A mastermind editorialist, an ambitious prosecutor, and a revenge-seeking gangster are all vital to the success of South Korea's latest vengeance drama, "Inside Men."
The film tells the story of political corruption that occurs when a prominent journalist (Baek Yoon-sik) abuses his control of the media to team up with a tycoon (Kim Hong-pa) in order to get a congressman (Lee Gyoung-young) elected into the presidency. When Ahn Sang-goo, a small-time gangster played by Lee Byung-hun, is caught in the crosshairs, he aims to unearth the political conspiracy with the help of a newly minted prosecutor (Cho Seung-Woo).
"This movie shows how powerful people like CEOs, politicians, and journalists can corrupt society, and this reflects the reality of Korean politics," Lee told NBC News.
"Inside Men" mirrors corruption scandals in South Korea present as recent as June. Transparency International, which publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranking countries by their perceived levels of corruption, ranked South Korea 37 out of 168 countries in 2015.
In May, South Korea unveiled a draft for the country's strictest piece of anti-corruption legislation. The legislation set to be enacted in September will hope to sanction unethical business practices by dramatically limiting the exchange of meals and gifts in the public sector.
"Inside Men" was originally adapted from an incomplete web cartoon by artist Yoon Tae-ho. The cartoon, titled "The Insiders," ran in a local newspaper from 2010 to 2012 according to The Korea Times. When released in theaters, "Inside Men" became the top grossing R-rated movie of all-time at the South Korean box office according to the Korean Film Council. A director's cut version of the film was also released, titled "Inside Men: The Original" with an additional fifty minutes of footage which elaborates on each character's backstory.
Lee, who critics have praised for his role in the film, was honored at the 15th New York Asian Film Festival with the Star Asia Award on Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center. Lee's career spans over 25 years and has fielded a significant presence both in South Korea and in the United States. At the 88th Academy Awards, he presented the award for best foreign language film alongside Sofía Vergara, making him the first Korean actor to present an Academy Award. Lee joked that he didn't want to give the award away and hoped to be standing on the stage as a nominee in the near future. Last week, Lee was one of 683 artists and executives invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the awards.
"As a new member of the Academy, I will have the responsibility of voting. It's a very honorable thing but I need to study more and watch various types of films so that I can make a wise decision," Lee said.
Lee made his Hollywood debut in the blockbuster film "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" as Storm Shadow and later reprised his role for the sequel. He recently starred in "Terminator Genisys" opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. "The Magnificent Seven," a 2016 remake of the 1960s western is Lee's latest project and will feature him alongside a team of actors that includes Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, and Vincent D'Onofrio. Lee shared that he had a great time working with his co-stars on set and is eager to see the film on its September release date.
Although he has managed a successful career abroad, he said there is a disparity between working domestically and internationally.
"In Korea I can choose the project because I've been doing this for many years but in America, I am chosen for roles. Sometimes I need to do it even though I'm not 100 percent satisfied," Lee said. "I'm trying to be that kind of actor who can get to choose what he wants to do all the time."