Cho Young-wuk (Film Music Composer)

From 'The Contact' which recorded the first ever million selling soundtrack for a Korean film to the recently acclaimed film 'Thirst', film Music Director Cho Young-wuk has spent the last decade opening up Korea’s domestic film music market. Through his composing of music for a vast array of films including ‘Oldboy’; ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ and ‘White Night’; he has changed the flow of the industry in Korea forever.

Cho young-wuk’s complete and extensive music filmography can be found at the end of the following interview.

The following group interview took place at the Odeon West End cinema in London on September 25th 2014, prior to the Korean Cultural Centre UK special tenth anniversary screening of 'Oldboy' and Q&A with music composer Cho Young-wuk:


Hangul Celluloid: If we step back to 2009’s ‘White Night’ [Directed by Park Shin-woo and starring Son Ye-jin], you used the opening melody of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ as a musical motif throughout the film to underline the love affair between the two main characters as well as heralding scenes taking place in the past and linking then to present-day events. So, when you are either composing music for a film or collating already created pieces, where do you begin? Do you start by thinking of character arcs and their required individual musical motifs or do you think more in terms of overall story and pivotal scenes? Also, as ‘Swan Lake’ opens the film too, fitting the scenes perfectly and placing the motif in viewers minds from the outset, at what point was that piece specifically chosen?

Cho Young-wuk:
In terms of ‘White Night’, I largely began by focusing on the events of the story overall and the impact those events would have on the characters and the resultant changes to their individual outcomes. That was the role of the opening music and it was chosen early on as such, almost naturally becoming a repeated motif for use throughout the film.

I’d like to ask you how you got involved in scoring music for films? I believe you started in a rock band in university and became a music producer but did you always want to score films? And do you ever feel you might like to go back to being in a rock band?

Cho Young-wuk:
It’s a very long story and also a personal story: When I was young, I was very interested in Western music, especially Western rock music; I collected a lot of records and heard a great deal of Western music. At school, everybody studies music and forms band and I was also in a band in university, playing guitar with my friends, but I don’t think I had much talent so I gave it up and began to consider how I could make a living from music for the rest of my life. So, I became employed in a record company and began working as a music producer. In parallel to that, I always had a love of films and I was friends with people like director Park Chan-wook among others and someone from a film production contacted me with a script for ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ saying that the music would be incredibly important and asking if I’d be interested in producing it. I said okay and the film later became a huge hit in Korea and the music became equally successful. So, that’s how I unintentionally began my music composing career.

Korean Class Massive:
Could you explain the processes that go into composing the music for a film from conception to completion? For example, do you read the script first and begin to compose the music or does the director come and say what kind of music he wants?

Cho Young-wuk:
That really depends on the film and it’s always a case by case basis. So, I’ll read the script and think about what film it is and what role music plays in that film. Also, what I really want to say to you all is that I don’t work alone, I work in a team where I have several composers that I lead as a team and we’ll have discussions about what style of music would suit, what instruments should be used and what kind of rhythm should appear. We’ll discuss all this while the film is being made. Firstly, I will focus n the script and then I think about the role of the music. As far as directors asking me specifics, some directors do some directors don’t but most prefer me to work autonomously.

Mini Mini Movies:
My question leads on from the previous one: In the film ‘A Dirty Carnival’ the music, which was nominated for awards, is very accordion based; of a French or Parisian style. Was that your decision or the director’s?

Cho Young-wuk:
I didn’t feel that the music in that film was very French or Parisian in style so it’s very interesting that you think that. When I was deciding on the accordion I was focusing on the protagonist’s life and the process he goes through and I thought about what instrument would describe his life really well. That instrument was ultimately the accordion as you said, which in Korea has a resonance with old sentimentality as well as a bit of sadness, and that is the reason it was ultimately chosen rather than it being French of Parisian in sound.

Diya on Korea:
You have said that you are friends with director Park Chan-wook and I just wanted to ask what it’s like to work with him and what influence his decisions have?

Cho Young-wuk:
I have a very special relationship with director Park Chan-wook. We have been extremely close friends since before we both began our film careers so we will watch films, contemplate films and discuss films together. As you may know, Park Chan-wook is also a major fan of music – he like classical music etc – and initially I think that’s why he trusted me. He would give me a script and recommend that I think about the music that would go well with that film and when I go back to him with my suggestions he would largely tend to accept them. So, if I could say what I think is really brilliant about Park Chan-wook it is that rather than putting his opinion forward first he listens attentively to those around him and his happy to embrace their suggestions, make them his own And absorb them into a project.

Oriental Nightmares:
I was thinking about the relationship between the soundtrack to ‘Lady Vengeance’ and the soundtrack of ‘Oldboy’ and I wondered whether there is a continuity between the two films in terms of the soundtrack? Were different choices made in each case because the protagonist in ‘Oldboy’ is male and the protagonist in ‘Lady Vengeance’ is female? So, did gender have an impact on the composing of those two soundtracks in relation to each other?

