|Actor Kwak Do-won pose during the interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, western Seoul, last Friday. / Courtesy of Showbox|
By Kim Jae-heun
Actor Kwak Do-won had never felt as skeptical about politics until he starred in the recent film "The Mayor."
The film depicts a desperate political scenario revolving around an election campaign for Seoul mayor and Kwak portrays campaign manager Shim Hyeok-soo. Shim is an aide to Mayor Byeon Jong-gu (played by Choi Min-sik) who is serving his second term and is running for office a third time. Byeon shows how desperately a politician strives to seize and keep power.
"I have learned what a mess the political scene can be" said Kwak during an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Friday. "It's a scary place. People betray one another as soon as they turn their backs."
In particular, because what is actually happening in the country is so much like the story in the film, Kwak feels frustrated, and at the same time amazed that perhaps he could have portrayed a politician in real life.
When he first received the script in the winter of 2015, the actor did not realize that former President Park Geun-hye would be impeached.
"I read the script with a lot of joy and thought it would be a really good movie. Then, Park's scandal broke. It was totally ridiculous, because what Park has done is something unimaginable like a movie," said Kwak.
With the presidential election due in two weeks, Kwak said no movie shows a better understanding of the current political scene, and that people should watch the film and go vote.
Kwak gained wide popularity for his perfect elite villain roles as a corrupted prosecutor and a secret agent in previous movies. In last year's "Asura: The City of Madness," the actor played a malicious prosecutor running after a corrupt mayor. He took the role of a bitter and cold spy in his most successful film in 2013, "The Attorney," which became the eighth best-selling Korean film of all time.
In the film "Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time" that propelled the actor to stardom, he was a public prosecutor investigating a murder case. There, Kwak demonstrated how brutally the prosecution interrogated citizens in the country's first civilian government, which declared war against organized crime under ex-President Roh Tae-woo.
"I don't think it was me that fit elite villain roles. The characters were so realistic and they were no strangers to the audience. I only took part in portraying the roles with hopes that no more prosecutors or secret agents abuse their power," said Kwak.
Q. What does the title of the movie imply? (The movie's Korean title is "Special Citizen.")
A. According to the director, a special citizen could refer to incumbent Mayor Byeon, or it could be the citizens living in Seoul. Also, the title has a voting stamp mark on it, implying those who participate in the election are special. Some 10 million citizens gathered to protest against former President Park at Gwanghwamun when the corruption scandal erupted. I believe citizens who participate in politics are all special.
Q. The Mayor Byeon character shows a little bit of humanity. Meanwhile, your character Shim is as cold-hearted as a psychopath. How did you engross yourself in the character?
A. I tried to add laughing points while portraying Shim, because he appears too inhumane in the movie. Although he has a family picture in his big house, none of the members appear. I felt that Shim was really a loner. He was obsessed with his shoes too. He would always have his dress shoes waxed clean, maybe because he hoped that it would bring him luck. But shoes are one of our things that get scratched and dirty easily. In the end, he is crushed to death by a shoe rack. It shows how power vanishes in vain.
Q. Did you ever feel stereotyped while acting?
A. Yes. In fact, I feel like I'm in a slump every day. I am never sure of what I am doing and worry I play too many similar roles. I ask myself ‘Am I a prosecutor again, another villain?' Well, bad guys are fun to play, but it is just hard to make choices on my own every day.
Q. While portraying the politician character, how did you find the job personally?
A. I realize that becoming a successful politician is like finding a genie and a magic lamp. Politicians have to overcome many temptations on the way to their ultimate destination. There are 300 lawmakers in the National Assembly and I wonder how many of them are detached from their desire for power.
Q. How do you compare an actor to a politician? They both live on the popularity from the people?
A. An actor does not live on popularity. Never. When an actor concentrates on his acting, he gives happiness to people. An actor should not seek popularity from the audience because if he does so, he begins to lose his honesty in his acting. A true actor only focuses on analyzing a script and doing it over and over again.
Q. What kind of film do you want The Mayor to be remembered as?
A. When I first participated in this film, I only had one hope that there would be no more political crises in Korea as such in the scenario. In the past, we lived in a country where power was abused and manipulated by those in power. Now, Korea is changing and in 10 or 20 years, when we watch this film again, I hope this country has become a better place.