In The Killer: A Girl Who Deserves To Die, Jang Hyuk plays Bang Ui-gang, a retired assassin, whose everyday activities might not suggest the large cache of weapons he keeps at home. Ui-gang’s weapons and skills come in handy when his wife asks him to look after the daughter of a friend, while she and that friend vacation. If the girl gets hurt, even a tiny bit, his wife says, you’re dead.
His efforts to protect the teenager result in a progression of imaginatively choreographed action scenes that demonstrate not only the actor’s grace and agility, but also the careful planning that went into executing those scenes.
For his action skills and on-screen charisma in this film and The Swordsman, Jang Hyuk received the 2022 Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival. While Jang Hyuk’s experience as a martial artist contributes to the realism of his action roles, the actor is also known for the diversity of characters he’s played in romantic comedies, police procedurals, melodramas and historical productions.
“Because I’ve been experienced in martial arts for 20 years I do feel like I have an eye for that type of film,” said Jang Hyuk. “But throughout my career I’ve always tried to expand myself in terms of my acting. The reason I got involved in this film in the first place was because I actually wanted to establish a sort of system when it comes to action films. I was involved in the action design of the film as well as the various stages of creating the action film. That’s where I find a lot of joy.”
Most film productions do not start with or revolve around action scenes, but Jang Hyuk’s participation in the web novel-inspired The Killer, meant that this production would be different. The Killer is directed by Choi Jae-hoon, who also directed The Swordsman, a historical action film in which Jang Hyuk plays a gifted swordsman.
“Jang Hyuk was involved from the beginning with designing the action,” said Choi. “In the web novel the action scenes aren’t very specific, so we really had to specify the action scenes and because this film is targeted as an entertaining action film, everything was in service of the action. For example, all the art direction, all the CGI, it was all designed trying to find the best way to support the action story.”
“And then came the location,” said Jang Hyuk. “Where we would try to figure out whether we were going to be on set or whether we were going to be on location. Then came the camera work, where we were thinking whether we were going for a longer take or a shorter take. According to that decision we were able to have the information to build our sets. Then after that we built our sets, then came the process of figuring out our range of motion and our range of action. Because Director Choi comes from an art direction background we were able to really figure out the artistic elements that would enhance the action in terms of color, lights and sounds, in terms of what weapons we were using.”
The action choreography required careful rehearsal.
“We really did very measured rehearsals before going into filming,” said Choi. “With all the camera work, with all the cameras, as we would do them on set during filming.”
The film was very much a collaboration between the director and the actor, who obviously enjoy working together.
“It’s such a comfortable relationship between him and I because there really is no one like Jang Hyuk in terms of portraying action and so I trust him a lot. I lean on him for a lot of things and especially because he does almost all of his stunts. Because we don’t use stunt people we are afforded the luxury of not having to cut so shortly. So, in that sense it has been a boon in terms of really presenting and expressing the kind of action that I want.”
That doesn’t mean an absence of disagreement on set, but Jang Hyuk thinks differing opinions improved the film.
“On set there’s actually a lot of conflict because there’s so many things to take into consideration,” he said. “There are times when we are at odds with each other, but I think that as a result of that, the quality of the overall film is able to be the best that it can be. On set it’s a continuous process of really whittling down if this is the best way to do the film. It’s a constant negotiating process.”
Yoon-ji, the teen girl that Ui-gang must protect, finds his protective attitude annoying and they bicker much the way any teen and supervisory adult might. One of Choi’s favorite scenes happens early in the film when Yoon-ji calls Ui-gang and says she’s in trouble and asks him to immediately come to her rescue. The relationship between Ui-gang and the often ungrateful teen contributes to the film’s wit and sense of irony.
“Once he gets there, she’s fine, nothing’s happening and she’s with a guy,” said Choi. “And there’s a line where he says, ‘I’m laughing, but I’m actually crying right now.’ I liked that scene the most because I feel like that encapsulates the character of Ui-gang and where he was at that point. I think it actually works well because he comes across as a very ordinary man, trying to look after this girl. If we had established in the beginning that he was a scary person, it’s too predictable. You would predict the action that was to come. Because he’s established the fact that he’s just an ordinary guy the action that ensues comes as a surprise and is actually very refreshing.”
The scene does help viewers prepare for the killing spree that ensues when Yoon-ji’s life is threatened. While Ui-gang may have a violent past, in this case his mission is justified by his need to protect Yoon-ji.
“In my opinion, action without character is useless,” said Jang Hyuk. “Because I feel like the best action scene is an action scene that reveals character, so that one cannot be without the other. So I think the best action scenes are the ones that reveal character.”
“I think the ‘why’ needs to be clear as to why the protagonist is actually doing an action scene or involved in action,” added Choi. “As a viewer it’s probably going to be boring just seeing crazy action moves if you’re not clear as to why a person is doing this or you’re not feeling the actual emotions of the character doing the action.”
Although Ui-gang is a killer, he is not about to ignore his wife’s request, which Choi points out, might make the Ui-gang’s wife the scariest character in the film. While it’s a toss up as to which character is scariest, Ui-gang is definitely the character you want on your side if you’re pursued by heartless villains.
Distributed by Wide Lens Pictures, The Killer was released in South Korea and North America at the same time, one of the first Korean films to be released simultaneously in both countries. The Killer also stars Lee Seo-young, Bruce Kahn, Lee Seung-jun and Bang Eun-jung.
Jang Hyuk, who recently appeared in the TV dramas Voice, Bad Papa, My Country: The New Age and Tell Me What You Saw, is currently preparing for another role in a Korean TV drama. Choi is planning a six-part TV series he describes as part action, part drama and a little melodrama.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.