The Yeouido Observer #008: Sands of Time

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They’re thin enough to cut through the flesh, but carry enough weight to make our mortality seem insignificant. They’re the pages of history. That ruthless, glorious, miserable projection of the innate frailty and majestic ingenuity of mankind. Something in perpetual motion, and yet seemingly following a never-changing pattern, creating a strangely charming linearity where present is nothing more than the narrow passage connecting past with future, like in the most wondrous sandglass.

One of those sandglasses was turned over today.

I feel as conflicted as anyone who’s literally grown up with this industry would feel. It’s a strange mixture of sadness, incredulity and even a little bit of rage, feelings that only those who cared enough about this man and his legacy will share – because the predominant sentiment you’ll witness by reading the news today will be vapid, complacent condolences that will be forgotten in about 48 hours to perhaps focus on the next shocking (?) bout of engineered wardrobe malfunction.

It’s hard to convey what kind of symbolic value the name Kim Jong-Hak had in this industry and its longtime connoisseurs to people who might have not been exposed to what defined his legacy. A bit of that rage might stem exactly from that: it’s far too unfair for someone of Kim’s talent and artistic stature to be remembered by younger viewers (domestic or foreign as they may be) for things like 신의 (The Great Doctor) or 태왕사신기 (The Legend). Or even worse, for having become Yeouido’s equivalent of Shim Hyung-Rae, a has-been, over-the-hill protagonist of scandals that exemplified everything that is wrong with today’s business model in this neck of the woods. Kim Jong-Hak was far too special to become just another Fat Elvis in the pages of history. Even to those who loved him and then gradually learned to hate him — or possibly feel a conflicting combination of the two, like the two halves of a sandglass playing yin and yang with your feelings.

The truth is that the man who revolutionized K-dramas, who forever changed the visual paradigm of this industry and heralded a Golden Age which would last nearly a decade, was found dead today on the bed of a glorified “deluxe dorm” that cost a miserly 15,000 won a day (they call them 고시텔, goshitel). Apparently this place was Kim’s last resort, a refuge of sorts a longtime confidant (a barber) had recommended to the veteran producer to give him some breathing space before what would surely be a terribly daunting questioning session by the prosecutor’s office (set to take place today). It wasn’t the only reason he went to such a seemingly unassuming and secretive place, of course: Kim had been on “the run” from enraged creditors and industry people who had sued him for quite some time, using possible investment opportunities in China as an excuse to stay out of trouble until he was summoned back home for an investigation, and was subsequently prohibited from leaving the country by the prosecutors. He had been going from place to place, motels to acquaintances’ lofts to try to sidetrack the inevitable. But your own shadow is the scariest foe you’ll ever meet.

This conundrum had been going on and off ever since 2007, right as his too-ambitious-for-its-own-good 태왕사신기 (The Legend) had become the biggest flop in Korean drama history – despite recording excellent ratings and doing quite decently in overseas sales, but spending nearly 60 billion won on a logistic nightmare in an industry with no appreciable worldwide penetration (whatever all those silly pipe dreams of a Korean Wave will mislead you into thinking) will do that to you. Of course the blame couldn’t possibly go to the drama alone, but also to Kim’s misguided hopes of repeating Bae Yong-Joon’s backdoor listing KOSDAQ jackpot — failure to do so which set him back several billions, some of said debts having been incurred with seedy private loan sharks, from all accounts (and you know how those people deal with problematic clients).

But regardless of how many factors contributed to his financial problems, things got so bad that Kim eventually had to divorce from his wife and register property of his house under her name to free her and his kids from the legal ramifications of his ongoing litigation (as a possible asset seizure would eventually throw his family on the street). The two still went on as if it was business as usual, but for everyone else they were just strangers. As recently as two days before his suicide, they had dinner together. He bid her and the rest of his family (and I don’t only mean blood relatives) farewell with a long letter that – thankfully, knowing the vultures roaming around the news industry in Korea — was kept confidential by the authorities, but that apparently conveyed a deep sense of sorrow. This is how a great legacy which had been falling into an even greater abyss of decadence for far too long ended.

