The following interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on May 31st 2012, prior to a screening of 'Love Fiction' and director Q&A at the Apollo cinema, Picadilly.
Hangul Celluloid: Your early career wasn’t actually in film. As you studied philosophy at Songang University and began your creative career in theatre, always having a keen interest in musicals, how did you make the move into cinema to become the assistant director on ‘Singles’?
Jeon Gye-soo: After graduating from university, I went to Japan hand worked there for two years and, being in a foreign country, it was quite lonely so I spent a lot of time watching as many films as possible, possibly 500-1000, and by doing that my eyes were naturally opened to filmmaking. Up to that point, I hadn’t even liked cinema that much but I quickly became passionate about it. Rather than going to film school and spending a long time studying, I thought the best thing to do would be to just start making films and I started to look at ways to do that and that led to me being, as you said, the assistant director on ‘Singles’.
Korean Class Massive: I heard that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Delicatessen’ inspired you to direct. What was it about that film that attracted you?
Jeon Gye-soo: Like you said, Delicatessen was the main inspiration for me to direct and I was particularly attracted to the way Jean-Pierre Jeunet saw and portrayed the world and it was after that that I conceived my first project, ‘Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre’. I tried to portray the world in a similar way, rather than the way it actually is.
Mini Mini Movies: If I could ask a question about ‘Ghost Theatre’: Was it a difficult decision to mix a lot of genres together in the film because it doesn’t seem to have just one? And did you mind the way it might be received by the public? Did you just make it the way you wanted to?
Jeon Gye-soo: The general reaction from audiences when the film was released was that they were quite surprised by what they saw because it was quite unusual in terms of content and the way it was made. So, not many people actually came to see the film in the cinema but it was received quite well by critics and they largely praised the film. It was when the film was eventually released on DVD that a lot more people saw ‘Ghost Theatre’ and it became almost a cult film. So, that particular style was, again, a source of controversy and people didn’t really know how to respond to it when they saw it in the cinema but its particularity was the motivation for me to make my next project.
Hangul Celluloid: Carrying on from that, watching ‘Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre’ is rather like watching a theatrical piece, almost a ‘live’ musical, with a minimal number of sets used and a lot of the camera work being from a fixed position. Was the reason for that budget constraints, your background being in theatre, or both?
Jeon Gye-soo: It was definitely a combination of both, like you said. The budget was indeed really, really small and there was partly the intention to set the film in a self-contained space so that the budget could be managed, but thinking along those lines I actually liked the idea of setting a story within very limited space, it was quite interesting to me, but there was a suggestion from the industry at the time that perhaps I should raise the budget and try turning it into a bigger movie. At the time, Moon Geun-young was a rising star and it was suggested that the movie should be a more elaborate affair to enable her to become attached to it. However, she declined and said the film deserved to be treated in a more intimate and minimal manner to really do it justice, rather than trying to make it bigger for the sake of it. The other reason was the fact that a big budget film would have taken a lot longer to make, so all-in-all I decided to use a smaller budget and make the film the way I really wanted to make it.
Hangul Celluloid: If you had to make ‘Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre’ now, would you still approach it the way you did at the time or would you use a bigger budget?
Jeon Gye-soo: I’d definitely use a bigger budget. [Jeon Gye-soo laughs]
CineAsia-Online: Did you find it difficult to cast ‘Ghost Theatre’? You chose Kim Kkobbi to play the main character, a mixture of Alice, from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and Wynona Ryder’s character in ‘Beetlejuice’. How did you go about finding an actress who could portray these elements?
Jeon Gye-soo: Yes, the casting was incredibly difficult. I conducted many, many auditions with newcomers, new actresses, but what I wanted was indeed that image of Alice and though Kkobbi wasn’t the best singer, she did have that exact, perfect, image. Although I wanted to make the film in the style of ‘Delicatessen’ - that was really my preoccupation – I had also wanted to have ideas from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and, as I’ve said, Kkobbi was really suitable for that role.
CineAsia-Online: What about the music in the film? It has a very rock opera feel mixed with blues. What were your musical inspirations during the making of the film?
Jeon Gye-soo: When I write a project, I normally draw up a musical concept at the scriptwriting stage. When I was writing ‘Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre’ I listened to a progressive rock band called ‘Devil Dog’ a lot, and their style of music is a combination of blues, opera and circus music all mixed together. I listened to them repeatedly during the scriptwriting process. They have one particular song that is 16 minutes long and has many elements and covers many musical genres. From that point on, I really wanted to use those types of ideas in ‘Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre’.
London Korean Times: Since you didn’t have a background in filmmaking, were there any aspects, such as camera work and editing, that you found particularly difficult?
Jeon Gye-soo: I have no idea how a camera works [Jeon Gye-soo laughs]. I’m still trying to get used to all the technology associated with filmmaking but I always try to ensure that I work with a good crew and I always get a lot of energy and creativity from my filmmaking team. In fact, from ‘Midnight Ballad’ right through to ‘Love Fiction’, I have worked with the same film crew and that plays a large part in my approach.
Hangul Celluloid: If I could ask one more question about ‘Ghost Theatre’ before we move on to your other work: You’ve said that you listened to progressive rock music constantly when you were writing the film and that obviously led to the film having a large gothic element, but at the end of the film when the ‘monster’, if I can call it that, appears, the film positively screams Greek mythology: There’s a seeming homage to Theseus and the Minotaur in both the monster itself and in Kkobbi’s jumper unravelling to keep her from losing her way etc. How does that fit in with your personal passions? Are you interested in mythology, be it Korean, Greek or mythology in general?
Jeon Gye-soo: Yes, I have a great interest in mythology and you’re absolutely right that I deliberately referenced the myth of the Minotaur as well as Theseus and Ariadne and tried to adapt the original stories for my film. In fact, even my next project is based on a biblical story. I throw a lot of mythological references into my films, in a way it’s one of my preoccupations.
