The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on Tuesday November 6th 2012 prior to the London Korean Film Festival 2012 screening of 'EunGyo' at the ICA London.
Hangul Celluloid: If I can start by asking a question about your latest film, ‘EunGyo’ which is being screened tonight as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2012: The storyline of ‘EunGyo’ – detailing the story of a 70-year-old man’s relationship with a schoolgirl – could be, and has been, seen as fairly controversial; even if that relationship is partly imagined. What are you feelings regarding the social norms and moral beliefs in Korea today that drew you to tell this story and do you feel those norms have changed significantly over the years?
Jung Ji-woo: In my opinion, there are certainly certain tendencies and beliefs in Korean society today where things appear from an outside point of view to be very rational and ethical; society seeming to abide by “the rules”. However, while that’s how the situation appears to be, but I tend to believe that underneath all that are a plethora of issues that haven’t been talked about significantly. Especially, Korean people greatly worry about how they are seen by others and what other people think of them. It’s always been my wish, my intention, to tell stories that are truthful to the voice of the Korean people and to what Koreans really feel about themselves. Throughout my career, that has been the starting point for my films, and ‘EunGyo’ had the same objective in telling its tale of the relationship between a 70-year old poet and a schoolgirl, and while it doesn’t really say much on its own, I hope that audiences - both in Korea and abroad - will take a look at the underlying issues and the references I made beneath the narrative to see what I was attempting to convey.
London Korea Times: Regarding the 70-year-old man in the story of ‘EunGyo’, how did you go about reflecting a representation of that generation in Korea? I assume the older generation think about their past or what their lives hold in the future, so how did you choose to details those thoughts through the character?
Jung Ji-woo: As far as the older generation in Korea is concerned, it wasn’t that long ago that someone over 60-years-old was simply considered as “retired” and thought to no longer have any social function in Korean society, but nowadays thanks to an increasingly relaxing of feelings in modern Korean society, that’s no longer really the case. Korea is now a member of the OECD countries, so that process of aging and how the older generation is accepted in society is massively changing. Older people are now largely considered as “older” rather than “retired” or past usefulness and that’s why I started to think about life from the perspective of older people and I feel it’s a good time to talk about the assumptions of what older people are, in my films.
Eastern Kicks: Leading on from that question: You chose Park Hae-il to play the 70-year-old character in ‘EunGyo’. What is it about his performances that you like so much and what convinced you that he would be able to play a 70-year-old man?
Jung Ji-woo: Thank you for asking that question. Considering Korean society today, older people in love with a schoolgirl is without doubt likely to be considered very controversial and it may even be quite uncomfortable for viewers to follow the story. What I wanted was for the audience to feel empathy for the 70-year-old character so when I cast Park Hae-il, it was because he has a quality of convincing audiences that he is conveying truthfulness both as a character and as a person and actor. His relationship with the general public seems to be one where he elicits faith from people and is image is almost inherently trustworthy and that was important for me in bringing out viewer empathy with the elderly character.
Korean Class Massive: How did you come to adapt the original novel to make ‘EunGyo’? Was an adaption suggested to you or did you always want to use the novel’s story as the basis for the film?
Jung Ji-woo: The idea was actually suggested by a friend. They said they thought I should read the novel and added that they felt anyone in their forties or older would be quite moved by the story, and once I had read the novel I completely understood what they meant. The process of aging and the underlying issues associated with it is quite predominant in the novel, but what I added was the growing-up of the young girl: That process is in itself quite unstable and I felt the contrast between their lives, hope and dreams would be an interesting thing to discuss and dissect.
Koreaffinity: I wanted to ask about two actresses in particular: In casting the character of EunGyo, I believe you auditioned over 300 actresses and you ultimately chose a girl who had never acted in films before, and I wondered if a similar situation occurred when you were casting your film ‘Happy End’: Did you feel the same way about Jeon Do-yeon at that time and do you feel both actresses were similarly in the right place at the right moment?
Jung Ji-woo: In comparing Jeon Do-yeon to Kim Go-eun: Jeon Do-yeon was already a top star in 1999 whereas Kim Go-eun had never acted in a film. A more fitting comparison would be to discuss an actress call Jung Yoo-mi who was in some of Hong Sang-soo’s films and was in my film ‘Blossom Again’ too. When I cast her she had only done a few short films, so she was hardly even know as an actress but she had that natural quality and the “non-actor” kind of feel which was both attractive and even extraordinary. Kim Go-eun’s casting was almost identical to that and her incredibly natural quality was ultimately why I felt she was the perfect, and only, person who could properly play EunGyo.
Mini Mini Movies: I’d like to ask about style and genre, in particular ‘Modern Boy’: Was the particular period the film is set in always something that you wanted to make a film about, and also, would you like to make another period drama in the future?
Jung Ji-woo: Yes, I do want to make another film of that genre in the future. The reason is ‘Modern Boy’ was largely considered a failure and so I really want to make another attempt. I started talking about the time period because, in Korean history, it was a peculiar period. It was quite free ideologically as it was before the Korean War, or even the Cold War, but still the Korean nation was colonised by Japan. So, yes, I do want to try again but that style and genre of film costs a lot of money and a far bigger budget so it may be rather difficult to achieve.
