Interview : Im Sang-soo

As passionate and engaging as Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo is in conversation, the answer he gave to my first question took me by surprise. He’s clearly a confident chap, not only in taking on perhaps the most famous and respected work in Korean cinema but also in his readiness to dismiss one of his country’s cinematic icons, positioning himself from the start as not “a fan”. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960), which he has adapted this year, is by general consensus one of the most revered Korean films of all time, and watching it again yesterday (in a double bill with Sang-soo’s remake I hasten to add), it’s not hard to see why it’s reputation has continued to grow over the last fifty years. A shocking, nightmarish vision of adultery and obsessive psychosis, it’s a thoroughly modern film seemingly well ahead of its time, depicting an affair between a middle class school teacher and his eponymous newly employed maid. Children are thrown down stairs, lovelorn suicides abound and whilst there’s nary a sympathetic character, it’s shot through with enough unpredictable turns of perverse impulsiveness and violence that it’s impossible not to be seduced by even the most histrionically melodramatic beats.

I can understand Im Sang-soo’s wish to separate himself from such a prominently damoclean work, but it’s a foolhardy task. Comparisons will be inevitable, and judging from his take on the story, a touch of modesty might have engendered a little more sympathy towards his adaptation. It’s not a terrible film by any means, simply unnecessary, adding little to the story aside from a glossy production design and a shallow socio-economical subtext, still present in Kim Ki-young’s film but deployed much more subtly than the achingly obvious critique of class divisions and social resentments on display here. It plays closer to the American ‘erotic thrillers’ by the likes of Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma in the ‘80s and ‘90s, eschewing the overriding weirdness of the original for a more mainstream and conventional genre sensibility.

It’s a shame in a way, his choosing this as his sixth feature, as his previous works have shown a promise at odds with what is essentially a remake in the most cynically American sense (taking an established property for adaptation means an already curious, if not expectant audience) yet his earlier films have shown a keen eye for both subversive political enquiries (The President’s Last Bang) and frank explorations of sexuality, particularly from a female perspective (Girl’s Night Out, A Good Lawyer’s Wife).

Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) gives a committed central performance as the new maid but the supposed magnetism of Lee Jung-jae as the husband is seemingly bolted onto the character simply by virtue of his patriarchal status rather than uncovered in any sense through performance, and Kim Ki-young veteran Yoon Yeo-jeong (Woman of Fire, The Insect Woman) is a relentless scene-stealer, which I don’t intend as a compliment. The comparisons to Chabrol and Hitchcock that have been applied are overly generous, it’s too studied and affected in its execution for that, but Lee Hyung-deok’s stately cinematography does make the most of Lee Ha-jun’s opulent production design and the narrative denouement is satisfyingly startling, even if it is let down by a nonsensical coda of surrealist whimsy.

It was interesting to hear about the conditions of Korean filmmaking prior to the ‘90s New Wave, and irrespective of this filmmaker’s opinion, I’ll certainly be digging deeper into Kim Ki-young’s back catalogue at the first opportunity, as hard as many of his films are to come by. Whilst this interpretation of The Housemaid is engaging enough, it’s pleasures are mostly of a superficial, aesthetic nature and provide little beyond the occasionally well-crafted image (even these often overcooked) , and pales in comparison to the1960 original which I can’t recommend highly enough, especially as it’s currently available for free at, whose new Playstation 3 application launched last week and will guarantee the loss of many evenings in the coming months.

With so many films being remade these days, it’s a brave choice to tackle a film of such high regard in Korean cinema. What was the genesis of your decision to reinvent such an established classic?

There are many fans of director Kim Ki-young amongst the young filmmakers working today, but personally I’m not one of them. Although his works are legendary and have had a remarkable impact on the Korean film industry, as a young filmmaker myself I felt I couldn’t simply obey and respect the general consensus, I felt I had to challenge it.

What was your reason for changing the socio-economic setting of the film, placing it in the household of an aristocratic family rather than the middle-class home of the teacher in Kim Ki-young’s film?

England has a great sense of history and tradition behind its notion of society, and although Korea has its own history, it’s a country that has been divided since the war, so South Korea’s social identity hasn’t been around quite so long. Every society has it’s ‘aristocracy’, it’s ‘rich man’s society’, but the less amount of time this ‘high society’ has been around, the more problematic it becomes, it’s influence is all the more overbearing. In Korea today, it’s the super-rich who dictate the way the country is heading, politically and socially, they’re the ones behind the curtain pulling the strings and my version of The Housemaid is an anthropological study of those hidden behind said curtain. It’s something I wish to pursue in future films.

There’s certainly a clear political subtext in all of your films, much more so than many of your contemporaries, even this one which is perhaps the closest you’ve come to making a genre film. Do you consider yourself to be a political filmmaker or is it something that naturally comes out in the writing process, something unavoidable when setting your film in a contemporary context?

I am a very political person, which I guess makes me a political filmmaker. As one of the major filmmakers in Korea this is quite dangerous for me working within the mainstream market. I can’t discuss these things when I’m doing interviews with Korean journalists, I normally just say The Housemaid is a genre film, but even though I say this they know it’s not true. The fact that I don’t discuss my politics and that the journalists over there know not to ask is just another reflection of how powerful the super-rich have become within Korean society.

The film begins and ends with a suicide, the first being a girl of whom we learn little else, the audience seem to forget about her in the same way the family forget about Eun-yi at the end. Why did you choose to begin the film with this scene in particular?

