Park Ki-yong is a veteran Korean film director probably best known for his films Motel Cactus (1997) and Camels (2001). As well as directing and subsequently producing a number of critically acclaimed films he was also for a number of years the head of the Korean Academy of Arts (KAFA) and while there initiated and ran the institution's hugely successful Feature Film and Animation Production programme.
His most recent film as director was social drama/romance Old Love in 2017.


The following interview took place on 11 November 2018 at Regent Street Cinema, London, as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.


Hangul Celluloid: I'd like to start by asking about 1997's Motel Cactus. The film tells several different stories of relationships all taking place in the same room of a love motel over time. As such, there is an element of sexuality present and indeed adult content both visually and in terms of narrative. Considering the fact that the film was made at the very beginning of the New Korean Cinema wave and was studio-backed, did you feel any pressure from outside sources or indeed personally to limit the amount of adult content shown?

Park Ki-yong: I didn't feel any pressure from outside sources over the extent of adult content or visuals I used and I certainly wasn't given any specific guidelines, but though I felt I could do whatever I wanted I was absolutely aware of what I simply couldn't portray because of censorship. That said, even if I could have gone to any lengths without problems I really wouldn't have anyway because I really feel that in terms of adult subjects as much if not more can be said by implication than overly graphic scenes and at the same time that implication clouds the overall story far less. Watching the film, audiences see a number of sexual scenes where the adult visuals are hidden behind tables, ornaments etc., as was the case for many years previously in Korean cinema as a whole and that was a deliberate choice on my part. I guess it also goes some of the way to explain why I think Korean cinema today is far too focused or so-called eroticism with depictions of nudity that go far further than needed.
The other thing to note is that even if I had wanted to show more explicit visuals, the vast majority of the cast would simply have refused. In fact, the only cast member who was seemingly happy to go with whatever I wanted to show sexually was actor Jung Woo-sung. In more recent years, he has been part of films that haven had fairly graphic sexuality shown [Scarlet Innocence, for example] I guess because he is constantly trying to push his career to new levels but even back in 1997 I think he was the most open-minded of the Motel Cactus cast and he was wholly focused on building his career and being seen as an actor open to anything a director asked of him.

Mini Mini Movie: At the 'In Conversation' LKFF event you recently did you spoke of having had regrets and being somewhat pushed into producing which you at the time felt you didn't have the skills for. Obviously, you learnt a lot about producing from that, so I wondered what was the most valuable thing you learned that you perhaps subsequently used in films you directed, such as Old Love?

Park Ki-yong: The most important lesson I got from my producing experience was that you have to be economical as a film-maker in every way. In terms of storytelling you have to be concise and in running a production you have to be very practical and, yes, economical. I do try to be economical in every film I make even though, or perhaps because, I am working with small budgets. That stands against what the Korean film industry is today as a whole because Korean cinema became very big very fast and by its nature now is far removed from economical - lots of wasted money; wasted time; too many people and frankly nobody really knows what they're doing, as far as I'm concerned.

Hangul Celluloid: Your first film Motel Cactus was studio-based while your next, Camels, was wholly independent, as your subsequent films have also been. Considering the fact that as a film-maker you have said you prefer to work independently, what are your thoughts on the increasing hold huge conglomerates have on the Korean film industry and their seeming squeezing out of independent productions?

Park Ki-yong: The thing is, I don't think a film needs to be made independently but I do believe that a healthy films industry needs to produce all kinds of films - commercial films as pure entertainment, family films, serious films, sex films or whatever. However the Korean film industry is becoming narrower and narrower and it focuses more and more only on certain subjects, certain issues and storytelling with virtually no breadth. That truly and deeply concerns me. People should be able to focus on making the films and telling the stories they want to because the subject(s) are important to them for whatever reason but increasingly that is fraught with difficulties. Independent film-making works for me but the real question is in any realm of Korean cinema should the powers-that-be have the right to limit things they way they increasingly are? For me the answer is a resounding "no".

Mini Mini Movie: You were the head of the Korean Academy of Arts (KAFA) and then you developed the Feature Film and Animation Production programme. I just wondered if you were specifically interested in the animation side of Korean cinema as well or was that someone else's suggestion?

