The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on June 28th 2012, prior to a screening of 'Battlefield Heroes' and director Q&A at the Apollo cinema, Picadilly.
Hangul Celluloid: Early in your career, you were involved in distributing and subsequently producing films. How did you make the move into directing?
Lee Joon-ik: I’ve never studied film officially or professionally in any capacity to become a director. I just worked very hard given all the tasks I was set. I ended up becoming a director almost inadvertently. With everything, if you work hard on every task you’re given, I think there is a natural drive to end up working where your passions lie. I first started in film marketing and I had a real drive to achieve and to move from the outside, external part of the film industry towards the more central, internal part. Even now when I’m working as a director, I’m curious about whether I actually know anything about film at all really.
MiniMiniMovies: I’d like to ask about ‘The King and the Clown”: The film has a great many acrobatic scenes and action and has very vivid colours. It also has some very colourful dialogue, sometimes crude. Were you worried about any of the language that was spoken, be it humorous or cutting?
Lee Joon-ik: When I was preparing to make the film, I studied Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, for example, and a lot of his tragedies. Especially, I was looking at the characters that were the jesters, or clowns, if you prefer, and I looked at what they thought ideologies were, in a great deal of detail. In all the great works of art, historically, the jester always plays a profound and meaningful role within the play, and communicates the author’s thoughts - throws it out there and then runs away. In ‘The King and the Clown’, the jesters enter the carefully guarded world of the king even deeper and the jester has a very dangerous ideology. However, to the modern audience, such desires are often hidden or repressed. So, with regard to the specific power and authority that specific parties might have, the jester has the role of trying to deny all of that and I think the audiences positively resonated with that world and that’s partly why the film was so successful.
Hangul Celluloid: Leading on from that point, there is a male-male kiss in ‘The King and the Clown’. How did you feel that references to alternative lifestyles or homosexuality would be received by audiences in Korea? Do you feel that the historical setting of the film made these elements somehow less controversial?
Lee Joon-ik: In reality, in the Chosun Dynasty, men would have to perform all the roles, including female characters, in plays etc. and similarly in England, in the time of Shakespeare, women couldn’t even stand on the stage. So, in historical times there really was homosexuality between the jesters, the actors. To depict homosexuality in Korea, even if it’s within the confines of the medium of film, is quite risky given Korea’s traditional and quite conservative nature, stemming from its Confucianist background, so I tried to express that at an appropriate level, which I think the film did. The kiss scene in the King and the Clown’ is deliberately not very erotic and instead tries to convey the strength and intensity of the wounded soul.
Eastern Kicks: King Yeonsan is considered to be the worst tyrant of the Chosun Dynasty and yet, on the screen, you show very little of that beyond the odd remark. Was that approach a deliberate attempt to make the king seem more sympathetic?
Lee Joon-ik: I spent the morning at the National Portrait Gallery looking at the previous kings and queens of England and some of them were very violent at times and even did evil deeds. However, if you examine their lives more closely, you’ll realise that the immoral things that they did stemmed from their own personal wounds. The king, Yeonsan, in the film, yes he was a violent king but he could only be that way given all the things that had happened to him in his life. As a director, when I approach the depiction of people and examine human behaviour, I pay attention to the fact that some do evil deeds not because they are evil as a person but because they can’t help doing so as a result of the things that have happened to them in their lives.
New Korean Cinema: I’d like to ask about the post-theatrical life of film: In the Hollywood model, the majority of profits are made in the ancillary market, video, television, etc. Traditionally, this has been kind of denied in the Korean market because home video is fairly minimal and there is a dependence on international sales. What sort of afterlife do you see for Korean film in the market today?
Lee Joon-ik: The commercial life of Korean films is very different from Europe. Europe and America have had systematic changes to the film licensing business, prior to us. In Korea, the film industry flourished in an internet environment, meaning that second-hand licensing became meaningless and it became very difficult to make profits through that market. So, when a film is released, before the DVD can come out, everyone downloads an illegal online copy. As a result, unfortunately, we have to rely on the theatrical market and effort is focused on cinema marketing just before the film is released. Consequently, alongside the Korean wave that took place, films became more commercially provocative and I think that has led to more interest and consumption of Korean films abroad and it’s because the industry was in such a disadvantaged position that we had to work even harder to overcome it. Though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Korean Class Massive: I’ve heard that you are quite a rash person. Are there any instances where you’ve made a decision while making a film that you’ve regretted later?
