Im Kwon-taek: In search of perfection

As the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon approach, LKL is finally spurred to write up some archive notes of interviews and Q&A’s with the director of their Opening Ceremony…

IM Kwon-taek
Im Kwon-taek

“Why are you torturing me?” was Im Kwon-taek’s heartfelt cry when attending a screening of one of his films from the 1960s at a 70-film retrospective of his work at the Korean Film Archive in 2010. After the success of his debut Farewell to the Tumen River (두만강아 잘 있거라, 1962) he churned out 50 films in his first decade as a director, all of which he would rather had been burned. He recounted how one afternoon he was watching a mediocre film on television and wondered who the director was. The closing credits revealed that it was him. He had made so many films that he couldn’t remember them.

Im Kwon-taek was in London in October 2012 for a slightly more modest retrospective of his films, as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Year of the 12 Directors programme. The ICA and the BFI were working in partnership to show 15 of his films – none of which were from the 1960s.

But it was the success of that first film, Tumen River, which led to the film, thirty years later, which perhaps more than any other marked him out as Korea’s “national” film director. At a celebratory meal for Tumen River hosted by a well-to-do patron in Jeolla-do there were some traditional entertainers present. It was the first time that Im had come across the vanishing art of pansori, and it made a lasting impression on him. “I decided then and there to make a film about it.” But it was not until 1992 that he was able to fulfil what he described as his “dream project”.

Im Kwon-taek leaves a handprint for the KCC's film archive
Im Kwon-taek leaves a handprint for the KCC’s film archive, assisted by KCC director Won Yong-ki

After the genre movies of the 1960s, Im said “I had 20 years of making gentle films”. Then, in the late 1980s “my producer persuaded me to reveal my shameless past”. The result was Son of the General (1989), the gangster movie set in the 1930s which was a short-lived return to those genre films. He discovered that to a certain extent he had missed the tough world of his earlier movies. Almost accidentally, it was a big success, in fact so successful that he effectively had the freedom, for a while, to make whatever film he wanted. Taebaek Mountains was almost finished, a film which is set among the struggles between the leftists and government forces in the run up to the start of the Korean War. But the film portrays the communists in a neutral to fairly positive light, and so was probably not one that was sensible to release while former general Roh Tae-woo was in power. Instead, it was consciously delayed until the outcome of the 1992 democratic elections were known.

This gave Im a year with nothing much to do. “But I didn’t know how to waste time,” he said, so he decided to tackle his pansori project, and sent his long-standing colleague and associate director Kim Hong-joon off to the bookshops to find a novel based on pansori which he dimly remembered reading in the 1970s. It was Yi Chong-joon’s Seopyeonje, and the film became a huge box office success, somehow catching the national mood. Again, as with Son of the General, Im modestly admits that Seopyeonje was a hit “by mistake.”

Im Kwon-taek with Kim Hong-joon at the group interview with film bloggers
Im Kwon-taek with Kim Hong-joon at the group interview with film bloggers

Seopyeonje was not Im’s first film based on a novel, and indeed literary films were one of the safe category of films under the 1960s and 70s film production regime. Im was particularly well suited to the production of literary film as he had been an avid book-reader in his childhood days in Kwangju. Earlier in his life, his love of literature and story-telling had also come in handy: in Busan, where he went in search of work after the Korean War, he got a job as a labourer, but not a very good one. And to compensate his burly fellow-workers for his inability to carry as much weight as them on his chiggye frame, he used to tell them stories in the workers’ dormitories in the evening.

