Reliving history

Kingmaker stars talk about bringing their characters to life in the gritty political thriller

THE past always seems to find its way into contemporary cinema. Regardless of how sweet or gruesome it is, modern filmmakers appear to enjoy chronicling past events into their works. And the growing appetite for it only encourages them to continue doing so.

Korean cinema is no exception. Some of the best performers at the box office are indeed features inspired by the country’s rich history. And director Byun Sung-Hyun’s political thriller, Kingmaker is the latest addition to the collection.

Although it is not a biopic, the drama is very much inspired by the interactions between the late President Kim Dae-jung and his mysterious election strategist, Eom Chang-rok.

In fact, Byun intends to tackle the issue of ethics by portraying a fictionalised version of President Kim’s journey to victory.

Veteran actor Sul Kyung-gu plays the fictionalised ‘President Kim’, named in the film as Kim Woon-beom. Whereas Parasite star Lee Sun-kyun depicts Eom Chang-rok’s novelist version, Seo-Chang-dae. In an exclusive interview with theSun, the two leads share their thoughts and process for getting into character.

Were you nervous about playing your real-life inspired characters?

Sul Kyung-gu: “My character is based on the former president Kim Dae-jung whose footprints are noted in contemporary history. The character’s name was originally Kim Dae-jung which was very pressurising, hence I suggested to director Byun Sung-hyun to change it.

“It became better after changing the name. Kim Woon-beom is an easy-going character with strong leadership and charisma. He might seem like someone who has a lot of good traits, but I did not think we should express a character only with positive words. So, I instead focused diligently on portraying him as a human being.”

Lee Sun-kyun: “Not much information was available for Seo Chang-dae’s motif, Eom Chang-rok. It all started from the single line that President Kim Dae-jong wrote in his autobiography, ‘Eom Chang-rok is a genius for the elections’. He was mentioned as a genius but why do we have so little information about him?

“So, from there, I started to construct the character. I found related YouTube and Podcast content but there weren’t many records of his information as well. That actually led to less pressure on me as an actor to portray him.”

Do you feel you did justice to your characters despite the intense pressure?

Sul Kyung-gu: “Kim Woon-beom’s character was always surrounded by people and had to always lead the organisation forward. But he was a lonely character since he had to take responsibility for many things on his own. He had to listen to advisors’ opinions and react to them.

“But it felt like he was acting on his own instead of having conversations. It was very difficult to portray such a lonely character. It was also pressurising for having the well-respected former president as the motif. But I was able to accomplish it together with everyone on-site. I received a lot of help from them.”

Lee Sun-kyun: “It was challenging to play the character from his 20’s to his 60’s. I was worried about how would it not look unnatural. Seo Chang-dae was a very tough character. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with my acting, there were some parts I regret that I could have done better, but overall, still satisfying. I believe the director has presented it well.”

What is something you admire and dislike about your character?

Sul Kyung-gu: “Kim Woon-beom was not an interesting character. I actually had a lot of pressure during the 3 to 4 scenes where I had to deliver speeches. I am not someone who likes to speak in front of a crowd and convince them.

“Kim Woon-beom was someone who paints the big picture, within which kingmaker Lee Sun-kyun plays with complicated emotions. I took up the role with an understanding that I was the one who had to uphold the position.”

Lee Sun-kyun: “My personality is opposite from Seo Chang-dae. I am more towards ‘it’s okay if that’s not the way to do it”, whereas Seo Chang-dae strategises all his moves to obtain his desired outcome. I find such behaviour uneasy. In times of heated dispute, I tend to retreat from them.

“However, like what Director Lee (Jo Woo-jin) said in the movie, Seo Chang-dae had his own beliefs, therefore he was able to behave in the way he did. I like the complex part about how he had the desire to make a great cause come true through Kim Woon-beom, but at the same time he also had the desire to make himself noticeable.”

What was it like working with each other?

Sul Kyung-gu: In the movie, the king upholds his position while the kingmaker initiates the striking impacts. That is Lee Sun-kyun’s role. You would feel that Seo Chang-dae is a difficult character to play if you watch the movie.

“He does not reveal his complex emotions easily and Lee Sun-kyun portrayed that really well. He is my junior but has a strong mentality. I really enjoyed filming with him.”

Lee Sun-kyun: “Sul Kyung-gu is an actor whom I really respect. He is a good example of who I want to be as an actor. It was really my honour for being captured in the same shot with him. I really wanted to do well in scenes with him and enjoyed myself. I was really thankful for his genuine reactions to me.”

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