Mini Mini Movies: ‘You and Me’ seems to use a lot of camera techniques even though it’s a short film. There was one very long scene which followed the girl. What was the reason behind that scene or was it just experimentation? Was it a single tracking shot?
Jeon Gye-soo: I wouldn’t say it was just experimentation but it is true that I wanted to try a number of techniques in that scene. I wanted to see the emotional impact of a camera following a character and that came directly from my experience of watching ‘Elephant’ [2003, Gus van Sant], there’s some incredibly powerful tracking work used in it.
Korean Class Massive: As it’s still fairly early in your career, have you any specific goals for the future such as working with specific actors or actresses, or are there any film festivals you want to see your films screened at?
Jeon Gye-soo: My next project is a mystery thriller and I always try to focus on different genres – that really the ultimate goal of directing in my career. The other thing is, I’d love to be able to make a film in two years, I like the thought of that pace. And finally, I’d like to work with Johnny Depp – the hotel in London that I’m staying in is where he stayed a few days ago.
Hangul Celluloid: Does that mean that you’d be interested in doing what a number of other Korean filmmakers are currently doing and work in cinema in other countries - making English language films in the US, UK or wherever? Does the idea of temporarily working outside Korea appeal to you?
Jeon Gye-soo: Yes, I would love working in another country with a different cultural background. Especially after my experiences of living and working in Japan, I would love to make a film there and likewise I would be interested in working in Western cultures - England, Europe, and the US.
CineAsia-Online: With ‘Love Fiction’ topping the Korean box office on its release, do you think Korean attitudes have changed in the last 10-15 years? Do you think Korean people feel “This is a Korean film, it’s my culture, so I want to see it” rather than wanting to watch ‘The Avengers’?
Jeon Gye-soo: There has been a change in the past ten years or so with Korean films becoming more popular in general, but if you look at the current Korean box office figures, ‘The Avengers’ is still No. 1 as we speak. When ‘Love Fiction’ was released, we were fortunate we weren’t up against any Hollywood blockbusters, so I was able to attract a large audience in Korea more easily than might otherwise have been the case. If we talk in percentages, probably 50% of Korean people want to watch a Korean film on its release, but the influence of blockbusters, especially from Hollywood, still have a big effect on Korean box office figures.
Mini Mini Movies: If I can ask a question about ‘Lost and Found’: Did you have any input into the decision to base and shoot the film in Chuncheon? And there’s a party scene in the film which mentions film as art and art being film. Is that something you have strong views about? Do you think art and film are part of the same thing or completely separate?
Jeon Gye-soo: If you look at my film, all the protagonists are artists or creative individuals - a director in ‘Midnight Ballad’, a painter in ‘Lost and Found’ and a novelist in ‘Love Fiction’ – and while there is a muse element to this, my main focus is showing their struggle and, of course, there are always interesting things that happen in parallel. That’s largely my intention. The artistic statement on ‘Lost and Found’ is similar to that idea and I thought there would be many exciting stories and interesting conflicts within the main story. With regard to the other part of your question, ‘Lost and Found’ was never designed to be a cinema release, it was originally made as a television film. It was commissioned by Arirang TV which is an international channel and the project consisted of five directors choosing five cities and each making a short film. I chose Chuncheon as the city, that’s how it started, and after the film was made it went to Busan and got picked up. That’s how it ended up being released in cinemas.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve said you like to focus on artists as your main characters. ‘Love Fiction’ is almost entirely shown from the perspective of the male character only. Considering the fact that the film’s a romantic comedy, thereby likely to appeal to women perhaps more than men, why did you choose that focus? And also did you specifically choose to cast Ha Jung-woo as the hapless male as a contrast to his previous hard-hitting, often violent, roles and did you cast Kong Hyo-jin as the heroine because of her huge popularity as a television actress - possibly even more well known for her TV work than her films?
Jeon Gye-soo: With regard to the casting, Ha Jung-woo was obviously incredibly well known for his violent and very masculine roles and he wanted to show a different side of himself to Korean audiences, so he jumped at the chance to play in my film and he was totally comfortable with it. Kong Hyo-jin wasn’t known as the prettiest actress in Korean at the time, so I wanted to show audiences how beautiful she could really be. So I wanted to show a contrast to the very well known images both actors had. Regarding your other question, I don’t know or understand women at all [Jeon Gye-soo laughs loudly]. Seriously, I find the way that men cope with romance and romantic situations quite funny and interesting, so that was, in a way, why I chose to approach the subject of love by showing and focusing on a man who is quite shabby and really doesn’t know how to deal with love and romance. I joked about not knowing women, but it is true that it was easier for me to look at the subject from a male perspective. Of course, when it comes to romances and romantic comedies they more often focus on female characters so I also wanted to subvert that convention of genre. In fact, even in the Korean press, they labelled ‘Love Fiction’ as the male version of ‘Bridget Jones’.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Lost and Found’ has often been compared to the work of Hong Sang-soo. How do you feel about that?
Jeon Gye-soo: I feel really bad! [Jeon Gye-soo laughs again] I respect Hong Sang-soo and I actually like his films but when my work is compared to his, I’m less happy. I have never had any intention of making a film like Hong Sang-soo’s work in style or content and though I am aware that ‘Lost and Found’ has been compared to his films repeatedly over the years, that certainly isn’t an honour for me.
CineAsia-Online: How do you expect the audience to react to ‘Love Fiction’ at the screening tonight?
Jeon Gye-soo: This is my first time in the UK, so I really have no idea how the audience will react to the film, but I am very interested to find out.
On behalf of everyone involved in the interview, I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging for us all to talk to director Jeon Gye-soo at such length.