[REVIEW] Stage to screen — a look at the film version of ‘Hero’

Jung Sung-hwa as independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun during a scene of new musical movie "Hero" [CJ ENM]

Warm blood seeps into the fresh snow as musical superstar Jung Sung-hwa slashes away at his fourth finger as a vow to spend the rest of his life fighting for Korea's liberation from Japan. He is playing the country’s famed independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) in the new musical movie "Hero."

On his face speckled with snowflakes and crimson from the icy wind is an expression flushed with this newfound clarity and resolute purpose.

Through the flurry of snow, he and the others hold up their mutilated hands, and in a swelling chorus sing;

Just as our cries wake a sleeping forest,
We will wake this world covered in darkness.
Let us never forget this day and our promise.

Resistance fighters sing during a scene of "Hero" [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The song marks the first act of both the new movie and the longstanding local musical of the name same. The scene transports audiences into a snowy birch forest on the outskirts of Seoul in 1909, when Ahn assassinated the first Japanese resident-general of Korea Hirobumi Ito at a railway station in Harbin, China. Five months later, he is executed at the age of 34.

The musical premiered in 2009 with Jung playing the title role. It has been staged nine times since, including a two-week run in New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2011. The movie adaptation, helmed by megahit director Yoon Je-kyun, is Korea’s first-ever musical film to be based on a homegrown show.

Both the screen and stage versions of “Hero” opened on Dec. 21. Jung also plays Ahn in the current run of the musical, alternating the role with two other actors, at western Seoul's LG Arts Center.

Jung Sung-hwa, far right, and the ensemble of musical "Hero" performs on stage in 2015 [JOONGANG ILBO]

As the popular show migrated to the screen, it lost a few songs, added and changed some characters, and created a new love interest while maintaining the same highlights and tear-jerking moments.

The screen adaptation of “Hero" delves deeper into different facets of Ahn compared to the stage version, portraying him not only as a heroic independence activist but also as a devout Catholic, father, husband, son and friend.

The movie also brings breathtaking cinematic realism to the musical.

Instead of picturing the snow-covered birch trees that the resistance fighters sing about in the first act, the audience can now see the stretches of white plains, filmed using the latest technology to relay the sheer scale of it all.

The backdrop of 1909 Vladivostok, Russia, which is where Ahn stayed prior to his assassination, was shot in Latvia where many of the buildings from the 1900s still remain.

Such scale and quality haven't been seen in a locally-produced musical film before.

Parts of 'Hero" were filmed in Latvia [CJ ENM]

In the last several decades, there hasn’t been a large appetite for Korean musical films. Only a handful have been made and nearly none proved successful.

“Obuja” in 1969, “Echo of an Angel” in 1973 and “The Fox Family” and “ Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater” in 2006, were all commercial failures. Most recently in September, the jukebox musical film “Life is Beautiful” starring prominent actors Yum Jung-ah and Ryu Seung-ryong was released but saw a mediocre response, garnering just 1.1 million in ticket sales.

The musical drama series “The Sound of Magic” which premiered in May this year starring actor Ji Chang-wook, ranked as high as No. 4 on Netflix’s global popularity chart for TV, yet, it was not free from criticisms that have trailed nearly all musical films and dramas made in Korea — the plot is too simple, the message too cliche and the bursting into songs too awkward.

This isn’t to say that local audiences don’t have love for the genre.

According to data from the Korean Film Council, “Frozen 2” (2019) ranks sixth in terms of bestselling movies in Korea of all time, with 13.7 million in ticket sales and “Aladdin” (2019) ranks 14th with 12.5 million audiences. “Frozen” (2014) and “Les Miserables” (2012) are also included in the top 200 most-watched movies, ranking 27th and 86th, respectively.

So, creating a musical movie in Korea was sort of like entering uncharted territory full of potential. Director Yoon saw the show in 2012 and afterward, “couldn’t imagine it being it in any other form.”

A distinct characteristic of the film is that the actors sing live rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs, which is known to be more customary for movies of this type . The method has never been used before for a local film.

Live singing shots fared especially favorably for Kim Go-eun who plays a Korean spy disguised as a geisha and Na Mun-hee who plays Ahn’s mother.

Kim Go-eun during a scene of "Hero" [CJ ENM]

Kim, with a whopping three solos (two from the original musical and one newly added song), has a beautifully unique tone to her voice, and awes viewers with gushes of raw emotion. With live singing, none of it is lost. And inside a theater, every trembling breath is delivered to the audience.

Ahn's mother's solo “My Loving Son, Thomas” (translated) is an undeniable highlight, both in the musical and in the film. Eighty-one-year-old Na doesn’t always hit the right notes but adds a deeper depth and sadness to the song through a heart-rendering performance.

Many of the singing scenes in “Hero” resemble Hollywood musical movies, especially “Les Miserables,” but Na’s solo is something of its own.

Na Mun-hee during a scene of "Hero" [CJ ENM]

Jung in the title role also gives an original performance.

Though he took on the original role of Ahn on stage and is a popular actor in musicals, Jung wasn’t the obvious choice for the same role on screen.

Jung’s fame is largely limited to live theater. He began his career as a comedian in 1994 but failed to see success. He has ample experience acting in front of the camera but in minor or supporting roles.

Though director Yoon faced backlash from investors, he was firmly set on casting Jung ever since deciding to make the movie.

Jung’s performance proves that Yoon was right to stick to his first pick.

His vocal talent is unarguable as he has proven on stage. Jung’s acting is quite different in the two mediums, however.

Best known for roles such as Lola in “Kinky Boots” in addition to Ahn in “Hero,” Jung on stage is incredibly expressive and over-the-top. For the movie, he delivers a tactfully measured and nuanced performance, seemingly more loose and relaxed than on stage.

But what the film fails to sufficiently capture are the reasons why Ahn and his resistance fighters are fighting. The crimes by Japanese authorities since they occupied Korea are outlined in broad strokes through the lyrics but fail to be explored.

The musical version also only sings about them, but when the same scenes were translated to screen, which tends to be a much more visual medium, the problem is more evident.

The running time for “Hero” is 120 minutes.