Box office hit director Lee Byeong-heon graced this year’s London Korean Film Festival in-person. Since his award-winning film “Twenty,” Lee has a standout filmography in the history of Korean comedy; he has written classics like Scandal Makers and Sunny, and has previously earned the title “Best New Director Award” from Korean Film Actors Association Awards in 2015. Now, with his most recent release — an off-the-rails gangster-cop comedy delivered in a fried chicken pyramid scheme — “Extreme Job” has made its mark on Korean film history. Since its initial January release, “Extreme Job” has now risen to become the highest grossing comedy film ever in the South Korean box office and second most successful film of all time in Korean cinema, only following “Admiral” in theatrical success.
Months later in London, we have had the opportunity to talk to Lee up close. After all the heart-pounding adrenaline “Extreme Job” has to offer, Lee maintains a modest persona: dressed in all black (and a black cap to match, to boot), his modest attire comes as a surprise. So too does his subdued attitude; he responds only when spoken too, nestling snugly amid the neatly-organized bookshelves of the UK Korean Cultural Center. He smiles when we first mention his oeuvre.
“I was a fairly quiet person who doesn’t really laugh too much in real life — I kind of still am now — but I,” he says with a gleam in his eye, “I think comedies really changed me.”
He starts to open up, unfolding his previously-clasped hands to express his excitement. “A comedy excels with its dialogue; big blockbuster-like effects, like collapsing buildings and tsunamis and so on – don’t sit as well with me as comedy does. Take horror films for example – like the ones with all the blood and gore – they really make make me wince. Comedies, on the other hand… comedies make me feel at home.”
And in dialogue “Extreme Job” excels: with its witticisms laced with wordplay and sandwiched swears, the film’s central cast only reflects its dynamic script. With utmost respect for his entire cast – of whom he refers to consistently during the interview – Lee particularly points to Ryu Seong-ryeong as the key to success. “From the beginning, I felt he was the best fit for this role,” Lee admits. “By casting him, I could have more liberty with my other characters. I was looking for a typical five-person detective team, and he brought everyone together.”
The production process did not always run so smoothly though. Referencing his quiet personality, Lee confesses that he action scenes in “Extreme Job” were a bit of a stretch for him. “I’m not sure if I’ll do another action movie again anytime soon,” he laughs. He recounts one of his production days – where it was the hottest day in 110 years, but his actors had to run. “They had to rest for thirty minutes after each sprint. I hadn’t storyboarded every single cut in my head either, so we had to go for a minimalist aesthetic – one where we would make sure to only include the essentials. I felt like I rode off the energy of the set during shooting. Making an action film was harder than I anticipated. It’s physically, mentally, and literally taxing.”
Comedy though, is hard for Lee to let go. Though Universal Pictures and CJ Entertainment have just entered negotiations for an American remake (potentially starring Kevin Hart and Tracy Oliver behind the screenplay), Lee seems to be at peace. Though he will not be involved in the re-make, he sends his well-wishes. “More than anything, I love giving the audience a cathartic experience when they watch my films. I want to make it clear that in ‘Extreme Job,’ these ordinary people can become superheroes. I just hope they keep the film true the Korean version in this way – fun, lighthearted, and for audiences to enjoy everywhere.”