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[Interview] Bae Chang-ho


Bae Chang-ho was the most commercially successful director of the 1980s, who made a number of chic melodramas about the new sensibility of the young generation. His debut film, "People in the Slum" (1982), and following films, "Whale Hunting" (1984), "Deep Blue Night" (1985), and "Our Joyful Young Days" (1987) all generated enthused reactions from not only ordinary moviegoers but also hardcore film maniacs. "Deep Blue Night" was shot mostly on location in the US at a time overseas shooting of even a few scenes was not an easy task. Despite these successes, Bae refused to dwell in one place. Since the 1980s, he pushed on in his artistic explorations, even enduring box office failures. The hit maker of the 1980s transformed himself into a maker of low budget, independent films such as "My Heart" (1999) and "Road" (2004). His early works showed elaborate filmmaking techniques that were second to none among his contemporaries, but his later works are more characterized by simple and down-to-earth approach to story telling and image capturing. He once taught in college, but left his teaching position, frustrated by artistic stagnation.

On the occasions of his selection as International Jury at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, we speak with him about his current endeavors, his experiences from his many films, his collaboration with Ahn Sung-ki, Korean cinema of the 80s and of nowadays, his wife, the place of women in Korean society and many other topic, while we also ask him to share some stories with us

Can you give me some details about the Ulju Mountain Film Festival Hwang Jin, of which you are now the director?

Yes, Ulju Mountain Film Festival is now at its fourth edition. The region the film takes place in is in the SE, in an area called the Yeongnam Alps. I have been working as a festival director since the last year and it was my first time working in that capacity, but I found very interesting the films about mountaineering, nature in general, and expedition. There are just two mountain film festivals in Asia (the other is in Kathmandu). However, there are more than 20 mountain film festivals all over the world, most of them in Europe and one in Canada. I was actually surprised to find that there are so many.

And what kind of movies do they screen there?

Generally, the theme of the movies is mountaineering, and also expedition, and extreme sports, and the relationship between humans and nature.

Do they screen any Korean films there?

Yes, they do, but only a few, because in Korea we have a short history of films on that topic

Are you working on a new movie at the moment?

My last film was in 2010, "The Trip" and still I have been working on a script... One day, maybe I can find investors.

And why do you think that is? You were quite popular in the 80s and 90s.

Compared to the 80s and 90s, the production environment in the Korean cinema industry has changed a lot. Until the middle of the 90s, the production cost was not so high compared to these days. Therefore, a producer could get the funds easily from owner of theaters and distributors. But from that point on, financing companies and big enterprises started being interested in making money from films and begun to invest. Now, the power of filmmaking has come to them. They control the theme, the story, the editing, the casting, particularly in commercial films. There is another, independent film industry in Korea, which is mostly active for young filmmakers. So in my case, big investors are reluctant to work with the old generation directors, because they don't want some special theme or subject depicted. I have kept my style and themes, so you can guess the rest.

So, you cannot compromise you mean.

I can compromise to the limit I accept, but the situation is difficult.

Are you disappointed?

The situation has changed, so I must accept the situation. But I hope I can find some investors in the future.

You had your own production company at some point. For example, you produced "My Heart". What happened to that company?

Yes, I produced and financed the film myself along with some funding from the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation. I owned the production company at the time but not now. It is easy to establish a production company, but it is difficult to keep it.

At some point, your style of filmmaking changed. You were shooting these very commercial films like "Whale Hunting" but then you decided to change. Why was that?

My first change was in "Hwang Jin-ie", a period film about a Korean woman who was also a poet. I changed my style from 1986, because I wanted to make films that were more refined. I still thought of film as art, and I wanted that refinement, and I wanted, through film, to find the essence of life, the true nature of life, through the tools of cinematic expression. Therefore, with that kind of state of mind, I decided to shoot some different movies after 1986. Before that time, I just wanted to make Korean audience feel that local films have interesting points and good narrative, because up to the 1980s, there were a lot of Korean films that were poor in narrative. I wanted to change a little bit about the quality of Korean films and I think I was successful, because the audience, after watching my films, started thinking that local films had developed a lot, that are more sophisticated. So, I had success with both audiences and critics.

Regarding the films in the 80s, which are the elements that made them commercially successful?

This has not changed actually; the main element that makes a film successful is the stimulation of people. Violence for example, or some kind of strong topic and excessive expression. In essence, a story that appeals to the audience, and popular actors are most important.

Is melodrama one of these elements?

