Having watched and reviewed Lee Joon-ik's heartbreaking yet uplfting 'Hope' as part of the Hangul Celluloid coverage of the London Korean Film Festival 2013, I desperately wanted to discuss the sublime film with director Lee himself. As I'd previously met the director in 2012 and been part of a group interview with him, I decided to contact him directly to ask if it would be possible to interview him again. Lee Joon-ik graciously agreed to my request and the following is a transcription of that interview:
Hangul Celluloid: In 2011 you announced that you were retiring from commercial filmmaking. Why did you choose <Hope/소원> as the film with which to return to directing?
Lee Joon-ik: After the release of the film <Battlefield Heroes>, its failure resulted in me announcing my retirement from commercial film-making. Over the next couple of years, I fully admit to having had a wonderful stress-free time and though I received many scripts during the period, none of them came close to making me change my decision to retire. However, that was until I was given the script for <Hope>. I admit that when I first read the script, I felt deeply uncomfortable but I almost couldn’t stop myself from choosing it as the film with which to make my return to directing; not because of its subject matter as such but rather because of the themes it discusses.
Hangul Celluloid: The screenplay of <Hope/소원> was written by Jo Joong-hoon and Kim Ji-hye. Were any major changes made to the story while making the film?
Lee Joon-ik: Several scripts for <Hope/소원> were written; predominately by Jo Joong-hoon and Kim Ji-hye, but many, many scriptwriters were involved overall. However, the script that I finally chose to direct was the one that writer Kim Ji-hye was involved in. The final amendments to script focused on the emotions between the characters and their psychological states - audiences will largely be able to relate to the emotions shown by both Dong-hoon and Hope – and to ensure this was as effective as possible we deleted 27 unnecessary scenes and created ten entirely new scenes. For example we deleted a scene of Hope being sexually raped and that was a huge change. However, the final film is still faithful to the original story.
Hangul Celluloid: How did the casting of Lee Re as the character of Hope come about?
Lee Joon-ik: Before I was announced as the director of the film, the production company had auditioned around 80 young girls for the role of Hope but failed to reach a final decision. When I joined the project, I was going through videos of all the child actors who had failed and I saw Lee Re who I ultimately decided to cast in the role. In comparison to the other actors, she had a very naturalistic style and she always acted right until the end by looking into the other person’s eyes and that is a large part of why I chose her.
Hangul Celluloid: Lee Re’s performance in <Hope/소원> is one of the best portrayals by a child actor that I have ever seen. Did you have to take a different approach to directing such a young child from your method of directing adult actors and actresses?
Lee Joon-ik: In 1993, my debut film was <Kid Cop> - a family film in which children were the lead characters. At that time working with five child actors I made numerous mistakes and so with <Hope/소원> I was able to minimise unnecessary communication with Lee Re and make sure that she wasn’t feeling tense or anxious on set. In creating as relaxed an atmosphere as possible, I was able to allow Lee Re to focus on playing the role comfortably.
Hangul Celluloid: How much of Lee Re’s portrayal was provided spontaneously by her and how much was the result of you telling her what to do specifically in a scene?
Lee Joon-ik: I normally communicate a great deal with adult actors. However, with Lee Re I couldn’t focus on giving in-depth explanations. Those difficult explanations were conducted through Lee Re’s mother or with the assistant director who was in charge of Lee Re. So prior to filming a scene, she knew what it was about and was able to commit on set and actually on set I didn’t have to over-direct her at all. After I would shout “Cut”, I would give Lee Re a ‘thumbs up’ signal or I would clap because she did so incredible well.
Hangul Celluloid: The dialogue in <Hope/소원> is also superb and adds greatly to the overall emotion of the film. Were there difficulties in Lee Re memorizing lengthy dialogue and were specific changes to camera shots (e.g. a camera change to focus on a different characters) used to help this?
Lee Joon-ik: No matter how long a scene was, I didn’t stop in the middle and as much as possible I shot all in one go. When there was a lot of dialogue in a scene, the opposing adult actor was standing behind the camera so Lee Re could focus and concentrate on her acting. With over 50% of the shots involving Lee Re, the first take was okay and was the one we went with.