Park Ki-yong: It was ultimately someone else's suggestion because when I started running the school in early 2000 the Korean government announced that it would start supporting the Korean animation industry as a result of the influx of and competition from US animations. The government was, in my mind, rather naive in thinking that Korean animations could copy or even come close to the worldwide success of Hollywood animations. So, lots of money was being invested to revive the Korean animation industry which I certainly felt wouldn't be a success but I was asked to start an animation major at KAFA and I really couldn't resist, I had to take it. For several years we only made short animations that weren't even films really, they were more fine arts because that was the background of most of the students but I gradually changed that to also include animations as part of the film industry and I actively encouraged the animation department to start making animation features. It certainly wasn't easy but we were ultimately really successful and we in fact won awards at the Annecy animation festival.

Hangul Celluloid: In your 2017 film Old Love we see two characters reunited after a number of years, with one clearly looking to move back to the way things were in the past. At the same time, both are shown to take part in the candlelight vigils that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Park, and as such could be said to be looking to the future. Could you talk a little about what those themes meant to you personally and could it be said that they speak of your feelings relating to looking back to the past while moving to the future? And also, at what point did the candlelight vigils become part of the film - was your awareness of the way things were progressing part of what shaped the film's narrative or was it just lucky happenstance that you were making the film when the vigils were happening?

Park Ki-yong: Firstly, we of course had no real idea of what would ultimately happen to President park but as I was making the film I was quickly aware that this was a significant thing for Korean history as a whole, or it would likely become so, and it was when that realisation took shape in my mind that I knew I just had to have the vigils as part of the film. That was vitally important to me because it was a once in a lifetime chance to show something that would go down in history.
As far of the themes of the film are concerned, I feel that all love relates to time. That's what I wanted to talk about. We all know that we cannot go back to the past, the past is past, but as you get older and reach meddle-age you do tend to look back with I guess longing to the 'good old days', even if they weren't all that good at the time. Certainly that aspect of Old Love's themes was wholly personal and almost autobiographical; I do look back, I would like to go back while also moving forward, if that makes sense. The characters in the film are I would say unhappy with their current lives and while I cannot say that for myself, the 'good old days' still call to me. I personally have both sides in me: I want to go back while I know I can't and I also want to move forward. That's especially true if there is pain in the present and the only way to deal with it in the short-term is to hark back to the past, knowing that we were able to cope with what was thrown at us then. I think that's the case for many, many people.

Mini Mini Movie: Taking that further and in relation to the vigils, politics etc., one of the characters in Old Love mentions  the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system. Is that something you were passionate about or was the mention simply in relation to the company the character works for?

Park Ki-yong: The character was planning a big business venture in China but of course with THAAD the Chinese government banned Korean corporations after America launched it in Korea and of course the character was complaining about that. In a way, it's similar to the candlelight vigil in that it was a significant news story taking place at the time. That's why I wanted to use that.

Hangul Celluloid: In a recent talk, you mentioned the fact that your film Camels was almost entirely improvised. You extended the dialogue and allowed the cast to give input as to who the characters were as personalities and indeed what they thought and said. In terms of your subsequent work and work overall how much leeway do you give characters in terms of improvisation as opposed to adhering strictly to scripts?  

Park Ki-yong: I tried and hoped to make some developments from Camels. Motel cactus was fully scripted as it was a commercial film and you can't get investment without a complete, coherent script. However, as soon as I started shooting I told the actors to forget about the script, which of course drove them crazy [Park Ki-yong laughs]. To be honest, I didn't know what I was doing. All I did know was that adhering strictly from the script was not working and something radical had to change. As such, I ended up having numerous confrontations with Christopher Doyle who hated the fact that I was trying to improvise. He kept saying that it was boring and unfocused which I wholeheartedly disagreed with. So I just stood firm and said let's gamble without a plan. Some parts ultimately worked, some parts didn't so with camels I chose not to write a script at all to keep me from falling back on pre-written material.
Since then I have been kind of mixed on the issue of scripted vs. improvised. I mean, I always write a script as a guide but sometimes I shoot the script and show it in advance to the actors while other times even if they ask I don't show them anything. It really all depends on the circumstances and who I'm working with.

Mini Mini Movie: I believe that you were one of the producers of Bleak Night and I wondered, were you obliged to do that or were you specifically interested by the story.

Park Ki-yong: I was credited as the film's producer but that was really only because it was a school film and I was head of the school. I was involved in from the story development and script writing stage because of that, right up to the point where the film was completed. In fact, I pretty much controlled everything in the production.

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 Park Ki-yong.