Korean film director Im Kwon-taek was born on May 2, 1936, in Jangseong, Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province) and grew up in the southern city of Gwangju. During the Korean War his family suffered considerable hardships and losses in the fighting, and he subsequently moved to Busan in search of work. From Busan he moved to Seoul in 1955, and met the film director Chung Chang-hwa and worked as a production assistant on Chung’s film ‘The Story of Jangha & Hongryun’ (1956). After five years, Im Kwon-taek was recommended by Chung for a position of film director, and he completed his first feature, ‘Farewell to the Duman River’, in 1962, going on to become a prolific director of films in various popular genres until the late 1970s. While Korean cinema was experiencing a sharp decline during the 1970s, after undergoing two decades of rapid growth, Im Kwon-taek’s career blossomed with the success of his first serious-themed feature films. Beginning with his 1978 film ‘The Genealogy’ and continuing with ‘The Hidden Hero’ (1979); ‘Jagko’ (1980) and ‘Mandala’ (1981), his films became the talk of the film industry among both domestic and international critics alike. Im gained worldwide fame at international film festivals with ‘Surrogate Woman’ (1986); ‘Come Come Come Upward’ (1989) and ‘Seopyeonje’ (1993), becoming the most recognizable Korean film director of his era. In 2000, ‘Chunhyang’ became the first Korean film ever to enter the competition section at Cannes and Im Kwon-taek has won numerous international awards, including the Best Director Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for ‘Chihwaseon’. He was also awarded an honorary Golden Bear award for his lifetime achievements at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005.
The following interview took place at the BFI, Southbank, on October 25th 2012 prior to a Korean Cultural Centre UK 'Im Kwon-taek in Conversation' discussion and screening of 'Mandala'.
Hangul Celluloid: A number of your films, such as ‘Surrogate Mother’ and ‘Taebaek Mountains’, deal with the suffering of women and what has been described by scholars as “the re-masculation of the Korean nation”. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to focus on those themes; what your motivation and ultimate goal was in depicting them; and do you feel that Korean society has gradually changed to the extent that such themes are now solely depictions of the past?
Im Kwon-taek: ‘Surrogate Mother’ was made in 1987 which is already 25 years ago and nowadays the preference for sons in a family is not as strong as it once was. Now in Korean society, I feel that the lives of women have improved a great deal but 25 years ago the preference for sons was still hugely prevalent and, in fact, many families were suffering greatly from the conflict that came as a result of it. So, a large part of my motivation was that I wanted to show the influence, the result and the consequences of the preference for sons which was so embedded in Korean society. Personally, that also reflects the relationship between myself and my mother: I’m the eldest son of my family and I kind of revolted or resisted the “ancestor worship” and the ritual of the responsibility of the first son that was expected of me, and because my mother didn’t like my sceptical attitude to tradition there was an ever-present conflict between us. In ‘Surrogate Mother’, I wanted to explore that aspect of the preference for sons but several years later I began to regret ever making the film because I realised that ‘Surrogate Mother’ had done little to change this popular notion in society. As the preference for sons was a very Asian Confucianist idea that was deeply embedded in the national psyche for many generations, my film could never really have succeeded in changing society’s attitude.
London Korea Times: I wanted to ask a question regarding ‘Seopyonje’; ‘Chunhyang’; ‘Hanji’ etc. in terms of Korean culture and arts: Was it difficult to show Korean culture to other societies, especially the international market? And in the years since, has there been any distribution of these films abroad; screenings at film festivals and the like?
Im Kwon-taek: Let me first talk about pansori [storytelling using traditional Korean singing] which featured in ‘Seopyonje’ and ‘Chunhyang’: Pansori is extremely difficult for even Koreans to truly appreciate; it difficult to learn, difficult to perform and some would say even difficult to listen to. What I wanted to convey was the inherent beauty and emotion of pansori through films; and not only to Koreans but in fact to the world. In the beginning, I had my doubts about whether my attempts to visually represent pansori in films would be successful – I actually feared it would be an utterly futile attempt – but I had a conviction that if I could succeed to communicate it to audiences by representing pansori through visual imagery, then maybe viewers could be persuaded. When i made my first pansori-related film, people did find it difficult to swallow but as I continued I became confident that audiences would find it easier to appreciate.
