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[Interview] Kim Jee-woon with The Lady Miz Diva

2016/10/15 Source

In the 5 years since our last chat with Director Kim Jee-woon, he made a full-fledged Hollywood film and then returned to South Korea to create his latest box office smash, "The Age of Shadows". Director Kim spoke with me about his spy thriller, based on real events during the Japanese occupation of Korea, as it premiered in New York City as part of Korean Movie Night. 

We talked about his 20-year collaboration with acting legend Song Kang-ho, Oscar consideration, the influence of John Cassavetes and James Coburn, and he revealed the name of the lead actor for his long-awaited adaptation of "Jin-Roh" (Titled "Illang : The Wolf Brigade"). Oh, and his leading lady, Han Ji-min, makes a cute cameo.

"The Age of Shadows"

Kim Jee-woon


The Lady Miz Diva: Congratulations on being chosen to represent South Korea at the Oscars. How do you feel about the consideration?

Kim Jee-woon: First of all, I would say that I'm glad and happy to have the honor. However, because we are not the final candidate, I guess I would be more happy if we were chosen as the final candidate. {Laughs} I don't really have much expectations as to whether we are going to get that, but we will see about that. What I would like to say, though, is that because this movie depicts the painful history of Korea, I hope that sort of empathy can be communicated, as well as "The Age of Shadows" being an entertaining movie.

LMD: Watching Han Ji-min's character, who is one of the most important spies in the resistance, is amazing with a gun and stands up to brutal torture, made me want a Kim Jee-woon film with a female protagonist. Is that a possibility? 

Kim Jee-woon: In response to your question, one of my favorite scenes from "The Age of Shadows" is the scene where Han Ji-min's character, at the Gyeongsan train station, is shooting towards the Japanese policemen. There is a word in Korean called "cheo yeon" {처연}, which I will translate into "an exquisite sadness", or "a cold, chilling sadness". I felt that. And I felt this amazing grace in the action scene.  

I'm going to veer to the side and talk about a film by John Cassavetes called Gloria, where Gena Rowlands starts shooting toward the Mafia. In that scene, I felt there was the same kind of explosiveness and sadness that was depicted - if I'm bold enough to say - in the scene in "The Age of Shadows". I feel that is one of my favorite scenes of mine. For me, I feel that scene was not only one of the most powerful in the movie, but also one of the most solitary and lonely scenes.

And looking back on my career, I do feel that I have done quite enough of male-centered films, so I do think it's time to start looking into possibilities of films with stronger and more main female protagonists.

LMD: Song Kang-ho's character, Lee Jeong-chool, is a Korean who doesn't think things are going to change under Japanese rule: There will be no Korean independence; this is the way it's going to be. We're seeing a lot of films about the crimes of Japan against Korea, but this is the first time I've seen a character who was as resigned and pragmatic as that. Was that an important part of that character's presentation?

Kim Jee-woon: I feel like you very well pointed out about Song Kang-ho's character. I would think it was one of the first, if not the first, to ever be depicted in Korean cinema, because most of these films deal with either the resistance, or the evil nature of the Japanese rule. So, having this character, Lee Jeong-chool, a person who is actually in the middle of the two sides, and who is a person who is constantly wavering; I feel like that actually speaks to the identity of this film, and also is the distinguishing factor of this film.

The character, Lee Jeong-chool, because he is in the middle of these two sides; he is constantly wavering and in this gray area of good and evil, so I felt like having that character as the main protagonist was an effective way to depict the contradiction of that era and that time in history. And that also goes back into the theme of this film, as well.

LMD:  After speaking with Ms. Han Ji-min, she said very complimentary things about your direction, so can you say a few words about her performance and what she brought to the character of Yeon Gye-soon that might not have been in your script?

Kim Jee-woon: She's just a marionette! {Laughs

Han Ji-min:  I had a lot of ideas on set, but they all got rejected. {Laughs}

Kim Jee-woon: I am a person who gets a lot of ideas on set, so there are a lot of things that were being added onto her character as we were filming. Because this character was based on a real life person in history, in real life, actually her role wasn't huge; she was one of the main transportation means to get the goods to Seoul. But I feel like in the film, she acts as a very important emotional turning point for Song Kang-ho's character, Lee Jeong-chool, and Gong Yoo's character, Kim Woo-jin, because they really feel for her, and that causes an emotional turning point for them. And also she is depicted as a lot more proactive than in real life, so I feel like there were a lot of things were added on while on set.

