The following interview took place at the Vue Cinema, Leicester Square, on September 27th 2012 prior to a Korean Cultural Centre UK screening of 'From Seoul to Varanasi' and director Q&A.
Hangul Celluloid: A lot of your films contain fairly graphic adult content, both sexual and other. Do you feel that the use of adult content enables you to address themes and issues that wouldn’t be possible with other content? From your perspective, how much is that graphic content used to produce a gripping storyline and how much simply because of its often controversial nature?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: I have always wanted to have conversations with adults and tell stories about adults and naturally that leads to more extreme or graphic content as you said. I was also my intention to have realistic portrayals in my films and that’s why when you go into detail on these subjects they may sometimes seem extreme. For example: Some sexual expressions may seem quite extreme when viewed in cinema. I always strive to produce the realism needed by a film rather than using any content just because it may be seen as controversial.
Dr Colette Balmain: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you for ‘The Weight’ which won the Queer Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and I wanted to ask, in relation to that, what was the inspiration for the film and was it always your intention to make a “queer” film?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: My film isn’t directly about homosexuality but the theme of all my films is related to marginalised people in society and people who are alienated for some reason. Examples might be illegal immigrants or defectors or sexual minorities, so though The Weight isn’t about homosexuality per se it’s a fantasy film so those themes fit and are able to come across. It might seem ironic to focus on the lower classes but regardless of that society is divided on how much wealth you have and those at the lower end of the lower classes have an abundance of sad stories, lonely stories and tales of people with wounded souls and naturally these are the themes I use in films.
Eastern Kicks: I believe you started your career in talent management. I wonder if you could tell us how you got into film directing and does your early career give you a different perspective when dealing with actors and their egos?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: Yes, I feel it has been an incredible amount of help and, like you said, working in talent management. The critical reason I decided to work in film was that there was a lack of interesting films coming out of the Korean film industry that needed to be told and it was annoying to see small directors poncing around like they were big shots. Essentially I became a director just to show that anyone can become a director.
MiniMiniMovies: I wanted to talk about the Town trilogy. When you wrote the first one, did you already have the others in mind? And also, was it deliberate that the first one would be lighter with the subsequent films being darker and darker?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: No, that wasn’t my intention at all. When I made ‘Mozart Town’, it was embarrassing to show it to other people because it was very much a practice run to see if I could become a director and I really didn’t want to expose the film to the outside world. However, eventually the producer of the film took it to a foreign film festival and I was invited to go along there and when I saw other cities I realised that there were other stories to be told about many different places and that pushed me to write ‘Animal Town’. I was then invited to another film festival and I started writing the third film in the Town series in the film festival hotel.
CineAsia_online: Your films are very low budget and have very hard stories showing realism throughout, and that reminds me of director Kim Ki-duk whose film ‘Pieta’ is currently getting huge coverage. He, at one point, decided to stop showing his films in Korea because of media reactions to them and I wonder how you feel about the Korean film industry and how the Korean media criticises certain filmmakers?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: Like Kim Ki-duk, my films are incredibly low budget – the average budget for one of my films is about a tenth of a Kim Ki-duk film budget – and in Korea, there aren’t many places in Korea to screen films like mine and Kim Ki-duk’s; there are virtually no arthouse cinemas in Korea. To show a film like this in Korea would only happen if you were really lucky and won an award at a foreign film festival and then a very few Korean cinemas would screen it, but because all the large multiplexes are owned by the big film companies, they are not esily chosen. In fact, even if they are screened, they are shown during the day or late at night which is essentially the same as saying “Don’t watch the film.” Kim Ki-duk’s film won an award and that’s why it has been shown and I think he has been sufficiently compensated but it is true that in Korea it is difficult to see films that have non-commercial themes. That is simply the reality of the situation. Finally, there are many middle-aged directors who do great work but because of capital influences they get pulled out of projects in the middle and I think that is incredible unfortunate.
New Korean Cinema: You previously talked about how the Korean film industry commands what kind of films can be made and shown, so what do you feel can be done to counter this trend in Korea? This is essentially fallout from the Korean Wave, isn’t it?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: Actually, there is no solution to the problem. Every time I make a film I have to sell my car – coming on to my sixth and seventh films, I have sold a total of six cars - and I also have to get loans from banks. Even when I’m abroad, such as here in England, I get calls from banks asking for the money back. Directors such as Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo were able to see the benefits of the capitalist structure as they worked in the past and found funding far more easily than now but presently the funds just aren’t around anymore and any new directors find it almost impossible to get investment. Just to clarify, I haven’t sold six cars because I’m rich; my younger sister would give me her old second-hand car that she didn’t want anymore; I would sell it, then have to walk everywhere and I’d moan and complain; and so she’d give me another olds second-hand car and it wouldn’t last three months till I sold it too etc. etc. I also don’t answer calls on my phone from unknown numbers in case it’s the bank; that the reality of my situation.