MiniMiniMovies: You spoke briefly earlier about rituals: A lot of your films feature communal rituals – sometimes religious, sometimes not – and I just wondered if these were things you deliberately looked for in scripts or was it just coincidental?
Im Kwon-taek: The kind of stories I want to tell in my films have to do with the norms that are embraced in society ; the real lives of people; and the regulations that influence the entire Korean nation. What I’m trying to show are the aspects that either make our lives uncomfortable or alternatively have a beneficial effect on them. I also want to emphasise that I never attempted to put any element of fabrication in any of my films.
London Korea Times: When I was in school, a teacher once said to me that films are like the human body, and my question is what is the inspiration for the main kind of life that you bring to your films?
Im Kwon-taek: As I’ve said, my inspiration comes from wanting to show the norms of society that are the very basis of Korea itself, and all the issues and regulations that are cultivated on Korean soil. It has always made me feel very uncomfortable to follow those norms and expectations but it is undeniable that sometimes they do become important postmarks within real lives. I try to describe the experiences that have been accumulated in my own life and the emotions and sentiments that are derived from them. That was the main basis for every one of my films.
‘F-Word’ magazine: How do you feel portrayals of women in Korean cinema differ from those of neighbouring countries; Japan and China? And how would you say your films’ portrayals of women have changed in the last 30 years, from ‘Surrogate Mother’ to ‘Hanji’?
Im Kwon-taek: There’s no doubt about it, most of my films have women as the very centre of their stories but I never deliberately attempted to make any films solely from a woman’s perspective. Rather, I’ve tried to portray the factors that have given women great troubles in Korean society and also many aspects that occur in people’s live as a result. I invite audiences to think about and discuss these trials and tribulations, whether they are woman or men. I don’t think I particularly sided with women in portraying these things because being a man I’m not in a position to see things from a woman’s point of view. However, as I made those films over thirty years and more, there was gradually a great improvement in women’s situations and many of the aforementioned trials and tribulations are now either greatly reduced or no longer exist. Looking back, I would like to ask myself if my films contributed to that great change, but if I’m being hnest with myself, I doubt whether my films had much effect on society at all.
CineAsia_online: This year we’ve had the KCC ‘Year of the 12 Directors’ series and we’ve had the opportunity to talk to many Korean film directors; both very famous names and also smaller Independent directors too. Last month, director Jeon Kyu-hwan said that anyone can make a film and my question is what was your main motivation to start making films and to make 101 films during your career? Also, do you have any advice to give to new Korean film directors?
Im Kwon-taek: Yes, I’ve made 101 films in my career so far and I sometimes ask myself “What happened?” [Im Kwon-taek laughs]. I made my first film in 1962, ‘Farewell to the Duman River’, and it was a big commercial success and I think that was why I was allowed to continue to live as a film director. In retrospect, the first 50 films I made, in the first ten years of my career, were largely cheap exploitation films based on Hollywood movies and ideas, and I really wish that those movies were burnt and audiences would never have the opportunity to see them. In short, I’m actually ashamed at having made those films. However, even though I made those films that have nothing to do with real lives and were simply made as commercial entertainment, I would still say that for every single film I did my absolute best and I directed each fiercely. Through those very sincere filmmaking experiences, I was able to perfect my directorial technique as a craftsman and that experience proved invaluable to me when making my subsequent films – essentially they made me what I am today and enable me to live my entire adult life as a film director and haven’t been kicked out of the industry. As for my advice to younger film directors, there is only one thing I’d like t say: I believe that any director’s film cannot be better or worse than their own age and life experience – a film ultimately presents itself as the culmination of a director’s life – so I would advise them not to make overly fictitious films with too much exaggeration, and if they do make films of that type I would like them to stop making them.
