Eastern Kicks: ‘An Affair’ was your debut film; can you tell us how you got into filmmaking and how you got to make that film?
E J-yong: It’s quite a long time ago, so I can’t remember very well [E J-yong laughs]. I started at the Korea Academy of Film Arts where I was making documentaries and show films, and I was interested in making something a lot more experimental - a new type of film. At the time, there was a producer I was quite close to who asked me to review a script he had, and while I was reviewing it I had the thought that I wanted to make that kind of film, and that’s how I got into it.
Eastern Kicks: So, the documentaries you did in the first place helped give ‘An Affair’ quite a minimalist approach, would that be true?
E J-yong: Rather than my style being influenced by my previous work of making documentaries, at the time Korean melodramas had an extremely exaggerated style – the emotions were overly pronounced and the storylines were extremely conventional, so I think I was more driven by the desire to try something new.
Hangul Celluloid: With ‘An Affair’ telling the story of an older woman having an affair with a younger man, what reaction were you trying to elicit from audiences? Considering the time that the film was made, did you expect it to be seen as controversial?
E J-yong: The evolving of love doesn’t necessarily follow a chosen pathway and relationships can often be forbidden considering the time, the place and the circumstance. One can’t chose those and I think that is what love is, at the end of the day.
So, rather than following a conventional love story, I thought that the audience could participate more in the storyline of a forbidden love, which can be expressed in a more sorrowful manner than a commonplace love story that is allowed. I was more interested in the idea of a forbidden love story and that’s how this film began.
London Korean Links: How did audiences react to it? I can imagine if that film had been made in the 1960’s, it would have been very shocking, but in 1998 was it less so? Did people accept the story?
E J-yong: Of course, Korea in the 1990’s had changed considerably from the 1960’s and it would certainly have been less shocking. Like many Asian countries at the time, Korea was socially quite conservative in terms of sexual matters and I personally thought that the film wouldn’t be that shocking. However, audiences reacted in that manner and there was indeed some controversy when the film was released. 'An Affair' was made in 1998, and in the last ten years Korea has changed even more rapidly that the three decades prior to that, so I think all love stories excluding the one between the father-in-law and the groom have been expressed in Korean film. [E J-yong laughs]
London Korean Links: I think you’ve expressed a desire to make films that are timeless. I first saw ‘An Affair’ ten years ago. I saw it again two weeks ago and I had wondered if, when I’d see it again, it would perhaps seem old-fashioned, or if my memory of it would be different, but it was as fresh as it was when I first saw it and it still really moved me.
E-J-yong: I’m not sure if you read any of the interviews I did at the time, but when the film was released I was giving press interviews and I always said that I wanted to make a film that wouldn’t seem old-fashioned if you watched it in ten years time. A timeless piece. So that might explain the minimalistic style where I deliberately chose not to follow any trends in terms of fashion or music and wanted a more classical feel to the it.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve regularly worked with actress Lee Mi-sook over the years, and her appearance in ‘An Affair’ was after a period of retirement - I think she retired in 1987. Was her return to film a result of you wanting to cast her in ‘An Affair’? How did her casting in the film come about?
E J-yong: When I was a teenager, Lee Mi-sook had an almost goddess-like persona and she was an incredibly idealistic actress who I revered. With regard to the casting, ‘An Affair’ was produced in preparation for her comeback during the writing of the script, so it wasn’t a case of me choosing her, she was already involved in the film when I joined. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I decided to get involved in the project.
Eastern Kicks: One last question from me on ‘An Affair’: The conclusion is very open-ended. The characters played by Lee Mi-sook and Lee Jung-jae are on the same plane but are unaware of each other. As a director, do you think they get together in the end?
E-J-yong: One of the conventions of Korean melodrama genre has always been that a story of forbidden love has to have a tragic ending, and it’s usually the case that the female would be punished. I didn’t want to acknowledge that convention in my film but I was also uncomfortable with the thought of a happy ending. So, because of social conventions, the couple had to separate but it was almost a fate-like coincidence that they both got on the same plane, and I wanted to have an open ending that would ask what would happen. I hoped that audiences would come to their own conclusions as to what would happen and my own thoughts on the ending were that they were both heading in the same direction… to the lake in Brazil that Lee Jung-jae mentions in the film… I thought that he might say to her “Isn’t it fate that we’ve come to the same place?”. But I have the feeling that the woman wanted to have more time apart (that’s why she left the house anyway) and I suspect that in ten years time, if it was true love that they shared, they would meet again without having any other partners. So rather than getting together immediately on that plane, I hoped that they would get together later in the future and not have any regrets about what had happened previously.
