Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kim Ji-woon: International or Korean?...Take Your Pick

If anybody asks me who my favourite director is working in cinema today, I’m always able to answer without hesitation that it’s Kim Ji-woon. I first experienced his work with 2003s ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’, and have been a fan ever since.  He’s the rare director that seems to be able to turn his hand to whichever genre he chooses, and create an excellent piece of cinema.

Kim Ji-woon...contemplating what to
put in each version of his next movie.
However despite my admiration, there is one frustrating element to Ji-woon’s work that started with 2005’s ‘A Bittersweet Life / 달콤한 인생’, and has been a recurring event with both of his movies released since then. It’s what I’ve come to call the curse of the International version & the Korean version. That is to say, all three of his most recent movies have come released in two versions, and each one has enough differences to warrant a separate viewing of each.  While seeing a different version of the same movie might hold novelty value for some, I for one personally wish that he would simply create his definitive vision of the movie, and release that for the world to see, not just a certain version for his local audience and a different one for the rest of the world. For me the most frustrating factor is when I try to switch my friends onto his work by showing them one of his movies, I often find myself scratching my head for far longer than any reasonable person should contemplating which version I should show.

To get mathematical for a second, let me provide the exact breakdown. For ‘A Bittersweet Life’, which to be fair had the two versions entitled the Theatrical cut & the Director’s cut, comparing them against each other the Director’s cut has 16 scenes removed, and 2 scenes rearranged & slightly lengthened which results in the Director's cut being 30 seconds longer. For ‘The Good The Bad The Weird / 좋은 , 나쁜 , 이상한 ’, comparing the International version to the Korean version there are 30 alterations, including 7 scenes of alternative footage, 13 scenes in which the International version runs longer, & 1 recut. The difference in running time has the Korean version running 5:24 minutes longer.  Finally for I Saw the Devil / 악마를 보았다’, comparing again there are 14 extended scenes in the International version totaling 3:20 minutes, 15 extended scenes in the Korean version totaling 5:37 minutes, and 3 alternative sequences.

Confused? It’s understandable. To give people some idea of what you’re in for and the reasons behind such decisions, not to mention the fact that unless you buy the Korean DVD release you might not even be aware of the different versions, I’ll take a look at each movie individually.

The classic image from 'A Bittersweet Life'
For ‘A Bittersweet Life’, out of the three the differences made between the Theatrical cut & the Director’s cut make the most sense. The Director’s cut for the most part takes the movie and makes it flow more, while adding more narrative structure which results in things making more sense. The best example of this is probably when Lee Byung-hun’s character Sun-woo drives back to the girl’s apartment to confront her. In the Theatrical version we don’t get to see why, however in the Director’s cut it shows Sun-woo in his car watching her talk to a man outsider her apartment, who is her boyfriend. Once her boyfriend leaves Sun-woo also drives away, not knowing that she is watching him, and once he’s gone she calls her boyfriend to advise that the coast is clear, but by chance Sun-woo almost gets into a car accident with him. Realizing he’s been deliberately deceived, this scene shows why he is so brutal when returning to the apartment.

A worthy scene from the Director's cut.
Other changes for the most part actually involve small cuts here and there, the stabbing in the ice-rink is trimmed a little along with how many times Sun-woo gets shot in the final scene, although totally these changes don’t even equate to a second. Interestingly one of my favourite scenes in the movie only exists in the Director’s cut, when Sun-woo has been badly beaten and is on his knees in front of his boss Kang in the rain, Kang asks him why he decided to keep that fact that his girlfriend was seeing somebody a secret and not just call him, saying it’s very out of character for him. Sun-woo stays silent and doesn’t answer, and for me I thought this was a really powerful scene in portraying the feelings Sun-woo was harbouring for the girl.

'The Good The Bad The Weird'
It was with ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ that the changes being made essentially contribute towards changing the tone, and even in this case the ending, of the movie. While to detail every change would be tiresome, I will outline the couple of significant differences between the two. Firstly, in the International version the scenes containing the character of Korean Freedom Fighter Song-yi, played by Eom Ji-won, are completely cut out. In the Korean version it’s shown that she is the person who hires The Good, played by Jeong Woo-seong, to find the map, as it’s very important it doesn’t get into the hands of the Japanese army. Her character also has several short scenes throughout the movie, all of which are gone in the International version.

