Theater actor switches to film for Korean musical 'Hero' adaptation

Jung Sung-hwa in a scene of "Hero" as the Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun [CJ ENM]

Musical actor Jung Sung-hwa, 47, has played the title role of Korea's legendary independence activist Ahn Jung-geun for the past 13 years on stage. Acting the part in a film was merely a dream, until a few years ago.

“I had only ever imagined what it would be like to have ‘Hero’ turned into a movie, and certainly, I did not think that I would get to play the lead role in it if there ever was one,” said Jung during a press interview at a cafe in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Dec. 12. "I was over the moon when director Yoon Je-kyun approached me a few years ago about the film."

“Hero,” which premiered Wednesday, is the first-ever movie to be adapted from an original Korean musical — created and copyrighted in Korea — onto the screen.

The musical's film draws on the final year of independence activist Ahn Jung-geun's (1879-1910) life, leading up to his assassination of Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, at a railway station in Harbin, China, in 1909. The assassination is considered one of the most significant moments in modern Korean history. Five months after the assassination, at the age of 34, he is executed in a Chinese prison.

Actor Jung Sung-hwa [CJ ENM]

On stage, Jung has held the role of Ahn ever since the musical first opened in Seoul in 2009.

He initially debuted as a comedian in 1994 and began acting in 1999, appearing in supporting roles in sitcoms and movies even until recently. He began performing in musicals in 2005. His first title role in a major show was in the 2017 licensed production of “Man of La Mancha” and has since gone on to become a musical superstar, best known for playing Ahn in “Hero” and Lola in “Kinky Boots.”

“Seeing the final version of the movie for the first time was an overwhelming experience,” said Jung. “No one is born to play the main role, but that opportunity did come for me and I was incredibly grateful. My entire life and career passed by my eyes as I was watching the movie.”

Though Jung had his doubts about being cast in the film, director Yoon, 57, had always pegged him as the one who would play Ahn.

“I never considered anyone else,” said Yoon during an interview on Dec. 15. “If I was going to make a musical film of ‘Hero,’ I needed someone with actual talent, both singing and acting, and that was Jung Sung-hwa.”

Yoon is the only Korean director to have two films sell over 10 million tickets — “Ode to My Father” (2014) and “Tidal Wave” (2009).

He decided to turn “Hero” into a musical after seeing the original musical with Jung as the lead, in 2012.

Director Yoon Je-kyun [CJ ENM]

Going into the shooting, Yoon said he had two goals: to do justice to the original musical and to make a musical film that would be seen as world-class.

To achieve the two goals, he decided to film nearly all of the singing scenes with the actors actually singing their parts on set, as opposed to editing in the vocals later. About 70 percent of the singing scenes are filmed this way, instead of being replaced with studio recordings.

“I didn’t want that awkward switch from on-site noises to crisp studio recordings, and I wanted the emotions of the actors to continue from their lines to lyrics,” said Yoon. “It was an even more difficult process than I had imagined. All external sounds needed to be controlled, even the noise of a tiny bug. More importantly, finding that exact emotional spot while singing was a difficult process, and the actors had to sing the same song some 10 times to get the right take, and some had to come in again for a re-shoot.”

Singing "live" on set in front of a camera wasn’t easy for Jung either, who actually fainted while filming “Hero.”

“I remember doing 13 takes for one song, and that was beyond strenuous,” said Jung, who said it was especially hard for him on set because he had lost 13 kilograms (29 pounds) in a very short period of time to look the part of Ahn.

"Losing weight was certainly hard […] as there really was no way around it other than to eat less and exercise more. It put a strain on my body, but at the time I was full of ambition."

Jung Sung-hwa in a scene of "Hero" as the Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun [CJ ENM]

As much as Jung was excited about being part of the movie adaptation of “Hero,” he felt a lot of pressure as well.

“When all was set and decided, I was scared,” said Jung. “There are only so many seats inside a theater, but a film reaches so many more people.”

He said that he was able to overcome his fears by focusing on his responsibility — that he had to do this not just for himself, but also for the future of original Korean musicals.

“I want this film to introduce more people to how great original Korean musicals are,” Jung said. “The musical theater market is only so big, and I hope more films like ‘Hero’ can be made so that musical theater actors can foray to the screen as well. I also want to show the world that Korea, too, can produce quality musical films that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Hollywood’s ‘Les Miserables' and ‘Cats.’

“Just as Ahn Jung-geun brings pride to Koreans, I hope that the film 'Hero' can be the pride of local musical films.”