London Korean Links: The ending to ‘Jeongsa’ [An Affair] is quite similar to ‘Sunaebo’ [Asako in Ruby Shoes]: The two lovers get on a plane to a remote location. Is that fair to say?
E J-yong: The difference with ‘Sunaebo’ is that though they couldn’t meet before, that’s where they would get together and their love would start again. So, it might be my personal preference that when somebody leaves and goes into this new world, they go through some kind of personal growth and development and change, undergoing a transformation. So I think that’s why I like endings where the characters go off somewhere. In fact, even in ‘Untold Scandal’ one of the female characters goes to China in the end, as well.
London Korean Links: One more question about ‘Sunaebo’, if I may: The title is, I believe ‘Pure Love Story’ and yet there doesn’t seem to be much pure love. What was your reason for choosing that title?
E J-yong: Being truthful, the producer wanted to use that title, at some point. There were also a couple of reasons why I felt it was ok to use it: Firstly, it was a period where there was a lot of instant love in society, and that was the prevailing feeling at the time. To use something that was the opposite of that to suggest pure love, I thought would be an interesting take. Secondly, the supporting characters also have their storylines of pure love, so they too can be encompassed in that overall title.
Hangul Celluloid: You mentioned ‘Untold Scandal’ a short time ago, so if I could move onto that: ‘Untold Scandal’ is based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but there are a number of differences between your film, the original story and the other adaptations; one being the level of sexual content - which is much higher in your film - and another being the likeability of the main characters, with your characters coming across as rather charismatic rogues. Was there a deliberate attempt on your part to make the characters more likeable than in the other versions of the story?
E J-yong: Given the cultural differences between the East and the West, perhaps Korean people are less cynical and much more open to discuss and express this as a love story.
Hangul Celluloid: And regarding the sexual content: What dictated the level of adult graphic imagery that you used in the film?
E J-yong: I guess what dictated the level of sexuality was the wish to sell more box office tickets. [E J-yong laughs]
Eastern Kicks: What inspired you to adapt the novel and put it in a Korean setting of roughly the same time period as the original?
E J-yong: The original novel has been adapted to a number of time periods: To 1960’s France or even more contemporary settings. When I was adapting, I thought that if I chose a period that was at the same time as the original and go to the opposite side of the earth to a society that was very different, I could show that human emotions can be similar despite the different setting - feelings such as jealousy, hate and love that arise when you’re separated. Although previously I mentioned that there might be some differences between the West and the East, I wanted to show that the fundamental emotions like love, anger and jealousy can be universal. So, when I was wondering which time period to choose, I just thought it would be entertaining to choose the same period as the novel and show those things. Another point is, similarly to when I was filming ‘An Affair’ and was trying to pinpoint conventions of Korean melodrama in other films, then change them when making my films, and I was trying to do the same things with this historical drama. So, the conventions that I was unsatisfied with, I wanted to change and visually I aimed to create a different type of historical piece.
Eastern Kicks: What were the types of conventions you were trying to go against?
E J-yong: Until ‘Untold Scandal’, no film had ever spent that much money on the production side of things. Also, other films have used similar types of music in costume dramas, making them largely standardised. The end of the 18th Century, in the Chosun Dynasty in Korea, there were a lot of cultural changes taking place, so I felt it was quite appropriate to choose that setting compared to other periods in Korean history.
E J-yong: When I look back, there was one factor that really motivated me. In the Chosun Dynasty, the country rewarded good behaviour and moral deeds. For example, when a widow wouldn’t marry again and instead served her mother-in-law well until she died, they would make a gate at their house, congratulating their behaviour. At the time, society also adhered to Confucian morals and there were very strict opinions about sexual matters, so I thought this story, at this time, would be impossible. On the other hand, if everyone did follow these strict moral conventions, why would the government need to have a policy that rewarded good deeds? Surely, in reality, it was the opposite and that’s why the government needed to implement the policy. This peaked my curiosity.