Lee Joon-ik: Every single day. However, on the set before we begin shooting we prepare extensively and spend a lot of time thinking about those things. On the set, not much ever goes according to plan and there are often instances where you have to give up things that you have prepared and out of all the things that are left that you’ve finally chosen to go ahead with, you invest all your energy there. I don’t think that’s a reflection of my personality specifically but rather it reflects the nature of Korean people as a whole. When comparing Westerners with Korean people in general, if we say that the European weakness is immaculately calculate, prepare and try to understand what they have prepared, whereas Koreans prepare roughly and then execute with extreme attention to detail. Korean people may make many mistakes but that can often yield surprising results.
Korean Class Massive: After watching some of your films, we’ve noticed that Jeong Jin-yeong is in a lot of them and often plays a lead role. How did your relationship develop and do you write scripts with him in mind?
Lee Joon-ik: In 2001, I produced a film called ‘Hi Darma’. So, when I came to casting, I gave the script to Jeong Jin-yeong and he actually turned it down saying that it was too poorly written. Obviously, I got very angry about that so I him called in and demanded we talk about this more deeply. We went to a coffee shop and we talked, or rather I talked, for three hours, and thanks to my excellent speaking skills he came around and became convinced about the film. On the second day, he came to my office and we played a game of Korean chess and, whilst we were playing, he told me that he had read the script three more times and that he agreed with everything I had said during the three hours. That’s how we met, the film was a success and we continued to work together. In July, Jeong Jin-yeong is coming to Scotland to spend 20 days and have a holiday with his family.
Cineasia_online: You mentioned playing chess with. Is that what inspired the chess scene in ‘The King and the Clown’
Lee Joon-ik: Yes, that’s what happened in real life and we often bet money too [Lee Joon-ik laughs].
Cineasia_online: Also, did you give the roles of musicians in ‘The Happy Life’ to specific actors because of their musical skills?
Lee Joon-ik: Out of the four main actors in ‘The Happy Life’, the one who played the role of the drummer had never held a drumstick before in his life and the bass player had never played the bass before. Both the actors playing the guitarists had played a bit before, in their youth. After casting the four actors, I put them in a rehearsal room together and made them rehearse for around 12 hours per day. The drummer used hundreds of drumsticks because he was practicing so much, and the actor who played the bassist ended up with lots of blisters on his fingers and have to have plasters on them while practicing. If roles require Korean actors to do something they haven’t done before, they won’t shy away from it, and they’re extremely persistent until they succeed in achieving what they want to achieve. In the case of ‘The King and the Clown’, Kam Woo-seong, who played the jester who was made blind, practiced tightrope walking for a long time and even installed a rope in his house, and he subsequently preformed all of the rope walking in the film himself.
London Korea Times: Having made so many films, how has the process changed for you? Is it still a challenge?
Lee Joon-ik: As I mentioned before, I never officially studied film and never worked as an assistant director. There is a phrase in Korea that says the stupid are the brave [Lee Joon-ik laughs]. Because I don’t know much about anything, I’ll just attempt things, I just do it, and you still get results. In fact, I used to wonder if that meant I’m a genius [Lee Joon-ik laughs]. As I directed more films, I became more fearful and even now I can’t watch my old films because I spot so, so many mistakes. I am increasingly aware of how difficult filmmaking is, so I’ve spent the last couple of years doing nothing and having fun. Although, I’m currently working on a scenario, slightly, of a film I want to shoot next year.
Eastern Kicks: As a director, you’ve made a lot of films that are set in historical periods. Are you more attracted to historical films as opposed to more contemporary stories? And also, in your guise as a producer, do you not worry about the cost of producing historical dramas?
Lee Joon-ik: The reason I prefer to make historical films is that when I was young, I watched many Western, Hollywood and European films and because of that I was able to ascertain the differences in English, French and German cultures. Whereas, although Europeans are aware of differences between Japanese and Chinese cultures but don’t know much about the traditional Korean culture. As a Korean, I am fully aware of the stark differences between Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures and y shooting lots of historical dramas, I’m attempting to show European audiences the difference between Korean culture and the cultures of other Asian countries. With ‘The king and the Clown’, Japanese and Chinese audiences learnt a great deal about the characteristics and nature of Korean kings of the time, and while it is true that historical films are more expensive, I am a very cheap director and so costs aren’t any higher than if I was shooting a modern film.
Hangul Celluloid: A lot of your films feature male characters in humorous roles, often being depicted as rather hapless individuals, whereas the women portrayed tend to be quite strong individuals, even those who only have minor roles. Is that part of an attempt to discuss, and show international audiences, the idea of strong females beneath the surface of a historically patriarchal society?
