As part of the Tiger Asian film festival Im Sang Soo, director of socio-political films ‘The President’s Last Bang’, ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ and ‘The Old Garden’, held a Q&A session on 30th May 2008 at the Korean Cultural Centre in London. There was a small but select feel to the gathering that took place in the multipurpose hall. It was an illuminating event, even for those who had neither seen nor heard of the films prior to this event – of which there were more than a few.
Questions and answers were translated on the spot by Seh Hyun Rho to whom we extend our thanks and also to the Korean Cultural Centre for hosting the event.
The following is a complete transcription of the Q&A session by Saharial, to whom even bigger thanks are due. The transcription reflects the conversational style of the evening, with only minor editorial changes made where necessary to aid understanding: Im Sang Soo, uncut.
Seh Hyun Rho: ‘The President’s Last Bang’ is one of the many films director Im Sang Soo has written and directed. In 1998 he presented his first film ‘Girl’s Night Out’, and ‘Tears’ in 2000 provided us with a glimpse of the teenagers in Korea, then in 2003 a Good Lawyer’s wife, ‘The Old Garden’ in 2007 with the Kwangju democratisation movement as his backdrop. Having studied sociology at the prestigious Yonsei University in Korea, it appears that socio-political themes are current in his movies. Now we have a chance for a question and answer session where you can put the director under the microscope and ask him any questions you like. I will take the liberty of asking the first question.
Could you please tell me what your favourite political movie is?
Im Sang Soo: To be honest, I can’t think of any famous Korean or any famous political movies, and although there are elements of politics in my work, I’d be unsatisfied to call them political as such. My apologies.
If you look at the international film landscape currently, if you were to name political movies or directors as such, you could say Ken Loach or Costa-Gavras – they could be seen as directors who make political movies or deal with political issues. I don’t want my work to be compared with theirs, and I don’t think my films should be in the same category as theirs.
My three movies ‘The President’s Last Bang, ‘The Old Garden’ and ‘The Good Lawyer’s Wife’ are frequently labelled as the trilogy depicting Korea’s political or the state of modern Korean society, I think that would be inaccurate. This apparent label, which occurs when I am outside of Korea, can be interpreted as the mockery, or my mockery, of Korea currently and that’s a guilt I have to bear – it’s uncomfortable. This is unfortunate and unavoidable if you actually reflect on Korea’s modern history. For the past 35 years we were colonised, or Korea was colonised by Japan, there was World War 2, there was a military dictatorship for about three years, so you have to be critical. One of the reasons why I love of my degree in sociology so much is that you have to use these events and depict them as such.
Questions were then taken from members of the audience who seemed very familiar with his movies and eager to delve deeper into his perceptions and opinions.
Q: Did you expect ‘The President’s Last Bang’ to be censored and are there any plans for the release of the uncensored version?
‘The President’s Last Bang’ was made prior to the change in government that took place in Korea a few months ago and before, the government was quite liberal so I felt free to make such a movie. To be strictly straight, there is no censorship in Korea – that would be illegal to do so. The reason why there was a censorship with this movie was because Park Chung-hee, the president who was assassinated in the movie, his son appealed to the Seoul district court, and the court ordered the scenes to be taken out.
When this movie was first released in Korea, I predicted there would be conflict, or at least problems, with the entire Korean community, but I didn’t realise it would be to the extent that some of the scenes would have to be censored. The film was released in France as well, that was the edited version, but earlier this year in Japan, they released a Director’s cut which means all the censored scenes were put back in. Yesterday, I just found out that there would be a DVD release in England using the Director’s uncut version, which means the movie would have English subtitles. The whole international community can then purchase the DVDs from England and see the film, so I’m very much happy about that.
For the movie ‘The President’s Last Bang’ when you look at the audience we have here today, we have Koreans as well as foreigners. Foreigners might perceive this as a military dictatorship where an army general takes over the country and takes power, which happens frequently in Africa and Asia, so it might seem not petty but hilarious or comical in your point of view. As opposed to the foreign audience, for Korean people it has to be a shocking film. Park Chung-hee, the President at the time, he ruled for 18 years as a dictatorship and there were many liberals who were tortured and captured and many died during this protest. At the same time Park Chung-hee was also known as the Father to modernise Korea and help with the economic status, so for the Korean audience to see such a negative view of this character must have been shocking.
