easternKicks talks to Hong Sang-soo regular Lee Kwang-kuk about his latest film A Matter Of Interpretation…
Regular assistant-director to Korean cinematic mastermind, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Kwang-kuk has recently made his own mark on the film industry. Breaking away from the work of his benefactor, His first film, Romance Joe, was released in 2011, and focused on the plight of a suicidal man. His latest film, A Matter of Interpretation, questions the meaning of dreams and reality, meanwhile. Shown at this year’s London Korean Film Festival, easternKicks had the chance to discuss his film and career alongside Hangul Celluloid and Ekran Magazine.
Hangul Celluloid: I’d like to ask about your work before you became a director. You have worked on a significant number of Hong Sang-soo films, such as HaHaHa, Like you Know it All, and Woman on the Beach. How much has Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking influenced you in your career? And did his filmmaking perhaps inspire you to move into directing yourself, or was that an idea before?
I have many great influences from director Hong, I did major in film at university but I didn’t know how fun it was to make a film before directly experiencing that with director Hong. I think that made me want to become a director in my own right. I learnt a lot by working together with him, and writing was the first thing that I learnt directly from him. I also looked at how he worked with actors, and how he tried to portray things that couldn’t be captured in the script on film.
I also learnt that I could influence someone with good feelings, someone that I don’t know, and that I could give them a meaningful time when watching the film – that is something that I learnt from director Hong.
easternKicks: Following on from that question, when you started out and made Romance Joe, how did you put the things that you learnt from Hong Sang-soo into practice?
It’s not actually represented directly onto my films, I think as a filmmaker I learnt how to approach things and the attitude I should take. I also learnt from him what process I should go through during and after making a film, so it wasn’t that it was directly transferred onto a film itself but it was what I learnt about the process of doing things.
Ekran Magazine: With A Matter of Interpretation, you take on more than just the role of director, you were also a script-writer and producer. How did your creative process work when making this film?
In Korea I had to find the funding to produce and make this film, and I couldn’t get the funding in the normal way. So in a way I had to be the producer of the film because I had an image of how I wanted it to look, so it was not something that I could help at the time. I had some restrictions from that, so I had to take on the role of producer rather than just as a director, and it pushed me to see the cards that I had to use in terms of creativity, and to see how I could make a film around that.
Hangul Celluloid: If I can take that one stage further, you’ve talked about being a producer on your own. Both A Matter of Interpretation and Romance Joe are being distributed by M-Line distribution, which is a pretty big company, and as far as I am aware both are available on the KoBiz website for critics to view. Has your place in terms of being an independent versus a commercial director changed as your career has gone on? Or are you still having trouble with funding, and are you still completely independent, with just the films being distributed at the end of the day?
It is still hard for me to get funding for a film, but in terms of commercial films there are restrictions on the storyline and there is less character to a story as well, which is different to independent films. So I think I will continue to work like this, and, while the distribution companies are influential, it is better for me to focus on what I want to say and how I want to say it.
easternKicks: You said that you struggled to find funding for your film, despite working with such a prestigious director as Hong Sang-soo. What other challenges did you face as an independent filmmaker?
After making a film, which is a hardship in itself, I found that there wasn’t room in the Korean cultural sector for independent films to have their film screened, unless they have a famous face onscreen. So, before that stage, it’s not important to get funding, but after producing and making the film it is difficult to find the audience because of the lack of screenings.
“I didn’t know how fun it was to make a film before directly experiencing that with director Hong”
Ekran Magazine: I wanted to touch on that. In terms of famous faces, the lead actress in A Matter of Interpretation laments her role because it is given to an idol actress. What was your approach to casting in your films? And what is your opinion on the casting of idol actors on such projects?
In terms of casting, whether someone is famous or not isn’t important to me. If the actor has the characteristic approach that I can relate to then that is important. I know that idol actors these days need to prepare a lot just like any other actor, but I do believe that the current casting system in Korea has a lot of problems, which is why I approached it in a different way in my film.
Hangul Celluloid: We were all given access to your films, Hard to Say, Romance Joe, and A Matter of Interpretation. When I was doing research, everywhere I looked said that Hard to Say came after Romance Joe. Was Hard to Say made as a short to enable you to move from being an assistant director to a full-time director? Or did it come post-Romance Joe as a project in its own right? And if that’s the case, what are your thoughts on the part that shorts play on Korean cinema in general?
We know that long novels and short novels have their own strengths, and I feel that it is the same way with films. In Korea, these days, students do seem to make short films in order to get into the film industry, but there are distribution problems alongside it, so there is a pessimistic side to the story.
easternKicks: This film sees the second time that you are working with Shin Dong-mi, and I was wondering how did you come to find her? And also what was it like to work with her on this film and was it different to how she approached her role in Romance Joe?
