The following interview took place at the Mayfair Hotel in London on October 12, 2014, prior to the BFI London Film Festival 2014 screening of 'A Hard Day' at the Odeon West End plus Q&A with Kim Seong-hun:
Hangul Celluloid: Your professional film-making career began with you working as assistant director on ‘Oh, Happy Day’ . How did you actually come to start working in the film industry, in the first place?
Kim Seong-hun: Cinema has been a very familiar space for me as well as being a playground since I was young. As you grow older in Korea, you have to do compulsory military service, then go to university and then into society, and I honestly hated just wearing a tie every day and going to the same work, day in day out. I increasingly yearned to return to the playground of my youth and that’s why I decided to try to begin working in film but no-one would allow a new face to be a full director for their first film and I’m honestly not sure if I was ready for such a big step at that stage, anyway. So, I - with much effort - began working as an assistant director as you mentioned and even though that was just my first step it felt like it was truly where I was supposed to be.
Hangul Celluloid: So, from the very outset you always had your sights on directing above all other film-making related careers?
Kim Seong-hun: Yes, that was my one and only dream when I first entered the film industry and it continues to be an ongoing dream for me today.
Hangul Celluloid: If we compare ‘A Hard Day’ - the film that you are here in the UK to promote - with your earlier films, there is a huge shift in genre: ‘A Hard Day’ certainly has perfectly placed dark humour but it is overall a crime/action thriller whereas your earlier work [‘Oh, Happy Day’ (2003); ‘The Guy was Cool’ (2004); ‘How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men’ (2006)] regardless of whether you have been director, scriptwriter or assistant director have all dealt in a light-hearted way with the comedy of relationships. What led to that change in genre direction? Was it just something you wanted to do or were there specific reasons for the shift?
Kim Seong-hun: You know, I honestly never considered that I’d made films that were very different until I began doing interviews for ‘A Hard Day’. However, as the subject has been brought up a number of times I have slowly begun to think about how different they must really be and it has given me a chance to reflect on myself, too. In Korea, we have a saying “Even after ten years, the mountain will change” and as there have been eight years between my last film and ‘A Hard Day’ in a similar way I feel I too must naturally have changed. The fact that ‘How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men’ was sadly not successful I feel may have also added to that change, subconsciously.
Hangul Celluloid: Do you feel - comparing ‘A Hard Day being released in the present day with eight years ago when you released your last film - that the Korean film industry itself has changed to favour different genres or to make it perhaps more difficult for newer directors to get their films made and screened?
Kim Seong-hun: I have friends in Korea that think and talk a lot about the present-day industry and the difficulties you mention. However, I honestly feel that worthy work will always find an outlet - some way, somehow - even if it takes eight years [Kim Seong-hun laughs] and rather than trying to predict what I find to be unpredictable trends I feel content in simply thinking that I have changed. That allows me to sleep much more easily.
Hangul Celluloid: ’A hard Day’ is incredibly fast-paced - somewhat like the main character’s life taking place on an imaginary rollercoaster spiralling downwards - and it also has dark humour peppered throughout the narrative. If you were to think of directors who have inspired you over the years, would you name directors like Na Hong-jin with his fast-paced narratives or perhaps instead choose Bong Joon-ho with his ability to place dark humour within serious storylines?
Kim Seong-hun: For me, I think I’ve been influenced in part by every single film I have seen; whether Western films made by Hitchcock or the Coen Brothers or films by Korean directors like Bong Joon-ho, as you mentioned. I deeply admire Bong Joon-ho’s work and knowingly and unknowingly I believe I’m influenced by him as a Korean director but I'm also affected by directors from around the world. If it’s a great film, I’ll be influenced; if it’s a bad film, I’ll be influenced too, albeit in a different way. I guess that those varied and different influences add up to another reason for me feeling that I have changed as a director over the years.
Hangul Celluloid: You both wrote and directed ‘A Hard Day’ and as the narrative unfolds there are numerous little, almost passing, moments that later become pivotal story elements. At what point did those elements come into play in the making of the film? Were they envisioned at the scriptwriting stage or did some of them later appear resulting in you stepping back and referencing them retroactively while shooting?
