French filmmaker and Korean cast combine to make multilingual thriller

The crossover film "Vanishing," invested and distributed by French company Canal+, revolves around a murder case set in Seoul. [JNC MEDIA GROUP]

In the crime thriller “Vanishing,” language is just one piece of the puzzle as the characters communicate across three languages — Korean, English and French.

Directed by French filmmaker Denis Dercourt, the film centers around police detective Jin-ho (played by Yoo Yeon-seok) as he gets to the bottom of a case involving unidentified bodies. Olga Kurylenko, best known as Bond girl Camille Montes from the 22nd James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” (2008), takes on the co-lead as Alice Launey, a French forensic expert who assists Jin-ho on the case during her visit to Seoul.

Although invested in and distributed by French mass media company Canal+, the film takes place in Seoul and mostly involves cast active in Korea. The film was shot entirely in Seoul for about a month in September 2020. Throughout the course of 88 minutes, Dercourt compactly guides the audience through how Jin-ho resolves the case involving a criminal network of organ trafficking while hinting at a budding romance between Jin-ho and Alice.

Dercourt is best known for his two films “The Page Turner” (2006) and “Tomorrow at Dawn” (2009), both screened at the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival of 2006 and 2009.

Denis Dercourt [JNC MEDIA GROUP]

Dercourt is said to have signed up for a chance to work with a Korean cast and to shoot in Korea, but at an online press interview last week, the filmmaker said he had the freedom to edit the script according to his needs.

“It was very important for me to understand Korean mentality,” he said. “I could understand the perspective of Alice [because she comes] from European mentality, but how [Korean] policemen think and act — I watched a lot of movies and I had a lot of discussions with my students. I’m a music teacher [as well] and I had a lot of Korean students. I kept asking questions about what can possibly be done in Korea or not. It was very important to avoid the cliché for me, as a foreigner.”

To better understand police work in Korea, at a prior press event Dercourt said that he took references from similar genres such as Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) and Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser” (2008).

“I am very careful with references because in our European minds the references can let you create film with cliché because we [the global audience] see Korea through the movies,” he said. “I took a lot from Im Kwon-taek’s ‘Seopyonje' [1993]. It is an important film for me, and all the thrillers [that I’ve mentioned before] are important movies, but I wanted to forget them. What I do not forget is the spirits and how Korean filmmakers represent the police work. And also how directors like Bong Joon-ho let the actors portray their characters in the very specific Korean way of acting, and I wanted to do that in the Korean way.”

Dercourt also took care to dive deeper into the mind and narrative behind Alice, an ex-surgeon who became a forensic expert due to her trauma. Her lost state of mind is represented through the swirl of Seoul's bright city lights as she walks the streets of the most iconic places of the city such as Myeongdong, Sungnyemun Gate (Namdaemun) and the Han River.

Olga Kurylenko as French forensic expert Alice Launey who assists the police detective Jin-ho (played by Yoo Yeon-seok) on his case. [JNC MEDIA GROUP]

“When I write such a character, I want the character to be multi-layered,” he said. “And I wanted the character of Alice coming in this very foreign country that she doesn’t know and to feel lost. I wanted her to be lost at the beginning, and Korea helps her to heal from her trauma.

“For action thrillers, if you want the audience to feel moved and to become immersed, you have to understand the psychology of the characters,” he continued. “However, I didn’t realize that Alice was walking much, but it has to do with her trauma.”

Once Yoo Yeon-seok was casted to portray Jin-ho, Dercourt also added a subtle romance which sparks as the two of them begin to work closely together.

“I just wanted a glimpse,” he said. “I knew that it could not be a big love story — it would have been impossible in such a thriller, but I wanted the audience to feel something like there could be a relationship in a story which is bloody and difficult.”

Another character created by the filmmaker was Mi-sook (played by Ye Ji-won) who acts as Alice’s French-Korean interpreter and who guards a secret of her own. Dercourt showered Ye with praises for her French skills.

“I created this character because I wanted Alice to come from another country and not speak Korean,” he said. “So I created the character [of Mi-sook] for language reasons […] I knew Ji-won could speak a little French, and she really wanted the part for this French role. What I could not imagine, however, was how could one work so hard. By the end of the shooting, she was speaking fluent French. What she does is incredible, and I’ve never seen a person put in such an amount of work in my whole directing life.

Actor Choi Mu-sung as a mysterous man who is deeply involved in the murder case [JNC MEDIA GROUP]
Actor Park Soi as Jin-ho's nephew Yoona who loves to practice speaking French [JNC MEDIA GROUP]

“In France, everybody thinks she speaks absolutely perfect French, but what I can say is that she’s also an incredible actress,” he continued. “What she does as an actress apart from the language is fantastic. We did very difficult things with her including on our first shooting day, because she was shooting her last scene that day, but she handled it exceptionally.”

Including Ye’s hard effort, the French filmmaker seemed to be most impressed by the diligence of the Korean staff members.

“The biggest impression I had about the staffs was the level of preparation — everything is so well prepared, the amount of work they put in before the shooting, that’s very, very impressive,” he said. “For instance, I would write an email from Europe and it would be night during in Korea, but I would get an answer almost immediately. I have a feeling that everybody works extremely hard in Korea — that left a very strong imprint for me as a foreign director.”

The film was released in local theaters Wednesday.