Park Seon-ho tries to avoid feeling too guilty when it comes to cliches. As the director of Business Proposal, the latest hit South Korean romantic comedy based on a popular webtoon of the same title, he sticks to the principle that “what you’re familiar with works the best.” So instead of forcing change or adding artificial flavors, he tries to portray comfortingly predictable scenes as they are.
For K-drama fans, the plot of the story may indeed ring familiar – an ordinary girl is disguised as her rich friend and meets an arrogant heir of a conglomerate on a blind date at the friend’s request, only to learn that he is the CEO of the company she works for. The two fall in love, and despite the pressures from the boy’s family due to class differences, the couple overcomes hardship and lives happily ever after.
Yet this predictable storyline which adopts the Cinderella plot with a contemporary corporate-workplace twist resonated in a huge way with many fans of K-drama. On Netflix, where the series was released globally, Business Proposal was the streamer’s #1 non-English series for the third consecutive week as of last week. It was also the third most-watched Netflix show in the world behind the first two seasons of Bridgerton.
The Hollywood Reporter talked to the director Seon-ho Park to discuss the global success of his last work and his experiences of working with up-and-coming Korean actors.
This is your third series after Suspicious Partner and Wok of Love. How did you approach Business Proposal, and what was your first impression of the original webtoon?
I also shot a short drama series My Fantastic Funeral, so I’d say Business Proposal is actually my fourth piece. After I completed Wok of Love, I was preparing to work on another project but it fell through with the pandemic. Right when I started feeling frustrated and disappointed with myself because of the lost time of a full year, a production company reached out to me. The impression I got from my first read of the script was great. I accepted the offer because I knew I could enjoy working on the piece. After I said yes, I read the original webtoon series and got the impression that it was a cute and quirky romantic comedy set in an office. I thought, ‘This is a piece that audiences can enjoy anytime with peace of mind. It doesn’t give you any headaches, and it’s great for relieving stress.’ I tried to expand on those impressions from the original webtoon in my process of dramatizing the series.
In the earlier episodes, it was difficult to understand why Tae-moo couldn’t tell the difference between Ha-ri and Geum-hui. Did you have any concerns about this set up?
I had many thoughts about it. I was at a loss as to what to do about it (laughs). From Kim Se Jeong’s point of view, she has to switch from Ha-ri and Geum-hui constantly, so the nuances in her acting had to be different. She had to have the basic foundation as a charming lead in a romantic comedy series, while giving variation to her acting style. We gave Geum-hui a more dramatic change in her style, but there were some structural issues to match with that character so her style had to go through an overhaul again. I communicated with Kim Se Jeong constantly throughout this entire process to build on her opinions, especially in the details in her acting and her overall style. She basically had to prepare for two roles, since she was playing two different characters. I had a lot of thoughts on how the two characters’ relationships with Tae-moo would develop when they met him. With the basics in place for the characters Ha-ri and Geum-hui, the development process was a little bit easier. But I did try to make the flow more natural and the story more realistic since it would have to make sense to the viewers. That’s why we put in scenes where Ha-ri deliberately avoids making eye contact with Tae-moo in the beginning when she encounters him at work. We also added a playful chase scene with her slipper. (We thought it would also be a fun allusion to Cinderella.) Also, we intentionally portrayed Ha-ri as a character who’s very skilled at her job. We made her character likable, but by also highlighting her competence, we emphasized that Tae-moo would be unable to match Ha-ri and Geum-hui because of his very strong impression of Ha-ri as a qualified employee.
Young-seo and Sung-hoon’s relationship is contrasted with the conventional fairy-tale setting of Tae-moo and Ha-ri. How did you want to portray their relationship?
I didn’t think the relationship between Tae-moo and Ha-ri was that conventional either (laughs). I thought it had some fantasy aspects to it, so in script meetings with the writer, we agreed to make it more realistic and plausible. Romantic comedy as a genre takes aspects of fantasy for granted (especially in the case of Cinderella-format tales) so I wanted to bring some realness to balance out emotions so that viewers wouldn’t have a hard time accepting the story. Young-seo and Sung-hoon’s relationship is the same. I don’t think that falling in love at first sight or the girl pursuing the guy is that out of the ordinary today. I think what makes their relationship special is the way they express their relationship and how they capture their emotions in their acting. I don’t want these two couples to be a stark contrast of each other. People love in different ways, which is the message I wanted to convey.
You added interesting visuals by using animated effects. Whose idea was it?
They all started off as my ideas, and of course our great teams built on it. I focused most on an organic story flow and plausible character emotions. A drama is just a story told using visuals, so I think the story, which is the foundation, is the most important element. That’s why we focused on the overall storyline and the flow of emotions, even though they may not be perfect. Visual effects were used to maintain the integrity of the original webtoon as well. Personally, I like using special visual effects and try to incorporate them where I can. I never use it to compromise the flow of the story or the actors’ performance though.
What was your first impression of Ahn Hyo Seop and Kim Se Jeong?
