Born in 1971, Lim Woo-seong studied at the Art Center College of Design in California, graduating with a degree in film. In 2008, he wrote and directed a short film, ‘Midnight Movie’, followed by his first feature, ‘Vegetarian’ (2009), which was based on a story by Han Gang. ‘Vegetarian’ was later nominated for the Panorama Section of the Busan International Film Festival as well as being invited to participate in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Lim Woo-seong’s latest feature is Scars (2011), also based on a story by Han Gang.
Hangul Celluloid: Both your films ‘Scars’ and ‘Vegetarian’ are based on stories written by Han Gang. What attracted you most to her work?
Lim Woo-seong: When I first met Han Gang, after two hours of talking, she told me: ”We have the same cycle of thinking.” When I read ‘Mongolian Spot’, which was one novella in her novel ’Vegetarian’, I was electrified. I had never seen a writer who could depict such levels of human condition and inner conflict so beautifully. There were also multiple layers in dealing with characters and the theme of the story. I totally agreed with the way in which she sees the world. I think it was fate that I met her and discovered her work.
Hangul Celluloid: In writing the screenplays for the films, did you find you had to alter Han Gang’s work to any significant degree?
Lim Woo-seong: I thought adaptation would be easy because there were already stories and characters in them. But, I was wrong. It took me a long time to complete the screenplay and I learned that filmmaking from a novel is a separate creation. For ‘Vegetarian’, I focused on a more detailed theme. In the novel, the theme was a general dealing with the violence of the world. After I narrowed down the theme to patriarchal violence, I could finally finish the screenplay. For ‘Scars’, I focused on visualization of the character’s inner conflict. In the novel, there is first person POV narration which explains the character’s inside well. However, I had to show it on the screen and that’s why I didn’t really limit myself from crossing between reality and dream/fantasy to visualize the inner side of the character in ‘Scars.’
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Vegetarian’ is a fairly hard-hitting depiction of mental illness, but like ‘Scars’ it also deals with familial bonds, the life-long psychological scars caused by others as well as adultery and betrayal. Are you interested in the psychology behind these ideas or did you choose to focus on them simply because they make for interesting storylines? Do you feel that the idea of family, relationships and women’s place in society is still undergoing change in Korea?
Lim Woo-seong: I never deeply studied psychology, however, I’ve always been interested in the hidden side of human beings. I believe that there are always CAUSES in human behaviour. Even from the novel (Vegetarian), it was clear Yeong-hye had severe trauma from childhood due to her father’s violence. I personally don’t like to use flashbacks, but I used one flashback scene to show a character’s childhood in both ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Scars’. Being a director has similarities with being a shaman because I have to be each character’s side sometimes. I personally eat meat, however, I couldn’t take it for few months while I was writing the screenplay, especially when I focused on Yeong-hye’s character. And I think working with actors is very much like a psychological process. Why would we (director, actors) care about the person (character) we don’t know and have never met? I never chose the subject for sensational reasons in ‘Vegetarian.’ For your second question, it’s hard to say because it’s a broad question. I think society wants women to be ‘Super Moms’. People need more money for high living, education and expenses. And men feel more uneasy and lonely. And, as you see in the film, familial bonds are so strong (traditionally, culturally) in Korea, that they create many after-effects. I think it will take more time to move from what remains of the patriarchal society to the next stage. Isn’t it same with other cultures?
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Vegetarian’ was invited to several prestigious film festivals. Did the critical acclaim the film received help to get to the point where you could make, or complete, ‘Scars’?
Lim Woo-seong: Both the productions of ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Scars’ were started almost at the same time. I managed two production teams and shot ‘Scars’ first, and I handed footage to the editing room and moved to the ‘Vegetarian’ production right after. I could complete ‘Vegetarian’ first because we had the budget for post-production. However, I didn’t have a budget for post-production for ‘Scars’ and it took a long time to get funding for the completion of ‘Scars.’ (So ‘Scars’ became my second film). Both films were independent, low-budget films (‘Scars’ was micro budget film) and, in spite of invitation to several prestigious film festivals, ‘Vegetarian’ couldn’t get much attention in Korea due to passive distribution, P&A and (maybe) the non-commercial quality of the film. It means there was no capitalistic funding for either film. ‘Vegetarian’ was sponsored by Korean Film Council, and ‘Scars’ was sponsored by Dongguk University which I am in now for a doctoral degree.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Vegetarian’ uses significant amounts of hand-held camera work whereas in ‘Scars’ the camera is largely in fixed positions. What dictated your choice for each film?