MiniMiniMovies: The cinematography in ‘Untold Scandal’: Did you choose to work with Kim Byung-il because of his previous work or just because you knew him to work with?
E J-yong: There are many people I would like to work with and then there are many factors like being available to work together at the same time. I chose to work with Kim Byung-il because I saw the film ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’.
Hangul Celluloid: Your films regularly feature characters who show a different face to the outside world than the people they really are. How important are those sorts of ideas to you, as a filmmaker?
E J-yong: My personal opinion is that, depending on who you’re meeting, there will be different interpretations of the person you are, regardless of what the reality is. I also believe that every person has a number of different characters within themselves, and you’ll naturally show a different side of yourself whether you’re meeting a friend, your parents or your partner, and that interests me.
London Korean Links: If we could talk a little bit about ‘Dasepo Sonyo’ [Dasepo Naughty Girls]: You said that in ‘Untold Scandal’ you spent a lot of money on production design, and in ‘Dasepo Sonyo’ a lot of attention was spent on the costumes, colours, and you produced something very new in the choreography and the song and dance. Can you tell us a little bit about working with Ahn Eun-mi - how you came to work with her and what she was like to work with? As she’s well known for using colours on stage, how much input did she have in the way the film looked?
E J-yong: I mentioned previously that I believe everyone has different characters within themselves, and I have a preference – I like minimalism as was shown in ‘An Affair’. However, I also like camp culture which was shown in this film. So, all of these elements were used because I like them myself. The reason that I could work and have a close relationship with Ahn Eun-mi was because of the part of me that likes camp culture. It wasn’t really a case of her bringing in new elements to the film, rather I thought she could understand the film easily and make it entertaining. That's really why I chose her to do the choreography of the film. In fact, in the film she plays the part of the shaman, but I didn’t initially choose her for the role. Firstly, I couldn’t find an actress suitable for that role and secondly the person in charge of the costume didn’t quite understand what to make and made the wrong thing. So, the day before shooting, it was decided that Ahn Eun-mi would play the role wearing her own costume, which demonstrates how well she understood the film.
Hangul Celluloid: Why did you choose to make as light-hearted film as ‘Dasepo Naughty Girls’ when all of your other films are so much more serious by contrast?
E J-yong: In my case, I think the films that I wanted to make in my twenties, I'm actually making much later in my career.
When I was attending film school, I wanted to make films like ‘Actresses’ and ‘Dasepo Naughty Girls’, but it turned out that I got to make ‘Untold Scandal’ and ‘An Affair’ early on instead. So, rather than following one style of filmmaking, I think I get more energy when I’m looking at things that I don’t know or haven’t tried before.
Eastern Kicks: What filmmakers do you like? Who would your favourite filmmakers be and do certain films influence your work?
E J-yong: I think there are probably over 100 directors that I admire. Each director has different styles that they either like or dislike but if I was to name some of the directors whose films I do like, they would be: Woody Allen, Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, Eric Rohmer. I admire their styles. So many directors I like. [E J-yong smiles]
MiniMiniMovies: In ‘An Affair’ there is a nice sprinkling of comedy and I know you like to do that with all of your films. Why do you feel it’s important to have some comedy in whatever subject matter you’re working on?
E J-yong: For a moment, I was thinking “Which parts are funny in ‘An Affair’ because that my least funny film. Personally, I don’t like very serious things and whether it’s a sense of humour within black humour or normal humour, those are the things that I like. When I was previously talking about all the directors I like, they would deal with serious life matters with a sense of humour.
London Korean Links: I haven’t seen ‘Actresses’ yet, and as far as I know neither have the others here. From what I understand it’s virtually unscripted and a very different style to your previous films. What was it like trying to work with six famous actresses all doing their own thing?
E J-yong: ‘Actresses’ is a combination of reality show and fake documentary. As far as how the film got started, I would casually have drinks with Yoon Yeo-jeong and Ko Hyeon-jeong who would tell me about their private lives which I would find incredibly entertaining and I always thought it was a shame that I was the only one that knew this. That was how the film began. In Korea, the other side of actresses isn’t really known and the actresses in this film also appear on TV so the public weren’t aware of the reality of their lives. Therefore I thought that Korean audiences might find it entertaining for them to appear in the film.