Eastern Kicks: In your film ‘Chihwaseon’, about the life of painter Jang Seung-up, there were many parallels with your own life as an artist working in a very restrictive environment. In fact, I believe you even put some of your own words into the artist’s mouth, as it were. Is that what attracted you to making the film and what did you want to say about artistic freedom?
Im Kwon-taek: As you know, ‘Chihwaseon’ is based on the life and work of Jang Seung-up but though he lived in Korea only 120 years ago, there aren’t many surviving records about him - There are some old traditional stories but very little written documentation. So, in making a film about his life, I had to fill that information void and, in a way, I did that using resources based on my own life. However, I still don’t feel that I really fabricated any aspects in the film – I very honestly portrayed his life and the times in which he lived. I understand that Jang Seung-up’s genius was revealed when he was in his 20’s and until he disappeared at the age of 52 he lived his whole life as a painter. So, even though he was assumed to be dead after his disappearance, his reputation increased nonetheless and many believed that he would ultimately become the “God of painting”, as in the title of my film. He lived his entire life so fiercely and intensely as a painter and in attempting to portray that to audiences I wanted to show the beauty of living with such honesty and passion. In some ways, I believe there are similarities between his life and my own – he was raised as an orphan and, though I’m not an orphan, my youth coincided with the age of suffering during and as a result of the Korean War and that often made me feel that I almost was an orphan myself. He became a professional painter at a very early age and I also became a professional film director in early adulthood. Jang Seung-up also enjoyed drinking and liked many women, and in my youth I was a heavy drinker and I adored women, as a man. Finally, Jang Seung-up didn’t marry until he was in his forties and I too married very late in life, in my late forties. These similarities allowed me to base Jang Seung-up’s life on my own experiences and I am utterly convinced that I made no false assumptions nor created any fabrications.
London Korea Times: Over the years, Korean society has had increasing access to international films. What challenges do you feel the Korean film industry faces in its continued attempts to grow?
Im Kwon-taek: The reason I feel that Korean cinema has developed to such a degree is largely because they like dancing and they like drinking but throughout history their ability to do so and enjoy themselves has been hampered by repressive governments and tragic historical events. So, Koreans rarely had the chance to embrace life and enjoyment to the full. However, after the military dictatorship feel and Korea was slowly moving towards democracy, Koreans could finally escape from repressive control. The DNA embedded in Koreans has now been allowed to show itself and fully blossom and in the last 50 to 60 years the country has achieved both democracy and economic development. I think the film industry developed hand-in-hand with these changes in society and will develop further in the future; the improvements in Korean filmmaking being, I feel, somewhat symbiotic to the development of the country as a whole.
Hangul Celluloid: Carrying on from that question: Considering the important social issues that you and you contemporaries have regularly dissected in films over the years, do you feel that new filmmakers today are given enough opportunities to discusses society’s ills and social issues in their work or do you feel that the control that large film companies hold over a large part of the film industry, as well as the seemingly endless attempts to complete with Hollywood blockbusters, makes it almost as difficult for them as political constraints made it for you?
Professor Kim Hong-joon (Interpreter): That’s a very difficult question indeed.
Im Kwon-taek: It is true that many films cannot be made without investment from large corporations, conglomerates and/or film companies. In the past, that would have been the studio system – which is not really the studio system per se anymore – but nonetheless these companies do, as you said, play a large part in dictating whether or not many films can be made. I agree that that is a fairly big downside to the Korean cinema industry. However, Korean filmmakers have had worse times in the past and we all survived and recovered and though the big companies constantly try to control investment and filmmaking as a whole, I don’t think that today’s directors will just lie down and accept defeat. They will overcome any situation by themselves and exert their own power because all these things have been overcome before. They are strong enough to fight and win.
On behalf of everyone involved, I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK and the London Korean Film Festival for arranging this interview with Korea’s most prolific director who is also one of the most open, welcoming, informative and humble directors it has ever been my great pleasure to meet and talk to.