London Korea Times: In ‘EunGyo’, the 70-year-old man was inspired to write poetry by the youth of a schoolgirl and his love for her. What is your inspiration to make films?
Jung Ji-woo: There are many sources of inspiration for me when I make films, but human beings inspire me above all. When I discover differences between human beings and their differences collide, I feel inspired and drawn to create a story. Someone could be attractive while someone else could be ugly or evil and that difference always, always creates a story for me.
Hangul Celluloid: I have what you may feel is a rather controversial or even difficult question regarding actress Jeon Do-yeon in ’Happy End’, which is one of my favourite films of all time: Jeon Do-yeon has a large scar on one of her thighs and when director Im Sang-soo made his version of ‘The Housemaid’ his camerawork focused on it repeatedly. Obviously, I wanted to ask director Im about this, and so in preparation for my interview with him last year at the London Korean Film Festival, I re-watched all of Jeon Do-yeon’s films – including ‘Happy End’ – to try to see if the scar was visible in any of her other movies. In ‘Happy End’, Jeon Do-yeon is always filmed from the opposite side and the scar is never seen and it seemed to me that the camera angles were chosen deliberately in an attempt to keep it out of view. Was that the case? And if so, was it a deliberate choice on your part alone or did Jeon Do-yeon specifically request that the scar be hidden throughout the film?
Jung Ji-woo: Wow! That’s such a great question!
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you so much [in Korean, obviously]. When I asked Im Sang-soo about it, he hesitated and said he really didn’t know if he should answer because before ‘The Housemaid’ was made few people had known that the scar on Jeon Do-yeon’s thigh even existed.
Jung Ji-woo: As I said, a really great question which I am so happy you asked and glad to be able to answer. The reason director Im hesitated to answer is, of course, because of the private nature of the subject matter of the scar. I deliberately tried not to show the scar in ‘Happy End’ by careful framing of shots, blocking and camera angles because I thought showing it would perhaps touch too much on a sensitive subject for the actress. When I saw Im Sang-soo’s ‘The Housemaid’, I realised that Jeon Do-yeon had chosen to show the scar and I honestly felt very moved at that point and I instantly thought of how much she had really grown as an actress in the interim years; even losing her hesitation to reveal one of the most intimate, private parts of her personal life. To lose that fear and inhibition shows, on top of her great talent, what an incredible actress she truly is and I was deeply impressed by that. When I return to Korea, if I meet up with Jeon Do-yeon again, I’d really love to tell her that I was asked this question. Actually, on hearing your question, I’ve suddenly realised how observant and sensitive critics like yourself, and audiences as well, can really be, so thank you for allowing me to see what great attention people like yourself pay to both my and other filmmaker’s works.
Eastern Kicks: You may have noticed that there is a manhwa exhibition here at the Korean Cultural Centre UK at the moment and I believe you adapted Yoon Tae-ho’s manhwa story for the film ‘Moss’. What are your thoughts on why manhwa, manga and comic books have become so popular to be used as the basis of films and also why you became involved in writing the script for ‘Moss’ but didn’t actually direct the film?
Jung Ji-woo: Off the record [Jun Ji-woo laughs]: The director of the film ‘Moss’ was also the producer of’ Modern Boy’ and after the financial loss caused by ‘Modern Boy’s’ failure at the box office, I felt quite guilty and there was a suggestion from about me perhaps writing the screenplay for ‘Moss’ and as I usually only write scripts for my own films that was quite unusual. However, I would have done almost anything to pay him back for his loss because of my film, so I agreed to use my labour to do so. You are, of course, right about the increasing use of manhwa stories for films and webpage stories being similarly used are growing as well in Korea. I think that’s because the industry of that sector is quickly changing and young, talented authors are using this medium to write their works more and more. The one thing I’d like to note about adapting a manhwa for a film that it isn’t just a case of simply moving shots from the comic graphics to the movie. I spent a great deal of time adapting the story of ‘Moss’ and persuading people that these stories should be properly adapted rather than just copied.
Mini Mini Movies: I wanted to ask a question regarding working on other people’s films: You’ve been an assistant director and even cinematographer in your career. Are there any filmmaking roles that you miss perhaps more than directing when working on other people’s films? And also, you were the interviewer for a Kim Ki-young documentary. I wondered how that came about?
Jung Ji-woo: I’d like to answer the second part of your question first: I happened to be a jury member for a Seoul Short Film Festival and Kim Ki-young was also a member of that jury. That’s how I first got to meet him. Actually, the festival jury was a really interesting mix of people and what then happened was that Kim Ki-young announced the winner of the festival without consulting any of the other members. When the Kim Ki-young documentary was made, I therefore was asked to participate because of that connection. With regard to other elements to my career, yes I have many interests in other filmmaking roles, I want to continue directing and it does have to be said that writing a script and then directing does take a great length of time. In short, I want to focus on directing.