No, little melodrama. When I see the movies of young filmmakers nowadays, they still have sentimentality, which is what I call the tradition of Korean cinema. So I am surprised sometimes, that still, in the 21st century, they use sentimentality, to make people cry for example. They put the melodrama also in action films, but I do not feel this is actual melodrama, I do not think investors like pure melodrama, they think it is not so stimulating.

Can you give me some details about your cooperation with Ahn Sung-ki?

I have quite a long story with him. Our cooperation begins when I was an assistant director to Mr. Lee Jang-ho, who was my teacher, during "A Windy, But Pleasant Day".  Ahn Sung-ki was a boy actor at the time. When Lee Jang-ho tried to make this film, we met Ahn Sung-ki by chance in a coffee shop, who, at the time, was a new face. So, we found potential in him equal to that of grown actors, so the director cast him for the protagonist role in this movie, where I was the assistant director. This was the first time I met him. When I made my debut, "People in the Slum", I worked with him because I could feel that we were going to have good chemistry. And I also appreciated that he had traits of both intellectuals and "common people". He was so passionate about acting, and from my first film, I worked with him for 13 movies, successively. In the 1980's, I did not know if I could continue making films, so for each next scenario, I thought, "Ahn Sung-ki fits" and so on, and we were having discussion about the next project, while we were working together. We trusted each other; I could pull much of his talent.

He was quite popular at the time, correct?

Yes, I had success as a director and he had success as an actor. He also acted in Im Kwon-taek's films at the time.

Do you have a story with him you would like to share?

When I was shooting "The Dream", a period film which takes place more than a thousand years before, during the Silla dynasty. Ahn Sung-ki played a monk, but he breaks the rules of the monastery and is kicked out, because he made love with a girl. His wife left him, he became sick and ended up living a miserable life and eventually became a beggar. So when he hears the news that his wife is dead, in a deserted place, during the climax of the scene, Ahn Sung-ki cries, regretting his desire and his life. The scene is shot wonderfully, with the background in real snow. Ahn Sung-ki has a weak point, when acting in crying scenes, but in this one, he cried really well, with deep emotion. I was really satisfied with this scene, so I said, "Cut! Ok!". At the time we used film, so we had to check if the scene was ok. And he acted really good, but in his mouth, we could see his golden teeth (not possible 1000 years ago obviously) and I was really sad we could not keep that scene.

Can you tell me about how you came to shoot your first film, "People in the Slum"?

It was based on an actual story, which was published as a novel. I was very interested in depicting people, the so-called outsiders, because at the time, we had dictatorship and the censorship was severe. Actually, we had two kinds of censorship. The first one was about the script and the second about the final print. Authorities disliked when filmmakers dealt with poverty and in general, the dark sides of Korean society. However, I liked the story very much and I was determined to make a film out of it. Therefore, I wrote the script and submitted it to the authorities, but I was turned down several times. However, I kept writing and finally they wanted me to change some scenes, a lot of them actually, and the title. So I managed to start shooting with the title "Black Glove", which is the name of the protagonist. After two months, I visited the authorities a number of times because I wanted to change the title, and finally they listened to our pleas and I was able to change it. For the final print, no one from the censorship board wanted to cut any scenes, because they were very touched by the film.

The people and the environment in the movie are real, not a product of fiction. Do they still exist?

Yes, the special area, the slums depicted in the film has been demolished but behind the downtown and the big buildings, there are still places where poor people live.

In general, how difficult was it to shoot films at the time, when the censorship was so intense?

The censorship regarding the scripts was not so strict, but they wanted to see the final print. After the democratization of 1986-1987, the President changed and subsequently, the censorship policies changed. After that, some directors shot film about strong themes dealing with Korean society. My first film, however, was not allowed to go outside the country, in film festivals until 1988, although it was finished in 1982.  

Can you tell us about "Whale Hunting" and particularly your cooperation with Kim Soo-chul, who was a musician but not an actor?

It is based on the novel of a very famous author, Choi In-ho. Before I made "Whale Hunting", I shot "Flower on the Equator" based again on one of his works and it was a success, and I wanted to shoot a movie about his next one, because I found it very interesting, by adding some other source of adventure. At the time, it was difficult to show the issues of Korean society so, with that movie, I could do so by using a metaphor, a kind of black comedy. So, for Ahn Sung-ki's character, I hinted at his situation.

You mean the scene where he meets a former professor and pretends he did not recognize him?

(Laughs) Ah, you remember it. Most of the young people at the time were frustrated, like the protagonist of the film. So, through the concept of saving a pure prostitute, I wanted to show this frustration, of the young people. And they liked it a lot.

And is there some significance in the title of the film?

Yes, it was famous. Before the movie, it was the title of a famous Korean folk song, which was used in Ha Gil-jong's film, "The March of Fools" and then Choi In-ho used it for his novel.