London Korea Times: Going back to the constraints you mentioned in making films in Korea: Does that affect the way you make films? Do you have a target audience and is it Korean or international?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: I think all artistic endeavours – films, music, theatre etc – require diversity. However, as I mentioned previously, the current structure in Korea has made this endeavours unified with similar themes – its alays the same kind of comedy; the same kind of romance; the same kind of action films etc – but the arts really can’t be like that and ren]main interesting. I don’t have a particular audience in mind when making a film but if there are six billion people in the world there should be six billion different stories but the Korean industry applies he same structure to them all reducing them down to just a few.
Hangul Celluloid: The narrative style of ‘From Seoul to Varanasi’ has been compared by some to that of films such as ’21 Grams’ or ‘Babel’. At what point did you choose to use a “fractured” narrative style, what are your feelings about these comparisons and do you feel your directorial style has more in common with European auteurs that Korean filmmakers?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: The narrative style of ‘From Seoul to Varanasi’ was chosen from the very outset of the script writing process. However, while that style has been compared to other films by some, as you say, my focus is in having my films show my unique colour and filmmaking style and that is something that I endlessly contemplate. So, to be compared to another filmmaker, no matter how good they may be, makes me feel unworthy of being a director and suggests to me that I should stop doing what I do. I don’t focus or concentrate too much on whether international or Korean audiences like my films more or whether my directorial style has more in common with Korean or international films but when I am writing I only think of what story I want to tell and what themes I want to address. If someone compares my films to another director’s work, it must mean that I lack individuality and I do apologise if that is the case.
Dr Colette Balmain: I have read descriptions of your directorial style as being “a classic Korea aesthetic” and I wondered if you agree with that comment and if you feel your filmmaking is particularly Korean in essence? Do you work within a particular Korean aesthetic?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: I not sure of the exact meaning of “a classic Korean aesthetic” but regardless of the definition, I’m not sure what I find in my own movies is relevant because once a film is made it’s up to audiences to complete that film, and those who buy the tickets and watch the films see whatever they feel is in it. So, I intend to make and convey stories that are different to other stories in different formats – for example, ‘Varanasi’ was a melodrama; ‘The Weight’ was a fantasy genre film – and I don’t like using the same style for different films. I also want to make other types of films in the future, whether it’s a comedy or action film, and I want to experiment more. I want to ask do you agree?
Dr Colette Balmain: I do agree. I’m not actually sure what the Korean aesthetic description actually meant and i found the response really helpful. I think the issue for all of us who write about Korean cinema is that we try to define what Korean cinema actually is, so if someone mentions a classic Korean aesthetic we’re trying to find out what that is. I think what’s interesting about your films is that they are very different from a lot of Korean cinema and that makes it difficult to equate that description.
Jeon Kyu-hwan: If there’s anything you don’t like about my films, feel free to give me feedback; I always happy to amend scripts or whatever [Jeon Kyu-hwan laughs].
Eastern Kicks: ‘Dance Town’ was based around a North Korean character. I wondered what you were trying to say about the situation in Korea by looking at a South Korean city through the eyes of a North Korean character and her experiences there?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: There have been a lot of films dealing with the theme of North and South Korea, both in the past and even now another film is being made. However, all of these films are standardised and say the same things – North Korea’s poor; people want to escape to South Korea which is a better place etc. When I was making my ‘Town’ trilogy, ‘Dance Town’ was the final film and it deals with the struggles of living in a city: If it had been set in London or Paris, the story would have been about an immigrant living in the city. However, I live in Seoul and there are North Korean defectors living there and that the reason that theme was chosen. It’s ultimately the same everywhere that people struggle and want I wanted to show within my trilogy is that there are various dances being performed – some of them are sad dances, some of them are happy dances – but there are all dances that should be shown.
MiniMiniMovies: In a number of your films, characters have committed suicide. How was this received by audiences in Korea and elsewhere, especially considering the high number of suicides that have taken place in Korea?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: Responses from both domestic and international audiences were incredibly positive. Reactions were extremely passionate from all types of audiences when the films were being shown abroad either in large cinemas or smaller arthouse cinemas, and those screenings always sold out. However, in Korea especially in the larger cinemas, audience number would average about ten people. In fact, there is actually a story of a person who was the only person at a screening and they watched the film as if it was a horror film, all by themselves in the cinema. In Korea, the suicide rate is extremely high. However, when I was writing my scripts, it wasn’t intended from the beginning that characters would commit suicide but somehow because of the difficult lives I was describing it would somehow, almost naturally, lead to a suicide attempt. It’s not my intention to depict Korea as a country with many dark sides. I believe that problems faced in Korean are the same as those faced in any great city and as Korea has become a huge hit abroad because of K-pop or K-film I wanted to show that there is another side to the country. However, I’m not saying these problems are unique to Korea. That was ultimately the focus of the ‘Town’ trilogy.
CineAsia_online: Who were your influences when making ‘Mozart Town’. To me the film made me think of ‘Short Cuts’ or ‘Magnolia’, and also, is there are perfect town?
Jeon Kyu-hwan: No, there is no perfect town. In terms of influences, there is a huge number of directors who have influenced me over the years, but not only directors: I love music and painters past and present and I’ve been influenced by them all and I can’t just name a few select directors. I believe that all those influences are present in all of my films.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging for us to interview director Jeon Kyu-hwan.