Koreaffinity: When you make a film, do you allow actors to interpret their roles in their own way or do you specifically tell them what you want them to do? And also, what is your opinion about filmmaking in the 90’s compared to the present day?
Jung Ji-woo: Let me ask you: Do you ever act?
Koreaffinity: No, I’ve never acted.
Jung Ji-woo: I asked because your perspective seems to be related to actors and actresses. How I deal with actors is quite a sensitive issue. As a writer, you have certain expectations as to the way the script will be portrayed by actors, down to even words and syllables, but when I direct I try to give them an opportunity to find their own method and approach rather than forcing them. I do find that quite difficult. As a result of heavy digitalisation, films tend to be far longer than before and I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing.
Hangul Celluloid: If I could go back to ‘Happy End’: The opening adulterous love/sex scene in the film between Jeon Do-yeon’s character and her lover was, for 1999 when the film was made, incredible explicit and in fact even today is deeply graphic in comparison to many, many films. Did you face any problems getting the film released in Korea because of the explicit content or did you ever worry that the scene(s) might prevent the film from being released?
Jung Ji-woo: You are right that the those love scenes were deliberately incredibly explicit and though I don’t remember any specific problems in getting the film released, I did share my thoughts about their graphic nature with actress Jeon Do-yeon. I wanted the scenes to feel utterly real and natural and once I had shared my needs for the scene with her, there was no real problem in making the scenes, from my point of view of hers. Obviously, people were shocked when the film came out and there is one rather funny story that I’d like to share with you: Because the love scene appears very early on in the film, when screenings started there would still be people coming into the auditorium; trying to find their seats; that sort of thing, and others would be busy sharing their popcorn or Coca-Cola with their friends. However, the instant the love scene began, everyone would freeze and even people looking for their seats would stop what they were doing and stare at the cinema screen. Until the love scene finished, they wouldn’t move an inch and would make no noise whatsoever and once the love scene had concluded they suddenly became animated again and carried on with what they had been doing before. To this day, that story still makes me smile.
Korean Class Massive: As you’ve acted in some short films yourself, does that help you when it comes to directing films?
Jung Ji-woo: Yes, very much so. I learnt a great deal from acting, especially when I went to university and was a trainee actor in the class. It helped me understand exactly what actors and actresses go through when they perform their art. That knowledge led me to treat the actors with a much more sensitive attitude and it also helps me to understand their thoughts and what’s going on in their minds to a greater degree.
London Korea Times: Kim Go-eun has received numerous acting awards this year. What are your thoughts on new stars - such as K-pop stars, new actors and actresses - coming into the industry and also what are your thoughts on the new millennium for Korean cinema in a global sense?
Jung Ji-woo: Speaking of K-pop stars coming into the industry, I auditioned 300 people for the role of EunGyo and in the process I actually met a number of idol trainees who were already linked to some of the big K-pop agencies. They were all quite young, mainly teenagers, but because they had already been trained for a long time, they had a lot of maturity. However, as a result they really didn’t seem to reflect their age – they were young and I feel young people are meant to be young – and I found that to be rather regrettable. I think the general trend is where there are increasing numbers of talented young people who can sing and act etc., but if you ask me whether I support that, I would have to hesitate before answering, and ultimately I much prefer new actresses like Kim Go-eun. In response to the second part of your question, I believe that the strength of Korean cinema is in the creative freedom directors can enjoy. Obviously, that’s quite a weird system where things can go wrong, but nowadays there has also been an increase in the number of distribution chains that seem to want to control absolutely everything. I truly feel that there should always be a balance between creative freedom and outside control, and at the moment the balance is just about right, I think.
Eastern Kicks: What other filmmakers do you particularly admire?
Jung Ji-woo: There are far too many to mention but I have always been very inspired by Wim Wenders. Also, I was just in the BFI and I booked a ticket to see ‘The Shining’ on the big screen and that really excites me. In general, I try to get inspiration from films that are watched by the general public and I also follow what they are watching.
Mini Mini Movies: How did you get involved in making a film for the ‘If You Were Me’ series?
Jung Ji-woo: The project was first suggested by the National Human Rights Association and my film was about a refugee boy from North Korea. I’m not sure of the exact title translation but I think it was ‘Boy with a Rucksack’. I was actually really happy when I was making that film because I didn’t have to worry about the budget or investment as that was all sorted out by the National Human Rights Association. I don’t know if you’re aware, but this series of omnibus films has been running for some time and this year I believe they are trying to make a feature length film.
Hangul Celluloid: I think we’re being asked to wrap things up, but I have one final, really quick question: The DVD of ‘EunGyo’ has been released with the English title of ‘A Muse’. What do you feel about the film being released with that title:
Jung Ji-woo: I can answer your quick question quickly [Jung Ji-woo laughs]: I prefer ‘EunGyo’ by a large margin and I’d like the film to continue to be referred to as ‘EunGyo’, rather than ‘A Muse’.
I would sincerely like to thank the London Korean Film Festival and the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing us all to interview Jung Ji-woo at such length.