Lee Byung-hun first achieved fame as a border-guard soldier in the box office hit Joint Security Area (2000). He went on to star in popular television dramas including Beautiful Days (2001) and All In (2003) and received critical acclaim for his performances in Kim Ji-woon's A Bittersweet Life (2005); The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010). His latest film is period drama ‘Masquerade’ (2012) which has already won numerous awards.
The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on Saturday November 10th 2012 prior to a special screening of director Choo Chang-min's film 'Masquerade' - the Closing Gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2012, at the Odeon West End, Leicester Square, London.
Please Note: The following interview was a ten-minute slot and is therefore slightly shorter than the majority of the other interviews that can be found in the 'Interviews' section of the site. I hope it will be worth reading, nonetheless.
Hangul Celluloid: First of all, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you.
Lee Byung-hun: It’s my pleasure.
Hangul Celluloid: You’re here at the London Korean Film Festival promoting your film ‘Masquerade’ which is being screened as the Closing Gala of the festival. The narrative of ‘Masquerade’ contains both humour and a more serious underlying political message that could even be related to politics today. How much did these elements play a part in your decision to sign up to star in the film and what ultimately drew you to take the part(s)?
Lee Byung-hun: Audiences can feel a lot of the political messages within ‘Masquerade’ and while I feel that is incredibly important to the film it’s ultimately not the reason that I decided to take the role. What I like about that political message is that there’s no specific colour to it and the overall story could be summed up by “if you were a king, what would you do?” That’s a question that everyone who watches the film can ask themselves, regardless of their beliefs or political colours. The story is based on a historical tale with some fictional assumptions mixed in and that in itself really drew my attention. The fact of the story is that the king’s diary was written every day but for 15 days it was inexplicably empty so we never know, and can never know, what he did or what happened in that two weeks and I thought that idea was so full of promise that I really wanted to be involved. Also, as you said, the narrative has comic elements mixed in – we can laugh a lot in this movie and I love that touch – but at the same time the comic parts of the film were the very things that concerned me most because the humour was so basic and not in any way sophisticated. In fact, that fact worried me so much that I asked the director to make sure the humour was not just stupid comedy and I almost begged him to make it more sophisticated. Once I was happy with that element, I knew at last that I wanted to make this movie.
Hangul Celluloid: You’re also in London filming the English language film ‘Red 2’. Considering the fact that several Korean film directors who have been making English language films in the West (for example Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook) have admitted finding the differences of working within Western movie industry difficult, do you as an actor find there are differences that affect you?
Lee Byung-hun: Acting-wise, the differences I’ve felt in the movie industries of different countries are far less than a director might feel but one huge difference for me is the fact that the whole cast in Red 2, apart from me, are acting based on their culture. That’s the hardest part for me. Even though I can speak English almost fluently some days, getting culture is much harder because I simply didn’t grow up in the States. So, yeah, it can sometimes be difficult and sometimes the system is different but I’m trying to adjust to it as much as I can. Of course, the best that I can possibly be is acting in Korea with a Korean cast, Korean culture - which I really understand - and speaking in the Korean language too, that the best conditions for me to act but I’m slowly learning the Hollywood system and I hope that in the future I’ll be able to show Western audiences what I’m capable of when I’m at the top of my game.
Hangul Celluloid: You are a huge star in Korea while at the same time you are known as a true actor and you have a massive fan base both in Korea and across the world...
Lee Byung-hun: Really? Even here? I don’t think anyone knows me here... honestly.
Hangul Celluloid: Since I announced that I was interviewing you this afternoon I’ve had numerous well-wishing messages, emails and comments, and every time the Korean Film Festival trailer plays before cinema screenings there is a cheer from the crowd when you appear on screen.
Lee Byung-hun: Maybe I should cheer as well if they play the trailer at the screening tonight [Lee Byung-hun laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: As I said, you are a huge star and you and Ryoo Seung-ryong are easily the best known acting names in ‘Masquerade’. However, the film also features Shim Eun-kyung, a rising teen actress, in a supporting yet incredibly memorable role. Considering the numerous awards that Kim Go-eun has received this year for her performance in ‘EunGyo’, even though she had never acted in a feature film before, where do you feel the balance lies, in Korean cinema, between star power and the influx of younger, less experienced actors and actresses who are receiving huge accolades for their natural performances? Do you see star power as still being important to Korean films?
Lee Byung-hun: Every actor, especially the beginners, if they’re asked “Do you eventually want to be a star or a real actor?” will answer that they want to be a real actor and not a star, 100%. However, being a star is incredibly important too, I think. I mean, they don’t specifically set out to be a star, though they could just be a star if they wished, but every actor does have to go through that process to a degree in their career and in their striving to be true to their craft and successful in the long term. Even when I started 20-something years ago, I heard a lot of bad things said by audiences saying that my acting was terrible and everybody really needs to pay attention to that kind of criticism in the process and sometimes those kinds of harsh words can be the best motivation to become a better actor. In your question, you mentioned ‘EunGyo’ and I have to tell you that I really liked that movie and that actress. She is just starting out in her career but I really see bright things ahead for her and to produce a performance as excellent as the one she gave in that film shows how naturally talented she is. Talking about star power, what often happens in films is the casting of a star name and an inexperienced actor together in a movie project and that too is part of the process of making a mainstream movie. It, of course, happens a lot but it is ultimately the way of the industry and I guess it goes someway to creating a balance of its own. However, there are also other types of films that concentrate on the strength of the story itself and the strength of the acting performances adds to the overall film rather than being the focus of it, and I think the fact that films like those co-exist with mainstream cinema is a really positive thing for films and Korean cinema in general.
Hangul Celluloid: There is a lady waving frantically behind me, so I think I’m being asked to wrap things up, but I’d just like to thank you once again for taking the time to answer my questions today.
Lee Byung-hun: I enjoyed the interview very much.
I would sincerely like to thank the London Korean Film Festival and the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing me to interview Lee Byung-hun.