Lee Myung-se Filmography (as director): Mr. K (T.B.A), M (2007), Duelist (2005), Nowhere To Hide (1999), Their Last Love Affair (1996), Bitter and Sweet (1995), First Love (1993), My Love My Bride (1990), Gagman (1989).

Introduction: To the present day, Lee Myung-se is probably best known for his 1998 film 'Nowhere To Hide' which was the first ever Korean film to be released on DVD in the UK.
Born on August 20th, 1957, his first directorial feature film was 'Gagman' in 1989, and in 1991 he won the Best New Director award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for 'My Love My Bride'. Since then, he has gone on to make a number of iconic films, including 'Duelist' (2005) and 'M' (2007) - as visually stunning as they are narratively interesting.
His latest film project is set to be 'Mr K', a spy film which he insists will be a "better than James Bond" film.


The following interview took place on Thursday, January 26th 2012 at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, prior to a screening of 'Duelist' (plus Q&A) at the Apollo cinema, Picadilly.


Hangul Celluloid: To begin with, I’d like to go back in your career to ‘Nowhere To Hide’. ‘Nowhere To Hide’ was the first Korean film to ever be released on DVD in the UK. To what extent do you feel the film impacted on UK audiences to result in more Korean films being released here? How do you feel the impact here compares to the reception of the film in Korea?

Lee Myung-se: The reception of ‘Nowhere To Hide’ was very good, both in Korea and abroad. The film was, in fact, the first Korean film to be distributed not only in the UK but also everywhere else in the world outside Korea, and that was, and still is, a huge honour for me. In Korea, the film was seen as a successful action film, whereas I do feel that other areas of the world that were far more familiar with Hong Kong films, were able to be opened up to something new, and realise that Korean film really had something to offer that they were interested in.

Hangul Celluloid: That actually brings me nicely on to my next question: On the DVD cover of the UK Tartan release of ‘Nowhere To Hide’, there is a description printed that says “Is Hollywood ready for the next John Woo”. How do feel about such a tagline being associated with ‘Nowhere To Hide’?

Lee Myung-se: Oh, John Woo… I’ve heard that a lot over the years and the tagline still makes me feel extremely anxious and very uncomfortable. It’s not a case of me not liking John Woo, and I know that Hong Kong films were popular all over the world before my film came along, but it’s certainly not an honour for me to be described as the next John Woo. What I would prefer to hear is “The next Jacques Tati”, “The next Buster Keaton”, “The next Charlie Chaplin”, “The next Federico Fellini”… that would make me happy.
Actually, could you make a point of changing the tagline to one of those when you write up the interview?

Hangul Celluloid: No problem. I’m going to quote you so all the names you mentioned will be listed, one after another.

Lee Myung-se: I am glad about that. Sorry, Mr Woo, you have now been replaced. [Lee Myung-se laughs]

Hangul Celluloid: ‘Nowhere To Hide’ is an incredibly fast paced, energetic film with numerous sections that could almost be said to be musical montages, whereas in your more recent films that is much less the case. Do you feel your directorial style has changed over the years, or do you allow that film’s narrative to dictate your approach?

Lee Myung-se: My style has changed with almost every film I’ve made, but at the same time my style has stayed the same. So even though I will alter my style depending on what the subject matter requires, at the end of the day it is still my style… it is me. The question I always ask myself, ever since I started making films, is “What is a film?”, and the best that I can do is, at that time and in that situation, try to answer that question as faithfully as I can.

Hangul Celluloid: If I can move forward to ‘M’. It’s a fairly complicated film where, as with a lot of your work, visuals play a huge part. How would you describe the film?

Lee Myung-se: Haha! [Lee Myung-se laughs] You ask these questions too. You just asked me “What is ‘M’?” That’s exactly the same as me asking myself “What is a film”. Seriously, I actually started to prepare ‘M’ in America, under the title of ‘Medium’, the idea for it coming from a Truman Capote short story. However, all that changed when I returned to Korea to develop the film, and I began to want to deal with the story more and more within the framework of memory. Once I reached that stage, ‘Medium’ was soon replaced by ‘M’ and, yes, there is a reference to Hitchcock there as well. Soon, the letter ‘M’ filled my thoughts and recent memories though I wasn’t entirely sure why, and from there I was able to find the feel I wanted for my film. What anyone takes from the film or sees in the film is as individual as they are.

Hangul Celluloid: As you’ve just said, ‘M deals with memory and a main character with a somewhat fractured mind, while ‘Gagman’ deals with character who spends a great deal of his time living in a fantasy world, which he almost treats as reality. Do the ideas of memory, fantasy vs. reality and issues stemming from cognitive processes interest you in a general sense, even outside your film making?

