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‘The King’s Letters’ takes soft approach for release: Despite controversy and tragedy around film, it will be in theaters as planned

July 16,2019
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From left, director Cho Chul-hyun and actors Song Kang-ho and Park Hae-il speak at a press conference held at Megabox Coex in southern Seoul on Monday. The production company Doodoong Pictures decided to refrain from further promotion after the event out of respect for the late actor Chun Mi-sun. [NEWS1]
“The King’s Letters,” featuring the late actor Chun Mi-sun, will be released in local theaters as originally scheduled, but the film’s promotion will be limited to one press conference.

The historical fiction film gained unwanted attention recently for two matters: One, the weekend after a press conference for the film was held, actor Chun died by suicide at a hotel in Jeonju, North Jeolla. While the cast and crew of the film were still in shock following the news, the publishing company Nanok filed for an injunction against the film’s production company, Doodoong Pictures, on July 2. Nanok accused Doodoong Pictures of “making a film without the consent of the original author.” The company published writer Park Hae-jin’s book “The Way of Hunminjeongeum, Biography of Ven. Hyegak” (2014), which reorganized historical evidence to uncover another hidden, but key character who contributed in creating the national letter system hangul, Buddhist monk Shin-mi.

However, the production company quickly refuted the charges, telling local press that their work was based on their own historical findings. According to their official statement, the company personally visited Park to discuss the historical findings and paid the author for his consultation.

“As the audience will come to realize while watching the film, [it is] a creative production that did not adapt any other original works,” said Doodoong Pictures CEO Oh Seung-hyun at the beginning of a press conference held on Monday. “We have not reached an agreement with [the publishing company] and are simply waiting for the court decision.”

When asked about the motive behind the film, the director gave a more specific answer than the previous press event. “The critical evidence came from a theme park I visited in front of Haein Temple in Hapcheon County, South Gyeongsang, years ago,” Cho stated. “At the park, there was a map which traces how the Tripitaka Koreana spread from India, Tibet, Khitan, Goryeo and to Japan. I was mesmerized by the map and this made me think that the map was not merely a road of how Tripitaka Koreana was spread, but a journey of how phonograms developed.” After he saw the map, he dug deeper into the research and discovered that majority of the sounds were originally made by Buddhist monks.

As a producer and a scriptwriter in the film industry for 33 years, Cho has worked on an especially large number of historical dramas, his most recent being “The Throne” (2014) featuring actor Song Kang-ho and Yoo Ah-in as King Yeongjo and Crown Prince Sado set in Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Even with all of his experience, Cho admits that he is still unsure how to find the right balance between fiction and facts.

“I think that even documentaries cannot be entirely truthful because the work was created from the producer’s perspective,” he said. “So instead of focusing on that, I tried to focus on the relationships between the characters, and each characters’ own desires and motivation for creating the hangul.”

A veteran producer of historical dramas, Cho and rest of the film’s producers spent months persuading the Cultural Heritage Administration to allow them to actually film the movie in Unesco World Heritage sites such as Haein Temple, which houses the Tripitaka Koreana, and Muryangsu Hall of Buseok Temple in North Gyeongsang to make the movie more visually pleasing.

Most importantly, Cho wanted to delve into the specific process of creating the hangul system - a process through which people can relate to and feel for themselves how beautiful the process of creating the letters with ink, brush and hanji (traditional Korean paper) was.

At the event, Cho, Song, and Park Hae-il paid their respects to the late Chun. When asked to compare Chun’s acting to Queen Soheon, Cho said that he had no right to do so.

“As I’ve said before, the film is ultimately about one worthy leader and two followers,” he said. “The leader is Queen Soheon, who sometimes patiently - and sometimes strictly - guided King Sejong and monk Shin-mi to their greatness.”

“All of us - the staff and the actors are grieving over the tragedy,” Song added. “I feel like it’s a kind of twisted fate, but I want the viewers to see the film as a beautiful story that overcame its part of sadness.”

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