The London Korean Film Festival is not just about getting acquainted with the latest in Korean movies. It is also an opportunity to meet some of the people behind those movies – actors, directors and producers. Opportunities for engaging with these film professionals vary: for an ever-growing group of aficionados there is the offer of round-table interviews; for the theatre-going audience there are the Q&As which follow some of the screenings; and then there may be special talks or conversations focusing on a particular topic.
The quality of the sessions can of course vary with the quality of the questions, the competence of the interpreter, the experience of the chair / moderator and of course the willingness of the professional to answer the questions.
The empty chair
According to one internet forum, one of the best Q&As of any festival was one where there was no moderator. The occasion was this year’s opening gala, when actor Gang Dong-won and other stars were delayed in taking their seats on stage by the audience taking a while to settle itself after the screening, and the moderator who had been booked couldn’t stay. What could have been an awkward session was saved when Rho Seh-hyun, the festival’s main interpreter, stepped into the breach and asked a few introductory questions before opening it up to the floor. In retrospect, the success of the evening should not have been a surprise, as she chaired and interpreted a superb discussion with director Im Sang-soo a few years ago. The lady is a pro.
One of the least successful sessions of the festival was the conversation with Park Chan-kyong, where the advance material had not been terribly clear about what Park would be discussing. There was no chairman, that function being partially filled by Park’s assistant and interpreter, and the interlocutor was so intellectual that no-one could understand what he was talking about. Mind you, it was also a challenge figuring out what Park was talking about too. It was all very interesting, touching on the Donghak rebels, syncretist religions, utopian prophecies, shamanistic incantations, the changing meaning of the word minjung, and much more, but it was not until the very end that it became clear that he was talking about his first documentary film, Sindoan (2008). The audience wanted to rewind the clock and start again, but the time had already been spent.
Fortunately, Park also had two public Q&A sessions after the screenings of his Manshin and Bitter, Sweet, Seoul, as well as a much rescheduled (and thus sparsely attended) round table interview. The latter has been transcribed by Hangul Celluloid, while the content of the Q&A has been incorporated (or will be) into the reviews of the two films linked above.
Jung Woo-sung – smooth operator
Jung Woo-sung appeared for Q&A after the penultimate night’s screening of Cold Eyes (in which he plays a criminal mastermind) and his own short film The Killer behind the Old Man. He has managed to perfect the art of engaging an audience. When the MC announces his arrival, he pauses a few seconds before making his entrance, so that everyone is turning round to look for him. His walk to the stage is ever so slightly slow-motion, a gait which manages to combine relaxed fluidity with an electric, magnetic tension. As he extends his hand to the numerous young female admirers within reach, you can hear the gasps of excitement. As he arrives on stage, he flashes a smile. Before he answers his first question, he says how surprised, how grateful he is for the support of the audience and his fans; how this is his first time in London and he likes it so much he has decided to stay an extra day. We all lapped it up, as we were supposed to. The man is a bona fide star.
There were soon waves of jealously emanating from the girls in the front row, as Jung started flirting mercilessly with the festival interpreter Ms Rho, but in between the compliments on the accuracy of her translation, and the teasing physical contact with her, he told us about his life as an actor and his preferred genres. He also talked about some of his experiences filming abroad, and entertained us with tales of showering on the set of Musa the Warrior, where the water supply was unreliable.
Questions were a mixture of the conventional and the offbeat. “What would your advice be to an aspiring film director from Pakistan?” asked a young Pakistani in the audience. Jung turned on a charm offensive, saying he’d love to film in Pakistan, and then chose to believe that the questioner was himself a director, and accordingly declined to offer any advice – after all, Jung himself had only shot one short.
An obvious question, given the fact that we had just seen his first effort as a director, was about his directorial ambitions. He told us about the film he has just finished shooting as a producer, rather than as a director – the current working title of which is Please Remember Me, but many may know it better as the Kickstarter project Remember O Goddess, directed by Lee Yoon-jung. Sharp-eyed viewers will have caught Lee’s name in the writing credits for The Killer behind the Old Man.
Ahn Sung-ki – nearly 60 years in the industry
Ahn Sung-ki, on the other hand, has no such directorial ambitions, having noted that the life of a director is a stressful one. “I’m happiest when I’m on set,” he said, “doing my job as an actor.” He was generous in discussing his experiences in the industry. His long career started in the late 50s, and he spent 10 years as a child actor between the ages of 5 and 15, before focusing on high school and doing his mandatory military service. Returning to the film industry in the late 70s, he became frustrated with level of censorship: one film that he worked on had 80 of its 150 scenes cut. As a result, Ahn could not act in the films he wanted to — because they were not being (and could not be) made.
In the 80s and 90s Ahn became known as a leading actor, taking the central role in many films, including some by Im Kwon-taek. But then in the late 90s the flow of major roles dried up, and Ahn was only given supporting parts, a development which he found hard to deal with. But he focussed instead on giving as much presence to the screen time that he was allotted. He now foresees a career in which he will get a major role every two or three years (such as Hwajang) interspersed with numerous supporting roles. Hwajang is now his 7th film with Im Kwon-taek.
Ahn Sung-ki too had an oddball question to deal with. “If you were really Oh Sang-moo, the cosmetics executive in Hwajang, which of the two competing advertising campaigns presented in the film would you have chosen?” Ahn was a little taken aback. In Kim Hoon’s novel, the advertising campaigns were to package up a few of last season’s items and sell them to the public as if they were this year’s. Ahn genuinely thought hard about the question before confessing that he didn’t have an answer. But his sincere effort said a lot for the seriousness with with which he and all the actors, directors and producers approached their London audience. All of them provided detailed and thoughtful answers to the questions, some of which they will have answered countless times before. Thanks are due to them and of course to the KCC for giving us the opportunity to meet them.