Lim Woo-seong: For ‘Vegetarian’, I and the DP decided to use (what we called) ‘flowing camera.’ I thought human eyes are not fixed and not stable. However, we used a ‘Bunge Cam’ (no hand-held) to keep horizontal stability. The ‘flowing camera’ helped the tone and mood of the film, which is a dark and uneasy portrait of the human condition. (Covering next question): And I also thought ‘watching a movie’ is more like ‘sneaking into other people’s lives.’ So there are some shots which are like a voyeuristic camera (POV), as you mentioned. It also fits with the content of the film, their secret (from his wife) art work. And the audiences becomes complicit with their secret. I also wanted the film to have a more realistic look and feel. I guess that’s why you felt a documentary feel.
For ‘Scars’, I wanted the film looked like ‘oriental painting.’ That is why I used a ‘fixed camera’ for the majority of the film. It was also harmonized with tone of the film, and the sensitive, introvert ‘Sun-hee’ character.
Hangul Celluloid: On a similar note, the hand-held camera work in ‘Vegetarian’ has both a documentary feel in parts and could be described as almost voyeuristic in others. Was this your deliberate intention?
Hangul Celluloid: Chae Min-seo’s portrayal of Yeong-hye in ‘Vegetarian’ is both utterly breathtaking and heartbreaking. Were many takes required to allow her to project such a great deal of emotion?
Lim Woo-seong: As I mentioned previously, I couldn’t have enough shooting days in the low budget environment. And I also don’t like many takes. I spent more time talking with actors before shooting. I remember that she never had acting lessons or went to acting school. She is a natural born actor. She didn’t like many rehearsals before shooting and preferred talking with me before the shoot. Her concentration in scenes was amazing. It was like an animal instinct. She really wanted to take Yeong-hye’s character right after she read the script. That’s why she was so passionate about the character and lost weight for the role even before I confirmed the casting for her. She lost 8kg within a month and kept on diet during the shoot. I still can’t imagine another actor for Yeong-hye’s character.
Hangul Celluloid: How did she and Kim Hyun-sung feel about the amount of sexual content they would be required to portray in the film?
Lim Woo-seong: They never doubted or hesitated about that. They thought it was an essential part of the story. However, the actual work was really tough because it wasn’t just sexual scenes. It was more like emotional scenes. They also had to wear body paintings, which took a long time to be painted. It was physically painful and required patient work for both actors and crew.
Hangul Celluloid: How would you describe Min-ho’s relationship with Yeong-hee in ‘Vegetarian’? For me it’s a combination of love and lust that also has an element of a mentally vulnerable person being somewhat taken advantage of. What are your feelings about this?
Lim Woo-seong: I think they need each other desperately, like fate. If Yeong-hye accepts Min-ho’s suggestion (like in the film) and keeps the secret from her sister, and the sister (Min-ho’s wife) never finds out what they do, they would be happy exchanging what they need with each other for a while. When I had Q&A during the theatrical release in Korea back in 2010, a mid-aged woman (she brought her daughter and had her next to her) told me her feeling about the film. She said, “If the wife never finds out what they do and Min-ho occasionally paints flowers on Yeong-hye’s body, she might be redeemed (saved).” I was surprised because it was quite an accurate comment from an audience. I started the film with an obsession on Min-ho’s character and his visual art (obviously) as a male director. However, as time went by, I focused more on the two sisters’ lives and found the theme for the film. I sympathized with Min-ho’s inner conflict, but it’s also obvious that he takes advantage of Yeong-hye’s condition intentionally and instinctively with passion for his art and lust naturally follows.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Scars’ has a great deal of religious references such as the repeated appearance of the face of the Buddha and the drawing of religious figures by Sun-hee [the main character, played by Park So-yeon] and her mother. Can you talk to us a little bit more about the religious aspects of the film?
Lim Woo-seong: I had hard time to figuring out Sun-hee’s character in the early stages, especially as a male director, because she doesn’t appear to be like a woman of our time. However, I was impressed with her journey of introspection unlike any other women. It was naturally connected with Buddhism, such as karma, forgiveness, enlightenment, and embracement. I used many reflected images, such as mirrors, glasses, reflection of water to symbolize her desperate search for herself. Some people might misunderstand Sun-hee as a woman from the old days. I thought of her differently. Her pursuit of introspection looked painful and respectful. If the story had followed a soap opera type of narrative after she finds out about her husband’s affair with the young woman, I wouldn’t have made this film.
