Netflix’s new film draws mixed responses for depiction of pop-culture-based Seoul
By Lee Gyu-lee
Film and television used to portray Seoul in the 1980s as a city in the throes of industrial and urban development with propaganda-themed music ringing through the streets ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But the depiction of Korea’s capital city in Netflix’s new original film, “Seoul Vibe,” exudes a different vibe ― from supercharged, vibrant scenes filled with pop-culture to upbeat, fast-tempo hip-hop tracks.
Director Moon Hyun-sung, who is known for leading the 2012 sports film, “As One,” said that his latest comedy action film intends to show the different portrayals of the city in that era, adding on a layer of hip-hop flare.
“The starting point of the ‘Seoul Vibe’ project was hip-hop. Because the producer and I like hip-hop so much, we approached it as a culture, rather than just as music. And as we moved on to the story we wanted to fill it with, we just naturally connected the dots from classic cars from 1988, Olympics and other social backgrounds,” the director told The Korea Times in an interview, Monday.
“We mixed and matched various genres like hip-hop or pop art, which might feel like an unfamiliar approach to many. But I just wanted to have a go no matter what the outcome was, and that was the same for lead actor Yoo Ah-in and all the cast members. That itself showed a Seoul vibe,” he said.
The high-speed blockbuster, set in 1988 when the Seoul Olympics took place, follows a rowdy, colorful group of drivers and mechanics called the Sanggye-dong Supreme Team. To achieve what they view as the American dream, they accept a prosecutor’s offer to go undercover for a slush fund case in return for a visa to the U.S. if the operation succeeds.
Led by skilled and sleek driver Dong-wook (Yoo), the group ― played by Yoo, Ko Kyoung-pyo, Lee Kyoo-hyung, Park Ju-hyun and Ong Seong-wu ― infiltrates the ruthless money laundering cartel, led by Chairwoman Kang (Moon So-ri), while juggling their lives.
A lot happened in the 1980s in Korea. And I believe those events clashed and coexisted to create the year 2022 that we now live in here” the director said. “The Olympics took place in 1988, but there are a lot of unbelievably outrageous Olympic-related stories that you can find. And ‘Seoul Vibe’ is just a slice of that. The interesting point of the film is to bring back 1988 from a different angle.”
The director said that the film is a rite-of-passage story of young adults pursuing their dreams.
“The biggest dream the lead character, Dong-wook, has is the American dream. It’s related to the overall sentiment at the time in Korea: everyone wanted to have a big dream or was told to have one,” he said.
“Working for their dream and facing difficult circumstances in the process is the story of youth itself. Dong-wook and the team face an unexpectedly huge, life-threatening struggle as they try to accomplish the American dream through a shortcut.”
The film, which debuted Aug. 26, has topped the streaming chart in Korea and took the eighth spot on the global chart on Monday, according to the analytics platform Flixpatrol.
However, the film has also been facing criticism for its unrealistic portrayal of young adults in the ’80s, topped by unconvincing action sequences like a car successfully landing after freefalling from an airplane.
The director noted that he wanted the characters to be colorful, even if it meant adding fictional elements to the era.
“Many asked if there were really people like this (at that time). I didn’t check to verify but I wanted to set the characters to be eccentric. So it might seem odd for those who went through or remember the 1980s,” Moon said. “Some might say it’s too much. I personally wanted to go further but found the appropriate point and created (the scenes) with actors.”
He said that he had actor Yoo in mind for the lead role from the beginning of the film’s production.
“Yoo, before ‘Seoul Vibe,’ had shown different images of young Korean adults in various projects. There’s a natural vibe Yoo has that is irreplaceable and I wanted to capture that,” he said.
“Dong-wook is the key person on the team. And of the list of potential actors we made for the role, Yoo was absolutely on the top of the list. After we finished the script, we offered him the role. And Yoo also responded to the film’s sentiment and decided to work with us together.”
He also thanked K-pop singer Song Min-ho of the boy group, Winner, who made a surprise cameo in the film for his acting debut.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for Song as an artist, but he was willing to jump in to create (the story) ‘Seoul Vibe’ pursued,” he said. “I did worry at first but we had fun in and out of the camera with other actors too. He also wrote a soundtrack, so it has been such an unforgettable project for both of us.”