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Director scores debut hit with coming-of-age beast tale

Jo Sung-hee talks about his first commercial film ‘A Werewolf Boy’

For those familiar with director Jo Sung-hee’s previous work, his first commercial film, “A Werewolf Boy,” will come as a surprise.

This is mostly because of the tone of the movie. The star-studded film, featuring Song Joong-ki and Park Bo-young, is a fantasy romance between a teenage girl and a feral “wolf” boy who can neither read nor speak. Taking place in a rural Korean town in the 1960s, the film feels very much like a children’s story, filled with innocence, curiosity, humor and moving drama. It drew 1 million viewers in the five days after its release on Oct. 31.

Jo’s previous indie films were rather dark and even grotesque. The 33-year-old’s 2008 short “Don’t Step Out of the House” was about a young, impoverished brother and sister waiting for their father. His 2010 feature film, “End of Animal,” was about a young woman in the last month of her pregnancy who, while trying to get to her hometown to give birth, runs into a series of ordeals and uncanny misfortunes. 
Filmmaker Jo Sung-hee poses prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on Oct. 30 in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Filmmaker Jo Sung-hee poses prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on Oct. 30 in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Many would think I compromised a lot in order to make a commercial debut,” said Jo during an interview with The Korea Herald.

“But that wasn’t the case. In fact ‘A Werewolf Boy’ is the kind of story that I’ve always been interested in telling, along with others. I’ve always wanted to make a film which can be enjoyed by all generations of people.”

Though he has just stepped into the world of commercial cinema, Jo has already won a number of awards for his previous indie works. “Don’t Step Out of the House,” which was also his graduation project at Korean Academy of Film Arts, won prizes at Cannes International Film Festival, Jeonju International Film Festival and Seoul Independent Film Festival. “A Werewolf Boy” was featured at Toronto International Film Festival in September prior to its release.

“I am really grateful for everything,” said Jo. “I’m grateful that I get to do what I really love to do. It’s almost surreal to me that I somehow made a commercial film, that it has actually opened in theaters, and that I get to attend the screenings and press meetings. I appreciate all the reviews, whether they are positive or negative. I’m grateful that I get to receive reviews to begin with.”

“A Werewolf Boy” tells the story of teenage girl Suni (Park Bo-young) who is sent to a country house for health reasons and there runs into a boy in the woods whom she befriends. The boy’s body temperature is 46 degrees Celsius, his blood type unidentifiable, and he acts like a wild animal. By using a training manual for dogs, Suni begins to “civilize” the beast: She teaches him table manners, how to read and write, and plays guitar for him. The two eventually become very close.

“A Werewolf Boy” tells a lot about the director and his life. Jo majored in industrial design at Seoul National University, and worked for a children’s animation company before attending KAFA. He’s also had countless pets, including dogs, cats, birds, and even frogs. He’s been living with his current dog, a Boston Terrier, for the past eight years. Just like Suni in the film, Jo trained a number of his dogs on his own. 
A scene from Jo Sung-hee’s first commercial film, “A Werewolf Boy.” (CJ Entertainment)
A scene from Jo Sung-hee’s first commercial film, “A Werewolf Boy.” (CJ Entertainment)

“One of the fascinating things about dogs is their loyalty,” said Jo.

“They don’t care whether you look nice or you look like you’ve just woken up. They like you no matter what. My dog tries to cuddle with me even when I get upset at him for making a mess in my room. It is hard to expect such unconditional loyalty from people, but I think it does exist among us human beings, and that it is a human characteristic. One of the things that this film talks about is that very loyalty.”

Jo fondly remembers his days at KAFA, where he learned how to write and direct films. The director got his admission to the school by submitting a film he made with his friends for pure fun. Filmmaker Yoon Sung-hyun, who won the Best New Director award at the Grand Bell Awards and BIFF for his 2010 feature debut “Bleak Night,” was one of his classmates. At the state-run film school, Jo was taught by Oh Seung-wook, who wrote the script of Hur Jin-ho’s award-winning romance “Christmas in August.”

“One of the things Oh told me is that a director should trust his own abilities, but should always challenge their own works and expand their experiences,” said Jo. “I always think of that phrase whenever I feel discouraged or am in doubt while making films.”

The director, who was quiet and introverted as a child, said the film is also about the things that we have lost and miss.

“‘A Werewolf Boy’ is a fantasy film, but it does not offer a visual fantasy like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or the Harry Potter movies,” said Jo. “It’s a fantasy about the innocence of childhood, the kind of friendship or feelings that we no longer have.”

By Claire Lee (