Interview : Kim Jee-woon

The recent boom in Korean cinema in the West seemingly began with the importation of its home-grown horror hits, hitching a ride on the backs of Japanese pictures such as The Ring (1998) and Audition (1999) during a brief flirtation with the J-horror phenomenon. Genre movies are always the first to be discovered, curious fanboys fed-up with American cinema’s tiresome recycling of its own genre formulas began looking to the East to sate their hunger for something new, and whilst the mainstream may take a little longer to catch on it inevitably does, ultimately leading to the recycling of Eastern genre cinema by American studios until the bubble eventually bursts.

It’s always been the case, Kurosawa was a firm favourite over here long before Mizoguchi and Naruse ever got the chance, many of his films dealing as they do with more palatable and accessible (to Western tastes) genre sensibilities. Once a cinematic cultural identity is discovered though, whilst some may move onto the next big thing, others remain curious of what else a country may have to offer beyond the easy sell of its genre movies, hence the recent Hong-sang Soo retrospective, Korea’s answer to mumblecore (mumblekor I suppose) and the growing success of the London Korean Film Festival (last week receiving the first East Asian red carpet Leicester Square premiere). But it’ll always remain the genre films which have the biggest chance of garnering mainstream appeal, the likes of Bong-joon Ho’s The Host (2006) and Park-chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003) being the most famous examples.

For me though, there’s always been one director who stands out from the pack in this respect, producing film after film which play with established genre forms, merging Eastern and Western influences to create his own uniquely stylised hybrids, a kind of Korean Tarantino if you will. From the blackly comic The Quiet Family (1998) to the zany sports-movie themed The Foul King (2000), director Kim Jee-woon achieved quite a success last year with his Leone-riffing Manchurian western The Good, The Bad & The Weird (2008), his beautifully made horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) initially bringing him to our attention during the J-horror boom and his Hong-Kong neo-noir A Bittersweet Life (2005) cementing his reputation as a talent to watch, meshing as it did the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, John Woo and Martin Scorsese to dazzling effect.

His latest picture I Saw The Devil (2010) will most likely elevate him to the Bong-joon Ho level of success he’s deserved for a while when it’s released next year. An astonishingly violent serial killer picture starring Choi-min Sik (octopus lover of Oldboy fame), it was denied a certificate twice in his native Korea and raises the bar for cinematic excess. The director was in town this weekend for the UK premiere of the film at the London Korean Film Festival, and I managed to grab half an hour with him earlier today to talk about his work.

You’ve spoken about wanting to make a ‘gore thriller’ with regards to I Saw The Devil, and all your films tend to play on established genre tropes. Do your ideas generally begin with characters and story, which you then work into a specific genre, or do you decide on a particular genre first and then try to find a story to fit the style you wish to work within?

I think I usually think of the genre first and then what story could effectively work within that particular genre. So with A Bittersweet Life I tried to express the Noir genre, which the filmmaking style would then reflect, the light and darkness of life, its ups and downs and how one’s status and existence can break and fall to rock bottom just in one moment. Similarly in The Good, The Bad, The Weird I was reflecting the Western genre, I wanted to show crazy men on horses firing guns, that was my starting point, the story grew from there.

I Saw The Devil features two extraordinary performances from the two leads, both of whom you’ve worked with before. Could you talk a little about your process when directing actors? Are you very precise with what you’re looking for, or are you happy to allow for exploration during production?

I try to be as clear as possible with the actors upfront, what they need to do in a general sense, but I don’t give any demands with regards to performance, I just let them give their own interpretation of the scene. Only if that interpretation is completely at odds with my own perception of how it should be will I start to dictate how I want it done. Generally ideas come on the day, during production, I’m a firm believer that the answers to a scene can be found on set. So to give an example, sometimes when I’m writing or refining a scene I’m unsure how to express a certain moment on paper, but when we’re actually shooting it, once the camera’s in place and the actors are in costume and make-up, the answers will present themselves suddenly. All the answers can be found on set, I’ll often just arrive with a general sense of the scene hoping to make discoveries once the camera’s rolling.

Does the same apply to the larger set-pieces, or are they clearly storyboarded in advance? I’m thinking particularly of the brilliant greenhouse sequence in this film, when Soo-hyun first finds Kyung-chul.

I always produce storyboards in advance, but with the greenhouse scene the location changed at the last minute. It didn’t affect me too much as I carry a general sense of the sequence in my head, even when such problems arise I know what I’m going for well enough to maintain the overall sense of where we’re heading. Mistakes can often bring spontaneity and freshness to a scene, I’m working with actors not machines so being able to capture happy accidents on the day can often lead to better ideas than I’d planned.

