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[New on the Scene] Director Hah Joon-won explores dangerous world of 'baji sajang'

Hah said he appreciated veteran actor Kim Hee-ae’s graceful energy on set

Feb. 8, 2024 - 12:55 By Kim Da-sol
Hah Joon-won (Plus M Entertainment)

After nearly five years of research into the world of "baji sajang," people who make money lending their names as figureheads to underground or illegal businesses, Hah Joon-won’s directorial debut film, “Dead Man, opened in local theaters on Feb. 7.

“As I was doing research for a story about baji sajang and their nefarious businesses, I met with some people who were on the run. One day, (I met with) this man (who gave me his) business card (which said he was a CEO), and the next time I saw him, he held a different business card. Although I cannot elaborate more, it was the sort of crime that we see in documentaries,” Han told The Korea Herald in an interview in Seoul on Jan. 31.

In “Dead Man,” Lee Man-jae (Cho Jin-woong) is an ordinary man who makes a living as a baji sajang. After several years of doing this, Man-jae is falsely accused of embezzlement. Lee is then kidnapped and sent to a prison in China, after being officially recorded as dead in Korea.

Years later, he is able to get out of prison with help from a political consultant, Mrs. Shim (Kim Hee-ae), who uses him as a prop in an upcoming election.

Director Hah's first idea for the story came from a simple thought nine years ago: Why is it that so many people don’t live up to their names?

“I wanted to highlight two keywords in this film: 'name' and 'responsibility.' I heard that the word baji sajang is a unique term that only exists in Korea. The Korean word's connotations cannot be easily conveyed (in English). Through the movie, I wanted to give Koreans a chance to think about the value of their names,” Hah said.

Hah is the son of Korean filmmaker Hah Myung-joong, who helmed “Daengbyeot” (1984), which was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival. Just like his father, Hah said he wants to create his own "something."

“I thought moviemaking was something that I could not do, as I grew up watching what my father was doing. There is a pressure (to live up to his work), but my father's very existence is my biggest encouragement,” said Hah.

Hah also worked with auteur Bong Joon-ho on his 2006 work, “The Host.” Hah was a co-writer for the screenplay.

“I met (Bong) when I was studying at the Korea National University of Arts. He was our instructor there. For ‘Dead Man,’ director Bong gave detailed feedback (on everything) from the scriptwriting stage to casting, (and he also) reviewed the completed scenes after editing,” said Hah.

Kim Hee-ae in “Dead Man” (Plus M Entertainment)

Hah also noted actor Kim Hee-ae’s graceful energy on set, which he said came as a surprise to him.

“It’s very difficult for a new director to work with a veteran actor like Kim. I know that many actors with experience want to change the tone or the lines to fit their style. But I was surprised that Kim didn’t change anything in the script, sticking to what I gave her,” said Hah.

Hah added that Kim would also focus on practicing lines and fine-tuning her emotions on set before shooting, which he said all the staff found inspirational.

Kim Hee-ae (Contents Wave)

According to Kim, “Dead Man” gave her a mission to fully immerse herself in the character, erasing the set image that she has as an actor.

“I wanted to narrow the gap between Kim Hee-ae and Mrs. Shim as much as I could. I wanted to star in the film as a completely different person, erasing the existing image of myself on the screen. That was my mission and assignment,” Kim told reporters in a separate interview held in Seoul on Monday.

Kim’s first appearance in the film is powerful. Wearing smoky eye makeup and a slick white suit, Kim slaps Man-jae with great force.

While Mrs. Shim is Kim's second role as a strong-willed female character in the political world after “Queenmaker” (2023), Kim is set to meet the audience with yet another role in the world of politics in the Netflix series, “The Whirlwind,” later this year. In the series, Kim stars as a lawmaker and the deputy economic minister.

“Luckily, all three projects were very appealing to me. I’m excited to see viewers’ reactions and how they might interpret my characters differently,” Kim said.

“Dead Man” is currently screening at local cinemas.

The following article is the 15th in a series that introduces Korea’s new and emerging actors and directors. -- Ed.

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