When the original uncut version is released, I hope that all audiences, Korean and international will be able to perceive the film slightly differently. The film is not intended to be satirical or mock Park Chung-hee or the dictatorship, but to show the lifestyles of him and his entourage. Upon the release of the movie no Korean community could laugh or enjoy this film and he had to wonder why this was so, and possibly it reflects our state of understanding of the whole incident.
So the film deals with the entourage of Park Chung-hee, the way it deals with people and community, his lifestyle and his principles and can see this reflects fascism and chauvinistic attitudes. If you look at the Bush Administration and the Bush/Blair pact leading to the Iraqi war, you can see that… well, I feel that this is not completely different to Park Chung-hee’s way of working. Overall, these kinds of attitudes and principles are not new to Korea or to any time era and the film which deals with this is not, I suppose, so enjoyable to watch.
Q: Firstly have you any plans or hopes to direct in Hollywood? And with remakes of ‘Dark Water’ and ‘The Ring’ etc. – how do you feel about remakes of some of these Asian films?
Currently, I’ve moved to Paris and have been living there for the past 6 months. This is because I am working with a French producer and we are filming a film in Paris using French actors and mostly going to be in French dialogue. This is not Hollywood, but an international project for me, and if successful, yes, I have plans to work with the English community as well. That’s my direction to a more International level.
The remakes that you mentioned – most of them are Hollywood financed and given the enormous wealth that Hollywood has, it’s not so imperative that they make a large profit or even a loss. The producers and directors that allow these remakes – well all I can say is ‘Money Talks’.
The Austrian director Michael Haneke remade the movie ‘Funny Games’ and won a prestigious prize internationally. If you look up the actors, I presume that the paycheque had an additional two zeros at the end, so I guess money rules and money is power.
Q: Still on the subject of money, In order to get through the US Free Trade Agreement the current government has had to agree to import more US ‘mad cows’ and the previous government agreed to import more US movies. So now, two years on from the relaxation of the screen quota, what impact has it had on the Korean film industry and what impact will it continue to have?
I don’t know about the UK, but in my point of view Korea is in terms of economics and politics America’s colony. The current government cannot refuse any demands from the American government whether it’s a liberal or a conservative government. Secondly, despite theoretically having a liberal Korean government, I don’t feel that they would know the impact or the importance of having Korean movies out there on the international scene.
I imagine all of you here are great fans of the Korean movies and cinema, but I feel that in the next 5 years you will see a difficult time for Korean movies and whether the Korean movie industry can resuscitate itself or completely die even that I can’t answer. The Korean government that accepted the relaxation of the Korean screen quota was the most liberal one so far, and the change to our more conservative government and accepting cows with potential mad cow disease, well I am just glad to say that I have now moved to France!
Q: Do you think there are any similarities between the Korean political scene and the French one?
Despite Sarkozy being a very conservative leader, and France being more liberal, I don’t think you can compare that to the Korean. Lee Myung Bak is extremely conservative and the more liberal Korean society right now you definitely can’t say the Lee Myung Bak is in the same category as Sarkozy.
Does the government appease themselves to America?
Well, I don’t see the French importing US beef! [Laughs] I would just like to remind everyone, that this event and place today has been funded by the Korean government. I guess we can still talk liberal.
Q: Now that you are living in Europe, I wonder if you have been surprised or perhaps amused by the distinction and separation between art house movies, reserved for intelligent intellectuals, and commercial movies? In Korean cinema we don’t seem to have that same sense of separation – it seems to confuse it all.
That’s a very interesting question, one of the ones that I like.
