of that, he probably wants to "one-up" other critics, in a certain sense. He's saying, "What's the big deal? What are you guys talking about? This is a monster movie, get that right." [laughs] He has the right perspective on the movie. People try to use the New York Times to say, "Look, he's actually making fun of the movie and the fact that people laugh at the movie." Well, I don't really buy that so much, because he is being sincere. He's not saying this is an example of "A-filmmaking" or whatnot, but to just have the right attitude about it. There are so many different kinds of filmmaking out there. I mentioned earlier that this movie has a certain kind of sense of humor. I think he caught on to that.
APA: I think the challenge might be to "educate" the critics, or simply to let them be aware of the context in which this film was made. You didn't screen the film for critics...
JK: We didn't screen it for critics. We made no attempt to educate the critics. We didn't reach out to the critics. I think that by the time the early bad reviews came out, it might have set a tone. The economic significance for the Korean film industry kind of set the tone. It's a major production coming out of Korea, so people set an economic bar, rather than looking at the film for what it delivers. So they're comparing the film to King Kong, Lord of the Rings, and Transformers, instead of looking at the film for what it is, and the uniqueness of the humor. Its reverence towards one monotonous genre. That's kind of the attitude in Andy Webster's review, too.
APA: You mentioned that Younggu Art has other films lined up. Are any of those made in English with an eye on the American audience?
JK: There is an underlying business model, which is to reach as many audiences. When you've created a special effects studio, the kind of budget going forward on every project that we handle is not going to be served by a very small Korean market. Even though it's not small anymore -- I think it's the sixth or seventh biggest market in the world now, right behind Germany -- that being our business model, most of our productions (but not all) are aimed at a worldwide audience, and that does mean an English-language movie. There's always going to be Korean elements because the director's Korean.
APA: So what do you see as the function of Younggu Art's branch in Los Angeles within this larger scheme?
JK: I think it's a connection to Hollywood. Through constantly spending time together in LA, it's also to acculturate our Younggu Art studio in Korea -- to acculturate not in terms of lifestyles, but in terms of the sensibilities of Korean Americans. All of us here in this office are Korean American, with the exception of the one person transferred here from the Korean office. There're five of us here, and we are the Younggu Art Los Angeles branch, and it's on our shoulders to, in five years, become a major effects house studio. I think there's an uncompromising desire in us all to do that. I see it as a noble challenge. Why not? Why does ILM have to go to Singapore to set up its farm? Fuck that. I'm going to bring the farm to the city [laughs].
Date Posted: 9/21/2007