The following interview took place prior to a Korean Cultural Centre UK special screening of 'Come Rain, Come Shine' and director Q&A at the Apollo cinema (Picadilly, London).
Hangul Celluloid: If I can start with a fairly generalised question: Your career didn’t begin in film. You, I believe, studied in the US majoring in Business and your first professional work in the film industry was as assistant director on ‘Nowhere to Hide’. That’s a big jump, so how did you get into the film industry initially and how did you then move to making your own film, ‘This Charming Girl’?
Lee Yoon-ki: I studied Business Administration and at the time I considered film to just be a hobby of mine. While I was at university, I never seriously wanted to make films and film-making was always just a personal interest of mine. After graduating, I had different jobs, I worked in different fields and I took part in military service, which is compulsory in Korea, and around that time there was a kind of underground group that met regularly and they were all interested in film – they studied film, they made films etc – and together we would watch and study films. That was, in a way, my own method of learning and very, very slowly I gradually fell into film-making by meeting these people and also some who worked professionally in the film industry and at that point I stopped all the other jobs that I was doing that weren’t related to film; I got the job as assistant director and also started writing my own film and scripts. Of course, this process happened over a long period so it wasn’t until very much later that I finally entered the film industry professionally... much later than most. To this day, I still think of film-making as a hobby of mine.
London Korea Times: Your films ‘This Charming Girl’, ‘Love Talk’, ‘My Dear Enemy’ and ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ all focus on the love/romance genre and each deals with a different type of love: There’s past love, the hesitation of love, etc. and so my question is: What is your reason for exploring different types of love, and do you want to explore this genre further in your films in the future?
Lee Yoon-ki: It wasn’t intended, it just happened that way - the theme of love reappearing in my films - and I’m often asked that question, but I don’t plan on making a love trilogy or anything. It might be that my next film again deals with a love story but it might not be the case. The reason I’ve made these types of films isn’t because I’m obsessed with love stories it just worked out that way when I was making the films, and after having made one love story I wanted to approach a different type of feeling within a romance and that’s why my subsequent film was a love story as well, and so on. Other people think that I’m continually using this theme of love in my films but they just happen to be the ones I’ve worked on and I actually prefer action or comedy films, I not that big a fan of romances.
CineAsia_online: I’m interested in your use of time and timing. In ‘This Charming Girl’, everything happens second-by-second, and ‘My Dear Enemy’ is set over a duration of just one day. Where did you get the idea to do this? I read that you like American Independent films from the 60s, 70s and 80s; did you get the idea from those films or perhaps from books, or directors that you worked with?
Lee Yoon-ki: I’ve made a total of five films and I think that only four have been shown here in London. Apart from one film, all the rest were adopted from short stories written by female writers and of course I adapted the content whilst making the films but the overall story and the narrative structures are taken from the books. You’re absolutely right in saying that my work has been influenced by American Indie films but that isn’t something I deliberately tried to emulate, it’s just that when I was young I watched a lot of American films from the 60s and 70s. In fact, a lot of people think that I’ve watched a lot of French films but I actually don’t know French films all that well. I also like current American Indie films and it’s apparent that my work has been greatly influenced by them.
Dr. Colette Balmain: One of the things I’ve noticed is that your films are very still and quiet and in a way that sensibility is something I associate a lot with Japanese Cinema; a sense of alienation, a sense of stillness, a sense of unfolding. ‘My Dear Enemy’ and ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ are both based on novels by Japanese writers and I wondered how much you’re influenced by Japan and Japanese culture in your films?
Lee Yoon-ki: That’s a very difficult question indeed. It’s actually very difficult in some respects to adapt Japanese novels to make a Korean film – the emotionality in Japanese novels is very different from ones in Korea – and although they may seem similar from the outside, in my opinion they are poles apart. Of course, a lot of the situations also have to be changed and transferred, and because the base of my films originated from the Japanese novels, it might appear that they’re similar to previous Japanese films you’ve seen; in terms of the stillness and calmness that you mention. That is understandable because the films retain the basic structure of the original works. So, while it may seem that there has been a big Japanese influence in my films, efforts were made to change them into Korean situations, otherwise it would have come across as very awkward or weird. When I was much younger, I didn’t see much Japanese cinema but as I grew older I took an interest not only in Japanese films but in the country itself and its culture so that may have interested me. A lot of Korean audiences ask me “Don’t you think your films have too much of a Japanese influence?” and because of the lack of a warm relationship between Japan and Korea it’s seen as a negative thing. I am regularly criticised for that. So, I plan to make many more films based on Japanese novels. [Lee Yoon-ki laughs]
EasternKicks: You make very insular films that rely very much on the performances of a small set of actors. How do you go about casting your films and when you’re using very established actors do you think about the other roles that they’ve been in?