Anyone who has the thought ‘I want to be a movie director or a movie producer’ I would believe will all universally think ‘I want my movie to be in the Cannes film festival’. One of the jury at the Cannes festival called Thierry Fremaux I met a few times and we talked about my movie a few times. He is apparently, well in my own interpretation, confused whether my movie is an art-house movie or a commercial movie, because the Cannes film festival tends to invite more art-house movies. I thoroughly enjoyed his confusion over this matter although one day I would like to be invited as well.
The various Film Festivals – Cannes, Berlin and Venice – looking at the history of their preferences and the directors there. Historically they tend to be non-mainstream, quite academic and quite serious and artistically speaking my movies rebel against this stereotype or their preference. I don’t necessarily want to make films that they enjoy.
Q: In your two clearly political films, or the films that have a political theme ‘The President’s Last Bang’ and ‘The Old Garden’ – it seems that the foreign presence is relatively muted and is very much in the background. Is it fair to take that as a sign of your focusing and dealing with issues, in the first instance, to deal with contemporary Korean society and to persuade Koreans to take a more serious look, or do you think there is an opportunity to talk about the role of foreign involvement in some of these political tragedies? Do you see your later work as dealing with that type of theme – how foreign powers may have contributed to some of the events depicted in the films?
You mentioned two movies and I would like to add the third one which was made prior to both of them ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ and those three are commonly known as the trilogy of looking at Korean’s modern history. The main reason why I make these movies is that Korea has undergone extremely rapid financial growth, economic growth as well as striving for democracy in a very short period of time and Korean people tend to have the characteristic of keep running ahead and not looking back. Despite achieving this phenomenal growth in economics and political democracy we are still not happy – to find out why and look for solutions I believe that we need to look back and these are the three movies that I have approached politically.
As you said, foreigners take an interest in Korean society and they must have their reasons for it. I was born in Korea and have lived there all my life and I have deep deep curiosity and interest in how the world is run and the state of affairs in the world, but I’m not too sure whether I can say a lot about my own country. Like I said, I am very interested in the international state of affairs and looking at 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London I believe the world has changed somewhat and I feel that there is a need to make a statement on such changes. Although this might be politically incorrect I feel that there have been a lot of comments from the western community and they may hold less weight in the international community. I feel that any observations or statements from non western or white communities might be much more appreciated and that’s the goal of my next French product.
Q: You mentioned there was not enough input from non-western, non-white community, but isn’t there a lot of input from the Middle Eastern community?
That’s a very interesting comment. If you refer to 9/11 and 7/7 it almost sounds as if only the western white community and the Middle Eastern community are allowed to make a statement of such change and advance. My perspective and my role of making this movie are that I am just one citizen in the international globe.
When the world goes through such drastic changes in such as 9/11 and 7/7 everyone can have their say, but politically the white western community has the most power to make a statement and overcoming such difficulties and prejudices if you can just bear in mind there are other communities who can make a statement also.
Q: Do you think that Korean blockbuster movies with lots of CGI in them like ‘D-war’ help or damage Korean cinema?
If you look at the movie you mentioned, commercially speaking, the profit margins had an extra two zero’s at the end compared to my own movies. I continually finance my own movies or make my own movies despite making losses from time to time because diversity is always a good thing. I am grateful that there are different types of movies out there – if you imagine a world with only my movies people would be fed up and irritated and have a headache.
I have no intentions of watching ‘D-war’.
Q: I noticed when he was speaking earlier, there was a sense of pathos that the contemporary Korean movies don’t actually show much of Korea’s heritage in them. I also see from the two I have seen like ‘The President’s Last Bang’ the heritage doesn’t come through. We see the Korean characters, but they could just as well be a Japanese character or African characters or French Characters. I don’t see too much of the heritage. In many cases when one wants to see a film from another part of the world you want to see what made them what they are now in the film. Is it a deliberate thing that you left that out so that you can appeal to the global community?
You mentioned that you could see the film with French or other International characters in them, and I would just like to say that ‘The President’s Last Bang’ was actually based on a true story and I tried to strictly adhere to the facts given. I am deeply Korean sense as I have lived there all my life, and if you felt that the film didn’t appeal to you as specifically Korean but you could see similarities then possibly there was more to do with universal humanity and the way we live – does that answer your question?
