Jung Jae Il (정재일) is a Korean music director (Okja, Parasite), composer, and an all-rounded artist.
As an early starter in the music industry, he has led a prolific career that goes far beyond film music. And this biography of Jung Jae Il explores different aspects of his work, from his more public collaborations with director Bong Joon Ho and singer Park Hyo Shin to his lesser-known but meaningful projects in Korea.
For the comprehensiveness and accuracy of writing, the content here is based on different forms of source material in Korean.
Read the entire biography or skip to various sections below:
An Experimental Musician
He might be associated as a pianist because of his more public appearances, but Jung Jae Il can play more than the piano. He is also adept on the guitar, bass, drums, and even experiments on the musical saw.
He did not receive formal training in classical music but perhaps it’s because of that background that his music is more unfettered and experimental.
When asked what his favourite instrument is, he answered that it’s the human voice. And true to being an all-rounded musician, Jung Jae Il sings as well. While he stays humble about his singing talents, his voice has a unique colour to it that is free of unnecessary techniques and pleasant to listen to, be it in Korean or English songs.
Listen to a short clip of him on the guitar singing John Mayer’s ‘Daughters’:
His Childhood & Early Career
How did someone like Jung Jae Il start off in music?
His beginnings were not unusual for a Korean child. When he was 3 his mother sent him to piano lessons but he didn’t learn it for long. It was because of his interest in rock music when he was 10 that he started playing the guitar.
Seoul Jazz Academy
In 1995, Seoul Jazz Academy opened its doors. Through his mother’s encouragement, he enrolled there and he learned to compose for the first time.
At the academy, he meets Han Sang Won (한상원), a top guitarist in Korea at the time, who offers this young teenager a position in his band. Jung Jae Il thus became the bass guitarist of Han Sang Won’s band and entered the realm of professional musicians.
Band ‘Gigs’ & Debut
In 1999, he debuts as the bass player in the band ‘Gigs’ (긱스) alongside recognized musicians such as guitarist Han Sang Won and singer Lee Juck (이적). There were high expectations of a band made up of such talents, but they weren’t able to meet those expectations. After the second album in 2000, they disbanded and the members went separate ways. Despite the lack of success of the band, Jung Jae Il was not even 20 and being recognized in the industry. He was well on his path to a prolific career.
How he got started sounds too easy. And the Korean media (and people) are quick to dismiss him as a genius – he is in fact labelled as a “musical genius” or “음악천재”. But innate talent has its limits and does not shine through without effort. People like Jung Jae Il are obsessed with their craft, and it is because of the power of this obsession that they are able to develop discipline, put in the hours, and suffer through hardships – and they emerge in front us with seemingly unnatural superpowers.
His work in film started as early as 1997 when Jung Jae Il was only 15 years old. He participated in the music for Bad Movie (나쁜 영화), an R-rated movie that he would have been too young to watch himself.
Along with a host of collaborations in film music over the years, some of the more internationally recognized films he worked on were Romance of Their Own (늑대의 유혹, 2004), Marine Boy (마린보이, 2009), and Haemoo (해무, 2014).
No, we did not forget his work with director Bong Joon Ho.
Jung Jae Il & Bong Joon Ho
Jung Jae Il’s encounter with Bong Joon Ho goes back to the 2014 movie Haemoo – Bong as a producer and Jung as the music director. Bong, with his eye for spotting talented individuals, decided to put Jung Jae Il in charge of the movie for his next directorial work, Okja (옥자).
The 2017 Netflix film Okja, was not only a movie directed by Bong Joon Ho but also starring an impressive Hollywood cast including Tilda Swindon and Jake Gyllenhall. Jung Jae Il seemed to have won the heart of the director as their first collaboration was followed by a close second, with Jung directing the music for Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film, Parasite.
'Parasite' Music Director & Composer
Parasite (기생충) had a number of components that gelled together and made the movie resonate with audiences globally. Music was one of them.
Jung Jae Il was the music director behind Parasite who also acted as a composer and musician to 25 original soundtracks. This includes a 7-minute classical piece entitled The Belt of Faith that integrates seamlessly into one of the most iconic sequences in the film and a song that was written by director Bong Joon Ho and sung by actor Choi Woo Shik.
Jung introduced and himself played an unlikely instrument in the soundtrack. And how many versions of the 7-minute track do you think he experimented with before the final one?
Read more about the hidden details behind Parasite’s original soundtrack and music in another piece written by us, whether you’ve seen the movie already or not.
Jung Jae Il is a much sought-after talent among mainstream Korean artists as well.
He has played accompaniments, produced albums, done arrangements for some of the big guns in Korean music, both old and new. He’s worked with artists such as Yoon Sang (윤상), Lee Juck (이적), Yoon Do Hyun (윤도현), and IU (아이유).
Here’s a clip of his collaboration with singer IU on one of her remake albums:
And of course, there’s his work with respected balladeer Park Hyo Shin.
Jung Jae Il & Park Hyo Shin
The ‘Jung Jae Il and Park Hyo Shin collaboration’ might not have happened if it wasn’t for the mandatory military service in Korea. The two met while they were both serving in the publicity division of the military, and their chance encounter ended up producing poetic and beautiful music. Park Hyo Shin’s writing and singing combined with Jung Jae Il’s arrangement and accompaniment has led to songs such as “Wildflower”, “Sound of Winter”, “Breath”, and “The Day” from the Korean drama “Mr Sunshine”.
After his military service, Jung Jae Il in fact joined the entertainment agency “Glove Entertainment” which Park Hyo Shin is part of. In Park Hyo Shin’s concerts and performances, Jung Jae Il took it to another level by playing the piano accompaniments.
He collaborated on Park Hyo Shin’s 7th and 8th albums, and part of the process is documented in a rare appearance in “Your Song”, a special 4-part show by JTBC that follows Jung Jae Il and his work with other artists through different music genres.
Revitalizing Traditional Korean Music
Jung Jae Il has paved a new genre that fuses traditional Korean music with the more familiar sounds of western instruments. He has also performed this music at two very significant and public events in Korea, proudly reminding Koreans and showing the world how beautiful traditional Korean sounds can be.
President Trump’s Visit in 2017
There was a welcoming concert when President Trump visited the Blue House in 2017. Along with Park Hyo Shin’s performance of Wildflower, Jung Jae Il showcased traditional Korean music by directing and performing with an ensemble of musicians for 비나리 (pronounced ‘bi-na-ri’), a song for wishing good luck.
A version of the same song was performed in JTBC’s special “Your Song”, allowing the public to also appreciate this spectacular rendition of traditional music. Jung Jae Il marries traditional Korean instruments with the familiar sounds of the piano and a string quartet.
Inter-Korean Summit 2018
The North and South relations between the two Koreas are a deeply-rooted issue in Korean politics and therefore the Inter-Korean Summit of April 2018 was national news. There was a closing ceremony to mark the end of the event and it was none other than Jung Jae Il who directed it.
Not only did Jung Jae Il bring his energetic piano sounds to such a large and important stage, he created a performance art that blended traditional Korean music with a strong and rhythmical piano part and striking visuals shown over the Inter-Korean Peace House.
A Proud Korean
In a world filled with musical talent, Jung Jae Il has become successful by creating his own category – a musician, composer, director who marries western and Korean sounds.
For those that ask the question of ‘how can I become successful?’, Jung Jae Il is an example of getting ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ and pursuing something that excites you. His love for the beauty of traditional Korean music and appreciation of Korean culture has made him uniquely qualified to promote a less familiar side of Korea to the world.
I hope to meet him in person one day and when I do, I want to thank him for making me feel proud of being a Korean.