Lee Myung-se Filmography (as director): Can't Live Without You (short film, 2017), 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 project was the short film Can't Live Without You, in 2017.


The following interview took place on 11 November 2018 at the Korean Cultural Centre UK as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.


Hangul Celluloid: The London Korean Film Festival 2018 is screening several of your films from the 1990s. All of the films being shown involve stories of love. What was it like for you as a director to make films during that period when you consider investment from private companies and later chaebols [conglomerates]? Did such investment and the needs of investors affect the subject matters you chose to focus on?

Lee Myung-se: At that time and for the duration of the 90s investment was almost entirely from private companies but I chose to make love stories because that was what I was interested in. As such, I only entertained offers from investors who accepted the subjects I personally wanted to make films about. Also, back then there were many private investors interested in backing films so the options were fairly broad whereas today it is mostly conglomerate investment that is on offer - and far less so - and what's most important to those conglomerates is how a film will be received by the public, its expected popularity and the like, and as a result things are certainly not all that easy for directors any more.

Mini Mini Movie: At the screening of My Love. My Bride, you mentioned that a remake of the film has been made. How involved were you in the remake and how did it come about; I also believe that there is a play based on the story?

Lee Myung-se: In terms of the original film I of course both wrote and directed it but I didn't actually have anything to do with the remake at all. It is my philosophy that if a director has taken on the rights that it is his film to make and I don't want to have anything to do with influencing someone else's work or vision. With regard to how I was approached, the director of the remake was my junior. He had been interested in my films for a long time and had previously expressed interest in making a remake of one of my films. At the point when he finally approached me. I felt the time was right so I granted him the intellectual property and my scenario. A similar situation took place with the play - I knew the person as well, it was an acquaintance who wanted that right.

Hangul Celluloid: As the so called New Korean Cinema wave began you made Nowhere to Hide, which is now thought of as one of the most iconic and classic examples of NKC wave cinema. As you've said that throughout the 90s your focus was wholly on love stories, what led you to make such as shift in genre focus and make a hard-hitting action movie?

Lee Myung-se: The film industry is tough, as you know, so I really did have to think hard about what I wanted to shoot that would allow me to survive as well as satisfying me creatively. The subject matter of Nowhere to Hide - as you said, hard-hitting action - was something I had always had an interest in. Initially, as the very start of my career I had thought of perhaps making an action film but I feared that I perhaps didn't have the experience such a venture would require. However, by the time I'd made three love stories I thought "Now I do have the experience. This is the time." In hindsight, I now honestly feel that action films and melodramas are the same thing - an action film focuses on physical action and in a melodrama it is the action of the emotions that tells the story... They may outwardly appear entirely difficult but action drives both, whether physical of psychological. On a very general level, I should also point out that by the end of the 90s love stories pretty much stopped selling well, too [Lee Myung-se laughs].

Mini Mini Movie: Tonight, the London Korean Film Festival will be screening your short film from 2017, Can't Live Without You, which is your first piece of work for a few years. How did it come about and does the short film perhaps hint at a future full-length feature?

Lee Myung-se: At the point when I decided to make the short film, the media reported that it had taken a long time to persuade the director, etc., but in fact that's not true. I made my decision fairly quickly and the thing that really drew me to the project was being told that I could do whatever I wanted to. To give a creator the discretion to do as he desires is always an exciting prospect and that why I said yes regardless of the film being short and indeed small-scale. Ultimately, I have no plans to take this project further or turn it into a feature because as it stands the story actually fits with the short film format.

Hangul Celluloid: When I interviewed you back in 2012, you talked about your plans to make a spy film which was to be called Mr. K and which you described as being a "better than James Bond" spy movie. What happened to that project?

