Uhm Ji-won is a South Korean actress whose career started in the late 1990’s. Her talent’s were first recognized with her performance of a subdued wife in the erotic thriller The Scarlet Letter (2004). She later played the leading role in Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema (2005), and worked with Hong again on his 2008 production Like You Know It All, but it was the role of a survivor with psychological trauma in the 2006 film Traces of Love that brought her more recognition, several nominations and the first big award – Best Supporting Actress at Chunsa Film Art Awards. In 2011, Uhm stepped on the international ‘stage’ by appearing in an episode of BBC’s docu-series The Third Eye, where she wowed the producers with her acting skills, her charm and her fluent English. After that, she continued her carrier by taking on prominent roles in Korean TV dramas (Childless Comfort, Thrice Married Woman), as well as maintained her film career with a series of outstanding roles. Her role of a mother of a sexually abused child in Lee Joon-ik’s Hope (2013) won her several awards, as did her role of the desperate mother in Lee Eon-hee’s 2016 thriller Missing.
Having such an outstanding filmography in the drama department, the role of a strong hillbilly woman in a zombie comedy seems to be completely unexpected, but it should come as no surprise that she excelled at that role as well. Uhm decided to place her trust into the hands of the first-time director Lee Min-jae. He had previously worked as a film editor, but joined hands with his screenwriter wife to write and direct a film that turned out to be one of audience favourites at Udine Far East Film Festival: The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale.
Following the enthusiastic reaction of the audience at the screening, we sat down with both Uhm Ji-won and director Lee Min-jae to talk about the film, its conception and the fun and the challenges they had on the set while making it.
Photo © Udine FEFF
It’s hard to believe that The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale is your directorial debut; that is very impressive. How did this project come about?
Lee Min-jae: I majored in directing in university, but after I graduated, I worked as an editor. My wife is a scriptwriter, so we wanted to make a film that we wanted to watch. It took almost ten years to make, but we wrote it together and then we prepared for this film.
Since Train to Busan, there have been several zombie films to come out of Korea, but this film is very different, because it approaches the idea from a comedic perspective. Why did you want to write the story like this?
Lee Min-jae: When I was developing this story, I didn’t intend to make a comedy; I wanted overall for there to be various genres that appear in this film, and I wanted to create something special. Of course, those other zombie films were also great.
What made you, Uhm Ji-won, want to be a part of this project?
Uhm Ji-won: I liked the concept of the scenario; I felt that it was unique because normally zombie films are very scary, but he portrayed this genre in an ironic way, so I really liked it. Also, normally, I play lead characters, but in this film, the family is a kind of a lead character. I liked the concept of this family who is living in the countryside; they stick to each other and each of their characters is very unique. So, when I first read the script, I thought it was a unique concept and that is why I joined the project. Also, all of the other cast members are well-known in Korea; the actor who played Jjong-bi is a newcomer, of course, but apart from him, the others are all known to be great actors and I wanted to work with them.
Photo © Udine FEFF
The film has an interesting take on masculinity; the women are very strong characters who make all the decisions, whereas the whole mess starts out of men wanting to become younger. At the beginning of the outbreak, the zombies are also all men to begin with; was this intentional?
Lee Min-jae: I felt like the desire to become young again and get the sexual prowess back is something that is like a general instinct for men all over the world. Also, when you see the wedding scene – I intentionally divided the male and female guests, so that eventually the male zombies would attack the female guests.
When you have problems as a child you reach out to your mother, and when you get older, you reach out to your wife; so, in the end, I feel like it’s women who rule the world. Maybe it’s only my opinion, but I do think that.
Uhm Ji-won – you are known to prepare for your roles well, and you have portrayed very different characters on screen. How did you prepare for the role of Nam-joo and did you add something to the character yourself?
Uhm Ji-won: Yes, I’m always involved in developing my characters. In the original scenario, Nam-joo was already an interesting character, because she is a very strong woman. When I was developing the character, I thought to myself that I also wanted to look different on a physical level. Everybody in Korea knows how I look, so I wanted to look different, and because people are already used to my face, I wanted to change both my face and my facial expressions. Normally I play very feminine characters, but this time I wanted to act differently and talk differently. For me it was an experiment, and it was fun!
Lee Min-jae: When the casting was being done, I wanted an actress who wasn’t a comedy actress, but an actress from a completely different genre, like drama or romance. I wanted to create a clash between the preconceived image and the character. For an actress like Uhm Ji-won, who has a big career, joining such a project is not an easy decision, I believe. I am really grateful that she did. Eventually, she expressed Nam-joo’s character well and made her more down-to-earth and real.
