The following interview took place at the Apollo Cinema, Picadilly, London, on July 26th 2012 prior to a screening of 'Hindsight' and director Q&A.
Hangul Celluloid: One of your early films, ‘Il Mare,’ is generally considered to be an example of classic Korean cinema and like a lot of films from around the same time it deals with a story of the romance between two people who are held apart by time and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Many films critics have repeatedly claimed that those types of story elements subliminally reference North and South Korea being separated and, again, held apart by differences and obstacles. Was it your intention to make these underlying references in ‘Il Mare’ or are critics simply reading things into films that aren’t actually there?
Lee Hyeon-seung: I’m not too sure whether critics are being over-analytical or not. On a conscious level, directors may play with metaphors and symbolism but all directors are human as well and they have a subconscious too. As such, a director cannot know everything that is meant or symbolised in their film and it’s actually the critics, reviewers and audiences that discover additional meanings within films. I think that this makes for a far more rewarding and enriching experience. As it’s impossible for a director to be aware of absolutely everything, especially in their subconscious, and since, I think, for all Koreans the subject of the North/South divide is deeply embedded, it’s almost impossible even for me to know if these meanings are subconsciously inserted or simply perceived to be present.
London Korea Times: I’d like to ask about feminism in your films: Right from ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’ through to ‘Hindsight’, you have focused on female characters and their stories are shown through their laughter, their pain and their sadness. Was your intention to explore female characters in terms of their feelings and personalities in life, throughout your projects?
Lee Hyeon-seung: When I was at university, I studied feminism which, at the time, had just been introduced into the university models and despite being a man I took it anyway. It was a really shocking experience for me and the teaching was based on a Korean novel telling the story of a woman sacrificing her life in order for a man to become perfect. It depicted the patriarchal nature of society and it was at that point that I became aware of it. I decided that when I would make a film in the future I would use this meaningful theme. A the time, not many female directors were discussing these themes within films so, even though I’m a man, I thought I would introduce them in my films. Most of my films revolve around both male and female protagonists, what happens between them and the politics of it all and, in fact, the first of my films to feature these themes was ‘The Blue in You’, which was made when feminism was first taking a hold in Korea, and a lot of subsequent debate and discussion was sparked because of that film.
CineAsia_Online: What are your thoughts on female Korean directors. I ask because I know you have shown support for ‘Remember O Goddess’ which is directed by Yoon Jung Lee. How do you see female directors progressing considering how predominately male the Korean film industry still is?
Lee Hyeon-seung: The status of women in Korean society has improved greatly over the years but it remains the case that there are not a lot of female directors around. The film industry in Korean can be extremely tough and a gruelling environment so it’s quite difficult for female directors to operate freely, even though Korea has numerous, excellent female producers. One of the reasons I think that female directors don’t want to discuss feminist issues or create feminist films within their films is because the industry is so male-oriented: They largely want to sidestep their feminine identity and join in with discussions of more patriarchal issues and male-dominated themes and films.
Korean Class Massive: From the trailers and what I’ve heard about ‘Hindsight’, it seems that the film is from more of a male perspective and has a lot more action than your other films and usual style. What was it like making a film showing a male character’s perspective and a film with far more action than usual?
Lee Hyeon-seung: Personally, I wanted to express male/female relationships within different film genres and this one is my attempt at a combination of a romance and an action thriller. In Korean society, and this is also true worldwide, there is vast youth unemployment and it’s a very difficult time for the younger generation today, probably much more than for my generation. Externally, it may seem that the world’s a better place and there’s a lot more to go around but there’s a real atmosphere of hopelessness for the future. The two protagonists in ‘Hinsight’ have a bit of a generational gap between them and the characters are meant to embody a warmth and feeling of friendship for each other, coated with action as part of the package. I wanted a lot more female action in the film which required an extremely lengthy and involved period of training and considering the way the Koran film industry is set up, it’s quite hard to hold onto one actor for a long time. Therefore, a lot of compromise had to take place. Actress who plays the female protagonist in ‘Hindsight’ is a fairly new actress and she was taking acting lessons during filming at the same time as training for the action sequences. She was getting very little sleep and though she worked incredibly hard there simply wasn’t enough time to get the level of action that I wanted for the film, which is one of my biggest regrets. Instead, we had to downplay the action and go for a softer, more mellow tone to compensate for the lack of female action I so desperately wanted.
MiniMiniMovies: I have a two-part question relating to ‘The Blue in You’ and ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’: ‘The Blue in You’ seems quite experimental and sporadic, especially in terms of the editing. I wondered if your intention was to be quite artistic as well as telling the story? And the second part of my question is: I wondered if you have a love of photography because it seemed to be intertwined with the way ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’ was made?
Lee Hyeon-seung: In Korean society, it’s important to have some kind of uniqueness as a director. If I can make the same film as anyone else, there’s really no need for me to make any film. That’s incredibly important in the world of directors. For me, the films were an experimental attempt but also aligned with the concern that I still want to meet and communicate with the audience. In the film ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’, the main character is autobiographical and based on my youth and my time at university. In the 80’s, like everyone else, I played a bit of sport and I also shot CF/adverts as well as taking photographs and films. The 80’s was an incredibly turbulent time in Korea and it’s true that I was consistent with the capitalist tone of the time. At the end of the film, the main male character isn’t simply dying but it’s more representative of symbolically being recycled and when he can no longer produce films you see him lying in the rubbish dump, his dead body surrounded by rubbish and film as well. The closing of the film represents the idea that when you are no longer taking pictures you are essentially being recycled and it reflects a lot of personal contemplation I’ve had regarding making images.
Dr. Colette Balmain: I’d like to carry on from that: One of the incredibly interesting things, to me, about both ‘The Blue in You’ and ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’ is that they deal with not just a family struggle but how that is used to talk about human rights more generally, and in particular in relation to Africa. I wondered if you could say something about that reference to poverty and suffering outside South Korea?
Lee Hyeon-seung: Up until Korea began to emerge onto the international and world stage, around the period when I was at university, it was very closed up and there really wasn’t much opportunity to know what was going on in the rest of the world - In Korea we were largely debating with ourselves about ourselves – but when I started travelling, I became aware that the world we live in is vast and wide; there are many people out there who are having a far more difficult lives; and that there are more people, environments and a huge variety of life out there. AS a Korean, I think it’s incredibly important to have the mentality of being a world citizen, so that was the main reason for introducing the images of Africa into the film and introducing the different lives that peole live outside, as well as escaping the fierce, competitive nature in Korea and actually look at other lives being lived elsewhere. I also wanted to attempt to share something with them, rather than just Koreans themselves.
Hangul Celluloid: Still on the subject of ‘The Blue in You’ and ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’, both films feature sexuality: ‘Sunset into the Neon Lights’ has pornography playing on a video screen and the narrative of ‘The Blue in You’ is highly sexually charged. Considering the time that those films were made, were you worried about the possible controversy that would be caused by that sexual content and what audience reactions to that provocative sexuality would be?
Lee Hyeon-seung: As I mentioned previously, my films deal with the relationships between women and men and, of course, that includes sexuality and gender issues. I think that between men and women, sexuality is always an underlying issue, it’s just not often articulated explicitly and that’s particularly true for Korean society back then. Sexuality always existed in a kind of dark underworld that no-one really mentioned, and I wanted to articulate sexual identity a bit more and refer to that sexuality specifically. Now, of course, it’s a lot more liberal in Korea, but back in those days it was almost unthinkable that the word “sex” could even be said. So, I guess my ultimate goal in reference to this was to be able to enable conversations where “sex” could be said and even discussed.
Korean Class Massive: Before you were a director yourself, you worked under directors Park Chul-soo and Park Kwang-su. How influenced were you by them and were there things, or ways of working, that you wanted to do yourself, or even things you specifically didn’t want to do as a director?
Lee Hyeon-seung: I don’t think I ever thought that I was going to follow or avoid a specific way of working, I instead looked at how the directors I worked under managed or approached films and paid attention to their views and philosophies on filmmaking, though I’m sure I was subconsciously influenced in some way, for example: director Park Kwang-su’s world views, and at the time it was really difficult for films dealing with social issues. The perfect example of this is the film ‘Black Republic’ and it was really hard for films such as this to depict what was going on in society and the world that we live in. So, from him, I’m sure I was influenced a lot by the way he approached films and by his perspective. As far as director Park Chul-soo is concerned, similarly to myself he made a lot of films dealing with issues between men and women and we had many, many entertaining discussions on the topic. So, when you are an assistant director I don’t think it’s the case that you follow anything directly but I’m sure that all of their practices left an imprint on me subconsciously.
CineAsia_Online: ‘Il Mare’ was remade in Hollywood and recently there has been talk of ‘Oldboy’ being remade in the US. Even Korean directors such as Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook are making English language films. What do you think of this new “Korean Wave in Hollywood”?
Lee Hyeon-seung: At the time that ‘Il Mare’ was remade in Hollywood, Korean films were just started being introduced onto the world stage and had begun to be invited to international film festivals and that resulted in a lot of offers coming from Hollywood. I was one of a group of directors who were approached with these offers, and when we received a script, we all commonly thought that we couldn’t capture it entirely or understand it fully in order to direct the film. There were things that we didn’t know and weren’t familiar with - the actors, the culture, the foreign industry and the landscape - and so there was a period when we were extremely hesitant about taking these offers. When we were studying film, there were many European directors invited to work in Hollywood and one way to put it is to say they failed. These were examples that we studied and they caused some of our hesitancy. It was only last year that Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon finally accepted offers from Hollywood. Kim Jee-woon’s film is very commercial whereas Park Chan-wook’s has more of an Indie nature and, depending on how these films are received, I think we’ll see many more directors accepting offers from Hollywood.
Dr. Colette Balmain: Your films are extremely beautiful and someone I know said ‘The Blue in You’ was the first Korean film to use colour as a mechanism for articulating character and character emotion. I wanted to ask about your influences in the use of colour in your films?
Lee Hyeon-seung: At university, I studied visual design and I had a much greater interest in colour over form. I realised that colour is inherent and intrinsic to human emotions and when you look at the things that people feel when they experience beauty, it’s highly linked with the evolutionary process: Back when we were still just primates, survival was incredibly important function and colour played an important part in enabling that. Although we now live in a different, safer environment, this instinct still has an effect on the way we perceive colour and even our experiences of pleasure and enjoyment. Image can be about artistic or symbolic expressions but it can also be about more intuitive sensuality which is the way I prefer to use it. For example: If you enter a room that is painted yellow, then your mood is instantly uplifted and brightens and the delight that you experience is extremely primeval and instinctive. My use of colour and images is more about symbolic meanings and I prefer to reference sensual aspects with them.
MiniMiniMovies: How did the casting of Ahn Sung-kee come about in ‘The Blue in You’? Did you know him already or was he chosen by a casting director?
Lee Hyeon-seung: There’s no casting director in Korea, it doesn’t really exist as a job in its own right. When I was assistant director to Park Kwang-su, I began to build relationships with actors, and actors often look at assistant directors to see if they are likely to make good films in the future. So that’s how I came to know Ahn Sung-kee and later cast him in my film.
London Korea Times: Looking at the trailer for ‘Hindsight’, the film appears to be much more of a gangster movie. What’s your perception of the comparison between Hong Kong gangster films and Korean gangster films? Are there any significant similarities or differences?
Lee Hyeon-seung: It’s true that Korean gangster films were influenced by Hong Kong gangster films as well as Hollywood films and, especially for directors of my generation, there was definitely a cultural influence. The difference between the two is that in Korean gangster films, the action and violence are always combined with social issues whereas in Hong Kong they’re just gangster films as a genre.
[At this point, the interview time came to an end but director Lee Hyeon-seung graciously offered to answer one final question]:
Hangul Celluloid: ‘Hindsight’ was the first film you made in ten years after taking a lengthy break from directing. Why did you choose to step away from directing for that time, what drew you to return to making films and why did you choose ‘Hindsight as your comeback film?
Lee Hyeon-seung: That is very fitting for the last question [Lee Hyeon-seung laughs]. The Korean film industry has developed remarkably in the last few years but when I was working previously it was an extremely difficult and harsh environment. I now teach film to students at university as a professor and I wanted to give them a really solid filmmaking environment in which to work. I believe that providing a good filmmaking environment is every bit as important as making films and I undertook a lot of related activities in order to promote that environment. While I didn’t make any commercial films during that time, I still worked on scripts and a few short films in the meantime, but when you have a film like ‘Hindsight’ with a solo female actress that leads the film, it’s incredibly difficult to get funding, and this is also the case in Hollywood, so for a while I was just working on the script and trying to find a way to get the investment I needed. In the end, I didn’t secure that investment and I ended up making the film myself. In 2008, I was a crossroads professionally and I had to make the decision of whether I would take on a professional job to promote the standards of the Korean film industry or return to making films as a director, letting go of all the other work I was doing. As a director, it turned out that it was incredibly important for me to return to directing and while the other work is very important, after a time when I was making the film I realised I didn’t ever want to lose sight of being a director again, so I let go of everything else completely and delegated all of my other responsibilities to those around me, concentrating wholly on directing. The idea behind ‘Hindsight’ was to reduce the generation gap that existed and experiment with new, combined geners - a bit of action, a bit of comedy, a bit of erotic action between men and women - and after I’d finished making the film, I felt so liberated and relieved. It also felt truly wonderful that fellow directors, such as Park Chan-wook, were so warm and welcoming of my return to directing.
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 Lee Hyeon-seung at such length.