You’ve only worked with one cinematographer more than once (Mo Gae-lee). Could you talk a little about your working relationship and how you go about ‘casting’ them?

I used the same cinematographer for this film as A Tale of Two Sisters, which was his debut, and for A Bittersweet Life that was that cinematographer’s debut also. I can’t say there are any particular standards by which I cast, I looked at their previous work on short films and although they may not have made features before, I can see the potential in their work. The cinematographer is the person I have the most detailed discussions with regarding the film, and to a lesser extent the artistic director, but they’re both immensely important to me. It’s necessary that we share similar points of view, but I also need them to view my ideas and actions objectively, they can’t be afraid to reign me in when I’m going over the top or to show me things I’ve missed. A cinematographer has to be like a wife who’s nagging me all the time.

All of your protagonists tend to be solitary figures, lone-wolves either on the fringes of society or uncomfortable with the world in which they live. Certainly in this film, but Song Kang-ho in The Foul King is also an outsider searching for purpose through wrestling and the whole family unit in The Quiet Family separate themselves completely from society, decamping to the mountains. What is it that attracts you to this type of character when you’re writing?

I’m not too sure (laughs). Some say that all my films have a sense of sadness to them, I don’t know why, but I like my films to have an air of sadness, even with my action or horror films. Not in a way that makes you cry per se, more forlorn I suppose. I guess it reflects my perception of life, that life is somewhat sad. No matter what film I make, all my characters lean in this direction, perhaps I think that all people ultimately feel this way. In Korea, a journalist once commented that watching my films is like looking at an Edward Hopper painting, particularly A Bittersweet Life. Maybe it’s a product of living in an urban environment, it just breeds loneliness.

Your music choices are always an integral part of your films, from the Western pop songs in The Quiet Family to the more baroque qualities of the music in I Saw The Devil. Is that something which emerges during the writing process or only later during post-production?

When I’m planning a film I tend to listen to music first, it fuels my imagination. With A Tale Of Two Sisters I found myself listening to lots of slow, sad classical music, with The Good, The Bad, The Weird lots of Latin music. This time my discussions with my music director mainly focussed on rhythm, we wanted music which was both rhythmic and minimal, but because of the energy expressed by the actors once we were into production, we ultimately felt we needed something more powerful to match the impact of their performances, so the tone of the music became much larger and stronger than I’d anticipated. I tend to listen repetitively to music as a working process, but it can often change dramatically, as it did with I Saw The Devil.

I’d like you to talk about the violence in I Saw The Devil. The audience’s relationship to Soo-hyun’s actions shifts as the film progresses, from a certain complicity in his quest for vengeance at the start to a more questioning stance as his actions become increasingly violent. You’ve spoken about this in the Nietzschean sense of his having to become the monster to defeat the monster, which I understand, but why do you feel it’s also necessary to depict the acts of the psychopath, Kyung-chul in the way that you do? I’m thinking particularly of the scene with the schoolgirl victim in which you use a POV shot, a first person perspective which provides a certain complicity for the audience with his horrific actions. If your film is about the notion of vengeance and our response to it, why do we need to be complicit with the antagonist also for that point to be made?

Within the horror and thriller genres, there are archetypal characters which are monster or devil-like, and in order to succeed in those particular genres you have to creatively shape these characters. This is not just my view, Hitchcock and Truffaut both spoke of this a great deal, that in films with monsters, the monster must be the one portrayed most effectively and most powerfully. Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimised and the sense of power the monster has over his victims. That’s why I choose to shoot it that way, it’s an attempt to express the mind of a monster. William Friedkin has said that the most successful director is one that doesn’t lose the audience’s attention for one moment, that’s why I try to have such frequent changes in tone. Sometimes there are humorous moments, sometimes moments of discomfort and horror, it’s all to provoke as diverse a range of emotions from the audience as possible.

You’ve had problems with the censors in Korea with this film, do you think there’s ever a place for censorship in art? Are there some lines which should never be crossed, regardless of the artist’s intentions?

A true and healthy society, when dealing with dark and disturbing material, should allow the audience to pass judgement on what is deemed acceptable, it’s not the job of the authorities or a committee to decide what is ‘healthy’ or not. Society is perfectly capable of defining its own limits. A diseased society is one which suffers from the issues expressed in this film, but a society which tries to hide such issues suffers a greater disease.

I Saw The Devil will be released by Optimum Films in 2011