The following interview took place at the Prince Charles Cinema, London, on June 8th 2013 prior to the 'Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013' screening of 'The Berlin File'.
Hangul Celluloid: Throughout your career, actors and actresses appearing in your films have subsequently become huge stars or, as is the case in ‘The Berlin File, you’ve chosen incredibly famous actors - almost a Who’s Who of Korean cinema - to form the cast of specific films. Do you feel that your films can influence an actor’s ‘star power’ and do you think ‘star power’ still affects the success of films, including yours, as much as it once did?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I think that not only in Korea but also worldwide, audiences come to watch films in order to see the actors. Currently, there’s a hugely successful film in Korea that features a newly-rising young male actor and the success of that film really comes on the back of his stardom; breaking all kinds of box-office records, in the process. It’s a very special experience seeing someone’s face on a large screen and I think that movie stars themselves have an important influence. In the case of ‘The Berlin File’, the story is quite dark to be screened as a commercial, mainstream film in Korea - there’s not a lot of humour and there are North Korean characters as part of the main cast - and as I was expecting production costs to be very high strategically I needed star actors to offset the commercial risk of and dark tone of such a gritty film. So, to pull in audiences I had to use the ‘star system’ in Korea. I think, as a result, that strategy worked very well. In fact, without the star actors I don’t think the film would have been as commercially successful in Korea. However, though an actor may be a star, if they can’t act then I won’t be able to focus on the set so everyone as a principle must be able to act well and I get a lot of help from that, as a result.
Wai Lu Yin: My question is regarding the setting of ‘The Berlin File’: Why did you choose to set the film in Berlin?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Firstly, I wanted to make a film featuring spy characters and the city of Berlin as a setting lured me. With my film ‘The Unjust’ I attended the Berlin Film Festival and got a very clear impression of what the city was like. Berlin has the biggest North Korean embassy in the world and when I saw it, it gave me inspiration. The symbolism that the city of Berlin offered was very important for me especially as Germany and specifically Berlin until the 80s, alongside North and South Korea, was the symbol of a divided nation. In John Le Carre’s novel ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, depicting Berlin in the 80s, it says that six out of ten people in the streets were spies and also Berlin is closely associated with the history of Korea itself; for example, in the 70s in Korea many university students who had studied in Berlin were falsely accused of being spies and arrested by the Korean Government. In the 60s and 70s, a very famous Korean director called Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee, who was also a huge star, were kidnapped by North Koreans; eventually managing to escape while attending the Berlin Film Festival and seeking refuge and asylum in the United States. Even today, Korea is a divided country and due to a law called the National Security Law there are a lot of Koreans in Berlin who are unable to return to Korea. As such, I felt that Berlin was an appropriate stage and setting for shooting my film’s story. And of course the title is much better than something like ‘The Bangkok File’ [Ryoo Seung-wan laughs].
Korean Class Massive: In your Masterclass earlier today [one of the events of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival], you said that you often do a lot of prep work for action scenes in order to maximise a film’s budget. How was it in the case of ‘The Berlin File’ when you were preparing for action scenes in another country? Did you have the opportunity to do as much prep work as usual?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Although Berlin is the backdrop for the entire film, the outdoor scenes were split between Berlin and a city called Riga in Latvia and of course that was related to the budget, in order to reduce costs. Also, for the indoor scenes I would location plan in Berlin, then return to Korea, create a set identical to the one I had found in Berlin and shoot the scene in Korea. One useful method to ensure the budget is not wasted is to repeatedly practice beforehand and in filming in a space I wasn’t familiar with, not having lived there, I and my team would visit quite often, test out what lines of movement would work and try shooting on digital cameras in an attempt to prepare as much as possible.
easternKicks: You said earlier in the Masterclass that your generation grew up watching Hong Kong movies from the 60s to the 80s. Beyond your own films, how much influence do you feel Hong Kong cinema had on South Korean films and have you ever considered a co-production much like Choi Dong-hoon did in ‘The Thieves’ with Hong Kong stars appearing?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Though Hong Kong films influenced my own films, I don’t think they influenced Korean films in general that much and maybe that’s because it was rather a different environment. When you look at Korean film history at the time in the 80s when Hong Kong films were at their most influential, there was a brief period where fake Hong Kong movies were being made in Korea and, in a similar way to the spaghetti westerns that were made in Europe, there was a time when martial arts films were made in Korea. However, because Korea has always had a strong tradition of films based on realism those genre films never became mainstream so it is a very unique case for me to have been influenced by genre films. Although I really liked Hong Kong films, that was very much a preference of mine in the past more than nowadays so I don’t really have thoughts of collaborating with anyone else to make a film but if the story I wanted to tell needed the backdrop of Hong Kong, then I would. For now, what’s important for me is to make Korean films and my personal films.