Lee Myung-se: I do remember being very excited talking about that project back then, even though it was a long time ago. An awful lot has happened since but long story short there was a conflict between money and creativity. Ultimately, if I cannot have creative autonomy on a project then that's a wall that cannot be climbed over and in the case of Mr. K I wasn't going to be allowed to create the film I wanted to create. So, sadly, myself and prospective investors had to agree to disagree and leave the project alone entirely. Mind you, each time I see a spy or espionage movie released and realise it's becoming a hit with audiences, my mind does tend to step back to how much I wanted to make Mr. K. It would definitely have been a "better than James Bond" spy film [Lee Myung-se laughs]. To put it in more accurate terms, the failure of such a project can be as a result of a conflict between big data and one person's individual desires. Investors and film companies would really want a film that hits all the check boxes that are derived from big data - what does well, what do people want - whereas as an individual I have something far more specific that I want to do regardless of demographics or predicted trends, and sometimes... often in fact... those two sides just cannot reach agreement.
As an example, if you look at Netflix, it is making numerous series and features entirely out of big data derived information, such as House of cards etc. and the thing is these series do well. So, now the industry is seeing this as almost gospel and relying on machines far more than belief in creativity. With this set to continue and increase, I actually worry about whether creativity will suffer more and more and become less important to some and I question whether we can ultimately come out on top if things stay the way they are.
The media is also creating the vibe that this is the way the industry should be because there are lots of things going on and lots of successes. They believe we need the machines and so people start to rely on machines but I just know if people realise the seriousness of that and to me it feels that things are becoming more totalitarian. It's not just the politics, but that blinkered mindset is sadly seeping into the film industry as well.

Mini Mini Movie: I also interviewed you back in 2012 and you spoke about the music in your films, especially the opening scene in Nowhere to Hide but also in your films M and My Love, My Bride you've used songs by the Beatles and Cliff Richard. I wondered if it was difficult to get the rights to those songs, or was it a different situation in Korea in terms of the channels you have to go through to get permission to use music? And also, was there ever a piece of music you wanted to use that you couldn't get permission for?

Lee Myung-se: I will answer your second question first: No, actually, I have always managed to get all of the songs I have wanted to use but increasingly it's becoming more difficult as rates are rising dramatically and that is why I have taken to listening to classical music which is entirely in the public domain. In terms of your first question, until 1996 there was no established law in Korea on intellectual property. Everything was up for grabs, you could use whatever you wanted, but once the intellectual property law came into force you obviously had to start paying royalties and people would charge more. The reason I used popular songs in my films was because I wanted to speak the common language and there are lots of things in culture that speak that common language - like manga, like animation, popular music and even magazine covers - and I wanted that element that people would instantly understand in my films. Obviously, the intellectual property of an individual must be respected but, when it comes down to it, it is the conglomerates that control those rights. So, while artists want their songs to be heard by as many people as possible, that's not always the case for big companies with a focus entirely on profit. For example, in Korea as we approach the Christmas period we used to be able to hear Christmas carols in the street but nowadays we can't. So, some things are disappearing but people don't realise and I feel we need to fight back.

Hangul Celluloid: As a director, you are known for your visual style whether in your action films (with, for example, the huge rain-drenched fight sequence in Nowhere to Hide), your love stories or even the fight sequences in The Duelist that could be considered as almost a merging of the two; a visually sumptuous love dance or ballet as much as a battle. When you are planning a film, are the visuals in your mind from the outset? Do allow the narrative to fit around the visuals you want or are your visuals dictated by the narrative?

Lee Myung-se: In a sense, there is no order in particular because I do not see the narrative and visuals as separate. If a narrative doesn't put visuals in my mind or vice versa - if visuals do not speak of the narrative - then nothing will work. So, they really go hand in hand. It is a simultaneous, mutual interaction between the narrative and the visuals that makes a story whole and each symbiotically needs the other. As you said, in The Duelist the martial arts becomes a dance and the fighting becomes a visual story of love, so your reference is spot on because it is the communication between the image and the narrative that really accumulates into love in the film. You can't have love without communication. With communication comes understanding and from understanding comes love and for me that is my raison d'ĂȘtre when making a film. I guess that brings us full circle: Everything really is about love.

I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK and the London Korean Film Festival for arranging and allowing this group interview with director Lee Myung-se.

You can also read the Hangul Celluloid 2012 individual interview with director Lee Myung-se at: