Playing a real-life baddie

South Korean film Master is a critique of current trends, says its director Cho Ui Seok

Lee Byung Hun (above) as swindler Jin in Master.
Lee Byung Hun (above) as swindler Jin in Master. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Cho Ui Seok.
Cho Ui Seok.

In the South Korean thriller Master, a charismatic organiser played by Lee Byung Hun, fills stadiums with his message of prosperity.

He tells the adoring, clapping crowd that they are among the chosen and their faith will make them rich. Participants, to their horror, discover that they are victims of a massive swindle he has perpetrated.

Director and co-writer Cho Ui Seok, 41, tells The Straits Times that he based the character of Jin on a real-life conman.

In the early 2000s, Cho Hee Pal bilked 40,000 people out of billions by telling them that investments would go to a high-tech medical appliance company. The operation was nothing more than a pyramid scheme, in which fees paid by recruits are given as rewards to recruiters, until the scheme collapses or the organisers abscond with the money.

"He ran away to China and then a video came out showing his funeral," says Cho.

Our film’s conclusion is a fantasy, but now, it seems that reality is even more like fantasy than the film.

DIRECTOR CHO UI SEOK on how the movie’s theme of corruption mirrors the bribery scandal that has taken down South Korean President Park Geun Hye

Even today, victims still believe the video to be fake and clamour for further investigation, he adds.

Cho, with lead actors Gang Dong Won and Kim Woo Bin, were in Singapore last week to promote the movie.

In Master, which opened last week, the director did not want to make his antagonist just a menacing character - he had to be seductive too, to be believable as a con artist.

"In Korea, there is a saying - we say a person is like a certain bird with eight colours. It's a metaphor for describing a person with hidden facets," says Cho through a translator.

The film's use of topical events includes a critique of current trends, including the notion of instant success. It is how so many otherwise intelligent people were conned - they saw others getting rich and did not want to miss out.

"In the economic crisis of the 1990s, many people gave up on the idea of hard work, since there was no guaranteed future at the end of it. Young people don't have dreams any more, they think only about getting rich now," he says, explaining how scammers came into prominence in South Korea a decade ago and why they are still active today.

The movie has a theme of corruption in government. Currently, it seems that life is imitating art - a bribery scandal is sweeping the capital Seoul and has taken down President Park Geun Hye. In the film, high officials face justice in the wake of the con.

"The script was written three years ago. My writing partner Kim Hyun Deok and I are shocked by what's happening today. Our film's conclusion is a fantasy, but now, it seems that reality is even more like fantasy than the film," he says.

Jang Gun, the computer whiz and gang member played by Kim Woo Bin, represents the 20somethings of today who seek immediate wealth, no matter what, says Cho. "He has brains, he's smart, but he thinks that crime is the easiest way to get what he wants," says Cho.

The film's action moves to the Philippines, where Jin (Lee) is lying low and where he plots his next big con. The location was not picked by accident.

"Korean criminals have ties to the Philippines, where there are many islands for them to hide in," says Cho.

His crew filmed in the Tondo district of Manila, an area that has become synonymous with slums in the capital city. However, he points out that Tondo covers a wide area, one that includes more upscale streets, which is where they filmed.

"I filmed in a more middle-class area, which I picked for its colour. The real slum areas would have been too dangerous."

• Master is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Playing a real-life baddie'. Subscribe