At a time when Japan is being rapped over the knuckles by the U.N. for hate-speech rallies against ethnic Koreans, a movie like “The Tenor: Lirico Spinto” takes on special significance. Directed by Kim Sang-man, “The Tenor” (released here as “The Tenor: Shinjitsuno Monogatari”) is a collaborative project between Japan and South Korea that brings together actors Yusuke Iseya and Yoo Ji-tae in a film based on the real-life tale of South Korean tenor Bae Jae-chul.
At the peak of his career, Bae was ranked among the top 10 opera singers in the world, but in 2005, at the age of 35, he collapsed on stage during a performance of “Othello.” He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and subsequent surgery caused catastrophic damage to his vocal cords. No one thought he would sing again, but Bae’s Japanese producer, Koji Sawada, persuaded the singer to undergo surgery in Kyoto. Three years later, Bae staged a triumphant return to opera and continues singing today.
The film’s title refers to a tenor voice that’s versatile enough to sing in the style of a lirico, a singer with a softer, mild voice, and a spinto, one with darkness and dramatic power. Bae had the rare ability to sing both.
“Actually, I was only mildly aware of who Bae was until I was approached for the role,” says actor Yoo in an interview with The Japan Times. “Once I discovered his voice and started learning about his career, I was pretty ashamed of my ignorance. As a Korean, I have to say that it’s an honor to play him.”
Japanese actor Yusuke Iseya, who plays Bae’s Japanese producer, Sawada, found himself admiring Bae’s struggle, too.
“The whole story is great,” he says. “I mean, I’ve always been on the performing side but I’m also a filmmaker, so I can empathize with both men and what they went through. There’s the pain and panic and awful fear of never being able to perform again, and then the terrible ordeal of having to witness all that and think that maybe Bae’s talent will disappear forever. Either way, I knew both men went through hell.”
“The Tenor” is what’s referred to in the Japanese film industry as an “international project” — a movie featuring a multinational cast and multiple spoken languages (here it’s Korean, Japanese and English). Interestingly, Iseya and Yoo communicate only in English, both on- and off-screen.
Iseya is well known in Japan for his language ability. He was acclaimed for his role in the 2008 English-language film “Blindness” (directed by Fernando Meirelles) and now he’s the poster boy for a conversation-school franchise in Japan. Yoo also speaks English, which he says is “mandatory for a Korean actor if they want to work overseas, and we all do, so we learn it.”
Iseya wishes the same could be said for the Japanese film industry. “Only a few actors are interested in working overseas with foreign directors,” he laments. “The majority of Japanese actors want to make it big in Japan before they can contemplate the possibility of going abroad. That’s pretty regrettable, because right now the global film market is heading full-speed toward collaboration, multinational productions and English dialogue. Of course, there’s a lot of stress involved with that for all of Asia. Stress can be an actor’s friend, or his enemy. Those who can use stress to grow will be the ones doing big things.”
On the topic of anxiety in the film industry, 38-year-old Iseya says that he was shaken by the recent death of Robin Williams.
“Many actors seem to let stress get the better of them once they hit their 50s and 60s. So I figure I’d better practice for that and learn to deal with it. Because stress will always be around.”
Yoo says that it’s different in South Korea. “It’s the filmmakers that commit suicide. Actors, singers, filmmakers — creators in general — are under a lot of duress. They’re always running into walls created by their own minds. I think it’s a good thing for actors and filmmakers to think outside the box of their own country’s industry and go abroad. It’s one way of being more open, to yourself and to the world.”
In “The Tenor,” the enormous stress of illness and of losing his career changes Bae from a positive, ambitious artist to a bitter recluse who refuses to contemplate even the idea of surgery and a career relaunch. It takes Sawada’s staunch determination and dogged persistence to get Bae out of his rut and out into the world again.
“He really cared about Bae,” says Iseya. “But at the same time, they were a pair of dedicated professionals. For Bae to stop singing forever meant a kind of death for them both.”
How much of their own selves did they pour into their characters? Yoo says he didn’t try “to become Bae, but I studied his movements, his facial expressions and his whole stage demeanor. In the movie, it’s his voice that’s performing the songs but I learned Italian to make the lip-sync more convincing. I also looked for things in his life that matched aspects of my own personality. And I saw that we were both very, very stubborn.”
Iseya interrupts: “Yes, same with Sawada. Actually, both singer and producer were very stubborn, and just refused to give up. Just like me and Yoo. We roll with the punches, and we won’t leave the ring.”
In the movie, Sawada comes across as passionate and sincere, in love with Bae’s voice and determined to produce the miracle that would bring him back.
“In reality, a producer can never afford to just be a nice guy,” says Iseya. “Because he’s a businessman and not an artist. In that way, I think the pair were a good combination.”
“Yes, Sawada let Bae be the artist,” adds Yoo. “He himself was always working to bring that art to the audience. They lived for the same thing but at the same time were very different. And they were OK with that.”