Regarding Kim Soo-chul, at the time, it was difficult to find good cinema actors. There was a separation, regarding actors who indulged in cheap TV dramas. I did not want to cast one of those, because they were already known to the audience, I wanted to find a new face, someone who is like the character, naive, introvert, has a complex. So, we tried to find a new face, but by chance, we met Kim Soo-chul, who was beginning a career that would eventually make him a famous rock star.

He also wrote the music for the film, correct?

Yes, he did not intend to be an actor but I asked him many times and he finally said yes, on the condition that he would also be responsible for the music of the movie.

A lot of your movies deal with the place woman has in society, from ancient years ("Hwang Jin-ie") until contemporary times. What do you think is the position of women in Korean society nowadays?

Until 1985, I depicted women who were in difficulty, like in "People in the Slum" or "The Winter That Year Was Warm", the story of the separation of two sisters during the civil war. Then I depicted a protagonist who, in essence, is a mistress, the object of men's sexual desire, in "The Flower at the Equator". In "Hwang Jin-ie" however, I wanted to depict the way of living a life of loving. And in "The Dream", another historical film, the woman protagonist is sacrificed by a man. These days, in many parts of Korea, women's power is stronger than the men's. I feel that now in Korean society, there is equality; it is different than the 70s and the 80s.

In "My Heart", the protagonist is kind of a victim, for example due to the way her mother in law treats her. So, do you feel, that throughout Korean history, women were victims?

No, not victims, but they suffered many hardships; living as a woman was hard. The beginning of "My Heart" takes place in the 1920's where there was still inequality between men and women, but I wanted to show the woman's courage and loving heart . For instance, in the first part of "My Heart" her husband gets a new lover. She could insist in opposition as the first wife, and her mother-in-law is on her side, because she trusted her. However, when she sees her husband and his girlfriend together she realizes they are desperately in love, and she decides to leave on her own. But usually in movies dealing with such themes, the wife is discarded, abandoned, she does not leave on her own accord, that is the difference with my movie.

Can you tell me a bit about the protagonist, Kim Yu-mi?

Actually, she is my wife (both laugh). We were married in 1993. She acted in little bits in Korean cinema, but had stopped acting and was working as an interior designer when I met her, but she loved movies very very much. So we met, went on date, fell in love, got married and ended up doing a movie together based, partly, on our true love story, titled "Love Story". The reason I wanted to shoot the movie was to portray a real, natural, vivid love story, not beautifying the sentiment or including strong melodramatic ending.

Does she still work as an actress?

We worked together in "The Trip", the last part of the film. So, "My Heart" was the second time I worked with her, because I liked her acting and her pure mind.

In "Gagman", you acted. How was the experience of being in front of the camera?

My acting career started in college actually, in play dramas, in the 1970s. My assistant director at the time of "Gagman", Lee Myung-se, knew I had a talent in acting, so when he made his aforementioned, first film, a kind of comedy in 1988, he asked me to act as some kind of foolish barber, along Ahn Sung-ki. We wrote the script together and the first time he asked me I said no, but I wanted to assist him, so eventually I accepted.

Did you enjoy the experience?

I really enjoyed it, because I did not have the burden of directing, I just had to focus on my acting, it was so enjoyable and I could understand the position of actors, standing in front of the camera and also I could also see the position of the director.

Do you think it is easier to become an actor if you have been a director first?

It was easier because I knew how the camera works. And then I acted in the film "Love Story", with my wife, playing the role of a film director and she played the role of an interior designer. At the time, the audience was unfamiliar with films featuring unprofessional actors so I thought I stepped in advance a little bit. Commercially, it was not successful but some cinephilles loved it very very much, and are still fans of it

Let us close the interview with a story.

I can never forget an episode between my cinematographer, Jeong Kwang-seok and me. When I finished my first film, I had success with both audiences and critics, and after this success, I had a discussion with him in a bar. He had a lot of experience in cinematography, in Korean cinema. Maybe, at the time I was joyful because of the success, so he advised me that I should make three films. As the years went by, I made three films, and we worked in them together. So, after that, at the same place, we had a drink together and I was again joyful because again I had success. And he told me flatly, without any expression, you should make five. So again I worked with him and again I had success in both. And again we drink together, and I asked him what he thought now that all five films were a success. And he told me I had to make ten. And now, I see young directors having a success with one or two films and many people applaud them, critics applaud them, and they become proud. When I see these young filmmakers, I remember this episode, and I feel so lucky to have met Jeong Kwang-seok.


Interview by Panos Kotzathanasis


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