When director Lee Won-suk first got the script for Killing Romance, he wasn’t really interested in the black comedy about a woman killing her husband. But when the producers told him he could do whatever he wanted with the film, he was in. He proceeded to make Killing Romance as a not-very-cautionary but compellingly funny fairy tale.
“The script was really good,” said Lee Won-suk. “It was written by Park Jung-ye and she’s a good writer. The script was also very different from other Korean scripts because it deals with domestic violence. So, it was very challenging and that was another reason that I became interested.”
In the story, an insecure actress, played by Lee Ha-nee, decides to retire from her less-than-stellar acting career and marry her Prince Charming, an egotistical rich man, played outlandishly by Lee Sun-kyun. In some ways her married life is everything she hoped for. In other ways it’s insufferable, as her husband obsessively controls her every move. She can’t escape him, so she decides to kill him with the help of her loyal but inept fan, played by Gong Myung. Lee Won-suk decided that if he was going to tell a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story, he would draw inspiration from the Disney films he loved like Enchanted.
“When you begin with ‘once upon a time in blah, blah, blah,’ you can get away with a lot of things,” said Lee Won-suk. So, he presented his very dark comedy in a candy-colored palette, with some Fellini-esque one-dimensional props and actors often breaking out in song and dance. “I wanted it to be more playful, more light. But at the same time the subject it’s dealing with is very hard.”
The result was a film that polarized audiences. It was not a huge box office success when it was released in April in Korea, but it did become something of a cult favorite, garnering some fanatic fans, who wanted to see it over and over again.
“People love it or hate it,” said Lee Won-suk, with a laugh. “When it came out the audience reviews were really bad. They were, what is this? Are you joking? And there’s a Rotten Tomatoes in Korea. There’s a thing called the Golden Egg. Yeah. The egg cracked. We hit a record, it cracked within two hours on the day of the film. So, what happened was that when word got around through Twitter, people started loving it. So, because of all these fans, it became a cult film. So the cracked egg became a golden egg again. Yeah. It was the first time that ever happened in Korea.”
Part of the reason for the initial reaction might have been audience expectations. Lee Won-suk is the director of The Royal Tailor, a gorgeously subtle historical film, starring Park Shin-hye and Go-soo. Lee Sun-kyun, who plays the most outlandish figure in Killing Romance, is known for his roles in the Academy Award-winning film Parasite, in the hit TV dramas My Mister, Coffee Prince, Dr. Brain and Payback. The larger-than-life Jonathan is very different from the subtle understated roles the actor is known for. The character with his paste-on mustaches, long hair and wall-size self portraits strides through the world like a circus ringleader. Wherever he is, he’s always center stage. For inspiration, Lee Sun-kyun looked at Joe Exotic aka Tiger King.
“The character of Jonathan is a very exaggerated, silly type of villain,” said Lee Sun-kyun. “He’s not like a villain in the sense of being downright evil. It’s more of a comedic, gaslighting sort of villain.”
When discussing ways to create the character. Lee Won-suk did not want to offend his star by making extreme suggestions. The actor was ready to go further.
“I was very careful because he’s a top actor in Korea, so I didn’t want to offend him,” said Lee Won-suk. “I sent him like, picture of this and that and he sent me stronger suggestions. That’s where Tiger King comes in. We went back and forth trying to create a character that no one had ever seen in Korean drama or film.”
The irritating yet somehow lovable character was a challenge for Lee Sun-kyun.
“In the beginning I definitely was reluctant to take on this type of character and was worried about it as well,” said Lee Sun-kyun. “Usually it’s a process of finding where the character and myself meet, but this was such an exaggerated larger-than-life character. Usually in my previous works, I try to bring the character closer to where I am as a person. But in this instance, I was trying to put myself into the character, and I think that was like a different process for me. There were times when I was wondering, oh my God, is this too much? Is this too much? But once I just tried to do different things, I think I was able to find a certain freedom in what I was doing.”
He’s played subtly comedic roles before, but Jonathan was in a league of his own.
“Of course there are different types of comedy,” said Lee Sun-kyun. “But especially for this one, you know, it’s a really unrealistic setting. There’s a lot of silliness. And I think it was really important to make it so that it doesn’t feel weird for myself. When it’s not weird for you, the actor, that translates to the audience as funny. Right? Because you’re so in it. And I think the key elements are just really having faith and working hard on that. And I think also comedic timing and also the energy that you exchange between your actors, that’s also a really important aspect.”
Jonathan is not only a larger-than-life role, it’s a very physical one. The character moves in such a stagey dramatic way that it seems perfectly natural when he breaks out into song and dance. Lee Sun-kyun decided it might be funnier and more effective to play his role “bigger.”
‘He’s an actor with so many ideas,” said Lee Won-suk. ‘Every day he bombarded me with so many ideas. He’s very creative.”