The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on March 29th 2012, prior to a screening of 'Meet Mr. Daddy' and director Q&A at the Apollo cinema (Picadilly, London).
Korean Class Massive: The first thing we’ve noticed is that the film that’s showing tonight, ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’, is completely different from your older films, your earlier films being much more political while this one is far more mainstream. What made you want to go in such a different direction?
Park Kwang-su: At the time I made ‘The Uprising’, in 1999, the political landscape was changing, compared to the old days when I was making more political and socio-economic films, and there was soon no longer a need for expressions of that agenda and that naturally led to a shift in my interests. ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’ was largely an interim period in my career and thought process, part of an attempt to make more ‘sensible’ films that appealed to a much wider Korean audience and that’s an area I intend to continue pursuing.
Hangul Celluloid: Does that mean that you’re going to stay away from political subjects in your films in the future? A lot of your fame, if you like, comes from the fact that some of your films are majorly political and extremely hard-hitting, so would this change be a deliberate move in your career?
Park Kwang-su: Obviously, Korean society has evolved very quickly and the political landscape has changed significantly so there’s now a lot more freedom of expression. There was quite harsh censorship when I was making films back then and that tended to push me in a political direction, but now other filmmakers, artists and even the general public can express political agendas quite openly. So there is far less of a need for me to discuss these ideas in films than there once was. I still have a quest to find the things that need to be talked about and I certainly don’t rule out returning to political subjects in the future but it’s very much still an ongoing process for me.
Hangul Celluloid: As you don’t rule out a return to political subjects and ideas, are there any genres or film types specifically that you feel just don’t lend themselves to political elements and commentaries? If we step back to ‘Chilsu and Mansu’, it was both humorous, especially in the early stages, but also deeply political and that mix worked extremely well, but are there any subjects where politics would not fit, in your opinion?
Park Kwang-su: As far as films styles are concerned, I don’t chose to use genres, as such, within whatever subject I want to talk about in a film, and though I’m still in the process of figuring out where I want to take my films in the future, I don’t see any genre or subject changing my decision of the subject matter I want to discuss. I wouldn’t necessarily go back to my earlier days in deciding what approach to make towards a subject in cinematic terms or rule out any narrative to convey that subject, but in terms of finding a new cinematic form it really is a work in progress at the moment. In terms of the Korean film industry and infrastructure, there was a lot of work still to be done when I was making my early films so I felt a real pull into other areas of the industry, aside from the actual process of making films: I was head of the film commission and I set up the Busan International Film Festival, so that distracted me somewhat from actually making films, but last year I finally decided to focus on just making films. The Korean film industry has changed so much that I’m still rather searching for a direction but I do have a desire to communicate so hopefully that will help to focus my thoughts on what films I want to make. Check back with me in a year or two and I’ll be able to give you a more accurate answer to your question.
Hangul Celluloid: Recently in the news, there has been talk of changes to music copyright laws in Korea that would require payments for the use of music in films when screening in cinemas on top of the costs incurred during the making of the film itself. What are your thoughts on this?
Park Kwang-su: Generally speaking, the issue of music licensing and its effect on the industry doesn’t feel as immediate or strong to me as the news media would suggest. In terms of my films, from the development stage I tend to have a composer and music director that I work with so that tends to largely avoid those problems - it’s all taken care of in advance - so though it is a big issue, it really doesn’t feel like it and it won’t really affect the way I work. Copyright has always been there and it’s just something that has to be taken care of. Of course, anyone who uses music by famous artists and singers in films also has to negotiate separately on top of normal copyright laws.
Korean Class Massive: In Hollywood, films tend to be used less as a medium to address social issues and more as entertainment. You’ve said yourself that there now aren’t as many issues to address, and with ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’ being more mainstream, do you miss making films dealing with social issues and politics or are you enjoying making more commercial films?