The investigation Kim was embroiled in was over the unpaid fees for The Great Doctor – something we’ve already discussed at length in the past. You know the trick by now: you establish a glorified paper company (the dreaded SPC) that will only exist for the duration of the show so that you’ll easily bypass any credit rating appraisal (and fool investors into thinking you’re starting with a clean slate); the broadcaster pays its fixed fee with which you pay writer and top stars (whose management has enough clout to demand the money if not right away with extreme celerity), and then handle the remaining peanuts for the rest of the cast and production costs via PPL and whatever money will come from Japan as a pre-sale contract. If things go really well, things… generally go really well, in the sense that everyone will get his money, the SPC will fold and any profits will be divided between said paper company’s main investors (generally former big 3 execs and the head honchos of huge indie production companies with significant credit rating troubles), to hopefully be reinvested in future ventures. When things go wrong, they can seriously go wrong.

Take this particular show, for instance, and I’m not even putting my critical hat on and considering it a farce as I should. We’re merely talking numbers here.

Officially, the project cost 13.0 billion won for 24 episodes (so a little over 540 million won per episode). SBS provided 5.7 billion as its usual fixed amount (a little over 237 million per episode), which is generally higher than what MBC and especially KBS would spend on outsourced sageuk. The SPC in charge of producing this show (founded by Kim, of course) had also managed to sign pre-sales contracts around Asia (especially Japan, which pretty much covered 90% of the figure) for a total of 4 billion won (166 million per episode). The remaining 137~140 million per episode were provided by PPL; contracts with music labels for the production of the OST; 2nd run royalties from IPTV, cable and legal VOD downloads; sponsorships. grants by local entities and whatnot. In that sense it doesn’t matter all that much that the show recorded abysmal ratings (just over 10% on average), because ad revenue is mostly something for the broadcaster to worry about – although being under the magic 15% on primetime meant that SBS could only charge standard rates and would lose a sizable chunk of money and/or possibly even incur penalties (the obligation of airing the next ad for free if you don’t meet a certain number).

So officially speaking, The Great Doctor was only an ever-so-mild misfire. But then it turns out that most of the actors had been paid late or didn’t get paid at all – show still owes a number of KBAU affiliates nearly 700 million won; that the staff was being given the cold shoulder by the SPC (founded by Kim, who along with writer Song Ji-Na had obviously cashed his cachet in full before the show even started), and that budget constraints forced some crazy last minute accommodation, like shooting action scenes without wires – a lot more dangerous than you’d think. Where did all that money go, then?

After a number of cast and crew members sued the SPC, investigation turned up a receipt for 20 billion won that Kim Jong-Hak had signed – listing his expenses for the show. The books were supposedly talking of a 13 billion venture, so where did the remaining 7 billion go, and why was Kim running around getting advance payments from several different prospective OST right buyers at once? This explains why Kim was suspected of embezzlement, professional negligence and fraud, leading some people to suggest that he embezzled the funds to settle his longtime debts incurred during the disastrous The Legend hoopla, which nearly destroyed the shingle he launched in the 1990s – Kim Jonghak Production.

Did he kill himself assaulted by the guilt of having mistreated and deceived fellow professionals for his own ulterior motives, or because his past misdeeds had been exposed, subjecting him to the kind of ignominy that a man of his legacy would never endure? Or was it the suffering of having to free himself from blame that didn’t belong to him, having no tangible means at his disposal to disculpate himself (because the other SPC execs had fled with the money already, and all the “man in the middle” shenanigans that mysteriously ate up the budget couldn’t realistically be investigated)? At this point even the question itself is fruitless, as is the answer any investigation would have given us. Only Kim Jong-Hak fully knows what motivated him to put an end to his illustrious legacy in such a way, and we should accept his decision – no matter how much it might conflict with your personal views, as whatever he might have done he did at least have the freedom to choose how to end his life, however irresponsible leaving all the lives he influenced (for better or worse) in the cold might have been.

It might be a strange way of mourning the passing of someone who tragically just took his life, but you know me. It would have been intellectually dishonest to suddenly throw complacency at the screen after criticizing this man for the better part of the last decade.