Hangul Celluloid: To my mind, ‘Scars’ is a somewhat more enigmatic film than ‘Vegetarian’. What were you ultimately saying with the film and what do you hope that audiences take from it?
Lim Woo-seong: I think everyone has severe traumas in their deepest heart. If we don’t cure them properly, the wounds become ‘ Scars.’ I hope that audiences interpret the film in their own way, then, the film could approach audiences with rich, meaningful insights with multiple layers. There’s no accurate answer.
Hangul Celluloid: What lay behind your decision to have very little dialogue spoken by Sun-hee?
Lim Woo-seong: I set Sun-hee character as someone who has a severe inability to express her feelings, as explained by her mother in the film. I could have used narration like the original novella, but I chose not to be spoken, but to be shown. Everything she does in the film actually shows what she thinks. If she talked more, the tone of the film would be broken.
Hangul Celluloid: Can you talk to us a little about the appearance to Sun-hee of herself as a child?
Lim Woo-seong: The scene which adult Sun-hee meets child Sun-hee wasn’t in the original novella. However, it just came to me (one day) in my dream. I wanted Sun-hee to face her wound directly, not avoid it. For flashback, mother’s forced hands pushing child Sun-hee’s back is very important to explain Sun-hee’s character. (no more…^^)
Hangul Celluloid: Both ‘Scars’ and ‘Vegetarian’ feature the entire cast and crew credits in both Korean and English, which is still not that common in Korean films. Was that because of wanting the films to be seen internationally? How important are international audiences to you?
Lim Woo-seong: It was just a SIMPLE reason. ‘Vegetarian’ was invited to Pusan Int’ Film Festival while I was in editing room. So I and producer chose that way to save another English version credit. Same economical reason for ‘Scars.’
Experiencing international audiences in film festivals, they were more open-minded to films. I think if the story deals with the real human condition, it does not really matter what language or cultural differences and backgrounds there are because we are all human beings. I was surprised with some international audiences who understood more than Korean audiences about the film.
Hangul Celluloid: You studied film at the Art Center College of Design in California. Do you feel that studying there had an effect on your filmmaking that wouldn’t have been achieved if you’d studied in Korea?
Lim Woo-seong: I studied Advertising in Korea before I entered ACCD. It is actually famous school for design majors, such as transportation, environment, product, etc. There are also courses in fine art, photography and film. It was good for me to meet and communicate with designers, painters and photographers in the school and I sometimes co-operated with them. And I was surprised myself that two films I made there were arts (paintings, video art, drawing etc.). The school was notorious for hard training. There were lots of projects and assignments. The film major I was in was famous for turning out many famous commercial directors (Tarsem, Michael Bay, they started as commercial directors as you know) and DPs. However, they never taught commercials, but filmmaking. The instructor who I was very much influenced by was Francine Parker, who was the first generation of women directors and theatre directors in NY.(She passed away few years ago.) She was notorious for Spartan training. Many students gave up school because of her. She was in charge with directing classes. I think I learned most about directing from her in classes, especially BEING ON TIME. She locked up the door of classroom at exactly 9am every time. The school hugely influenced me to be a director. I was so happy when I was invited to ACCD right after Sundance Film Festival with ‘Vegetarian.’
Hangul Celluloid: You also made commercials early in your career. Do they still (or did they ever) play a part in your directorial style?
Lim Woo-seong: I experienced the TV commercial and animation field as a producer for few years after I came back to Korea. I think media does not matter in terms of storytelling. I was lucky enough that I never left the filmmaking field. In commercial productions, I experienced many different environments and situations, depending on what kind of product we dealt with. Interior/Exterior, Overseas/Domestic, Emotional/Informational and so on. I always envy directors in the States because there is no wall between commercial, music videos, movies. But there is hard wall between them in Korea.
Hangul Celluloid: Do you already have plans for your next project?
Lim Woo-seong: Yes, it is in the early development stage, so I can’t really talk about it. However, it will be a touching love story, I hope.
Hangul Celluloid: A final, rather off the wall question which, as a film reviewer, I’ve asked a number of directors: How important to you are reviews of your films? Do you read reviews often or do you tend to avoid them?
Lim Woo-seong: I read almost every review about my films because I am simply curious of how critics think and feel about my films. It is joyful when I find a review with insight and a deep, interesting POV, but it is rare…^^
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Lim Woo-seong: I also enjoyed your questions. Thanks again for your interest and concern about my work.