Kim Seong-hun: As we live our lives, we experience at least some seemingly inconsequential moments that a long time later can have unexpected and even life changing consequences and I think that’s fair and true to say for us all. That’s what I wanted to convey through this film and without those types of moments the entre frame of the movie would have been unstable. While I was making ‘A Hard Day’, the mantra I had in my mind was to harvest in autumn the seeds that were planted in the spring, if you will. So, that was my leading principle while even envisioning what this film would be and as such virtually all of those passing moments were specifically introduced at the outset because I knew they would later become vitally important to both the story and its successful realisation.
Hangul Celluloid: Of course, ‘A Hard Day’ centres on the intertwining story of two policemen but almost all of the members of the police force in the film are shown to be on the take; accepting bribes, stealing drugs etc etc. Was that reference a statement of social commentary on your part or was it just a narrative element within which to place the character arcs?
Kim Seong-hun: To some degree I feel that all films reflect society by their very nature. However, of course, that’s not to say that all police are corrupt in Korea; I’m sure that most of the cops in Korea presently are good men. In the case of ‘A Hard Day’, it’s simply that they were a useful device for the film to enable the character arcs and give extra stability and familiarity to the overall narrative.
Hangul Celluloid: As we’ve already mentioned, your previous films deal largely with relationships (many broken) and while there is an very understated implication of a relationship that has fallen apart in ‘A Hard Day’ - the main male character having a daughter and living with his sister while his wife is nowhere to be seen - it’s certainly not focused on to any real degree. As such, what are your thoughts on depictions of relationships in Korean films of late and especially considering the fact that there is no sex whatsoever in ‘A Hard Day’ what are your feelings on the increasing number of Korean films using nudity within relationships (or indeed broken relationships) as a selling point and being marketed as ‘erotic’ before anything else?
Kim Seong-hun: First of all, from your question I can tell you have watched my films and indeed Korean films in general with great attention and care, and I’d like to thank you for that. Yes, you are right that there are a lot of broken relationships in my films but since I enjoy a really healthy and happy relationship in my personal life I’m suddenly wondering why I have focused so regularly on relationships that are falling apart or are broken almost beyond repair [Kim Seong-hun laughs]. I guess I’m less interested in complete or happy characters and more interested in those who are unhappy and/or incomplete and I’d rather have those types of characters leading my stories. As far as the point you mention about the lack of sex in my film and the increase of eroticism in Korean cinema in general, I honestly don’t think I know women well enough to portray those elements effectively. I have no real issue with the idea or with those types of portrayals but perhaps my lack of understanding led me to avoid sex or nudity completely in ‘A Hard Day’ without the idea of including it even really occurring to me.
Hangul Celluloid: I’m being asked to wrap things up but I’d like to finish by asking you a combined two-part question: ‘A Hard Day’ is being released in the UK next year and I honestly feel it fits perfectly with the majority of Korean genre films available here. However, some people in the UK and indeed the West in general who have seen only a minority of Korean films are under what I feel is somewhat of a misconception that Korean films are inherently violent. I have asked a lot of directors what they think of that misconception and I like to ask for your thoughts on the matter? And as a final point, what would you like to say to anyone who is about to sit down and watch ‘A Hard Day’ for the first time?
Kim Seong-hun: First of all, thank you very much for having such a positive response to my film. I hear that a lot from people everywhere I go; about Korean films being inherently violent. There was one critic who wrote about ‘Die Hard’ who said that hundreds of people die in that movie whereas only one or two characters typically die in a Korean film yet the prejudice continues. I think that’s because the expression of emotions in Korean films are very realistic asa whole and though there are many Korean films out there that are beautiful, soft and very sweet they just don’t get invited or highlighted abroad to any real degree and as such many international viewers are simply not aware that those types of Korean films exist. On your second question, for those who are just about to watch ‘A Hard Day’, if my film can contribute to undermining the prejudice that Korean films are inherently violent or wholly dark then I’ll be very happy, even if it only redresses the balance by 1%. So, for the audience out there that is watching this small film from a tiny country in the East for two hours and being exposed to perhaps an unfamiliar culture and experience, if it brings you even a tiny bit of happiness and laughter then I will be so very happy. Ultimately, I hope you find ‘A Hard Day’ an enjoyable film that is worthy of your valuable time.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you for taking the time to answer my many questions.
I'd sincerely like to thank StudioCanal and John Scrafton of Emfoundation for arranging and allowing me to interview director Kim Seong-hun at such length.
Finally, I'd also like to give my sincere thanks to Andrew Heskins of easternKicks for putting me in touch with StudioCanal's PR company and to Philip Gowman of London Korean Links for subsequently offering to do the same.