In the casting of Romance Joe, the actor Kim Young-pil introduced me to her, and before giving her the script we met and talked beforehand, just to see what she was like. I felt that we got along quite well, so I suggested we worked together before giving the script to her, and that’s how she became involved in Romance Joe. After that, I felt that we worked really well together, and with the other actors. So with A Matter of Interpretation I had that in mind, and I wrote the script with her cast already. I saw how she was in daily life, and I think that’s how she approached things in her acting.
Ekran Magazine: There are some themes that appear in all of your projects, how do you choose them? Is there a specific message that you want to send with your films?
I felt that I wanted to give the nuance that the story of Alice in Wonderland has, rather than a specific theme. Like Lego pieces, they have different shapes, but they can make different things more structured. I think I am in the process of finding out how to do that in my films.
Hangul Celluloid: In terms of coming up with a scenario for a film, what process do you go through? Do you create a film based on a story specifically? Or do you focus on a character and build from there? And having worked with Hong Sang-soo, when you’re filming are things set and you then go and film them? Or do you do what Hong Sang-soo does, and almost morph the story as you go through?
I think I start with someone in a certain situation. So in Romance Joe I was focused on someone that was committing suicide because they didn’t have a story anymore, and in A Matter of Interpretation, she didn’t have an audience anymore. So I think that I focus on the characters and build a story based on that. In terms of shooting, I do re-write the script of the film and morph things as the filming goes on. So, to summarise, the characters all have a certain situation and I focus on building a structure around that.
easternKicks: As you just mentioned, in Romance Joe and A Matter of Interpretation you have main characters that don’t have anything happening in their lives anymore. Why are you interested in these kinds of characters? And why do you decide to focus on them as your main characters?
When writing the script I feel that generally I am focusing on things that are near me rather than far off. So the concerns I have are the same as the characters, and they are created through that process. So the concerns I have are reflected in the writing of the script, and also in the characters as well.
Ekran Magazine: What do you feel is the main message that you are trying to send through your characters and through these stories, both in Romance Joe and A Matter of Interpretation?
Rather than a message, in Romance Joe I think I was pondering on what a good story has, what meaning and role a story has, and why people look for good stories. In A Matter of Interpretation I wanted to look at how dreams and reality influence each other, and how things change from that.
Hangul Celluloid: Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation, and Hard to Say, have been invited here at the London Korean Film Festival, and both of your features are at international festivals. Having watched your films, though they are by a Korean director in Korean language, they feel to me much more universal than specifically Korean, was that a deliberate choice on your part? Do you feel your films are specifically Korean, or do you seem them more universal than other Korean directors might be considered?
In making the film I don’t plan to make a specific film that is Korean, I feel that if I work hard to make it and someone watches it at the end of that, then that’s it. I don’t think it’s very important, but then I don’t go for general things either. I am more concerned about making the film, and, like I said before, it’s not very important that it’s Korean or very global, if someone is watching it at the end of the day then that is very good.
easternKicks: What interested you initially in dreams, and their reflection on reality? And how do you think they can be influential on real-life?
Before writing A Matter of Interpretation my father collapsed and spent six months in hospital, and during that time he was mixing up dreams and reality, perhaps like a crazy person. But after some time, I felt some distance was created and I was able to watch him. I began to wonder what dream a is, and, while I was interested in it before, I think watching my father made me think more specifically about it so that I wanted to explore the idea of dreams and reality. This is something that I think generally as well, if there are people who sleep more than other people, say someone sleeps for 12 hours, they would be spending half a day, and over a longer period, half their lives sleeping. So if they spend so much time dreaming, then what’s the difference between dreams and reality? Where’s the vision in that? So I think I was influenced by that as well.
“I wanted to look at how dreams and reality influence each other, and how things change from that”
Ekran Magazine: What are you currently working on? And what are your plans for the future?
Right now, I just made another short film. Next year I am currently devising a script for another feature film, and I do continuously think about making films.
Hangul Celluloid: We are all here as critics, what are your thoughts, as a director, about film reviews? Do you see them as important? I have spoken to lots of directors, Kim Ji-eung who reads everything written about him, Im Sang-soo who refuses to read anything. What are your thoughts on reviews, do you feel that critical acclaim is almost as important as audience numbers?
Critics and filmmakers are working in completely different areas, and I think that critical writing is something or a wonder to me personally. But I do think they can co-exist in a good relationship. As a filmmaker I think this is the most important thing: if we are hungry and the others say something, or if they block that person, no matter what happens they will still go find food to fulfil that hunger. So if someone has that hunger to achieve something, and others make good comments on your work then it’s a good thing, it’ll be lucky for them as well. But I think I’ll continue to be making stories because I have that hunger, and fulfilling that hunger is important.
easternKicks: With the title, A Matter of Interpretation, suggests that us as an audience should be looking at the meaning behind what is shown on screen. For example, there is this detective that is interpreting the dreams, but this might not necessarily be how others interpret it. Is it important for us, as the audience, to be able to interpret your message?
In making my two feature films and short films, rather than having a definite storyline I wanted a structure of a storyline that could have different interpretations for an audience, because that is more interesting to see. So, yes, I had wanted to make films with different interpretations.