Photo © Udine FEFF
In the film there is a lot of slap-stick comedy present. Between you and the other actors, were there any funny moments on the set?
Uhm Ji-won: There were many funny moments, because the original characters played by Kim Nam-gil and Jeong Jae-young – Joon-gul and Min-gul – are very humorous. While we were shooting, the concept for my character was to be serious, so I couldn’t smile, but the two are a couple of very funny guys, so I was trying not to laugh. While filming the scene where we were re-opening the gas station, we had a time limit, since it was shot during the sunset. The whole family had to take a picture in front of the gas station and my character was meant to be emotional in that scene. I really wanted to channel those emotions, so I tried to focus, but Nam-gil and Jae-young were in character, messing around and shouting, the sun was going down and we didn’t have so much time; only 15 minutes to shoot the scene. We only had time for two or three takes left, so I was so pissed off, I told them to shut up and then ‘Joon-gul’ was like “Min-gul, stop it, she wants to show her emotions,” and I said, “No, oppa, you ruined my emotions!” (Laughs) But we didn’t have any time left, so it ended up being done in only one take. Those kinds of funny situations were always happening.
Lee Min-jae: The shooting was done in an old-fashioned way, which is very unusual. Nowadays, many scenes are shot separately and in different places, but we shot the movie in 3 months, on location, and the whole cast stayed together for the whole time in this little village, showing tremendous commitment to the project. We started out in winter and the temperature was below zero! We became a real family while shooting, so we were always messing around.
Why a zombie – or Jjong-bi – who is almost vegetarian and loves cabbage?
Lee Min-jae: We didn’t want to make a violent, gory film, but of course – zombies are supposed to eat brains. As it happens, the screenwriter is my wife, and one day we were in the kitchen, cooking together and thinking about it, and our glance fell on a brain-shaped cabbage and we both had the same idea!
Photo © Megabox Plus M
Regarding family, the title is ‘Odd Family’, but the family itself was not that weird; in a way, they’re dysfunctional like all families, but they stick together and that’s why things work out. What was your take on the title?
Lee Min-jae: The title Odd Family isn’t about the main family in this film; they became an ‘odd’ family when Jjong-bi became a family member.
All of the the ironic situations that happen are within the family, they are almost a micro-universe – or a whole universe – so that’s one of the reasons why I felt like it’s important to put them in the center of the title.
Family is the only thing that you cannot choose, you are destined to be born to your parents; it’s one of the only things in your life that one cannot choose and that was why I wanted to focus on this theme.
Your career began in editing but then you became a director; what was the biggest challenge and what brought you the most joy while making this film? Are you going to carry on directing?
Lee Min-jae: This is a commercial film, but it had a lot of twists in it, so it wasn’t easy to find investors for it – and it was the same for the cast. They have huge careers, but they said yes right after they read this script, and that was the most joyful moment for me. At the same time, I wondered why they decided to choose this project and believe in me.
In terms of what follows, I feel like filmmaking is the only thing I want to do. I learned a lot being an editor, but I was still only working on other people’s films, not my own, and I wanted to make films of my own. My wife, who is the script-writer, supports me a lot and gives me the energy to carry on.
Photo © Udine FEFF
The audience’s response here in Udine was great; how did it feel for you to come here and get this reaction?
Uhm Ji-won: I was wondering if this was a normal reaction; I felt like it might have been bigger than usual, but I needed confirmation. We were very happy last night; we were watching and laughing together with the audience, and the reactions made us very happy and emotional. In Korea, the film got screened in February and the audience reacted well, but in Udine, the reaction seemed even bigger than in Korea. During the screening, the audience was clapping and shouting, and it felt like a movie – their reaction was cinematic!
Lee Min-jae: I was happy to be invited to Udine in the first place because one of my favourite directors is Fellini, and I was happy to show my film in his home country. During the screening, I was also wondering if it was normal for every film to get this kind of reaction. After the film, I heard that it was bigger then usual and I felt a little overwhelmed, but as I walked back to the hotel, I enjoyed that feeling.
Uhm Ji-won: Thank you, audience of Udine!
We would like to thank Lee Min-jae and Uhm Ji-won for answering our questions and Udine FEFF press team for arranging the interview.
Interviewed by: Sanja Struna, Roxy Simons, Oriana Virone and Adriana Rosati
Feature photo © Sanja Struna for View of the Arts
Transcribed by Roxy Simons
Edited by Sanja Struna