Hangul Celluloid: There have been a number of recent films detailing stories of crimes against children and subsequent criminal trials. Was your decision to make < Hope/소원> partly to raise awareness of real-life crimes of this type? Do you feel changes to the law system need to be made and do you feel films can raise public awareness of these types of crimes and legal injustices to the extent that those changes will eventually be made?
Lee Joon-ik: In making <Hope/소원>, I had two main aspirations: Firstly, to strengthen the legal punishments towards the perpetrators of sexual crimes against children; and secondly raise awareness of the need for societal support and accommodation for the victims of such crimes. There is a general awareness that in Korea the punishment for sexual crimes is far weaker than abroad and through this film by increasing society’s interest in the issue and attention on the subject and I would like to think it will help in the move towards ultimately affecting legal policy. <The Crucible> is one such film that had such an effect in the last few years, but in that case there were no mentions of support policies for victims. Hopefully through my film, there will be a move to increase support and help for victims of such terrible crimes.
Hangul Celluloid: <Hope/소원> details the effect of the crime against Hope from the perspective of many of the characters. Was that decision taken partly to ensure that the film is far more original than other films telling stories of crimes against children or was the depiction of character emotion at the forefront of your mind?
Lee Joon-ik: I’ve usually made films in which a number of characters tell their stories. <Hope/소원> is my ninth film and similar in that respect to my previous films. A common response has been the comparison of <Hope> and <Radio Star> in emotionality.
Hangul Celluloid: <Hope/소원> is a heartbreaking story of hope, humanity, and the importance of family and community. Ultimately, a great deal of that hope and humanity comes from the character of Hope herself. Was that always the case or did the decision come partly as a result of Lee Re’s superb performance?
Lee Joon-ik: Lee Re did an outstanding job playing Hope and that is why the story can move audiences. However, acting is not done alone. If you are unable to have palpable rapport with an opposite actor you cannot show brilliant acting. Because Lee Re did not have any prior experience of working with adult actors, I tried every second to make sure she had everything she needed to act well. It is almost as if in the same way that in the film many people help Hope to overcome her traumas, I helped Lee Re in terms of supporting her acting.
Hangul Celluloid: <Hope/소원> deals with very serious subject matter. How much did you tell young child Lee Re about the part she was playing and what had happened to her character? Was she aware of the film’s full story?
Lee Joon-ik: Lee Re’s mother was always on set and constantly monitoring her daughter’s psychological state and any difficult or emotional scenes were explained by her to Lee Re directly. This is because all over the world every mother and daughter has their own special communication methods. For example: Lee Re’s mother would make Lee Re recollect uncomfortable emotions she experienced in her own daily life in order to help her act in scenes where there was a lot of discomfort. Also, the Sunflower Centre that appears in the film is a real-life counselling centre for sexually abused children and before shooting a scene the psychological councillor from the Sunflower Centre would help Lee Re understand the contents of the script. Lee Re also underwent counselling and the councillor constantly assessed her psychological state throughout shooting.
Hangul Celluloid: With so much emotion contained in numerous scenes in <Hope/소원>, were many re-takes required (by all cast members) to achieve the utterly believable emotional resonance you wanted or were the cast effected by the heartbreaking story to the extent that they could provide those emotions so naturally?
Lee Joon-ik: My nickname as a director is “One Take OK”. Often other staff members or actors shout out “Once more” at the end of a scene but even if I do shoot once more, more often than not I’ll also say “Previous shot okay.” Especially with emotional scenes I don’t do rehearsals. The actors that I cast all act very well and I trust their acting abilities implicitly.
Hangul Celluloid: <Hope/소원> was made on a fairly small budget. What are your thoughts on the Korean film industry’s continued focus on big-budget blockbusters and how that focus affects smaller independent film productions?
Lee Joon-ik: Investors are very smart: If big budget films are commercially successful, they will focus on only investing in big budget movies, but if a big budget film flops they will change and only want to invest in small budget films. If a small budget film fails, they revert to large project investment. This cycle has been repeated for many decades and I don’t see it changing any time in the near or even distant future.
I'd sincerely like to thank director Lee Joon-ik for talking to me at such length about <Hope/소원>.
You can read the Hangul Celluloid review of Lee Joon-ik's sublime film <Hope/소원> at: