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Yeon Sang-ho is open to all forms of storytelling: The animator and ‘Train to Busan’ director has recently released web comic ‘The Hell’

Oct 07,2019
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Director/storyteller Yeon Sang-ho talks about the various stories he wants to tell in his office in western Seoul. [JEON TAE-GYU]
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At top are illustrations from "The Hell," showing grim reapers arriving to take the "bad" to hell. Above, behind the scenes on the set of the film “Train to Busan,” director Yeon Sang-ho works with actor Gong Yoo. [CHOI GYU-SEOK, NEXT ENTERTAINMENT WORLD]
Writing on a blank sheet of paper can be difficult, even terrifying for some. But not for director and a storyteller Yeon Sang-ho, who believes that anyone can cook up a story.

Those with keen eyes may have noticed a new web comic series on Korea’s top portal site Naver that is being published under familiar names: Yeon, the director of the hit film “Train to Busan,” and the popular cartoonist Choi Gyu-seok, the author of the popular web comics “Gimlet.” The duo are collaborating on a new web comic titled “The Hell.”

The story is set in the present, but in a society where mysterious and horrifying creatures act as grim reapers to take “bad” people to hell, giving them an exact date and time when they will be picked up. The story derives from Yeon’s 2003 short animated series of the same title, in which people live in a society where they are aware that heaven and hell really exist. The angels foretell those who are about to die and announce whether they would be placed in heaven or hell based on their good deeds or crimes while living on earth and what degree of punishment they will be enduring if they end up in the latter.

“These days, I want to try out anything that I find it interesting or entertaining,” said Yeon in the interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. The press had a chance to sit down with the director and got to hear from horse’s mouth all about his latest works, including his webtoon series “The Hell,” his sequel to the “Train to Busan” (2016) as well as his debut as a scriptwriter for the upcoming drama series “The Cursed” (tentatively titled).

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.




Q. What made you decide to make a web comic series?

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I’ve been friends with Choi for a long time. We were drinking beer two years ago, and the idea just came up. We’ve never collaborated together and so we thought about creating another story out of my previous animation “The Hell.” So, I wrote the script, and we met like twice a week to brainstorm and expand the plot. Our aim was to just have a chance to work together and fool around.

I’ve always loved comics, and I like Choi’s work as well. Although comics take a lot of time and effort, [I think] it’s the most convenient medium that creators can make because we aren’t working off someone else’s money or investment. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up because I really admire Choi’s works.

Since we have both of our names in print, our tastes are more evenly distributed when [it was just me directing]. Before, Choi used to design the characters for me, and based on that character design, I would work with other illustrators to create the rest of my works, like my other animated works “The King of Pigs” (2011) and “The Fake” (2013). But this time, Choi was the director and I was the scriptwriter. It was my first time to write for someone else.



What is the message you’re trying to spread with “The Hell”?

I hope the comic can become one of those pieces of art that throws a question into the world. We think that we live in a very rational world but in some aspects [of society] we go back to primitive or theocratic states in the blink of an eye. So I wanted to paint a world in which we could return to a society that believes in divinity, [but ironically], we get there through rationality.



Some of the fans of the original animation say that the web comic might be a prequel. Is this true?

As the animated film spread on the Internet, people around me became interested in its cinematic universe. They have been suggesting that there could be other stories waiting to be told from within the universe. I also like omnibus novels, dramas and films, and one of the old American TV series that I loved was “The Twilight Zone.” It’s like today’s “Black Mirror,” and I thought I could maybe spin a series of stories like that with “The Hell.”

So it’s not as much as writing the prequel to my previous films, but to really construct a new universe. I think I approached the comics with a fresh eye and mind. It might sound far-fetched, but I wanted to create a series like Star Wars that I could live off from for, let’s say, 20 years from now on. A story where more stories can continue to proliferate, which is also connected to the reason why I chose the medium of comics. I personally like them as well, but in the case of Japanese comics, they can run for 10 years. It’s totally different from movies. Films are released, and they are out in theaters for only a brief period of time, so I thought it was more convenient financially to expand my imagination in the comics.

As for “The Hell,” we just started to publish them serially, so I think it will take about a year to finish the first part and another year to finish the second part.



Your works always seems to contain both fantasy and realistic aspects of contemporary society. Do the real parts derive from your own experiences?

