An Interview With Kim Chong Gee
He’s a national hero in the Republic of Korea with the thirty to forty something age group; One of the only film directors that is spoken of with warm revered tones by people of all ages there.
Why do South Koreans love him? Because he helped spark imagination in the minds of many children in the 70’s and 80’s while also making them happy and proud to be Korean.
Chong Gee Kim is unique in that he is one of only a few Koreans over the age of 60 that can draw crowds of adoring new young fans hunting for autographs (along with their parents) whenever he makes a guest appearance.
I caught up with the living legend at his studio in the government created animation hive on the outskirts of Seoul to get the low down. He is a genuinely kind old soul, taking comfort from the fact that so many love Taekwon V, even to this day. As Chong Gee approaches the twilight of his career he has a few regrets but they are those that plague many an artist.
When you were a child what animation did you watch?
As a child I would go to see the short animated films at the U.S. Army post. At that time I was fascinated by the moving pictures. Later, I was really impressed with Disney’s `Snow White,’ in which all the characters seemed real and the backing music and story were just perfect. From there I caught the vision and chose to make animation my career.
What was your first job?
I drew comics that were based on films- Les Trois Mousquetaires, Zorro and traditional Korean stories.
When did you come up with the idea of Taekwon V?
In 1975, after a year of planning I began work on Taekwon V. The Japanese animation Mazinga captivated young Korean TV viewers in the 1970’s and I decided to make our own animation. I thought that the idea of a robot doing human martial arts was very interesting and that it would attract an audience because Taekwondo is Korean and socially, it was very popular at the time.
Were you ever been pressured politically by the government to make a particular film?
(Chong Gee laughs in surprise before answering. He has heard the criticisms put forward by some grown up South Koreans that were forced to watch his “General Ddori Catches the Northern Spy” in elementary school.) He answers pragmatically-
No, I wasn’t forced to make any film. The era then was a very ideological period so naturally I set the enemy as communist and painted them using red colors.
What are you most proud of in your life?
Making animation has been the biggest source of success and luck for me and I’m proud in myself for sticking to it and always being able to make new creations. If you want me to choose the best moment in my life, I’d say it was when I presented my first animation Taekwon V to the world; I had devoted all my passion and spent so much time and money in such poor conditions to create it. The ongoing popular praise and acclaim for Taekwon V has encouraged me to keep on producing new products.
Do you think your new animation `The Great Emperor,’ a film about the GoguryeoKingdom will interest the young generation?
In my generation the story of the GoguryeoKingdom made people excited. We have many heroes such as King Gwang Gae, Kang Gam Chan, Yeongaesomoon etc. Who else can represent the enterprising spirit of the KoreanPeninsula? I always feel sorry about the history being hidden under ideology and historical fallacy. I don’t believe it’s too late to show our history to a new generation of Koreans and international audiences as well.
If you could make animations on any topics what would you make?
Well, I’m thinking about my farewell work these days; the stories of traditional Korean fairy tales such as `Sim Chung Jun,’ `The nymph and the woodman,’ `rabbit tales’ and there are many more. Korean traditional fairy tales have varied and interesting subject matter to make fantasy animation from. Filial devotion and fraternal love is a fundamental value in the traditional stories which can move modern people from different national backgrounds. I wish that I could make a forever remembered masterpiece.
What project do you regret the most?
I would say in fact, that there are more works that I’m disappointed in than satisfied with!
I think most people working in the creative field feel the same way because it’s very difficult to be fully satisfied with the final product when you compare it with all the affection or passion you’ve put into the work.
Many famous characters such as Snoopy or Atom for example are heavily merchandised. Why is there no Taekwon V merchandise?
Actually there was no idea of linking businesses to animation when Taekwon V was released in Korea. People just focused on making films and making income from the cinema. Time has changed things a lot and making income from characters goods is a great way to make a profit in the tough animation business.
We should remember however that making good animation is the first and most important aspect to attracting viewers and making them fans. This is why I won’t let my new film `The Great Emperor,’ be merchandised now before it has been shown to audiences.
What are the opportunities in the industry now?
I would say there are great opportunities because there is better infrastructure with the support of the government and more public interest in animated films. For example the Japanese animations of Miyajaki Hayao usually attract more than 3 million viewers. What is the most important thing is the product itself. If we don’t make animation that interests people the skepticism toward Korean animated movies will continue.
Are you interested in reinventing Taekwon V, just as Batman is reinvented every year with new Batmobiles and mythologies?
(Chong Gee nods in understanding as I mention there are maybe only 4 Taekwon V story lines that span the original Taekwon V, Super Taekwon V, Taekwon V 84 and Taekwon V 90.) This is really the million dollar question for many fans eagerly awaiting more. Chong Gee’s answer is as logical as it is cryptic-
Of course I am! As time has changed, peoples taste for film has also changed. I think that I need to make a difference in design or color in accordance with the publics need to keep the original character of Taekwon V.
Chong Gee Kim’s Toto Entertainment Co. Ltd will release `The Great Emperor’ in late 2006. With a 12 million dollar budget the 3D animation SFX fantasy has many industry hopes pinned on it. Whether it succeeds or fails at the box office itself may not be such a big deal, as long as the story is good. Long term returns on DVD sales and paid downloading from global audiences for umpteen years into the future may very well recoup costs in the long run. Biblical epics and sci-fi epics are in a way, a kind of catalogued product infrastructure for the entertainment media age; games come and go too quickly but we’ll always want to rediscover a classic movie.
Alex J. Powell
Special thanks to interpreter/translator Kim Eun Jung