Mike Fury: In the past, when you were directed; acted in a role; and performed action in front of the camera, how did you find this type of challenge and how did you overcome any associated problems?
Ryoo Seung-wan: It was such a long time ago that I directed and acted in a film that my memories of what was most difficult for me are rather blurry but one thing I do remember being difficult was my feeling rather scatty: Acting in a scene; moving behind the camera and then acting again was never easy and because that process is so scatty I don’t tend to do it anymore. Also, when I don’t like my own acting I can’t really blame it on anyone else [Ryoo Seung-wan laughs] and I think that’s quite difficult as well.
MiniMiniMovies: I’d like to move on from the acting to your writing because you play a big part on the screenwriting of your films as well. I wondered if rewrites get easier as they progress or does each rewrite get harder?
Ryoo Seung-wan: It becomes increasingly difficult the more I write and honestly speaking I would like to just receive a great script and work on that only as a director. However, it’s not often that I would read a good script and bizarrely enough in Korea those who write good scripts are also very good directors. Even when I would receive a script by someone else, I would spend a lot of time rewriting it, editing it and altering it to my style - that’s just a habit of mine. For me, the process of writing a script is enjoyable at the same time as being difficult and finding this “great script” is a very big wish and desire of mine.
Cine_Asie: Action and genre films are the most popular Korean films in foreign markets. As ‘The Berlin File’ is produced by CJ and CJ is increasing its international contribution, how much did you consider the international market when you were selected the cast and developed the script and how much weight did foreign markets place on the way you created the film?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Honestly speaking, the foreign market isn’t my priority. Although foreign audiences watching films are indeed important I think for any film the mother country and its market is far more so and for the audience there to find a film successful is more important. In terms of foreign markets and having concepts like market, profits and numbers, I like to conceptualise it in a different way: Strictly speaking, a market is dictated by how many people speak the language of the film, so for example the Korean population wouldn’t amount to a huge market. I do sense that Korean audiences like genre films but compared to, say Hollywood, it’s a very small market. I think establishing that market is the role of people in the film business industry and for me as someone who is making films it’s just more important to make good films. Once you do make a good film, as time passes at some point in the future its value will be recognised so for me paying attention to foreign markets and audiences isn’t really important.
Cine_Asie: As Berlin is in Germany which has a wide Korean population, did that fact have any impact - though you say that’s not important for you, it may be for CJ?
Ryoo Seung-wan: No, not really at all. I think that any good film is able to overcome any barriers of language culture and time and to be free from all those restraints and be able to transcend those barriers is the purpose for me when I’m making a good film.
Mike Fury: A couple of years ago, you made an MBC documentary called ‘Spies’ leading up to ‘The Berlin File’. I was wondering how that came about and how much of the documentary carried through to the film?
Ryoo Seung-wan: That offer came from a Korean broadcasting company and they gave me free reign on the subject matter for the documentary so I thought I would use the broadcaster’s money to do the research for ‘The Berlin File’. While making the documentary, I met many people who appeared in it because they were either being monitored or were connected with the National Intelligence Agency and they were incredible helpful to me in making this film. One of those real-life people I met ended up being the model for the role of the main character in ‘The Berlin File’.
Koreaffinity: You are from the same generation of directors as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho etc. and you are now, along with them, among the most famous of Korean directors. How do you feel about now being part of the mainstream as opposed to when you all started out? And did you have any problems with censorship in relation to your films; either earlier in your career or at the present time?