It does, I did see some elements where I think the matriarch of the family was speaking with the sons, but you could see the respect coming through. It’s difficult to say obviously, for films nowadays you have to be aware it’s not strictly going to be Korean people who will be watching it. Others will be watching the films and making a judgement about ‘oh is this how a Korean family is.’ How much of that shows through in your work? I know that it was based on a true story but none the less, an international community will be forming opinions about Korean heritage from the film. How conscious of this are you when making these films?
I can’t give you a logical straightforward answer to your question but can state three facts roughly. Firstly, with ‘The President’s Last Bang’ I can say that the international community have embraced and praised the movie much more than the Korean audience did. Secondly, that most of my movies dealing with Korea in general are much more embraced by the international community and thirdly, because I’ve always known that I would work internationally and deal with an international audience, perhaps that’s shown through in my movies.
Why do you think the international community is the more receptive to those particular films – is it because the political issues are too sensitive to be shown?
My movies ‘The President’s Last Bang’ and ‘The Old Garden’ are dealing Korea’s modern history and politics they are uncomfortable for the Korean audience to watch as you are confronting them with facts that they don’t want to see. The audience’s responses can be full of hatred or complete avoidance of the movie which I am aware of, whereas the international community are devoid of that kind of characteristics and embrace my movies much more.
In terms of saying the word international community you can divide that word into critics or international juries at film festivals. If you take the different classes of people in that community and their roles in the international community do you think that reflects the preferences for your films and embracing of your films?
Look at the audience today and look at the people who attend such events. Are you upper class? Extremely academic? Or noble backgrounds? Or are you here because you just enjoy his movies?
Q: I wonder if you set yourself limits regarding violence on the screen? The reason I ask is because when I recently met Mr. Roger Corman, now around 85 years old, who made such bloody films as ‘Valentines Day Massacre’. He told me that he thought violence has now reached the point of obscenity and that there should be a label similar to pornography regarding violence. Is it something which you are cautious about when you shoot? What is your view on too much violence in a movie?
I’m much familiar with Roger Corman’s work and I read his autobiography. I would like to ask you if he ever mentioned that his own work is violent to the point of obscenity?
No, no, he said that the actual movies have become so violent that they are nearly unwatchable and the violence has reached the point of obscenity. He said something like ‘if you cut off one arm piece by piece what else can you cut with all this blood’. In his generation the violence was softer in a way, but I just wonder if you are worried about the violence? Do you limit it, do you try respect some limits or not at all? Are there things you are not ready to show?
For all the members of the audience here today who have come to see me, I believe you are all great academics, but I would like to say that I am not – I am more closer to being a businessman and in one of the lines from Roger Corman’s autobiography he says that every 15 minutes in a movie there has to be some nudity and I follow that in my own work.
[In English] Truly!
However I am always cautious when it comes to violence in my own movies. If you look at my trilogy, especially ‘A good Lawyer’s wife’ there is a lot of nudity in it am my official stand point is that I don’t put in a lot of nudity and sex scenes just to sell, although I won’t deny that at all. I think a great artist has a way of producing a movie that shows a lot of sex which sells but does it in a subtle manner which doesn’t show deliberate intentions quite so clearly.
If you look at the movie ‘Gladiator’ directed by Ridley Scott, there is a scene where Russell Crowe is fighting in Rome at the coliseum and he shouts to the audience ‘do you want to see more, do you want more’. That scene electrified me and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, because its almost as if Ridley Scott is saying and asking the audience ‘do you want to see more violence’ although its quite an obvious question. It reflects the fierce competition and the harsh workplace that directors have today and although Ridley Scott is much hated or disliked by critics at international film festivals I think he is a great director in his won right.
[laughs] Rather than all the great directors who get invited to international film festivals, where they don’t receive any money, I’d rather be Ridley Scott earning a lot.
Q: Which film makers both international and Korean have influenced you the most and which do you admire the most?
If you see his movies, I’m sure you’ll see why. As a director I don’t actually see or watch a lot of movies, but when I do watch his, I always get the feeling ‘oh no, he’s done what I wanted to do.’ He’s a Japanese director who has won the Palme D’Or twice in the Cannes Film Festival but he’s not widely watched, so I guess I just have to go forward with my own ideas.
Q: Could you tell us a bit more about your current French project?
[English] It’s about an Asian woman who lives in Paris a very long time so she is almost Parisian. She can speak French fluently, but you know, as an Asian woman, it’s very hard to survive by herself – there is no family background or nothing. Normally in that situation, she is to be taken advantage by French boys. In my film she takes advantage of many kinds of French boys. She is a ‘bad boy’. She had many boyfriends – white, black, Asian, Mahgreb, and she survives. It’s going to be a very erotic comedy, but still it has some racial, political provocation in there.
Who is the star?
[English] I didn’t finish the script yet, but I need some gorgeous Asian actress who can speak French. How about Maggie Cheung? [laughs]
What is the specific nationality of the actress to be in the movie?
Either Korean or Chinese. It’s a natural choice for me to pick a Korean movie star, although the French producers are saying that they will cover the cost if it’s a Chinese actress, so it’s all a delicate financial matter.
Would you consider casting Jeon JiHyun?
[English] No Way!
[English] I cannot speak French, but I try to make French film. It’s kind of crazy, but I have to. You know what? [Korean] I need to make this French movie and I am making it in French dialogue, but you don’t see American or English directors coming to Asia and making Chinese movies in Chinese dialogue. So why do directors like myself go out and make these international movies? Well, that’s because the West is the centre of the world today, they have the most political power, they’ve got the most money and the biggest market. You can appraise that, but that’s the harsh reality of today.
My favourite Japanese director that I’ve mentioned Imamura Shohei, he lived in Japan all his life and never probably thought of making and international movie abroad. That can be said for the Korean director Im Kwon-Taek as well, but times have changed since and people who have learned their work like myself feel the need to go abroad and make an international film.
My intentions to make more international movie is if the French project is successful. The intentions are such as, given that the audience today you all enjoy Asian cinema, and this is because of the distribution in Paris and London. That only targets a very small market, a niche in Asian cinema, so if I was to make a French speaking movie with French producers the same as another French director I can fight head on and compare myself and can see who does better.
If you look at some of the projects that have gone before and compare it to my French adventure from now on, you have ‘The Flight of the Red Balloon’, but I am not too worried about any comparisons because the director was watched by very few people at home or abroad anyway. In terms of ‘Blueberry Nights’ by Wong Kar Wai, he had very disappointing results and I can just state that I think he’s overrated anyway. I believe that he is at a stage in his life where he has passed his peak in directing and just happened to make a film internationally and it wasn’t really a striving for a greater public anyway. If you look at Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, he went to France to make another movie and then you can see from his work that it seemed to lose some of its intensity and appeal. That’s a risk for any director who works abroad and out of his own comfort zone and that same risk applies to me but I am not scared of this opportunity and challenge.
Q: To increase your chances of making a big success in French language movie, I wonder if you have thought of asking Brigitte Bardot to make her long awaited comeback in a small part?
[English]I know she hates people who eat dog meat – one of my favourites.
Q: Given the risk of filming a foreign movie, especially with foreign languages there is a certain risk, and my unofficial sources tell me that you are going to embark upon a fourth project with Korean director Kim Hyun Do. Is this in order to avoid Kieslowski error and safeguard against such a risky project?
Yes, that maybe the case, I am bringing in a few factors that will make me more likely not to fail with this international project. One is having an Asian actress or at least an Asian character in the movie, another is to say that I will have my film editor, and the filming done by my colleagues who will come to France to join me, so yes – these are safety nets I have provided in order to succeed.
In addition, DP Kim who worked with me on ‘A Good Lawyers Wife’ actually graduated from London’s film school.