Park Kwang-su: Around the time I was making ‘A Single Spark’, there was no director who actively raised social and political issues in films so obviously I felt the need to do that, but as I said earlier, nowadays the platform is much wider and a lot of people are tackling those issues. As such, there is no longer an urgent need for me to tackle any of that and, as entertainment value is now much more important to me, that’s probably the direction I’m going to take.
Korean Class Massive: Do you like going in that new direction and what was different about making ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’ from your earlier films?
Park Kwang-su: My earlier films were, in fact, mainstream films. They were made within the mainstream system and they were released to mainstream audiences. At that time, I didn’t have a specific political agenda to talk about and my films didn’t feel that political to me - they were just really issues that were talked about in Korean society and by the general public. Nowadays, there are other issues to be talked about, and not just political, and I tend to enjoy whatever I feel the need to talk about. There was a project that I was preparing before ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’ that was set in the DMZ between North and South Korea and it all takes place in a bunker. I wouldn’t say that I’ll never make that movie but obviously now there would be a new perspective on it. Of course, it could still be seen as political but my approach and what I find interesting within it will be different. Paul [Hangul Celluloid] mentioned ‘Chilsu and Mansu’ and that specifically used humour within a political context. It just happened that way and I didn’t use a particularly politically-based approach to making the film. It was just what I was interested in at the time.
Korean Class Massive: You studied in Paris. Did your time studying there influence you as a director and have you been influenced by Western films in general?
Park Kwang-su: When I was studying in Paris, I deliberately tried to see as many types of films as possible, so I wouldn’t say that I was only influenced by Western films at that time but rather by all of the films I saw, whether they were African or South American, or even Japanese and Chinese films I hadn’t seen in Korea. While I was in Paris, I probably saw a thousand or more films and they were all different kinds of movies but the films I have seen in the last year or so have been mostly American and European. I do like American independent films and for some reason there is a lot of blood in them, certainly compared to European cinema and I find that interesting.
Hangul Celluloid: If I could briefly step back in your career again: A number of your films, ‘Black Republic’; ‘To The Starry Island’; ‘Berlin Report’ and even ‘A Single Spark’, all deal with activism from the perspective of a male intellectual, and ‘Berlin Report’ even has a character saying “It’s not the people who have been defeated, but the intellectuals”. Could you talk to us a little about your choice of this perspective?
Park Kwang-su: This could be a fairly long answer. The main reason I chose to focus on intellectuals was that I felt it raised issues that needed to be addressed. I wanted to make people consider and think “What is the role of intellectuals?” because if you go back into the history of Korea or China there were situation where intellectuals were actually in power and heavily involved with whatever was going on in society. After Korea’s independence from Japan came about, there were questions about what intellectuals had actually done for our country and once questions such as those have been raised they need to be talked about. I deliberately tried to raise these questions in those films to give audiences something to think about and take away from the cinema and as such I didn’t want viewers to be too concerned with narratives - the questions and the reactions they raised were much more important to me. I don’t necessarily think that way now but at the time I thought it was vital to have that approach and raise those issues. With regard to ‘A Single Spark’, it obviously deals with unionisation, working conditions and rights, and at the time the intellectuals still exerted a large influence and I could not have made that film without asking “What is the part that intellectuals really play?”. As there really was little information on that whole issue, I needed to ask the question myself. I also felt that by tackling those subjects and perspectives, it would be a way of improving Korean cinema, but as my opinions today are very different, thinking back I wonder if it was actually the right thing to do.
Hangul Celluloid: Considering that, if we look at ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’ were you just producing pure entertainment or were you trying to address some social issues within the narrative as well?
Park Kwang-su: Intrinsically, it would be impossible for me to make just light-hearted films - that’s just not me. It is mainstream entertainment but in any social context social issues arise and become part of an overall story regardless of whether a filmmaker actively seeks to address them or not.
MiniMiniMovies: When you graduated from university, you founded the Seoul Film Group which was a big part of the independent film movement. Did that play a large part in your films being mostly political?
Park Kwang-su: Yes, it played a huge part and the creation of the Seoul Film Group was part of that. At that time, I felt that the film industry shouldn’t only be taken up by good looking people or just people with money making films, and I felt there needed to be a system that would allow people to express themselves and talk about issues that mattered to them. But that system wasn't there and so the function of the Seoul Film Group was to instil that within the industry and allow it to happen.
Korean Class Massive: From all the questions and answers so far, it appears that you like to go with the flow and address issues that need to be addressed at the time. Because now, from a Western viewpoint, the Hallyu wave is being massively pushed, which is very much about Idols, would you ever consider using an Idol-type star in any of your films, and how do you feel about this new face of Korean cinema, considering the fact that you brought Korean films to international attention with the Busan Film Festival? Also would you consider doing a rom-com or comedy?
Park Kwang-su: Idols are too busy. I certainly don’t have any objection to making a rom-com or comedy, it’s just that K-pop stars and Idol stars are busy people. Also, there are already many projects being talked about in the industry to make films with them or about them. There is a film that has recently been released in Korea, called ‘Punch’, that film in a way does show a new motif because it does feature young Korean people but as opposed to the olden days, the approach to films and how they might have talked about the lives of young people, it’s very different now and there’s a lot of positivity. There does now seem to be a new approach to subject matter and more of a focus on younger people as main characters.
Hangul Celluloid: Of all your films, ‘The Uprising’ has by far the most expansive storyline, covering the biggest time period, while also being a love story. Were there any specific difficulties in fitting so many historical facts into the narrative without losing the underlying love story?
Park Kwang-su: To talk about ‘The Uprising’, it may take me ten minutes to elaborate, but essentially the film is asking “What is history?”. If you look at the history of Korea, China and Japan, there was some sort of connectivity in cultural exchange until the early 1900’s when Catholics came to play a large roles within these countries and that was when a noticeable separation began to take place. In fact, the first time a Japanese film was introduced to the general public in Korea was at the Busan Film Festival in 1996, and with such a long running separation and segregation, I felt that the subject of what happened on Jeju island during that time period needed to be talked about. There are a lot of historical facts in the film and even some Korean people would need background information to understand the context of the film. Back then, it was religiously quite a controversial storyline and even some priests tried to pressurise me not to make the film but I think that shows that the story really needed to be told. A lot of people assume that the film cost a huge amount of money to make but it really didn’t and I used a great many supporting actors who were volunteers and were only paid for food and accommodation. A lot of students actually travelled a long distance to Jeju Island to act in the film as well.
MiniMiniMovies: I noticed that there is a lot of pop culture music used in ‘Chilsu and Mansu’. Did the inclusion of that music make the film an expensive first project? And also, I noticed quite a lot of product placement in the film, such as Burger King, and I wondered if that helped to pay for it?
Park Kwang-su: A product placement deal was agreed with Burger King and at that time there were elements of a pro-commercial agenda within the government and I felt its inclusion was necessary to address that subject. Not that I’m saying Burger King is the symbol of consumerism but it’s included in that, to some degree. I didn’t have any particular problems with the inclusion of the music, it was all agreed early on. Speaking of what was allowed at that time, there is a scene that shows a billboard with a large image of a female model, but no females were allowed to work in the advertising industry so that was all created specially for the film.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘A Single Spark’: Lee Chang-dong was involved in the script writing of the film as well as ‘To The Starry Island’. How did you come to work together?
Park Kwang-su: Apart from ‘Chilsu and Mansu’, I’ve always worked with assistant directors and written with them too. Obviously, an assistant director will always have a different perspective and can also bring that to the writing. Lee Chang-dong happened to be one of those assistant directors in my films, including ‘A Single Spark’ and, as I wanted to promote unestablished directors, I gave the writing credit to the assistant directors rather than putting my own name so that they could get their own films made. That’s why many names appear in the writing credits of my films but they were actually assistant directors. If you look at ‘Meet Mr. Daddy’, I actually had four assistant directors and right from the development stage I would have them all sitting together with a computer monitor on. We’d collectively talk about each scene, the story arc and the writing would be a collective effort. By doing that, the assistant directors come to know the story inside out and that, obviously, helps when it comes to shooting. I always initiate the story ideas for my films and I’ll always be the one to find the structure and approach and then work with assistant directors to gradually form the screenplay. It’s right to say that Lee Chang-dong was involved in the writing but he wasn’t the sole writer.
MiniMiniMovies: I wondered if the black & white scenes in ‘A Single Spark’ for the second story were in the script from the beginning and also, the first two thirds of the film were quite dark with a predominance of blue colours while the final third was more ‘fiery’. Was that giving audiences an idea of what was to come?
Park Kwang-su: The main reason for the differing colours was to show different time periods, the 60’s and 70’s, and the idea was in place from the very beginning. I spent a lot of time searching for a production house that could achieve it because in those days that type of thing was quite tricky and wasn’t even possible in Korea, so I got involved with an Australian production house to realise it. In terms of the meaning of the different colours, I may have to watch the film again to remember why a blue colour scheme was used but towards the end of the film I did deliberately use different colour tones and music to signify the present day. Talking of the music, I had a particular concept for the different time periods, like the use of colour I previously mentioned. So for the 60’s I wanted acoustic guitar and for the 70’s electric and I wanted to use a famous Korean guitarist, but I couldn’t get that concept to completion and ended up using a different musician. So, that’s why there is electric guitar in one segment and piano in the other.
Hangul Celluloid: Obviously, ‘A Single Spark’ was made pre-CGI . How was the final breathtaking scene of Tae-il burning achieved, because it really does look as if he has actually been set on fire?
Park Kwang-su: Yes, ‘A Single Spark’ was made before CGI. For that scene I used a special effects team from Australia and I did a lot of research of what actually happened to Tae-il. However, when the scene was completed, it wasn’t the effect I wanted and so we reshot the scene more excessively without the special effects team. I ended up actually setting fire to the actor playing Tae-il but the secret to it was that we used a special liquid that prevented him being burned for ten seconds or so. That was applied to the skin to protect him and I finally got the scene the way I wanted it.
MiniMiniMovies: There is a crow that is shown on several occasions in ‘The Uprising’. Was that used to represent freedom within the film?
Park Kwang-su: Traditionally, there was a belief that crows represented a connection between the gods and humans, spiritually speaking, and there was a well known legend of a crow with three feet but, more importantly, there are a lot of crows on Jeju island and as the story was about the area, I used the crow to represent the soul of the people of Jeju. Jeju is quite a unique place, quite close geographically to Japan and separated from mainland Korea, and it’s always had a special quality.
MiniMiniMovies: With ‘Chilsu and Mansu’ having so many artist and painter characters, do you have a passion for painting?
Park Kwang-su: ‘Chilsu and Mansu’ is based on a Taiwanese book called Two Painters. The Korean government wouldn’t allow the author's work and that’s why I couldn’t give him credit in the film or use the original title. It was also the basis of a play and as my background was in the theatre, that’s where the idea for the film began. There was also a Taiwanese film called Two Painters, based on the same book, and it reflected the original story a lot more. Within my film, the two characters were designed to discuss different time periods: Mansu reflected the time period when Korea was subject to intense censorship under Park Chung-hee and Mansu’s father had spent a long time in prison, whereas Chilsu was from a later period of Korean history, under the military government led by Chun Doo-hwan, and Chilsu was designed to talk about increasing commercialism and materialism.
Hangul Celluloid: Have you already got plans for your next project and, if so, could you tell us a little bit about them?
Park Kwang-su: I will keep researching and thinking about what I want to do until June and I’ll hopefully begin working on a new project after that.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging for me to interview director Park Kwang-su.