The night time earlier than we meet in a central London inn suite, Lee Jung-jae sat on a stage at a West End cinema, apologising profusely to the assembled audience. At a star-studded opening gala of the London East Asian movie festival, Lee’s cutting-edge project, Hunt – an action-packed, OTT political conspiracy thriller set in Eighties Korea – had simply been screened. But whilst the crowd whooped and cheered this hero of each the Korean small and silver screen, Lee had some thing else on his mind. “There is one vital subtitle that is barely incorrect in the film,” he lamented, through an interpreter. “It examine ‘keep my eyes on you’, when it must have been ‘watch over you’. The which means used to be the same, however the nuance wasn’t pretty right. And I’m surely sorry.” Lee Jung Jae
Needless to say, amid the move of explosions, shootouts and mysterious murders – a full-throttle two hours of twist and turns – few would have observed this small subtitling snafu. So it’s testomony to the weight of duty Lee feels in releasing Hunt, a movie he has written, directed and starred in, that he opted to increase it immediately. Despite 30 years of enterprise trip in South Korea, the place he is one of the country’s most recognized actors, Lee is making his directorial debut with Hunt. And with his lead position in Netflix’s smash-hit collection Squid Game having catapulted the 49-year-old to international stardom, the world’s eyes are on him.
“I’m a long time into the commercial enterprise as an actor,” Lee says, perched on an armchair in a darkish gray suit. “I notion I understood the enterprise and film-making earlier than I began on this project. But it turns out writing a script, directing it, producing it and taking care of the crew and solid opened up a complete new dimension.”
Set in the Eighties with a backdrop of the traumatic bloodless combat between the two Koreas, the movie is as complicated as it is quick paced. Lee performs one of two competing brain chiefs in the South. Once a high-profile defector from the North confirms there’s a mole inside their ranks, the two guys – and their groups – are tasked with rooting out the rat with the aid of investigating every other. The high-octane opening sees an try made on the South Korean president’s existence on American soil, with every other assassination strive planned. Some sequences are based totally on historic activities whilst others are completely fictionalised in this trust-no-one motion drama.
It took Lee 4 years to get the movie made. There had been countless rewrites to the storyline and then the script, with which he hopes to make viewers query how and why their beliefs are formed. Initially, Lee had no intention of directing it. “I approached a range of administrators to take it on,” he explains, “but when I set out my imaginative and prescient for the movie many stated I used to be asking too much.” Each, he says, had their very own motives for declining the opportunity. “It offers with some authentic occasions from Korean history, which is complicated,” Lee says, beginning to count number off a listing on his fingers. “Another thinking that preserving the stability of two lead characters would be difficult.” The motion sequences had been vast; depicting Eighties Washington DC, Korea (North and South), Thailand and Japan used to be too terrific a task. “You title it … ,” Lee smiles. “So, in the end, I had to direct it.
“I spent a lot of time preparing,” he is speedy to add. “The crew had been a long way extra skilled than me. From the outset I advised myself I would be trustworthy with them: ‘I’m new, and don’t understand lots, please instruct me.’” He would preserve limitless conferences with each department, and spend evenings and weekends deep in self-set homework. “I finished seven performing tasks in the time it took to make this film,” Lee says.
Lee has structure when it comes to being thrown in the deep end, and being unafraid to admit when he is struggling. Born and raised in Seoul, he was once working at a cafe in the city’s Gangnam district for the duration of his late young adults when the fashion designer Ha Yong-soo noticed his modelling potential. “I used to be hoping to get a job at an indoors sketch company,” says Lee. “But the modelling went well, and I stored getting referred to as back.” He started out to get solid in TV ads.
“And then I received this chocolate industrial which used to be a massive hit in Korea,” he explains, “which led to me being solid in a TV exhibit known as Feelings.” Almost overnight, Lee grew to be a family name. In 1994, he starred in big-screen drama The Young Man, enjoying a manipulative male model. “But I was once completely unprepared to be an actor,” he says, “thrown on set head first with no notion how to do it. It wasn’t fun. It was once a horrific ride for me, and I used to be terrified. I realised I wished to find out about the craft. So I went to university, received my undergraduate diploma then a master’s. Whenever I had time, I labored with an performing coach. I wanted to examine properly.”
Over the following three decades, Lee’s profession developed throughout genres. There have been comedies and dramas, heists and romance; masses reached worldwide audiences. Then in September 2021, Squid Game was once launched on Netflix and right now went supernova. Following a sequence of contestants competing in a collection of lethal riffs on children’s video games for a big money prize, the horror-thriller proved as dystopian as it was once alarmingly believable. Once again, nearly overnight, Lee’s profession changed, this time from countrywide treasure to global sensation.
“I’m pleased about it, of course,” he says of the show’s success, “but it’s bittersweet. Yes, it’s tremendous that audiences are eating Korean content material round the world. And they recognize it. But if you suppose about the topics of Squid Game – how a ways are we inclined to go to accumulate private wealth; the lengths human beings are pressured to go to – the reality it resonated with so many round the world is worrying. You get a experience this is the truth for so many humans globally. And that makes me experience massively sad.”
Squid Game makes for addictive viewing. There are excessive manufacturing values and impeccable acting, yes, however it’s the exploration of the limits that humankind can be pushed to that is most affecting. “And we had to specific the experiences of these characters being pushed to these extremes,” explains Lee. “Doing that? It used to be terrible. The extra stunning the sport set was, and the extra infantile and enjoyable it seemed, the extra horrific it used to be for the characters, and consequently us as actors.”
The show modified his lifestyles in a professional sense, however it’s left a extra non-public mark on its superstar also. “I do assume about what occurred in that show,” he says. “It’s not possible no longer to. And it made me assume about what I’m now not doing. Many of us stay obliviously. It made me rethink how I appear at the world. It couldn’t not.”
In September this year, Lee made history. At the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles, he gained the Emmy for extraordinary lead actor in a drama series. It was once the first time the award had long past to an actor in a non-English-language show; Lee was once additionally the first Asian man to win it. “The world is transferring carefully together,” he says of his win. “We’re seeing an make bigger in the exchanges between countries, and improved understanding. And we’ve realised that in art and culture, language needn’t be the first priority.” Historically, actors who don’t talk English as their first language have switched tongues to be regarded in Hollywood. Lee is proving that is no longer necessary. His casting in the approaching Star Wars collection The Acolyte is in addition proof that, throughout the world, he’s now a figurehead of Korean culture.
“Of route I experience pressure,” he says, “a experience of responsibility. But if I had been youthful when this had passed off I would have thought: ‘Wow, I want to work more difficult and provoke people.’ But now it’s greater of a realisation of what Korean lifestyle can achieve. Some super Korean dramas may want to now make it on to the world stage. That’s exciting.”
It is a daring time, therefore, to be making a directorial debut. Especially with a movie that’s so formidable – in notion and delivery. Would he do it again? Lee takes a minute to think. “Let me simply say,” he says, laughing now, “it wouldn’t ever be convenient to make an action-packed movie the place I act and direct at the identical time again. Another style pretty possibly.” Even for a grafter like Lee, it turns out that being concurrently in the front of and at the back of the digicam for explosive set portions is possibly a one-off experience.