Q: Your films mainly deal with hard times and the ordeal and the conflicts in Korea’s modern history. Are these for commercial goals or out of personal responsibility to confront the society with its own problems? How does your past present and future affect your own work?
I don’t think I’m very smart. You make movies such as ‘D-War’ or ‘Taegukgi’ you are guaranteed a lot of money as opposed to ‘The President’s Last Bang’. So you can see my answer in my intent to film ‘The President’s Last Bang’, knowing its not going to be a commercial success. I did try to make some money, but obviously failed. The film editor that I’m going to bring from Korea that I mentioned earlier, she has worked with me since a ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ and at a special event we were talking generally about how underrated the director Im Sang-Su was and then she said: ‘I believe Im Sang-Su is and ugly duckling, but later when he becomes a swan he will be appreciated by all.’ And I like that comment so that’s why I’m bringing her today.
Q: since we are talking about the nationalisation of cinema – firstly, has the abolition of the Korean screen quota affected the sales for anyone you know in the industry? Secondly, I heard that Johnny To was going to be in Paris making a movie also – will you be meeting up with him?
It’s a fact that Korean cinema has hit a very difficult time with the film quota and will do so in the future. There is a conspiracy theory about this screen quota dictated by the US government, because the US market for Korean movies is actually extremely small so the reason seems quite unclear. It may be to provide space for the growing Chinese market in the future. Korean dramas and movie have a great influence on Chinese cinema and dramas so the argument seems plausible and not entirely wrong.
For your second question, I perceive Johnny To as a director who earns more than me. Despite that he has international projects at work he is extremely different from mine in a sense that I like to incorporate a lot of social and cultural aspects in my movies. In that case I would still have a lot to learn about the French culture in order to make this movie. In terms of meeting him, yes I would definitely like to meet him, and learn whatever I cam from him.
Recently in France I met up with a French director Alain Corneau and he asked when I said that I was making a French movie with French dialogue, he asked me if I spoke French and I said no, of course not. He replied ‘Don’t worry, when I made my movie in Japan with Japanese actresses and actors with Japanese dialogue, they would all come up to me and speak rapidly in Japanese and I couldn’t understand a word. It was an extremely happy and pleasurable experience for me.’ So I got a lot of strength from that.
Q: Do you believe ‘the Old Garden’ is one of your seminal works in terms of Korea’s modern history and it’s based on a novel by Hwang Seok Young and I’ve watched all your movies with interest and I have found a common element of comedy and laughter in all your work except it was absent in ‘The Old Garden’. Is this because, well my interpretation of that, was this because there are difficulties with transferring the novel to a movie or was it inherent in the book itself?
The movie and the book ‘The Old Garden’ deals with the democratisation movement in Korea which ran on for about 10 years during which a lot of social activists were imprisoned and tortured. There were mass protests and fighting going on during that time.
During the 1980’s when there were all these protests and the fight for democracy happened I was in my 20’s and a university student and I thought it would be great to make a movie during this period. None came out and I realised it’s extremely foolish trying to make a movie of a great novelist’s work as I constantly hear it’s quite different to the book.
In response to your question on the absence of humour in ‘The Old Garden’ if you found that there was comedy even in my previous movies it must have been due to my intent to mock and satire these characters and events, but because I lived during this period and these were the people I knew, I found myself unable to with this movie and that’s really why.
Q: What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Rather than making an amazing artistic movie that will win awards, aim for making money! [laughs] If you want to do that, you must persuade a great producer to work with you.
I apologise for the quality of my answer [laughs]
- Ken Loach – Sensesofcinema
- Costa-Gavras – wikipedia
- Michael Haneke – Sensesofcinema
- Imamura Shohei – japan-zone
- Im Kwon-Taek – Wikipedia
- Wong Kar Wai – Wongkarwai
- Krzysztof Kieslowski – Sensesofcinema.com
- Alain Corneau – IMDB
- The Voyage of the Red Balloon – IMDB
- Thierry Fremaux – Hollywood Reporter
Photo credits: Dan Martin (apart from the under-exposed ones, which are Philip’s)