A girl does jump from a building, committing suicide, and we are momentarily shocked, but we forget and we never know why as the story of our protagonists begins. That story however, is also about why our protagonist commits suicide at the end, and when that happens you think back to the first, naturally thinking that this girl must also have had a story as sad as the one we’ve seen. This current age of globalisation has resulted in many super-rich people across the globe, but it remains the case that poverty has become much worse as a result as well, and it’s a sad fact that many of the impoverished are committing suicide, notably so in Korea.

Can you speak a little about the final sequence of the film, what your intentions were? It’s a highly stylised scene, almost surreal.

We ran out of money, so there wasn’t a lot we could do (laughs). My friend had lent me a very expensive painting of Marilyn Monroe and although it doesn’t play a huge part in the film, at the child’s birthday party, because the child has experienced such trauma they give her this expensive painting as a gift. The mother sings in the same way Monroe sang to JFK as a way of relieving the tension of what the child has been through. Whether this will actually cure the child, who having seen the suicide of the housemaid will take something from it, or whether she’ll ultimately become a monster like her father is up to the audience to decide.

Do you have much time to rehearse with your actors prior to shooting? Are you happy for your actors to improvise or find their own way once on set, or are you quite clear in what you want beforehand?

It depends on both the film and the actors. With this film there wasn’t much by way of script readings or rehearsals, especially with Jeon Do-yeon. But with the little girl, Lee Jung-jae and the young mother, I called them in separately to rehearse a little, so it really does depend on the actors you’re working with. Once we’re on set, I’m not keen on actors improvising their own dialogue but I do change a lot of the script myself as we’re going along.

Your films often deal in a very frank way with female sexuality, something matched by the fearless performances from your lead actresses, the wonderful So-ri Moon in A Good Lawyer’s Wife, the trio of women in Girl’s Night Out and again Jeon Do-yeon in The Housemaid. What is it that draws you towards exploring sexuality from a female perspective rather than a male? The men seem to get short shrift in your films, is that intended as a commentary on the social patriarchalism of Korean society?

Frank depictions of sexuality are a characteristic of my work. There’s a perception that Asians are shy and introverted, in particular Asian women, so I’m trying to subvert or critique that stereotype by saying that New Asian women do talk, and must talk about sex. It’s not that they’re shy because they don’t have anything to say, which I hope my films express. Male patriarchalism and machismo doesn’t just oppress women, it’s also detrimental to society as a whole and is definitely something I feel must be suppressed.

You’ve spoken of the influence of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of The Housemaid. What exactly did you take from his work that you wanted to inject into your film? Were there particular films or sequences that were especially influential, or was it just an overall tone you were aiming for?

Rebecca was a huge influence, I first saw it when I was ten years old and watched it again in preparation for The Housemaid. Hitchcock’s notion of suspense was something that I researched and contemplated a great deal when planning this movie. For example, if this were a scene in a film, where we are now, and there was a bomb underneath this table here and it suddenly exploded, that would create surprise rather than suspense. In order to create suspense you’d have to show the bomb being planted first. We’d be having this discussion as before but the audience would be aware that the bomb was there. It’s the sense of anticipation that Hitchcock defines as suspense and which I tried to incorporate into the film. The audience know that the housemaid and the husband have had sex, but his wife doesn’t, so when she finds out and the housemaid is unaware that she now knows, it creates a sense of suspense for the audience, not knowing how the ostensibly simple story will resolve itself dramatically.

There’s a tradition the world over when a new generation of filmmakers take up the mantle of their predecessors, often moving the cinema of their particular country in a new direction, a kind of rebellion against what came before. Aside from Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and maybe Aimless Bullet, it’s difficult to see much Korean cinema in the West prior to the so-called New Wave of the early ‘90s. What is your relationship to your Korean predecessors, did you take much from them when forging your own career, or would you say that Western cinema was a greater influence on your own style?

It’s true that a new generation of filmmakers arose in the ‘90s and that the films from before then are not known outside of Korea. Exactly at the same moment that this new wave was taking place, Korea became politically stabilised via democracy and capitalism, through which there were also new developments in literature and other forms of culture from an emerging generation of artists. At the same time though, film beforehand was controlled not by the mafia exactly, but by street gangs who were more or less in charge of all facets of production and it was almost impossible for good filmmakers to develop. Those who grew up watching European and American cinema became the new generation of intellectuals, eventually given the opportunity for their voices to be heard. In Germany and France the next generation of filmmakers and artists would produce manifestos for change, but in Korea, due to the power exerted by the street gangs, that was nigh on impossible. It still exists to a certain degree today.

What were the main differences in Kim Soo-hyun’s original draft of the screenplay for The Housemaid? Why did you choose to go in your own direction?

You’ve really done your research! (laughs). Kim Soo-hyun is a legendary writer, but it was the producer who initially asked her to write the screenplay as the film was having difficulty getting off the ground. The writer then specified myself as director, which is how I initially got involved, but I didn’t like her script at all so I told the producer that if I’m to be involved, I need to be able to rewrite the script myself and only on that condition would I continue to direct. So I did, I completely rewrote it. Whether my version or Kim Soo-hyun’s is better? Well the investors preferred mine, and it’s my script that ultimately got made! She’s a very powerful and influential writer, but also very arrogant, she was furious that a young director like Im Sang-soo would dare change her work (laughs)

Photography by Christopher Lane © 2010

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