Lee Joon-ik: It wasn’t a deliberate attempt on my part, but I think, subconsciously, ideas of the historically patriarchal nature of Korean society were indeed filtered through the films. I don’t want to portray the male characters in a glamorous or even likeable light, but I do want to portray their paradoxical nature in a comical way. Out of the English films I have seen, I really like Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’ and one of the scenes in that film is actually parodied in my film ‘Battlefield Heroes’.
MiniMiniMovies: Why was the Vietnam War chosen as the setting for ‘Sunny’? Was it because you have a love for Vietnam or did you feel that there was a lot to say about the war itself?
Lee Joon-ik: From a Korean person’s perspective, that war is incredibly important. When you look at the Korean War, and, by the way, I’d like to thank England for participating in that war too, it resulted in the Japanese economy getting a massive boost and, similarly, the Vietnam War resulted in the Korean economy receiving a huge boost. Until that time, only American films had dealt with the war in Vietnam, but there were 300,000 Koreans involved in it. During the 60’s and 70’s, the 300,000 soldiers brought back many items, objects and materials, particularly TVs. So, ultimately, war is an incredibly paradoxical thing where countries benefit from the misery of the country that’s actually at war. However, the soldiers that were involved were actually affected and largely sacrificed by the misery of war, so I feel it’s very important to look more closely at their lives. When you look at American films about the Vietnam War, the characters were shown either as heroes or victims and the films looked at the social pain that came from that, whereas in my film, ‘Sunny’, I wanted to look at the sorrow that they have for life because of the war.
Cineasia_Online: Having made so many films about music, did you ever want to be on stage and play in a band? Also, the ending of ‘Sunny’ is fairly typically Korean in that’s it’s not a happy ending as it would be in a Hollywood film. What can you tell us about this?
Lee Joon-ik: When I was young, my family was quite poor, so we didn’t have enough money to buy instruments. So, recently I bought a drum kit that I keep at my house and I have a small dream that one day I will be able to play the drums on stage. Actually, my real dream is to be like the character Bill Nighy plays in ‘Love Actually’ and sing the Christmas Number One. With regard to your second question, I see it as a happy start. So, instead of a happy ending you get a happy start - this is a fairly common phrase in Korea.
New Korean Cinema: Can you tell us a bit more about your company Cineworld Entertainment. Do you feel it achieved the goals that it set out to? And the company’s philosophy was “We make money with movies, we don’t make movies with money”, can you comment on Im Kwon-taek’s challenge to this last year when he said it was maybe a little bit greedy and that there may be other ways to handle film commercially?
Lee Joon-ik: While I was I the film production business, I made a lot of money, but I also lost a lot of money. Now, I have no money [Lee Joon-ik laughs], so I have to shoot a film to make money. I believe that if you have a lot of money you can be unhappy because if you have a lot you have to spend a lot of time trying to protect it. Without having any money, the process of making a film becomes more enjoyable. I have a lot of respect for director Im Kwon-taek. He was at an awards ceremony with the film ‘Lowlife’, which was a commercial flop, and he grabbed the mike and said to all the investors “I’m really sorry that you lost money”, and that’s how he ended his speech. He was genuinely apologetic to the investors who had lost money. Currently, a lot of Korean films are funded by large corporations, but because of director Im’s advanced age, it is fairly difficult for him to get funding. The Korean film market has actually been split into two: On the one hand, you have the situation where really young directors are funded by large corporations to make films whereas on the other hand you’ve got really low budget, non-commercial films probably shot for under £500,000. So all the entertaining films are being funded by companies while the really meaningful films are being shot on a very small scale.
Korean Class Massive: Because of the open-endedness of many of your films, are you deliberately attempting to interweave a deep philosophical message into your films?
Lee Joon-ik: It’s not a conscious effort, but I think it comes out subconsciously because of the person I am. I have a lot of sympathy for humanity and humankind. Everyone is born, enters society and ends up with a lot of wounds caused by that society, and when I shoot films, I really want to heal the pain that the characters are going through and it’s a huge pleasure to be able to do that. In a way, doing this almost treats my own wounds. Ultimately, the lines in the films are all directed towards myself.
Eastern Kicks: The film that is screening tonight, ‘Battlefield Heroes’, is a follow-up to your previous work, ‘Once Upon a Time on a Battlefield’. Why did it take so long to make a sequel?
Lee Joon-ik: Actually, it’s a trilogy [Lee Joon-ik laughs] and it’ll be another ten years before I get around to the third part. There have been other films to shoot in between and they have de-prioritised the final segment of the trilogy.
On behalf of everyone involved in the interview, I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging for us all to talk to director Lee Joon-ik at such length.