They had great attitudes towards work and understanding their characters. They were diligent. As a producer, I wanted to propel their careers forward so they could build on their stardom as up-and-coming actors. They were both adorable and good at their jobs. At our first meeting, Ahn Hyo Seop was a lot more youthful than I had heard. That’s when I knew that he was the right fit for Tae-moo, not the other way around. I jokingly told him that I wanted to bring out the childish side of him in this series (laughs). He already had the looks for the part of Tae-moo, so adding on his childlike aspects would bring layers to the character’s complexity. Ahn Hyo Seop as an actor is solid and sincere, so he not only brought out nuanced emotions from the character but also could aptly color Tae-moo’s personality and capture details.
Kim Se Jeong is a former member of a K-pop idol group. Did you have any concerns about her acting experience?
Not at all. In the first meeting, the writers and I were blown away by how Kim prepped and interpreted her character. I knew she had the will and tenacity to develop her character with vigor. She was perfect for us. We talked extensively about the character’s emotions and their styles. She’s a diligent and talented actor. She’s excellent because she knows how to bring out her own emotions. There are some biases to thinking that people from idol groups might be bad actors. If idol stars go into acting, we can judge them by looking at their previous works. We can fathom what kind of possibilities lie ahead for them as actors, and see if producers can elevate that.
Were there any interesting or memorable anecdotes from the set?
We enjoyed most of our time on set. Sure, there were times when we were tired or frustrated, but our great team of staff, actors and good vibes easily compensated for that. There was a concert scene in the show. The male duo singer group MeloMance (a famous Korean group) accepted being featured in the drama and sang live. They must have been exhausted from shooting since they didn’t have much acting experience, but they took on song requests from our supporting actors in between shoots to provide us with live music. Shooting the concert scene actually felt like we were in a concert. Kim Se Jeong even went on stage and sang with them as a duet.
The drama is enjoying global popularity thanks to Netflix. Are you conscious of overseas reception? What do you think is behind the show’s global success?
Of course, I’m conscious of it. I’m human too (laughs). People around me keep telling me how this blew up through Netflix. I was floored. Many global fans comment on my Instagram posts and show their support. I’m always very grateful. A drama is based on storytelling. If a story is good, it will resonate with people all over the world. I think that was the secret behind Business Proposal. We took a cliché of a story, tweaked it here and there and made it into an emotional detail-oriented narrative. The actors’ stellar performance and production staff’s competence helped in delivering the story in a beautiful way — they all came together.
Romance as a genre has its limits in giving variations or transcending beyond the fixed structure. Did you have any principles or rules when you were dealing with conventional compositions or cliches?
It’s such a difficult task. It’s really not easy to keep that fine line between refreshing and conventional. I continued to question myself when it came to dealing with cliches, on whether I was making it too predictable or not. I’m still learning and growing, but I study a lot on how I can deliver a story in a way that makes viewers’ hearts flutter but avoids being obvious. So recently a thought came to me, “let’s just be honest about this” and “what you’re familiar with works best.” Let’s not force change or add artificial flavors. Let’s portray predictable scenes as they are, but add changes within that big frame. Cliches get a bad rep, but when used properly, they’re not to be discarded. That’s how I justified some of the scenes. But I’m still searching for the answer, though I don’t even know if there is such a thing as a right answer (laughs).
In episode 11 there is a love scene between Tae-moo and Ha-ri. Some pointed out that it came off as random in the flow of the story. Are you happy with the outcome?
I think some people thought that it was random because Tae-moo and Ha-ri were in an innocent relationship where they supported each other emotionally. But from a production point of view, I didn’t want to trap them in this platonic love. They were both adults, so it wasn’t weird that they were doing adult things. Also, at this point of the story, Tae-moo is desperately looking for Ha-ri, and Ha-ri’s feeling is mutual. I know that scene wasn’t for everyone, so I was humbled and reflected on how I have more to learn.
Some aspects of the drama were hardly relatable to young Koreans today, like how the female lead in the drama has to look after her boyfriend’s sick grandfather or the humiliation of seeking approval from his family.
I completely understand. Even as a fictional drama, it can’t veer too far away from the reality of the time period. That’s why I tried to make the narratives and emotional flows of each character organic with no artificial disruptions. I focused on the overall flow to justify the character’s positions – like why she has no choice but to care for the ill grandfather, or why the humiliation was necessary for approval of their marriage – so that viewers wouldn’t ask themselves, “What on earth are these characters doing?”
K-dramas such as Our Beloved Summer and Twenty-Five Twenty-One have also garnered much attention globally. What do you think is the strength behind K-romcoms?
I watched them, and thought they were both great pieces. My wife really loved both dramas, too (laughs). The strengths of Korean rom-coms… that’s a very hard question. It would have to be the plausible narrative built from the beginning and the detailed emotional nuances that the screen captures. There are also amazing actors who are skilled at portraying those emotions beautifully. Lastly, the amazing crew bring it all together through tireless work.
This is your first project after leaving SBS (a major Korean broadcaster). What does Business Proposal mean to you personally?
I feel relieved and happy. Business Proposal will probably mean “business” and “proposal” for me. This was my first project as a freelancer after leaving the company, and I’m relieved that it came out well. Also, I was happy to work with great crew and actors in the direction I wanted. Viewers feeling happy from watching the drama was the cherry on top for me. The most important factor for me is the people I work with. Even as I venture into different genres and projects, I want to maintain the warmth, the feelings and the good narratives in each of my projects.