LMD: What sort of research did you do into the lives of those in the Korean resistance?

Kim Jee-woon: When I first received the screenplay, I first relied on a book that actually dealt with the real life event that it was based on, and also I researched about the resistance group which was called Eui Yeol Dan {의열단}. There were many resistance groups in Korea at that time, like the one that we are dealing with, so I researched about those.


LMD: Please talk about some of the points of acting or research references that you gave your actors regarding their performance?

Kim Jee-woon: {Regarding Han Ji-min's response that Director Kim had asked her to study "small acting" in films like A Most Violent Year and Margin Call} I want to elaborate a little more on the "small acting", the reason I recommended those movies to Ms. Han Ji-min was because the premise is … Let's say there was a spy among us, and if you are going to communicate or if you are going to try and figure out who the spy is, everything - the way you communicate - has to be very meticulous; your gaze, the way you look at someone. How will you communicate in a very unassuming, subtle way? So that was where I was going for references. For the film, Margin Call, you can see these people in the face of this really traumatic event; they are constantly subduing or repressing their feelings and going about planning their lives in a very cold-mannered way.

Also, one of the other reasons I asked for "small acting", is because I feel there is a tendency for Korean actors to over-emote sometimes, and veer a bit toward sentimentality. So, I also wanted to try and step back a bit from that.

LMD:  Much has been made of "The Age of Shadows" being Warner Brothers' first foray into Korean cinema. What exactly did that mean to this film? Was there a difference with their involvement as opposed to making any other movie? 

Kim Jee-woon: There wasn't really much difference in the production process. I think it was a highly effective process. This may sound a little bit like I'm tooting my own horn, but because in the past I had achieved somewhat moderate box office success, as well as good reviews, coming into this production, I had a pretty calm attitude. I do feel, though, because this film, funded by Hollywood, has been a success, that it will inject a sense of healthy tension into the Korean cinema market. Especially for me as a director, the fact that this film has been a success means that directors have another route or avenue to go to to express their creativity. 

There are concerns from the Korean market about splitting profits between Korea and Hollywood, but I feel that if Warner Bros. and Fox keep on setting these good precedents in Korean film, that this trend will continue.

LMD: After almost 20 years of working together, what, if anything, surprises you about Song Kang-ho's performance, or what did he add to the character of Lee Jeong-chool that wasn't in the script?

Kim Jee-woon: I feel like it's very, very difficult for an actor or actress to maintain his or her position as a top talent for more than 20 years and Song Kang-ho is a living example of that sort of person. I do think it's remarkable, because every single time Song Kang-ho comes out with a new film, critics say that 'This is the film. This is his film' - and it happens every single time, so I think that is pretty remarkable.

I would say in terms of specific scenes, there is a scene where Song Kang-ho's character and Gong Yoo's character meet for the first time in the antique shop, and they are playing this psychological game, and they're trying to hide their true intentions, but the moment that I was most surprised by was when Song Kang-ho's character reveals that he is a Japanese policeman. So in that particular moment, when he is revealing his identity, a lot of us think that because the tensions are so high, a lot of actors tend to go at it with a certain nervousness. However, when you look at that scene, he really counterintuitively sort of lets go of his breath and his gaze relaxes and he really just relaxes into that moment of revealing himself. So I really feel that that's a sign of high calibre acting, because it was surprising to me that I could see that sort of acting in a Korean actor, as well as in my film.

So in the Sam Peckinpah film, Cross of Iron - I last saw the film a long time ago, so I'm a little blurry with the details - but there's a scene where James Coburn is aiming a gun at someone, and all of a sudden he releases his breath and relaxes into his breath and then shoots. At the time, I only really considered James Coburn as an action hero or action star, but when I saw him acting that way; delivering a moment of tension in such a counterintuitive way, I was very surprised and I felt that different kind of acting was what made him very, very special.