Eom Ji-won, the girl who wasn't there.
Secondly, and probably most significant, the ending is extended by several minutes in the Korean version. According to CJ Entertainment, it’s actually the ending of the International version that matched Ji-woon’s original version, which in my opinion is also the better or the two. For the Korean version, the ending goes on continuing directly where the International version finishes to show the fates of the Good & the Weird. Song Kang-ho’s character sits up and wonders why he’s so heavy, and upon lifting his shirt reveals a metal plate in a homage to ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, however the Japanese army soon catch up with him and after accidentally lighting a stack of dynamite, everyone runs for cover. Additionally it then cuts to a scene of Jeong Woo-seong entering a room of men playing cards around a table, and asking them where he can find the Weird, after a moment’s silence he shoots everyone except the boss and asks again. It’s at this point the movie cuts to the shot of him on the motorbike which finishes both versions.

More Jeong Woo-seong, girls rejoice!
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions is the Korean version more heavily leaning on the resistance fighters element of the story, so adding more of a historical background to the proceedings, which is completely absent from the International version.  It also gives a several minutes more screen time to heart throb Jeong Woo-seong, which no doubt his legions of female fans appreciated on local soil. 

'I Saw the Devil'
Lastly with ‘I Saw the Devil’, it’s fair to say the majority of changes here were to do with satisfying the Korean Media Rating Board, but once again there are also some significant dialogue scenes missing from both versions, which makes it the most frustrating movie in trying to decide which is best. In total Ji-woon went through three edits of the movie to get his movie through for Korean release, so some of the violence is trimmed down, and pretty much every direct reference to cannibalism is gone from the Korean version. With that in mind, it’s interesting to point out that the Korean version actually runs 2 minutes longer than the International version, as with the International version he took the opportunity to cut out various dialogue or connecting scenes that he didn’t feel necessary, which makes the added violence even more powerful.

Choi Min-sik wants his sex scene
back, & wants it back right now!
This will of course make each version an either more rewarding or less rewarding experience depending on which one you see first. For me personally I saw the Korean version upon its release in Korea, and was left more than satisfied with the experience. However upon my second viewing I watched the International version, and although the added violence (& there is a fair few scenes) will leave gore hounds drooling, I found myself frustrated at the fact that nothing is explained as to how Byung-hun’s character finds who the suspects are so easily, as the scenes are all cut out which show that the police already have some perpetrators in mind. Also, although in the International version it’s made more than clear that Choi Moo-seong’s character is a cannibal both verbally and visually, I’m not sure what the reason is behind cutting out the sex scene that occurs between Choi Min-sik & Kim In-seo in the kitchen.

In the end, it’s hard to recommend either version as the superior viewing experience, and ultimately it’s best to watch both and reach your own conclusion. My hope is that when it comes to Ji-woon’s English language debut next year with ‘Last Stand’, it will also herald the last time we have to choose which version of the movie we want to watch.

Paul Bramhall
@Paul Bramhall


  1. Interesting breakdown, I think I've seen the Intl. versions for the first two and both of the I Saw the Devil cuts, which indeed are problematic. I suppose kowtowing to studio pressure is a necessary ill if the films are to receive decent exposure.

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  3. Really interesting.

    I am the same. My favorite Korean director, (who is practicing at the moment), is Ji Woon and the reason is the exactly same with yours. On top of that, I love his slightly bitter ( only slightly that is the point) sense of humor. His humor is really special and heart warming. This is a kind of humor from who understands weakness of human and not only feel for it but love it, too.

    I cannot agree with you more about "the curse".

    In commentary of "the Good...." Ji-woon mentioned about the trouble he went through in the UK because of some scenes with horses. The UK authority concerned about possible responses from animal right activists so he had to edit further for UK audience again not only for international version. Otherwise, they would not allow the movie to be in cinema. Life of movie director seems more difficult than we thought..right?"