The first time I met Teacher Byun Hee-bong was one day in July 2006. It was a press preview of ‘Monster’ held at Megabox, COEX, Seoul. At that time, unlike now, actors, directors, and producers gave stage greetings before the film was screened at the press screening.
‘The Host’ was invited to the Director’s Week at the Cannes International Film Festival that year and was known to have received favorable reviews locally, so there was considerable interest in the film. It was also a time when the ‘Khan Premium’ was incomparably higher than it is now.
Director Bong Joon-ho and many other actors gave greetings, but only Byun Hee-bong’s words remain in my memory to this day. Teacher Byun humbly said, “At the end, if you enjoyed the movie, please give me a round of applause.” After the movie screening, when Director Bong and the actors entered for the press conference, thunderous applause broke out. I have never seen such applause at a press preview before or since. This was possible because the power of film and Byun Hee-bong’s humble words matched.
Teacher Byeon seemed very moved. He was 64 years old at the time. As you said, it was a moment when I felt like flowers had bloomed on an old tree. As expected, Mr. Byun’s life as an actor was not easy. Mr. Byeon debuted as a voice actor in MBC’s 2nd public recruitment in 1966 and spent a short period of time before joining a theater company and starting acting. In 1970, he began to become known on the small screen as a talent. He was at a time when there was a distinction between TV talent and movie actors. Na Moon-hee and Kim Yong-rim, who together expanded their fields from voice actors to actors, took on a brilliant rise, but Mr. Byun had a difficult life as an actor, taking on small or supporting roles.
Mr. Byun, who gave up his dream of becoming an actor and moved to a rural village in Jeollanam-do, finally began to attract attention by playing the role of a cult leader in the MBC drama ‘Investigation Team Leader’. He later showed a unique presence in historical dramas, but that was only for a short time. In the 1990s, as Korean pop culture was blooming, older actors were gradually losing their place. New wine in new bottles. It was a time when young blood was erupting everywhere.
Mr. Byun, who had been trying to quit his career as an actor, faced another turning point in his acting career when he appeared in director Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature film, ‘A Dog of Flanders.’ Although ‘The Dog of Flanders’ was a complete flop, just like the Chungmuro proverb that says people with a good attitude are given one more chance, Director Bong got one more chance with ‘Memories of Murder’ and again sent a love call to Byun Hee-bong.
That’s how their relationship led to ‘Monster’. Byun Hee-bong, who had not had much to wear during her almost 40-year career as an actress, won the Best Supporting Actor award for the first time in her life at the Blue Dragon Film Awards that year for ‘The Host’. Director Bong Joon-ho said to Byun, who won the Best Supporting Actor award at the Max Movies Best Film Awards ceremony held the following year, “I want to work with Byun Hee-bong forever.”
Since Korean CG technology was not as advanced as it is now, the conditions on the ‘Monster’ filming set were poor. Actors who probably had no experience dealing with invisible monsters put their all into acting. Teacher Byeon had to act out a collision with a monster, but in order to capture that reaction, the young staff had to hit him with a mat. The young staff hesitated, but Teacher Byun shouted once more. It was reasonable for Director Bong to show his infinite affection for Mr. Byeon.
Mr. Byun, who reached his first peak with ‘The Monster’, was so passionate that he made two movies and two dramas every year. The world also looked for him, and he also had no rest. Still, he did not forget humility.
At the 2008 production briefing for the movie ‘The Game’, in which he co-starred with Shin Ha-kyun, Byun said, “I was able to line up well and do ‘The Host’, and I received a lot of love. I hope I can finish that gratitude well. “This may be a mistake, but please take care of it,” he said. At the production briefing, Byun Hee-bong repeatedly said, “I worked really hard” and “I worked hard,” and these words were met with a truly unusual round of applause from the reporters. The actor’s sincerity made his opponents cry like that.
In 2017, 11 years had passed since ‘The Monster’ and Mr. Byun was 75 years old. He stood on the red carpet at the Cannes International Film Festival for the first time in his life with director Bong Joon-ho’s film ‘Okja’. Teacher Byun said, “I’ve been working as an actor for a long time, but I’ve never even dreamed of coming to Cannes. He said, “It feels like I was hit by lightning,” and “It feels like flowers blooming on an old tree in 70-degree weather.” He continued, “We’ll see. What will I show you next? “I will act until the day I die,” he said, receiving applause from Korean reporters who visited the site.
Teacher Byeon Hee-bong was a person who was truly right in saying that the term ‘teacher (先生),’ meaning he was born first, is used to mean an adult who teaches young people. No matter how good he is at acting or how much money he makes, it is never easy to receive applause in his life.
Byun Hee-bong returned to film heaven. He probably entered with applause from his colleagues who had gone before him. May the deceased rest in peace.
Reporter Jeon Hyeong-hwa firstname.lastname@example.org
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