And yet my condolences are sincere, and probably long-lasting. Whatever he might have done to his legacy in the last 10 years – or, let’s be honest, from 1998 onwards – Kim Jong-Hak was responsible for such timeless landmarks that his achievements will remain an immortal statement, proving how much this industry has matured. And it’s with that in mind that, for the last time, I’ll turn the sandglass over and look back at his early, glorious days.

Kim joined MBC in 1977, in a period when the station was undergoing a sort of creative transition (along with the entire industry) which would eventually lead to the 1980’s own little golden age – which began in 1981 with 수사반장 (Chief Inspector) and the launch of color broadcasts, the advent of ENG cameras and particularly the birth of short dramas adapted from famous novels, 베스트셀러극장 (Bestseller Theater). Like every other budding producer back then, he slowly climbed up the ranks by assisting veterans, getting the occasional producer credit on the aforementioned landmark police procedural starring Choi Bul-Am.

It was in another key situational drama by MBC that he got to know one of his mentors – you’ve probably heard of him, a certain Lee Byung-Hoon. Lee and sageuk mainstay Shin Bong-Seung were preparing a revolutionary sageuk concept that a few years later would turn the history of the genre upside down, so Kim’s assistant gig on the energetic 암행어사 (Royal Emissary) soon turned into a chance to sit solo on the director’s chair. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that he would be slated for full director credits from there on in, but it was his first important step. In the following years, Kim would direct in all sorts of genres and formats, building impressive versatility that would come in handy about a decade later.

He told the story of legendary pansori pioneer Shin Chae-Hyo in 1983’s 광대가 (The Jester) by Lee Eun-Seong, one of the many three-episode experiments that would eventually lead to the birth of miniseries in 1987; he again worked with Lee the same year in the short 고산자 김정호 (Gosanja Kim Jung-Ho), a biopic of the notorious late Joseon cartographer, and then moved on to 다산 정약용 (Dasan Jung Yakyong), written by another sageuk pioneer, Im Choong; he was even entrusted the June 25 special (commemorating the Korean War) which adapted Jo Jung-Rae’s 인간의 문 (The Gates of Men) for the small screen, a tale of a left-wing partisan’s guilt trip 20 years after his war crimes (it was the 1980s and Jeon Doo-Hwan was on top, so the agenda is understandable).

It would take him until 1986 to debut as a bonafide director for an entire series, and ironically it was once again by taking Lee Byung-Hoon’s baton in what had become a veritable franchise for MBC – the 조선왕조 500(500 Years of Joseon) series, of which Kim directed two (or at least one a half, considered he shared credits in the second). But 1987 and 1988 were the years that cemented him as one of Yeouido’s most important young directors, not only because of his style and versatility but thanks to his eclectic choices. It was in fact in 1987 that he helmed the first of many Kim Seong-Jong adaptations, with 아름다운 밀회 (Beautiful Affair) – which will remind many of 황금의 제국 (Empire of Gold) both in mood and narrative (what with the turmoil ensuing after the death of a powerful chairman, and the power struggle immediately following it), kind of ironic if you consider who writer Park Gyeong-Soo grew up under. That same year he met a former radio drama scripter who had made it big thanks to one of the early 1980s’ most fondly remembered children’s shows, 호랑이 선생님 (Tiger Teacher). She would join him for the first of eight collaborations, at least two of which defined Korean dramas, and perhaps still do. Her name, obviously, was Song Ji-Na.

Their first work together was 퇴역전선 (The Last Station), one of the first miniseries MBC experimented after the very first trial – the wicked 불새 (Firebird) with Yoo In-Chon. The eight-episode show starring Jung Dong-Hwan and Kang Moon-Young was adapted from a manhwa by Heo Young-Man and set in the 1970s, dealing with the very first renditions of what at the time the media began calling chaebol. But the partnership truly blossomed with 인간시장 (Human Market), adapted from Kim Hong-Shin’s bestseller and one of the great classics of 1980s Korean TV – later remade by SBS in a moment of puzzling amateur hour. The show would star young Park Sang-Won, who would eventually become a sort of persona for both Kim Jong-Hak and Song Ji-Na, a trio that would continue to work together well into the 2010s – which makes today’s appearance by Park at Kim’s wake all the more meaningful and touching.