Nor was Seopyeonje Im’s first film which turned the spotlight on Korea’s traditional culture. The first work in which Im believed he successfully “reflected a personal style”1 was Genealogy (1978) – based on a Japanese novel based in the colonial period which among other things focused on the beauty of Joseon dynasty ceramics.2

Im Kwon-taek and Kim Hong-joon in conversation with Tony Rayns
Im Kwon-taek and Kim Hong-joon in conversation with Tony Rayns at the BFI, 25 October 2012

The earliest of the films that was screening at the 15-film restrospective was Mandala (1981, based on Kim Seong-Dong’s novel of the same name). Its companion piece, Come, Come, Come Upward (1989) was also screening. Both films focus on Buddhism, which Im regards as an essential part of Korean culture, and in particular the different paths that Buddhist monks (in Mandala) and nuns (in Come Upward) follow in search of enlightenment, with the two opposite poles being ascetic meditation practice and engagement with the real world, the latter route often involving carnal activity not usually associated with orthodox Buddhism. Im himself is not a Buddhist, but was using the Buddhist life as a metaphor for the wider world: “Whether or not you reach your goal, the beauty of life is in the search for self-perfection. You don’t have to be Buddhist to do that.”

Come Upward won Best Actress for Kang Soo-yeon at the 1989 Moscow Interational Film Festival. She won a similar accolade at the Venice festival two years earlier for Surrogate Woman (1986), which was also screening at the London retrospective. The film has been seen by some as a feminist film, but was not specifically intended as such. “I didn’t try to make it as a feminist film. Rather, I wanted to explore what’s wrong with a society where there is such a preference for sons.” Im himself is the eldest son in the family, but was often away from home and so could not conduct the ancestral rites. He therefore questions whether the preference for a son is still valid in modern society. In retrospect, “Maybe it was overly brave, overly zealous.”

The script for Surrogate Woman was written by Song Gil-han. Im and Song parted company for over 20 years (“He could make more money writing for TV,” joked Im), but they came together again for Im’s latest project, Scooping the Moonlight aka Hanji (2011). This was a film made without the support of a production company, and the budget was so limited that the director’s wife was pressed into service to play the owner of a craft paper shop in the film. “In making the movie, my soul was cleansed,” said Im. His long-time assistant director Kim Hong-joon was on the set of Hanji, making his own “Making Of” documentary, which gives a fascinating insight into Im’s collaborative style of film-making.

IM Kwon Taek with Kim Hong Joon and Tony Rayns
Im Kwon-taek with Kim Hong-joon and Tony Rayns after the screening of Kim’s documentary “Im Kwon-taek’s Moonlight”, 26 October 2012

As his comments about his two Buddhist films show, Im admires anyone who is constantly searching for perfection in life. In his own film-making Im regards his own career as being one of seeking to improve, reaching towards perfection. He is never satisfied with his past work and wants to move on to something better. As he said during the Q&A after the screening of Kim’s Hanji documentary:

I have made so many films but I’ve never been satisfied with the final result. There are always things that one can do better… I feel that I’ll make many films in the future but I know I’ll never be satisfied with them.

For now, Im is taking a break from film-making,3 and is preparing for the Asian Games 2014, for which he is the director of the opening ceremony. And while he enjoyed Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics (he came over specially for the occasion) he’s planning something different for Incheon.

Sources:

  • Im Kwon-taek and Kim Hong-joon in conversation with Tony Rayns at the BFI prior to the Mandala screening, 25 Oct 2012
  • Q&A with Im Kwon-taek and Kim Hong-joon at the KCC after a screening of Kim Hong-joon’s behind-the-scenes documentary Im Kwon-taek’s Moonlight at the KCCUK, 26 Oct 2012 (A video of edited highlights from the Q&A is available on the KCCUK’s YouTube Channel here)
  • Im Kwon-taek’s group interview with Korean film bloggers documented by Hangul Celluloid, 25 Oct 2012
  • Personal conversation with Im Kwon-taek and Kim Hong-joon, 27 Oct 2012

All images courtesy © KCCUK Flickr account

  1. Klaus Eder, “Conversations with Im Kwon-taek”, quoted in David E James’s paper “Im Kwon-taek: Korean Cinema and Buddhism” in the collection Im Kwon-taek – The Making of a Korean National Cinema ed David E James and Kyung Hyun Kim, Wayne State University Press, 2002. []
  2. The film is an adaptation of Kajiyama Toshiyuki’s The Clan Records, with additional material from his novella When the hibiscus blooms. Both are available in an English translation. []
  3. Since these interviews, Im has commenced on his 102nd film, an adaptation of Kim Hoon’s short story, Hwajang. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.