Cho Young-wuk:
When I’m thinking about5 the music of a film the gender of the characters is extremely important, and I strongly believe that. The music will then result, depending on the gender, in a completely different style. In terms of ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’, there is no relationship between the two as far as the music is concerned. When I was working on ‘Lady Vengeance’ I completely ignored my work on ‘Oldboy’ because if I had taken that path I would have been at risk of self-copying or self-imitation; the inability to make something new or constantly repeating oneself.

Hangul Celluloid:
With music being so important in accenting emotions within a film, if you were offered a project which had a script that didn’t move you, would you still consider taking it? Could you create empathy with music when you don’t feel empathy for a script?

Cho Young-wuk:
Not really. It would be incredibly difficult to work on a film if that was the case. However, if I very urgently needed money then I probably would anyway [Cho Young-wuk laughs].

I’d like to ask very specifically about ‘Oldboy’: The infamous corridor scene is done in one take and very much relies on the music to pace the entire segment. I’d like to ask how that decision came about and did it make that scene quite difficult to score?

Cho Young-wuk:
Director Park made the decision to have one long take instead of editing and cutting it, etc. If I could divulge a secret about ‘Oldboy’: All the music had already been made prior to filming; the music for each of the characters had already been created before an shooting took place and an important point about ‘Oldboy’ is that prior to the film director Park had established a film company and needed a success for that company. So, I told him to hand over the music to me entirely and I said I would make it as commercial as possible and that’s how that project started. Ultimately with any film the final decision is always made by the film director. Later, when we worked on ‘Lady Vengeance’, I worked on the production side as well.

Korean Class Massive:
Is there a score for a film that you wish you had composed or a film you wish you had been able to work on?

Cho Young-wuk:
Specifically, no film comes to mind but I would really like to work with director Bong Joon-ho. However, he never seems to call me [Cho Young-wuk laughs].

Mini Mini Movies:
With the film ‘The Contact’, the soundtrack proved to be incredibly popular. When you composed the music did you have any idea how popular it would become?

Cho Young-wuk:
Because I worked in a record company and sold music previously I sensed that it would sell quite well but of course it exceeded all my expectations. I did think the public would like it but not to the extent that they did.

Diya on Korea:
You said earlier that you work in a team. Is there any ritual you go through while you’re recording a score? Is there any music you listen to, or do you not listen to music outside of a project so you get inspired by the script?

Cho Young-wuk:
Before I make music for a film, I’m the type of person who likes to listen to a lot of music and I listen to music from all over the world. Basically, I just listen to a lot of music.

Oriental Nightmares:
Some have compared the score of ‘Kundo’ to that of a spaghetti western. Was that your intention and if so why?

Cho Young-wuk:
I think the reviews that described it as a spaghetti western style are absolutely correct because that was the intention. The director of ‘Kundo’ approached me with a concept for the film in his mind as well as a concept for the music. He required it to have a spaghetti western style, I said that sounded very interesting and I suggested working on it together. In terms of the process of creating the music I concentrated on recreating something old rather than creating something entirely new and so I studied the music in many spaghetti westerns intensely; looking at the instruments and style used. After doing a thorough analysis, I would try to compose in a similar style, so for someone to describe the music as spaghetti western style is very accurate.

Hangul Celluloid:
What are your thoughts on the use of real instruments versus emulated, synthesised sounds?

Cho Young-wuk:
I think both have their pros and cons. I don’t particularly differentiate between the two and if I have very little money or if a film is a very low budget then I’ll make the sounds on computer. Returning to the film ‘Kundo’, I actually recorded the music for that in Abbey Road Studios in London and that was because I thought it would be the best and perfect place to create the sounds that I wanted.


On behalf of everyone involved, I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing us all to interview music composer Cho Young-wuk at such length.


Cho Young-wuk Music Filmography:

Age of the Rampant (2014)
Hide and Seek (2013)
The Attorney (2013)
Tough as Iron (2013)
Fists of Legend (2012)
New World (2012)
The Berlin File (2012)
The Concubine (2012)
Nameless Gangster:
Rules of the Time (2011)

Glove (2010)
The Unjust (2010)
Moss (2010)
White Night (2009)
Thirst (2008)
Public Enemy Returns (2008)
I’m a Cyborg,
But That’s Ok (2006)
A Dirty Carnival (2006)
Sympathy For
Lady Vengeance (2005)

Blood Rain (2004)
Silmido (2003)
Oldboy (2003)
The Classic (2003)
Public Enemy (2002)
Joint Security Area /
JSA (2000)
Tell Me Something (1999)
Happy End (1999)
The Quiet Family (1998)
The Contact (1997)