Hangul Celluloid: With all of the actresses playing themselves, how much input did they have in the final screenplay?
E J-yong: Fundamentally, the part of the film that was fake was the set-up, where the actresses were brought together for a photo shoot, but in terms of the overall film it was a based on what I knew about each of the actresses and drawing on the nature of actresses themselves. However, within that setting, the actresses talking or gossiping couldn’t be written by myself and those were the parts that were improvised on the spot, which taps into the reality show aspect of the film.
Hangul Celluloid: In terms of your directorial style, were there many differences or challenges to making a documentary-style film from your normal style of direction?
E J-yong: ‘Actresses’ was shot over ten days and there was a lot of improvisation, so, yes, it was a very different film to make from my normal style and brought a lot of new and different challenges.
London Korean Links: Going back to ‘Sunebo’, if I may, it wasn’t all that successful at the box office. Why do you think people didn’t like it at the time?
E J-yong: Initially, when I was making that film I didn’t think it would be mainstream, when I considered the story and the audience, so at the time I just didn’t want to make a loss on it. Again I was interested in not following the conventional melodrama setting, where the characters don’t meet but do fall in love. Prior to this film, I don’t think there were any films made between Korea and Japan – It’s not really important what the records say, but I think it was the first time there was a collaboration and at the time relations were improving. So, shooting in a foreign country and in an unfamiliar environment was something that I’m sure played a role in my decision making. The story isn’t the type of love story that people were familiar with or were expecting and I think that’s what the biggest reason for its lack of success.
Eastern Kicks: As you’ve covered so many styles during your career, is there any style of film you haven’t made yet that you would like to?
E J-yong: There are many projects that I want to try, but whether they’re commercial, I’m not sure. Although I’m interested in films that are well made in themselves, I have a lot of ideas that are quite unfilm-like. But there are a lot of films that I want to pursue and that I’m interested in. Recently Samsung wanted me to make a show film using their Galaxy notebook, so I got involved as a director. I was in LA shooting a film that was taking place in Seoul, and that was only possible because it was a show film.
Eastern Kicks: Are you working on any projects at the moments?
E J-yong: Directors are always working on new projects. The project closest to me now is adapting the Chinese novel ‘Chronicle of a Blood Seller’, but a few days ago I had another offer so I’m not sure which project will come first.
Eastern Kicks: This year, there are a lot of Korean directors making English language films in the US. Is that something that appeals to you?
E J-yong: For me, trying out new things is always a meaningful experience although going to America is not my goal or target, but ultimately if an opportunity was to present itself it’s not something I’d shy away from. When I was making the show film for Samsung, I shot the film while in LA and there was a joke I threw out there: ‘Director E J-yong goes to Hollywood’. There are many locations I could have shot the film but I deliberately chose LA to play upon that.
Hangul Celluloid: I have one final, rather off the wall question: On the UK DVD of ‘Dasepo Naughty Girls’ there is an interview with you where your face is pixelated out, while no-one else who is interviewed has their image altered. What that pixilation of your face your decision?
E J-yong: Before ‘Dasepo Naughty Girls’ was based on an internet cartoon amine and the issues in it were quite difficult to bring to a mainstream film - quite awkward and almost forbidden issues. So when I received the offer to make this film, a part of me was extremely interested but my first reaction was that my name couldn’t be divulged if I took the project on.
So, half jokingly, I would say that I wanted to make the film using another name and that’s how it got started. Prior to promotion, I was using my fake name of director Lee and at the beginning of the film it even says ‘Director Lee’ and then switches over to my real name.
The fact that I wanted to hide my identity was impossible at the end of the day, and it became a joke. I held the position that I wanted to be behind, not in front of, the camera and I didn’t want to be in the DVD Extras so the decision to make the part you mention was made, and I think it actually fits quite well with the film as well. I haven’t actually seen the extras, so this is the first time I’ve heard about it. I guess I’m just too shy to watch myself. [E J-yong laughs]
I would sincerely like to thank all the staff at the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing us to interview director E J-yong.