Hangul Celluloid: Your latest film, ‘The Housemaid’, has regularly been described as a reimagining, or contemporary reworking, of the 1960 Kim Ki-young film of the same name. Are you happy to have the filmed described in this way, or do you prefer it to be discussed in its own right, without reference to its predecessor?
Im Sang-soo: I was always aware that comparisons would be made, and so I put in a line at the end of my film which says it was inspired by Kim Ki-Young’s ‘The Housemaid’, in order to reiterate that it’s not a remake necessarily, but whether it is considered as a totally different film or a remake is, I think, up to individual spectators to decide and I am happy to have it described in either way.
Hangul Celluloid: As you’ve said that your film ‘The Housemaid’ was inspired by Kim Ki-young’s film, did it affect your approach to your film in any way?
Im Sang-soo: Although Kim Ki-young’s legendary film was my initial inspiration, I wasn’t necessarily shy about it in any way, nor did I feel any kind of great honour, but they were some very positive aspects relating to my career that came from being associated with it.
Hangul Celluloid: Your films very often deal with sex, power and politics, with both your earlier work, ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’, and your current film, ‘The Housemaid’, being quite graphic and explicit, both in terms of nudity and content, but do you feel the themes of power and politics in the films relate to each other?
Im Sang-soo: The themes do relate to each other, but it’s a rather difficult question for me to answer in such a short space of time. The majority of my work does relate to the themes of sex and politics, apart from ‘The President’s Last Bang’ which, because of the narrative, was wholly political. ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ dealt with the politics within a family, inspecting the male and female relations and relationships within a patriarchal society, and the idea that breaking this patriarchalism is the most political and radical thing that can happen in our society. ‘The Housemaid’ does also deal with some patriarchal situations, but class structure is just as important a theme within it.
Hangul Celluloid: With the explicitness of both ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ and ‘The Housemaid’, were you concerned with audience reactions, in Korea, to the amount of nudity in both films?
Im Sang-soo: Looking at myself, I feel I’m not really seen as a commercially accessible filmmaker in Korea. Of all my films, ‘The Old Garden’ was the biggest box office failure and many people say that’s because of the absence of a sex scene in the film. Because my films deal with such serious themes, if there is no sex scene, there is a joke that my films cannot survive the industry. But it’s not merely a joke, and as a director, the question of whether I’m using nudity only as much as is needed, or just for the commercial success is something that I am always very aware of.
Hangul Celluloid: In terms of the idea of power within relationships, there are two instances when Hoon [the main male character in ‘The Housemaid’] has oral sex: Once is while having sex with Hae-ra [Hoon’s wife], while she is pregnant, while the other is Eun-yi’s [the housemaid character] first sexual encounter with Hoon. Did these two scenes deliberately use the same sex act to discuss the power and structure of each relationship?
Im Sang-soo: As film is largely reliant on imagery, the image of a woman giving oral sex does imply a level of power, and whether it is male or female power depends on the specific situation. However, the idea started out because Seo woo, playing Hae-ra, had a contract stating that she would not do any sex scenes and it was only much later that I was able to see how well the scenes fitted together.
Hangul Celluloid: There are two scenes within ‘The Housemaid’ which show a large scar, or burn, on Jeon Do-yeon’s upper thigh, and even though I went back to look at some of her other work, I couldn’t find any other scenes showing it. As these scenes in ‘The Housemaid’ almost seemed to focus on it, and since Eun-yi also seemed overly preoccupied with seeing the dead body of the girl who committed suicide at the start of the film, I wondered if the scar was created using make-up to imply that there was something in Eun-yi’s past which viewers must draw their own conclusions about?
Im Sang-soo: I’m almost frightened to answer this question, but I will answer it very honestly. Jeon Do-yeon does, in fact, have a scar there, and before filming began, she mentioned the scar to me because she knew that there were many scenes involving nudity within the film. I didn’t have a problem, or filming issues, with it at all, but as shooting progressed, I felt that the scar matched ideas within the film very well, so it is true that I had a couple of scenes specifically focussing on it. We could have erased it with computer graphics, but I talked to Jeon Do-yeon about it and we both agreed that it matched the film so well that it should be kept in. There was no deliberate link between those scenes and the beginning of the film, but I am very happy for spectators to link the two together, and add to the character’s past, as that very much fits with the ideas of the film too.
Hangul Celluloid: To wrap things up, I’d like to ask how you feel about reviews in general and reviews of your films?
Im Sang-soo: In Korea, I’m not someone who receives very good reviews from critics, and even with ‘The Housemaid’, the reviews I received were not as good as I would have hoped or anticipated. As a result, I generally tend not to read them, and though some spectators pay attention to reviews, some also make up their own mind.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
I would like to sincerely thank Paul Koren, the Korean Cultural Centre UK and The London Korean Film Festival for giving the opportunity to interview director Im Sang-soo.
A special thanks also goes to An Ji-yoon, who worked as the translator in the interview. Once again, she put up with my overlong ramblings, as well as my going off on tangents, and did an exemplary job.