The Korean revenge movie isn’t a genre often reproduced in the short film format, especially not by two filmmakers from the UK. The Halsall Brothers take inspiration to a new level by filming their short If I had a Heart in the country and language that influenced their work. Dark, broody and brimming with violence, this well made, hugely engaging short feels like a breathe of fresh air in the short film arena, but be warned….this isn’t a short for the faint hearted:
A neon-noir set in the underbelly of Seoul. Sam IL is a street fighter who was abandoned at birth by his Mother in a coin locker. His life has been one of extreme violence and isolation. After a brutal near death experience Sam IL is forced to contemplate his past whilst accepting the non-existence of his future. His path to revenge is an acceptance of death that offers no salvation or redemption.
If I had a Heart is a short film that is strong in both style and content, where did the inspiration for the concept and visual style come from?
The concept was inspired by a number of key ideas we came up with whilst brainstorming – the main thing that got the ball rolling was this idea of someone caught in a traumatic cycle or way of life who could not identify with the society in which they live. It was really important that our film highlighted the tragedy of such a cycle. Through developing this idea, the concept for the film was born. We then delved deeper into these themes and explored the notion of someone such as this accepting their death as a release, a break of the cycle if you will. Weaving this into a narrative that is very much indebted to the genre of Korean revenge thrillers, we began writing the script.
Stylistically we were inspired by a number of key influences. Drive was a big inspiration for both of us and we originally had aims to make something far closer in style to Refn’s film, a Korean homage to Drive almost. That changed a few days before production when we sat down and re-watched Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. We decided at that moment that this film had to be far more oppressive in its mood, atmosphere and tone. It also brought us to the realisation that for the audience to sympathise – or even empathise – with our disturbed, violent and ‘heartless’ character, the viewer would need to experience the film firmly from the subjective perspective of this man lost in a deep psychosis. Much like Kill List, which then also had a fundamental effect on how we approached the use of sound – both during the shoot and in post-production (which is why it still blows our mind that Martin Pavey did a 5.1 mix for our film).
The location was a massive inspiration. What got us most excited when we were working tirelessly on the film was the fact that we were making our own Korean revenge film. That will always be a big deal for us. We watched Oldboy together when we were 14 and 15 respectively and that for us was a massive cinematic milestone. We snuck into a cinema in London to watch it and it literally blew our minds. We wanted more than anything to make a film that fit into the Korean revenge genre and respected its tropes. Whilst we brought our own western influences, including the film’s we have already mentioned, it was always a Korean revenge thriller first and foremost.
How was the experience of making the film in Korea?
The experience of making the film and shooting in Korea was incredible. My brother and I are not Korean, we are both from London. The short was made whilst I was working as an English teacher in a Korean village outside Seoul. My brother came to visit me at the end of my teaching contract and we wrote and shot the film within 5 weeks. Like every film it was a gruelling and intense project. Already having our return tickets to England booked was a great pressure throughout. It was the metaphorical gun to the head that really forced us to up our game. Pressure is essential for us.
The lead actor was a friend I had made whilst I was living in Korea and he helped us out a lot with the logistics of being able to shoot in Korea, as well as having a big creative impact on his character and the film itself. He was invaluable. Without him this film simply never could have happened.
How are you expecting an internet audience to react to the darker nature of If I Had a Heart?
It’s funny you say that. One of the over riding things people seem to take away from the film is how dark it is. It may be because we spent our formative years watching things such as Ichi the Killer and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but to us the film is not as dark and heavy as most people seem to find it. We feel it’s crucial that cinema – and art in general – stay disturbing. There are many people out there in the real world who are genuinely disturbed. So anything which attempts to say something about them and their lives should be truthful and therefore equally as unsettling as their experiences. These are people who society generally doesn’t want to understand, sympathise and definitely not empathise with. They are turned into villains and deemed ‘evil’.
We feel it’s crucial that cinema – and art in general – stay disturbing
As directors we loved the idea of making an accessible genre film which took a character whose actions make him unforgivable, but whose humanity makes him relatable. So in order to do this character and his world justice – it was crucial we try and make it as dark as possible. There is a poetic beauty at play, an acceptance of one’s self and one’s fate that we really love. We hope people aren’t turned off by the film’s dark nature and that they can identify with its themes. But to be totally honest with you we have no idea how people are going to find it. Mostly we just hope they enjoy it!
What are you woking on next?
We are currently developing a couple feature ideas with them including a feature length adaptation of this short! Recently we just finished shooting another short with our same actor, Min Jung Kim. this time it’s a North Korean revenge film, which we shot in England and Wales! We are just about to embark on post production with it. Extremely excited to get it finished and out there!
Here’s an exclusive look at the Halsall Brothers’ next short: