How Korea’s Cho Jin-woong Made ‘Ryuk-sa: A Teaser’ — A New Kind of Superhero Short Film

In his directorial debut, the South Korean actor chose to use humor and "everyday scenes and language" to create a novel superhero world. Now all he needs is to make it longer.

Ryuk-sa: A Teaser

Picture it: a pretty lady looking somewhat anxiously through a window with the sun shining gently upon her as she sits in a cafe with soft music playing on a record player in the background. Who could she be waiting for? Her lover perhaps? This is just a small taste of the opening sequence in Ryuk-sa: A Teaser, a superhero short film by South Korean actor Cho Jin-woong (The Devil’s Deal, The Handmaiden), and written by Cho and collaborator Park Hoon-young.

The film which is Cho Jin-woong’s directorial debut, had its international premiere at the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival is a smart and entertaining preview of a feature film Cho hope to have made some day. As a teaser — pun fully intended — it perfectly sets up a world where heroes can be anyone around us, like Han Bok-pan (Kim Sung-hoon) a member of High and Mighty, the local amateur baseball team who comes to the rescue of Oh Gyu-ra (Kim You-lee). Trapped under tons of crumbled concrete and twisted steel after a building collapses, Oh Gyu-ra screams for help in the hopes rescuers can find her in time, and once she does, it happens in the most unexpected and genuinely laugh out loud funny manner possible.

In an interview conducted via email, Cho Jin-woong  spoke about the idea of everyday heroes among us, and writing a story where the hero not only gets the woman of his dreams, and structuring a short film to serve as a complete story but create interest and curiosity about the characters and the possibilities this world has to offer to want more.

Observer:  I think it’s a great idea to use a short film to act as a preview for an intended feature film, and framing it around a specific event gives a whole story while leaving just enough for audiences to want more, was brilliant. When was Ryuk-sa: A Teaser first pitched to you, and what was your reaction to writer Park Hoon-young’s concept?

Cho Jin-woong: The idea for this film came more than 10 years ago. I accidentally came across the word “Ryuk-Sa” on the Internet. I clicked on it thinking it’s probably a “record of strong people” of some sort. I found a short article — I can’t even cite its exact source — that contained “stories of people who used physical strength.” I haven’t thought about this finding for a long time. Then one day, a thought went through my mind that their descendants might be the superheroes of today.

It’s not easy to forget the person who saves your life.

I worked on the script with Park Hoon-young. I told him the story, and he wrote it down. In other words, the script became the storyboard. This allowed me to keep every image in my head from the first scene to the last one. Though it’s only a 15-minutes-long short film, the strength is in that it is a preview of a feature film, which drives the curiosity of the audience.

Based on the story and props used, like the action figures in the café, it’s pretty obvious superheroes and the genre are a major aspect of the film, was making your first film about a superhero something you always dreamed of, and did that love of those types of characters make it easier to develop the story for filming?

Actually, no one around me was interested in this story, so I went ahead and made a short film out of it. You can think of it as a reference piece to get investors in making a feature film. I guess this film also shouts, “l wanna make more.”

I laughed throughout this film because it’s genuinely funny to me, and one of the things I really enjoy about it is how cleverly meta it is from the very beginning. The opening shot made me laugh because the literal name of the record shown translates to “preview” in English, which is another word for teaser, which is part of the film’s actual title. Whose idea was it to present the title that way, and who’s the singer performing the song being played?

I selected the song and its placement. Park came up with the idea for the record title, which I thought wasn’t a bad entrance to make, so I reflected the idea.

The song is by this Korean married couple who formed a duet called, Man and Wife Duet. It was recommended by a close acquaintance, and I just knew that it was a perfect song for this film.

Ryuk-sa: A Teaser

Would I be correct in guessing the song is referencing the plot, and telling the future, as the word preview means to give a hint at what’s to come?

Yes. The two characters are lovers, in the beginning stage of their love. That’s why I selected the song by Man and Wife Duet. It implies that their love will come to fruition by the end of the movie. In the feature film, they will appear as a married couple.

I thought the beginning was very interesting and different because it kind of sets up the story almost as a period film, perhaps in the late 30s due to the slightly hazy, dreamlike quality to the lighting around Kim You-lee’s character Oh Gyu-ra, but then the appearance of another couple, superhero figurines, and a man in a T-shirt creates this sudden unexpected funny moment, because you realize “Oh, wait…it’s set in the present!” How many of those little touches were in the script, or were thought of during filming?

The scene was actually intended to give a rather romantic feeling. I composed the shot with a continuous flow with the colors a bit blurry. It was also intended to contrast with the collapse scene. As for the figurines, they are symbolically placed to foreshadow the superhero genre.

Because Ryuk-sa: A Teaser is literally a teaser, we’re not given much information about the characters. For Oh Gyu-ra, what I got was that she’s careful about her surroundings in the way she sets the Superman figurine upright on the windowsill, tenacious and determined in how she survived underneath the rubble for as long as she did, and in finding Han Bok-pan (Kim Sung-hoon) with only a towel to use as a clue. Could these things be a little bit of foreshadowing about how she affects his life?