Lee Yoon-ki: As you may know, the actors that appear in my films are incredibly famous and well-known in Korea so I often get asked “How could you cast such huge stars in such a small film or such a small story?” I originally wasn’t sure if they would want to be in one of my films but when we meet they always seem very interested in these types of films too, but they say there’s simply no opportunity for them to work in them normally. So I thought that if I was able to establish trust and find a method of working with them then it might be possible, and fortunately I’ve been able to seize that opportunity. Being established actors, they’ve got years of experience but though they say they are interested in my films they also claim that my films aren’t easy. However, because of their years of experience they are ready for new challenges and the chance to work in a different type of film and new genres. I talk a lot with actors prior to shooting but while making the films I give them a lot of space and freedom to interpret their role as they see fit and I think actors have a lot of fun with that and it is ultimately very useful. An extremely important thing prior to being cast, and this is very Korean way of working, is that I drink a lot with the actors. So, we drink a lot and we talk a lot and that’s quite commonly done in Korea.
Korean Class Massive: As Colette mentioned earlier, your films are very still and the stories rely on and move as a result of the actors’ emotions and their body language without a lot outwardly happening. How do you script this in the sense that though the actors don’t say a lot audiences know them so well from their body language alone? Do you perhaps study body language a lot or is it down to the skills of the actors?
Lee Yoon-ki: I think the various different elements you mentioned all come together to make the end product that you describe, so when I’m writing a script I think of real people I know of who are as close as possible to the relevant character. I think about them when I’m writing the script too and therefore their peculiarities or eccentricities may come across in the finished work. Once the script is written, actors have their own take on things too and, as I mentioned, I strive to give them their freedom within the limitations of the story and, as such, I’ll ask them “Would you do it this way?” or “Would you do it that way?” and after the discussion, I may go and change the contents of a script to make it more comfortable for the actors. If their suggestions aren’t suitable then we’ll stick with what was originally planned and see how that goes. Out of all the scenes played in different ways, I’ll chose what I feel is the best take during editing. In short, all the methodologies you mentioned come into play. Some actors actually find it a bit too much if I do give tem freedom; they feel it’s too much for the actor to make those kinds of decisions and prefer to be told what to do in a direct way by the director. There was one actor who found it quite uncomfortable that I kept asking his opinion and kept giving him that freedom but although he was initially uncomfortable [at this point, Lee Yoon-ki tells the interpreter to say “he or she”], he or she later adjusted and he or she started to play on the set a lot more.
MiniMiniMovies: I read somewhere that you have an interest in Scorsese and Woody Allen and I can see the Woody Allen influence in terms of jazz music in your films. Was that something you were always into as well as the comedy or is it something that came afterwards? Also, ‘This Charming Girl’ is also silent musically but there is a library scene that has music. Was that deliberate?
Lee Yoon-ki: When I initially started developing an interest in films, I watched a lot of Woody Allen films and found them unique and immensely entertaining and I became greatly influenced by his use of music. His films always had old jazz in them and lots of comedy and ‘My Dear Enemy’ has probably been influenced the most by Woody Allen: The jazz in the film was composed but it had a lot of old jazz influences similar to Allen’s films. However, not all films can contain a similar style of music so, for example, there’s no music in ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ and in ‘This Charming Girl’ music only appears in the latter half of the film. Initially, I didn’t want to manipulate people’s emotions with the use of music or induce a particular type of emotion but rather, first and foremost, establish that this is a very real story and only then begin to introduce music. In fact, even in ‘Love Talk’ there’s a different style of jazz present so I put a lot of consideration in the music used in each of the films I make and once I’ve decided on a story almost my first thought is what type of music to use. Because you asked about Woody Allen, his latest film was a real disappointment to me.