I will elaborate by saying that Song Kang-ho is an actor who is capable of just setting the scene or just changing the atmosphere of a particular scene just by a small glance or certain look. I feel that that represents his depth and his spectrum as a versatile actor.

LMD: Now that you've mentioned James Coburn, our mutual friend Mr. Lee Byung-hun, just played a role originated by Mr. Coburn in The Magnificent Seven. When I interviewed him in July, I asked him when you two would work together again and he gave away nothing his cameo appearance about this film, but he said he hoped your time apart from each other would make a great collaboration possible in the future. Are there plans for such a larger collaboration? 

Kim Jee-woon: Well, no, we don't have any specific plans to work on a particular project, yet. My next project is a live-action movie of "Illang : The Wolf Brigade", which I think we will be working on with Gang Dong-won. Which is not yet confirmed, but he's pretty much in there. But I will say working with Song Kang-ho or Lee Byung-hun; that is something I would not hesitate to do once the opportunity presents itself.

LMD: You are so closely associated with action pieces and thrillers. However, in the past couple of years, you made a short film called One Perfect Day, which was a rom-com, and a science fiction short called The Heavenly Creature from The Doomsday Book anthology. So now having made a rom-com, spy movies, action, thrillers, a western and a sci-fi film, is there a genre you haven't yet tried, or would like to explore further?  

Kim Jee-woon: So, I think with the film, "Illang : The Wolf Brigade", that I will be working on in the future, with that I will be touching upon the genre of sci-fi noir, or sci-fi/thriller. I feel like a genre that I would like to work with if possible in Korea, but if not, that I would still like to work on in the US, would be an antihero film. People keep telling me to work on a romantic drama film, so I might work on that. And then I would also like to work on a film that's based on real-life events.

LMD: "The Age of Shadows" is based on real-life events, isn't it?

Kim Jee-woon: Well, yeah, that is true, but we did sort of work with the characters and tweak a little bit of the circumstances, but yeah, you're right.

LMD: You also made another short called "The X", which I understand was in part to work with a new technology, ScreenX, which is similar to IMAX. How closely do you watch technological trends and have you considered doing something in 3D? 

Kim Jee-woon: To answer your question about 3D filmmaking, I don't really have any intention of making a 3D film for the sake of making a 3D film. I mean, if 3D is the best way to convey a certain theme or certain aesthetic that I want to convey, and if that is the most effective way, I will consider it, but I don't really have any intention just for the sake of it.

I will say with "The X", that was a new projection technique, and so I felt that it was going to open new horizons in terms of filmmaking. So, rather than that being something I that was focusing on much in terms of the story, I was focusing more on the experimental aspect of it. So I would like to think of that more of as a technical experimentation film. But I will say that if I feel like something is meaningful, and I feel like that particular technique contributes to a certain way of filmmaking, I will consider using new technology.

LMD: You've spoken about your experience making The Last Stand in Hollywood. Is there anything from your time in the States would like to see in South Korean filmmaking?

Kim Jee-woon: I wouldn't say there is something particular that I would want to adopt, because Korea has already started to adopt the Hollywood production system, itself. I feel like in that sort of system that we've adopted, we are sort of making it work within Korean culture and Korean sentiment, so there is nothing particular that I would like to try to add on. It is quite effective, I feel.

I will say one thing that the US system is very, very strict and very good about, is being very meticulous about accounting. For example, residuals: Once something goes out, it's very clear-cut; you get this much when it goes on the networks - they stick with principles on that one.

LMD: Do they not do that in Korea?

Kim Jee-woon: It's a little blurry, I feel. Rather than focusing on the profits I'm making through the residuals; that's not really what's on my mind. What's on my mind is that through those residuals, I'm constantly being reminded that my work is being shown in the US and across the world. So, for me, it gives me more of an emotional satisfaction, rather than the satisfaction of making money.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept 20-21st, 2016

Special praise and thanks to the wonderful folks at Korean Movie Night/Korean Cultural Center NY and CJ Entertainment for making this interview possible, as well as our eternal blessings for the wonderful translation of Ms. Estelle Lee.


Original article on The Diva Review


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