Kim Seong-Jong wasn’t much of a writer, truth to be told. But a 10-volume novel he wrote became the launching pad for what still remains one of the greatest achievement in Korean entertainment history. MBC began preparing for it ever since the October of 1989, “saving up” in impressive fashion for their big, 30th Anniversary show. They started shooting in May of 1990, and quickly moved to what at the time was a huge novelty – an oversea shoot, namely in the Philippines. History was made even before the first episode aired, as by shooting in Harbin, a Korean drama entered Chinese territory despite the fact that the two countries hadn’t even established diplomatic relations at the time. But it would just be one of its many records and accolades: it cost a whopping 7.2 billion won (exactly 200 million won per episode), from five to ten times the cost of the average drama produced back then; it featured over 20,000 extras, and an insanely deep cast that ranged from young stars (Choi Jae-Sung, Park Sang-Won, Chae Si-Ra) to proven commodities (Kim Heung-Gi, Park Geun-Hyung, Choi Bul-Am) and all the way to the first acting steps of people who would enjoy the limelight a few years later (Go Hyun-Jung, Oh Yeon-Soo, Im Chang-Jung and even Han Suk-Gyu). By now you know what I’m talking about. It’s the one and only, a show which still looks fresh and relevant today, over twenty years later. It’s 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn).

Syrupy synthesizer soundtrack aside (that comes with the times), just a glance at the scope of this show and you’ll realize how incredible an achievement it was. K-drama had been a mature industry for quite a while – I’d argue at least since the early 1980s, but the more I learn about TBC’s glory days, the more I’m inclined to suggest it all goes as far back as the early 1970s – and there were instances with production values that could rival Japan and the west to an extent. But this was world class filmmaking in all aspects (editing, cinematography, acting, writing, everything), exuding an iconic flair that went far beyond the painful history this show re-enacted. You could feel, even back then when newspapers would worry about Park Sang-Won’s mechanical delivery and Chae Si-Ra’s “mannequin acting,” that you were witnessing history, and that things would never be the same after it. 1991 was the year SBS was launched, the year the big three were born as an entity, and when an amazing drive towards quantity and quality began in earnest, writing some of the most memorable pages in all of K-drama history. And Kim Jong-Hak is responsible for writing it.

But it of course wouldn’t stop there.

By 1995, SBS was still a budding station born in Seoul that was slowly expanding in the rest of the country. They had been producing quality shows for years by scouting writers and producers from its two rivals (people like Shin Bong-Seung, Kim Soo-Hyun and Jung Ha-Yeon), but they needed that killer application that would scream in people’s faces that SBS was here to stay. It just happened that Kim Jong-Hak had just gone solo and founded his own production shingle, which was initially called Jcom. And when the team responsible for Eyes of Dawn put pen to paper on a project that could seriously catapult the station into the spotlight, people began realizing things would get quite serious in TV land. Sure enough, a few months later people deserted the streets at night. They were too busy watching 모래시계 (The Sandglass).

Another iconic masterpiece sharing many similarities with its record-breaking predecessor, one of the reasons why it might resonate a lot more with today’s public is because it dealt with “open wounds” like the May 18 Gwangju Massacre – in a splendidly vivid recreation which mixed live footage from the real events with the show. Recording average ratings that we will never witness again (50.8%), the show made superstars out of both Choi Min-Soo and Go Hyun-Jung, but also unlikely names like Lee Jung-Jae – who at the time was a sort of Song Seung-Heon type, only emoting with his eyebrows. This is the kind of amazing quality which defined a generation of Korean dramas, and it’s no small feat that the same man is responsible for both shows.

After the success of The Sandglass, a slow but gradual slump began for both Kim and Song Ji-Na, one the two would likely never recover from.

But today, especially today, those moments of greatness still resonate, as if they were the flowers surrounding the last photo of Kim Jong-Hak we will ever see.

So by all means. And whatever you might have done…

Thank you for the memories. And goodbye.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time

A Psalm of Life ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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