Ryoo Seung-wan: At the time I made my debut film in 2000, it was a very special time for me. I made my debut in the same year as director Bong Joon-ho and 2000 was also the year director Park Chan-wook made a very successful film [‘Joint Security Area’] and Kim Jee-woon released ‘The Foul King’. For me, working at the same time as such competent directors who make very good films is very helpful in creating “face-makers” in the film industry. As I watched their films, I would learn and it would also give me the motivation to make better films, but it also caused me some suffering that I was living at the same time as such talented directors. At the end of the day, each of us has our own past and it’s an interesting journey. I don’t ever particularly have thoughts about leading the industry but we do, as directors, get together from time to time and talk about each other’s films. In fact, just before I came to London I met with director Park Chan-wook and he commented on my latest script and I commented on his.
Dr Colette Balmain: Carrying on from that, considering the fact that Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’ was very successful in the US and elsewhere, would you consider making a film in the US?
Ryoo Seung-wan: Not really. I’m not very likely to make a film in the US. With Stoker, since I read the script, I thought that if Park Chan-wook did make it, it would be an amazing film. When Park Chan-wook started out he was very much into Hitchcock films etc. so knowing and understanding his preferences very well I thought that script really fitted him. I’m a different person to Park Chan-wook so I’d be very unsure of following in his wake.
Hangul Celluloid: The Berlin File’ is very dark and gritty but as is the case in the majority of your work there is virtually no mention of sex or adult content. In fact, virtually the only reference to sexuality in ‘The Berlin File’ is Jeon Ji-hyun’s character being told to take off her wedding ring and “take good care” of an older individual involved in a deal with the North Koreans. Considering the increasing appearance of adult content in Korean mainstream cinema and the almost forced labelling of films as ‘erotic’, what lies behind your decision to avoid discussions of sex in your films?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I just really not very good at that sort of thing at all. In fact, I haven’t even shot a single kiss scene in my films because I honestly wouldn’t know what to do or how to film them and I just don’t know how to shoot those kinds of scenes. I honestly don’t think I have talent in that area. It’s just better to kill people in films [Ryoo Seung-wan laughs] and I do know how to do that.
Wai Lu Yin: Having to shoot as many commercial films as possible because of major Korean film companies giving sponsorship, what are your feelings about the lack of awareness of independent films within Korea and the fact that, instead, independent films are spread out in international markets such as at film festivals?
Ryoo Seung-wan: I don’t think that just a problem in Korea but is an issue worldwide. In my opinion, independent and arthouse films have always been like that, are like that now and will continue to be that way in the future. If you look at people going to see a film, they buy popcorn and watch the film as a way to rest their minds and it’s a very small minority who go to films to consider issues or contemplate. I think that’s just the nature of the medium we work in and I think there are both good points and bad points relating to film sponsorship by big organisations. Sponsorship of that kind ultimately enabled me to make ‘The Berlin File’ but at the same time those big companies dominate the cinemas meaning that smaller films are unable to be shown. However, if you look at the issue in another way, those good international film festivals exist in order to provide a spotlight to those smaller films that might get missed in cinemas. If you look at the Cannes Film Festival, beneath the screening of international and arthouse films there is a huge amount of marketing going on so I think the medium of film is a combination of artistic logics and commercial logics; co-existing together.
easternKicks: I was really interested in the casting of Han Suk-kyu in ‘The Berlin File’. He became such an iconic Korean actor because of appearing in ‘Shiri’, ‘Tell Me Something’, 'Green Fish' etc. but hasn’t been very active in recent years. I wondered if you were trying to reinvigorate his career and perhaps raise audience memories of him being in ‘Shiri’?
Ryoo Seung-wan: When I was making ‘The Berlin File’, I was thinking of ten years on from ‘Shiri’. If we think of the man losing the woman he loved in ‘Shiri’ and then leading a very bleak and impoverished life, he is now able to see a bit of himself in the North Korean character in this film, and if you do enjoy watching Korean films, you can make that interpretation as well.
On behalf of all of those involved, I would sincerely like to thank Terracotta Distribution for arranging this group interview with director Ryoo Seung-wan.
You can also read the Hangul Celluloid 2011 individual interview with director Ryoo at:
And finally, the Hangul Celluloid review of 'The Berlin File' can be found at: