SOUTH Korea - When cable channel OCN's miniseries "Yaksa" exploded onto the small screen on Dec. 10, it lived up to its reputation as the Korean version of Starz's "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," flaunting an excess of gore and sex that more than merited its 19-and-over viewer restriction.
"Yaksa" lead actor Cho Dong-hyeok summed up the allure of the drama when he told The Korea Herald, "It is a work that allows for more freedom of expression and sports computer graphics like what was seen on 'Spartacus,' in short, that it would have the stuff that you just can't get on a major broadcasting network."
Massive carnage spliced with an orgy between the king and an entourage of half-nude women drew in average viewer ratings of 2.3 per cent, according to AGB Nielsen Media Research, a figure considered high in the cable arena.
Like the Spartan import, blood got its own artistic treatment in "Yaksa," splashing, rocketing, spewing and hurtling through the air in slo-mo.
Cho slid seamlessly into his role as the head of the king's secret gang of assassins, whipping his heavy sword about in a flash of brawn and sheer force, a grim reaper with a mission, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
So when the hunky model-turned-actor said, "I think it might have been better if it was just a tad bit crueler and a tad bit racier," many might have countered with, "What?"
That is, unless they watched the other episodes.
The 12-episode series, which plays every Friday at midnight, just aired its seventh installment.
Average ratings initially drifted down to 0.9 per cent by the fourth episode, but then popped right back up again to 1.79 per cent the following Friday when Cho's hero, Baek Rok, morphed into a gladiator and, armed with nothing but a shield, slaughtered his opponents.
Aside from Baek Rok, however, who gets most of the action, the nudity has been considerably toned down and the bloodbath curtailed, with the focus shifting to the narrative itself, the political intrigue between a mid-Joseon Dynasty monarch and those intent on keeping him a puppet, and the tale of a woman (played by singer-turned-actress Jeon Hye-bin) once loved by Baek Rok and his brother Baek Gyeol ("Spring Waltz" actor Seo Do-young) but now spurned and out for revenge.
In short, "Yaksa" is vastly different from "Spartacus," which was a sex-heavy gore-fest from beginning to end.
In regards to that, "Yaksa" director Kim Hong-sun discussed certain concerns he faced when making the series.
"Since we are for television, the viewers are more conservative," said Kim. "We wanted to give it an edge of fantasy, make it less cruel."
"When we first latched onto the concept, we were concerned about how, exactly, we should spray the blood," he continued. "We focused on making it look pretty and not like a horror flick."
"We did film sex scenes, but then we took them out because they didn't work," he said.
Quite frankly, however, even the toned-down version is far more hard-core than, say, KBS' action-heavy period blockbuster, "The Slave Hunters."
Computer graphics, or to be more accurate, the way that CGI has been used, seem to be playing a key role in giving "Yaksa" its allure.
"We wanted the concept of the action to be about power," said Kim. "We wanted to do powerful action. We wanted the swords to cut through the bodies. You can't do something like that on a major broadcasting network, but you can do it on cable."
To achieve those effects, Kim revealed that they had to use swords that were only half their intended length, so that computer graphics could be used to create slicing and piercing effects later on.
"At first it was very awkward for us," Kim said of using the half-swords.
"Yeah, we got this half sword, like, literally, half a sword," Cho recalled when they started the four months of filming that ran from August to November last year. "We would use real swords for one take, then, we would have to do it again with half swords."
He chuckled as he remembered what it was like.
"There were a lot of outtakes," he said. "It was all so new to us, so when they called, 'Cut!' We would burst out laughing."
"Yaksa" action director Baek Kyung-chan, who racked up critical experience working on "The Slave Hunters," explained how time-consuming the process was.
"We had to film each choreographed sequence about three times," Baek said.
Kim confirmed that, for episodes one to five alone, they used around 600 cuts worth of CGI, which, he also confirmed, is the approximate amount used on average for an entire film.
Still, Kim confirmed that production costs for "Yaksa," which totaled a whopping 3 billion won (S$3.3 million), were still cheaper than what it cost to make "Spartacus."
Not only was "Yaksa" less expensive to make than "Spartacus," it relied less on green-or-blue-screen technology than the C.G.I.-saturated hit.
"We filmed 80 per cent of ours outside, on location, and did 20 to 30 per cent on blue screen," he said.
So, while "Yaksa" may not be peppered-to-bursting with green screen, it definitely has more than its fair share of "real" action.
According to action director Baek, Cho did almost all of his own stunts, a challenge that left him close to blinded at one point.
"Physically it was incredibly difficult," Cho said, flexing his rough, large fists, which still looked battered and bruised despite the fact that approximately two months had passed since filming wrapped up.
"I felt like I got more of a thrill out of using my bare hands to fight than when I wielded a sword."
According to Cho, at one point he and a fellow action actor actually started to duke it out while filming.
Afterwards Cho said his forearms were so bruised that he could barely prop them up.
"We tailored the action for Cho's character, for instance, to make his fighting style heavy and rough," explained Baek, who recalled the incident with a bit, it seems, of good-natured humor.
For Cho the action presented a new challenge. Though he had starred in four films and six TV dramas before he did "Yaksa," he had never done an action or a period piece before.
"I think I watched 'Spartacus' three times to check out the action because you just can't get that kind of action in Korean dramas," the 33-year old said.
Looking like he got a kick out of the experience ? though he admitted to wanting to throw in the towel numerous times ? he hinted at the gore to come by saying, "This is just the beginning."
"Lots of people die and I kill most of them. I kill them all. But the ultimate action to end all action comes in the final episode."
-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network