I believe it does. I jot down notes about my views, feelings and experiences, and the stories are created when they meet a proper fable. I think the most important factor in creating a story is when what the creator feels combines with a good fable to create a natural story.

When I was younger, I thought that only bad, horrible things existed in the world. And that is how I saw it as well. For instance, when I saw a touching story or something good on television, they felt strange and surreal to me. I believed that they were all lies. But as I got older, I think my perspective changed a bit. I think this generation is transitioning into one where one tries to make a better place for people to live in it rather than just complaining about it.



Did your change of perspective affect the ending of “Train to Busan”? Some people have commented that it was very unlike you to end the film with a possibility of hope.

I don’t think it’s important that the world becomes a zombie world or not. That doesn’t decide the happy endings, and it actually connects with the message I want to give in my sequel “The Peninsula” too. It’s more important to see how people live and their mindsets [rather than the environment]. We may live unhappily in a good world or vice versa. For some people, they may not believe that the film ended on a hopeful note, like I used to when I was young. But I would rather want [the audience] to get a positive message [than negative].

If we probe deeper into it, it’s endless to discuss whether or not the ending is positive or negative. There can be so many perspectives about how people view the story, and it’s mostly about which phase I would choose to end the story to generate certain kinds of opinions or thoughts. As all artworks go, I think that what kind of discussions arise from the film is what’s important. The end isn’t really the end. So it’s trivial to me whether or not the film has a bad or happy ending.



Are writing stories difficult? How do you construct your universes or stories?

Actually, I think that anyone can write stories. I don’t think stories can be judged or defined whether or not their narratives are strong or weak. There are stories that don’t really fit into what normal people think are logical. Of course, they won’t be commercially successful, but for me, I like some of those genre’s novels and comics because they are unusual or eccentric. Those kinds of minor works also have a power, like Albert Camus’s novel “The Stranger.” I admire those stories with strong personal views that may not be understood by the masses. I also wanted to try to write a novel that wouldn’t have been understood by the majority, but I couldn’t. Actually, in January 2018, I published a graphic novel “The Face,” but not many people know about it.

As for how I write my stories, although I chose writing as one of my professions, I don’t write that well or have any particular method or standard [on writing]. I mean, when looking at writing as a form of art, I can’t write like an experienced writer. I lack the linguistic skills and literacy to do that. But anyone can write a story if they know how to type or know words. That’s what makes the writing so appealing to me.

My inspirations these days come from what I used to like when I was young. I think about why I used to like “The Twilight Zone” so much before and what aspects attracted or excited me. I think it’s important that people get to feel the thrill that I’d felt when I came across something that I’d liked so much, so I’m trying to recover those feelings.

Before, I was focused on what kind of message I want to share or technical things, but now I’m trying to recreate the excitement that I’d felt when I was a kid. So I’m looking through old films and comic books, like “The Terminator 2” (1991). That came out when I was in middle school, and I remember feeling so excited to see the film in theaters.



What about the TV series you worked on? Tell us more about that.

It’s an occult series about shamanism. While “The Hell” is centered more on religion, this is more about local shamanism. When we think of the occult genre, exorcism based on the Catholic Church is really well-organized and depicted. Of course, there are films like “The Wailing” (2016), but I wanted a more local occult genre series to be produced. In Japan, there are films like the “Ju-on” series that spun some really good stuff out of ghost stories, but I don’t think the local occult genre is developed like that. While I thought maybe someone else could develop the genre, a drama production insider suggested that I try writing a drama script. So I did.

Although writing out scripts for episodes was definitely longer, I had fun because it was like publishing my own web novel series. [At first] I started writing without any intention to show it to someone. But I showed them around as I wrote out more episodes, and the response [ I got] wasn’t that bad. So I told [the insider] about it, and the company decided to produce it into a drama series.



Is there any other medium that you want to explore?

I want to publish a picture book someday - I also preferred books with pictures more than books without them when I was young. The picture books were like a primitive form of entertainment where one could visualize the story and the words together before films were created. Recently in the United States, a picture book titled “The Electric State” was published last year. For it, the famous illustrator Simon Stalenhag published a collection of his paintings and a story into a picture book. It can be enjoyed by everyone, just like “Gundam” or “Star Wars,” so if there is an interesting enough story to turn into a picture book, it would be fun to try it out.

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