Hangul Celluloid: In terms of funding, have you found it harder to get investment for some of your films than others - for example was securing funding more difficult for ‘This Charming Girl’, because it is largely based around a female character’s story, than ‘My Dear Enemy’? And also, how do you feel about the current funding situation in the Korean film industry and the way it has changed over the years?
Lee Yoon-ki: Funding is becoming increasingly difficult and it’s quickly heading towards a worst case scenario and I think I felt it most when I was preparing ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’. It’s certainly never been easy, even when I am using extremely well-known, well-loved and popular actors and, in fact, it reached an almost unbelievably ridiculous situation where the funding for the film was secured just two days before shooting was set to begin. I guess the main reason for that was that it wasn’t a commercial film but seen as more of an Indie film and it’s true in every country that it’s more difficult to get funding for non-commercial films but I do feel that in the last ten years it has got ten times harder to get funding. The reasons behind that are many but because I repeatedly work in non-commercial films I have felt it particularly strongly. I can’t even compare one movie being easier than another because each time it was excruciatingly painful to get funding for any of them. Sometimes people see a famous actor in a film and assume that it was easier to get funding because of that, but that just wasn’t the case at all.
London Korea Times: I wanted to ask why you decided toast Hyun-bin in ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ and what it’s like to work with him?
Lee Yoon-ki: It’s always quite difficult to answer questions about casting. In terms of the various considerations about the casting of the actors, it’s often not just one actor that you have in mind; it may be an actor you like or one that’s popular with Korean audiences. Initially in ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ I was going to cast an older actor and the couple were slightly older in the script as well, but slowly changing the story bit-by-bit it didn’t seem that anything would alter drastically by using a younger couple and so the casting of Hyun-bin was ultimately because I thought there was potential. He starred in several dramas in Korea and one of them left an impression on me and at the time I remember thinking that I would like to work with him at some point, if the opportunity arose. I think, for me, Hyun-bin was my preferred actor but it’s not as if the film couldn’t have gone ahead without him.
CineAsia_online: How do you feel about a film like ‘This Charming Girl’ screening outside Korea? In terms of globalisation, do you think that international audiences will understand the story? Do you hope that screenings of your films over the world will show audiences that Korean cinema is not just Park Chan-wook or action films? And also, were you aware that the Barcelona International Film Festival is showing ‘This Charming Girl’?
Lee Yoon-ki: I wish I’d known about the Barcelona festival. I really like Barcelona and I went there on my own two years ago. In terms of festivals, for one of my films to be shown not only to Korean audiences but also to audiences around the world is a great opportunity for any director but though I may want that opportunity, it doesn’t happen just because I wish it. My stance is that I would like it if my film is chosen to screen at a festival but it’s not the end of the world if it’s not because that’s just not something that’s within my control. My films do have stories that are easy to understand and could happen anywhere in the world and I think that’s partly why I’ve had the chance to go to festivals with my films, and I hope it continues in the future. I don’t think in terms of whether my films are specifically Korean; I don’t think films have a nationality and I don’t think that’s important. It’s just the language of the film that’s different and film has a universal language in itself.
Dr. Colette Balmain: I wanted to ask about the use of the cat in ‘This Charming Girl’ and the fact that when she goes to look for the cat towards the end of the film she can’t find it and the cat is an externalisation of her inability to love; her inability to form relationships. In ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’, a cat is found that has been lost and I wondered if there is a kind of circular movement to the films – I know they’re different characters but you get the feeling that the female character is unable to move on in ‘This Charming Girl’ but she is eventually able to move on, signified by the finding of the cat in ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’?
Lee Yoon-ki: Even in Korea, I get asked if there is something about cats and my life that’s so important because they do appear so often and as you mention they play a pivotal role in both films and appear at critical situations. However, it really is coincidental and there isn’t that over-arching connection but I do live with two cats and I think that has influenced me in some way and I did think that having cats in the film would be entertaining. In the original short story, the cat was present in the ending and I just didn’t want to change that. Certainly, cats can play a hugely important part in people’s lives but there was no circular movement between the films; it was more my personal preference.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging for myself and all those involved to interview director Lee Yoon-ki.