The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on Monday November 11th 2013 prior to the London Korean Film Festival 2013 screening of 'Flu', followed by an audience Q&A.
Hangul Celluloid: Obviously, you’re here in England for the London Korean Film Festival screening of ‘Flu’ and audience Q&A. As you both directed ‘Flu’ and were involved in writing the screenplay with Lee Young-jong, what made you choose this project in particular for your latest film?
Kim Sung-su: Originally, I was sent the script for ‘Flu’ which I amended but the ‘powers that be’ said that my screenplay was extremely boring, so the writer Lee Young-jong was brought in to amend it further and when the producers and investors finally said it was a good enough script to shoot with, that became the version we ultimately used. I had been preparing some action films which all faltered – I have to say I was quite upset about that – but when I saw this script the idea and paradox of making a huge disaster film from something as basic as flu rather appealed to me. At the time, there had also been a large illness outbreak and I felt that this could be an incredibly realistic disaster film with a true basis in real life – a realistic horror, if you like – which was rarely the case; most disaster films being based on improbable events. All those elements added together to convince me that this was the film I really wanted to make.
Hangul Celluloid: Some of the Western, namely US, characters in the film could be described as not only forceful and aggressive but also as noticeably standing against the Korean characters. As the film has been incredibly successful internationally, is being released in the UK through collaboration between CJ E&M and Cineworld and as your next project – ‘Genome Hazard’ – is also a Korean/international crossover, what are your thoughts on how the international market and audiences will, or have, viewed those characters? Also, when you were making the film, did thoughts of how international audiences would view those characters play a part in their depiction or were you thinking only of the Korean release market?
Kim Sung-su: Honestly, the film being screened outside of Korea was a totally unexpected occurrence and something I really didn’t think about at all while making it. America is our friend, of course, and it has a huge part to play worldwide and on the international stage and if a catastrophe such as that detailed in ‘Flu’ were to take place, it’s likely that Korea wouldn’t have the capacity or resources to deal with a disaster of such magnitude. As such, I felt it would be natural and realistic that Korea would request help from its allies in the US who do have the capacity and resources. However, while the American characters are driven by their own concerns and interests, dealing with the situation from their own perspective, the Korean Government largely does too, and though the Korean characters realise that the problem could escalate into a world issue, their priority is to the city where the outbreak begins and subsequently Korea as a whole, above anywhere else. I Korea in 2011, there was a foot and mouth disease outbreak among pigs and, of course the way it was dealt with was to burn the infected pigs alive to ensure the safety and security of the people. I felt that the same logic would apply to the outbreak in ‘Flu’ even though it related to people and the juxtaposition of the Korean characters trying to first and foremost protect Korea with those from outside countries attempting to keep the disease contained within Korea’s borders so as to prevent it spreading into their territories felt very real to me. Ultimately, I hope that international audiences will feel a resonance with the overall story with some relating to certain character aspects and traits and others relating to those of their counterparts. You mentioned my next project ‘Genome Hazard’ which is indeed a crossover between Korea and Japan but even though in this case it is indeed largely an international film, I can’t say international audience perceptions played much of a part in my thought processes. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that when I make a film I make the project I personally want to make and as a Korean it’s likely that my basis is always going to be from a solely Korean perspective.
Hangul Celluloid: For years in Korean cinema, there has been a repeated detailing of aspects of the Gwangju uprising/riots and the country’s psychological scars relating to the terrible outcome of that event. The fact that ‘Flu’ depicts some extremely morally questionable decisions initially instigated by governmental characters – herding of victims into ‘camps’, burning the infected etc. – combined with the Korean president’s ultimate speech that he will always protect the people and never let any harm befall them spoke to me as somewhat of a fictional redressing of the balance; in a way saying how much the government and country has changed since Gwangju and almost a further attempt to move towards healing those scars. What are your thoughts about this and what were you ultimately saying with these narrative ideas?
Kim Sung-su: The Gwangju massacre took place when I was 20-years-old and when I was very young growing up I saw many photos of other terrible events such as the Nazi prison camps and all of these things became ingrained in my mind, my subconscious, and of course when I came to detail a terrible fictitious event the effect they had had on me in my youth almost could not fail to play a part in my depictions. In China and Korea the Sars outbreak was also a huge, huge, story and my thoughts about it combined with these feelings – some conscious, some subconscious, I think – became inherent to my film and just had to be expressed. I’m not sure if I should actually say this, but I feel that with events such as these, a country does tend to serve itself rather than its people and though it may be less realistic to depict a president being ultimately caring as is the case in ‘Flu’, it was vitally important to me that the president gave that speech, giving hope and building faith in the future in the face of whatever country or world tragedy has gone before. The decisions and statement of the president in ‘Flu’ would never take place in reality and no country is ever going to be like that but, as such, though it may have been subconscious, the ideas you mention and the like are in hindsight more than likely present. Whether there is an underlying subconscious attempt on my part to redress the balance, as you put it, is something I would need to think about further. What I will say is that any disaster has the tendency to make all those involved entirely selfish – affecting only those involved – regardless of the past but how we ultimately deal with that comes from a combination of individual and national psyche; a culmination of the things that made us who we are as a people and a country.
Hangul Celluloid: I’m being asked to wrap things up but one final question: For audiences watching ‘Flu’ what is more important to you as a director, entertainment value or the themes portrayed?
Kim Sung-su: I think both are important but if I had to choose one it would be entertainment value, without a doubt.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth.
I would sincerely like to thank the London Korean Film Festival and the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing me to interview director Kim Sung-su.
Please Note: Apologies for the brevity of the above interview but with Kim Sung-su giving such in-depth responses, the 15min interview time flew by at breakneck pace. I hope you've enjoyed reading the interview, in spite of its shortness.