It’s not easy to forget the person who saved your life. I started the movie with the reuniting scene for two reasons. One, Gyu-ra must have a strong desire to repay Bok-pan for saving her life. Two, I built the story around a happy ending of a marriage. To add a little, a hero’s story always ends with two scenarios. Either the hero leaves with his back facing those who he/she saved, or the hero magically reappears in front of the story’s heroine. Bok-pan has done more than enough by saving Gyu-ra’s life, so I thought in my movie the heroine goes out to meet the hero again. Also, from the beginning, I had in mind that the person he marries should be an ordinary girl.

I didn’t want my hero to fit into a stereotype. I wanted to approach the audience with everyday scenes and language. The humor can be a bit silly but makes everything more approachable.

I noticed that not much of Han Bok-pan himself is shown to the audience. Most shots feature him either slightly out of focus, obscured by props — like the light fixture in the café, or in closeups with only his hands, torso, and feet focused on. Because he’s filmed this way, what were you looking for with the actor who would play him, and how did you decide on Kim Sun-hoon?

I did want the hero to have a big build, but not too big. If there was no one right, I was ready to play him myself. First, I asked my college junior Kim Sung-hoon. I repeatedly told him, “Your face won’t appear in the screen, not one bit.” He gladly accepted the role, but I still felt bad about it, so I also casted him to play the news anchor. It came out nicely.

I decided not to expose Han Bok-pan’s face to have a sense of mystery and give the audience freedom to imagine his face. More importantly, the fact that Han Bok-pan is very much real and present but has his face concealed implies the possibility that it can be anyone. That anyone in the audience can be the hero.

Can you tell me a bit about the humor in the film? I love that it’s this kind of off-beat humor that doesn’t come from actual jokes, but moments that don’t quite match up with the situation playing out on screen. For instance, the shirt falling directly on Oh Gyu-ra’s face, and the absurdity of Han Bok-pan’s mother fretting about him being somewhere with a strange woman.

I didn’t want my hero to fit into a stereotype. I wanted to approach the audience with everyday scenes and language. The humor can be a bit silly but makes everything more approachable. I try to exclude any humor that seems too intentional or excessive. Because I personally love the everyday humor in my life.

Ryuk-sa: A Teaser

Regarding the editing, my favorite scene is when the tone shifts suddenly and becomes intense as the camera zooms in on Oh Gyu-ra’s eyes, and her expression changes from sadness to terror and the scene changes to her being trapped in the rubble. Kim You-lee gave a great performance and the VFX was flawless, so those two moments really stood out to me. Speak a bit about filming those scenes with her, and the editing process.

I imagined this shot to be “one scene one cut” and not be segmented. I didn’t need different shots of Oh Gyu-ra, and the scene was completed through various collaborations with my crew. The post-production of this scene was definitely fun to work on. In terms of Kim You-lee’s acting, she had to act two opposing situations in the scene. After many conversations with her about the scene, I simply created the environment for her to do her thing. Kim You-lee should get all the credits for this. I’m glad to hear that it was memorable, and I thank the actors.

 How long did it take to get this project produced, from conception of the story, through finding investors and finally post-production?

The initial plan was a month of pre-production, five days filming, and one week of post-production. However, when COVID-19 hit, it was an all-stop situation for the film industry. After waiting over a year, we spent about two weeks of post-production this year, and the film was finally released. I would like to express my gratitude to the assistant director who showed great sense of responsibility through the unspeakable hardships.

As you’ve been an actor for many years, you have experience being in front of the camera, and developing your characters with writers and directors, what was it like to be part of the collaboration process as a director and having more control of a project?

It was a great experience. I had quite a bit of experience directing plays, but it was my first time directing a movie. Everything aside, I thought I knew how hard the staff worked on each scene, but I realized that I really didn’t know it was that much work. After being in front of the camera for so long, I was excited to see, feel, and be in the action behind the camera. Seeing it all, I am more determined to respect their positions and roles in the future. I wouldn’t trade this extraordinary experience for anything else. I would like to express my gratitude and respect to all the staff.

Based on the credit sequence and Ryuk-sa translating to “history of history” in English, are there plans for the feature film or films, explore significant events in South Korea’s history, like the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994?

Even though a superhero is only a fictional character, it shouldn’t distort real events in history. So, I probably won’t be exploring history or political issues.

When, not if, when you’re able to produce this as a feature film (I’m really looking forward to it happening), will you continue the story from where Ryuk-sa: A Teaser ends, or flesh out its plot more to show what happens in the time periods shown in the credit sequence?

This film is like a sequence from an intended feature film, so I think the story will naturally continue from there. The last sequence must come back, so I plan to use it in the beginning of the feature film.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ryuk-sa: A Teaser premiered at New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia Festival earlier in August. How Korea’s Cho Jin-woong Made ‘Ryuk-sa: A Teaser’ — A New Kind of Superhero Short Film