Lee Myung-se: In the 80’s, many, many Korean films were made focusing on realism, but from my point of view it’s not only what you can see out “there” that is realism, but what we dream and think about that is every bit as real to us individually. This is something that is always with us, we contemplate all the time and, in fact, even this present moment will soon become a memory. At that point, remembering it results in a mixing or blurring of dreams and reality. It even brings the notion of déjà vu as well, and I could, for example, be at a film festival abroad and though I may not be sure if I’m in Spain, France, Europe or the UK, it will still feel like I’ve been there before. Have I been? Or was it just a dream? These really are the principle questions that I grapple with all the time.

Hangul Celluloid: The film we are all going to see tonight is ‘Duelist’. It’s a sumptuously beautiful and deeply sensual film, but there are also many humorous elements peppered throughout. How did you approach balancing such differing feels within the film?

Lee Myung-se: Well, my star sign is Libra [Lee Myung-se stretches his arms out to the side], so everything about me is all about balance [laughs]. If I can’t get the balance of film elements right, it affects me on a deep level. With ‘Duelist’, the mix built quite naturally as I went along and I don’t remember having to specifically try to balance everything.

Hangul Celluloid: Music has a huge part to play in all of your films too, right from contemporary tracks in ‘Nowhere To Hide’ to classical pieces and understated instrumental soundtracks in other films. Is the choice of music in your films entirely your decision, in terms of specific tracks chosen?

Lee Myung-se: In all of my films, the decisions relating to every aspect including sound are entirely mine. As far as the music is concerned, the rhythm and the overall style is important to ensure it fits in its place, and I’m really the only one who can know what will work in a situation, and so I’m the only one who can make those decisions.

Hangul Celluloid: Yang Ik-joon was signed up to star in the film you were planning to make in 2010 – 'Days of Our Youth'. Were you aware of his work as a director when you cast him in a main role, and have you seen ‘Breathless’?

Lee Myung-se: I was aware of his work as a director when I cast him and, yes, I have seen ‘Breathless’. Even though the film didn’t get made in the end because of funding, I thought he was perfect for the role. Yang Ik-joon is an incredible director and an exceptional actor so hopefully if there are opportunities to work with him in the future, that would be great. He might be appearing in the next film, but I’m not 100% sure at the present time.

Hangul Celluloid: As far as your latest project is concerned, I believe it’s ‘Mr K’ and will feature terrorism as part of the plot. Did current affairs and real news stories around the world influence your decision to have this within the story?

Lee Myung-se: I’d like to say yes, but I can’t… There was a much simpler reason. The film is a spy story of a James Bond type of character and his arch enemy, and having the bad guy being a terrorist is so common and one of the best devices in this type of film that it felt right to use this idea. Of course, I would add cinematic elements on top of that simple idea. And when I say a James Bond character, my character will be even better than Bond… A “better than James Bond” film [laughs].

Hangul Celluloid: The film is collaboration between you and Yoon Je-kyoon, who directed the blockbuster ‘Haeundae’. Does working with another director change how you approach making a film significantly?

Lee Myung-se: I’ve worked with other directors before, both when I was an assistant director and even in ‘Gagman’ when there was some collaboration, so I’m used with the idea and it doesn’t really change anything for me. The real difference is that, as you said, Yoon Je-kyoon made the blockbuster ‘Haeundae’, which was a huge commercial success, and it was only if we collaborated together that the funders would trust me [Lee Myung-se laughs and nods his head].

Hangul Celluloid: I ask his question at almost every interview I do, and I often get such varied answers that I’m going to ask it to you as well: There’s a common misconception among UK audiences who haven’t seen many Korean films, that Korean cinema is inherently violent. What are your feelings about this?

Lee Myung-se: I think that’s an assumption that plagues Asian films in general, not just Korean films, and it mainly stems from the types of films that are repeatedly released in the UK and elsewhere. There are as many styles and genres of Korean films as there are types of food in any country and I just hope that at some stage some equality will be given to non-violent films and that a wider array of films will be made more widely accessible. Korean people are actually too kind and the world needs to understand that. It’s not all about the violence. [smiles]

Hangul Celluloid: A final question: What would you like to say to anyone going to see your film in the cinema tonight?

Lee Myung-se: You are lucky to see ‘Duelist’ on the big screen with surround sound – it really enhances the overall film, I feel. It’s the way the film should be seen. Enjoy the movie.

Hangul Celluloid: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging and allowing me to interview Lee Myung-se.