Interviewed (through an interpreter) in Dallas, Texas, on April 17, 2012
Salfen: First of all, may I say that my father was in World War II, along with his brother, fighting in Germany, and I had two other uncles who served in the Pacific, so I very much appreciated the historical accuracy of the renditions of the combat.
Kang: Thank you.
Salfen: Was it difficult to re-create the combat in Manchuria and in the Ukraine and in Normandy and do it all in a historically verifiable way?
Kang: Of the three battlefronts, I would say the one in Manchuria was the most difficult to bring to the screen, because actually there’s very little historical record left. This is the battle where Japan probably sustained the largest casualties or fatalities in a single battlefield, and their forces were so completely annihilated that no real record-keeping remains. So we were very conscientious about making sure the clothing, the armament, the camp scenes – all these things were as close to the historical record as possible. But in that case there was very little that we had to go on, so it was a lot of digging (research), academic dissertations as well as interviews of actual participants. For example, a detail like how the Japanese soldiers would have saluted, we brought veterans onto the set to insure accuracy.
Salfen: It says “based on true events.” How much was true, and how much had to be filled in?
Kang: The historical reality of the film was the actual journey that takes place. The movie kind of got started from a single photograph, of a soldier who was captured as a POW at Normandy: and so the journey of a Korean man who started in Seoul, and ends up at Normandy, and wears three different military uniforms along the way. That’s the actual historical fact. The other parts of it are the story that we built around it.
Salfen: Very fascinating. (Pause.) (To the translator: How do you say that?)
(Translator: He understood that!) (Everyone laughs)
Salfen: How was your film received in Asia?
Kang: The Korean Army, of course, did not directly participate in World War Two, so our people have not considered it as “our war.” So it was a new idea to them that a Korean soldier would have participated, and that has generated some interest in my country. As for Japanese audiences, they appreciated seeing the bravery of the kamikaze and the samurai, but seeing Tatsuo’s transformation during the film was not as familiar to them, and not as comfortable. It’s been interesting to see the audience reaction in Korea and Japan versus other countries. Generally, they have not been as ready for this film as other places have been.
Salfen: Is there still a good deal of enmity between Korea and Japan?
Kang: It’s a really delicate issue, because from the outside, it looks like there is no problem, but when we see these continuing issues crop up: the territory fight over the small island between them, and the fight over the Japanese textbooks – what’s in there and what’s not – the issue of “the comfort women,” which has never been resolved – these are two countries not at war now, but these issues continue to agitate the psyche, so that the wounds never seem to have completely healed.
Salfen: The Normandy part was filmed in Latvia, correct?
Salfen: But it looked so much like the Normandy location. Was there some CGI (computer graphic imaging) used?
Kang: Actually, there was no enhancement; it was completely natural. We looked everywhere for just the right site, and when we saw this coastal line in Latvia, we just clapped, we were so ecstatic. “Saving Private Ryan” was actually filmed in Ireland, and our budget could not have accommodated that. But honestly, if Steven Spielberg had seen this location in Latvia, he might have chosen it instead! (Everyone laughs)
Salfen: You used a lot of extras for the battle scenes. How did you manage that?
Kang: Our budget didn’t allow for having a giant number of people, but if there was anything I learned from my last film (“Tae Guk Gi,” “The Brotherhood of War”), it was to make the least number count for the most bodies possible onscreen!
Salfen: The addition of the female sniper was an interesting injection of gender into a place otherwise not expected, especially her capture and subsequent beating. Did you feel you needed to handle that in a special way?
Kang: When we looked at the record of that conflict, it wasn’t just the Japanese and the Russians who were at war, but the Chinese were at war, also. And because some of the Japanese units were not actually strictly military, but almost like terrorist groups, there were records of the local populace taking it upon themselves to retaliate, and become snipers, to avenge their families. And that was part of the process of “growing the story out.” As for the gender issue, I had heard so many comments about the original script that it was so male (dominated), and maybe a little dry, this was one of the opportunities I did have (to broaden the focus), that also made sense inside the story.
Salfen: Just a hint of romance:
Translator (laughing): Yes, just a hint.
Kang: It gives hope.
Salfen: They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and yet I never saw anybody pray.
Kang: (Hmmm.) The person who prayed the most during this whole thing was probably me. (Everyone laughs) Praying to your God is probably a large part of anyone’s life. But because of the nature of the multinational cast, and staff, and different religions native to all those different cultures, I thought a scene of prayer would divert attention. And China, as a country, does not want overt displays of religiosity.
Salfen: Thank you so much.
Kang: (in English) Thank you so much.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.