Born in Sokcho, Kangwon-do, 22 January 1955. He grew up in the city of Pusan. While majoring in Fine Arts at Seoul National University, He joined the Yallasung Film Group and began making short films on Super-8. After graduating, he founded and led the Seoul Film Group, which had links with the student protest movement and was in the forefront of the campaign for a renewal in Korean film culture. He wants on to take a course at the ESEC film school in Paris. On returning to Korea, he worked as assistant director to Lee Chang-Ho before making his own first feature in 1988. His films have won numerous domestic and international prizes. And he is considered the leader of the 'New Korean Cinema' movement. In 1993, he was the first Korean film-maker to found his own independent production company; its first production, To the Starry Island, was the first Korean film to benefit from co-financing from the West.
1982 Kedeuldo Urichorom (They, Like Us), short made with Yallasung Film Group
I had several reasons for getting involved with the Yallasung Film Group while I was a student. I was studying sculpture and fine art, and always had the feeling that art circles were very limited; I wanted to meet a wider range of people, and film offered that chance. Also, one night in the winter of 1981 my junior roommate (who was studying painting) hanged himself while I was asleep. There was no obvious reason for his suicide. The shock was such that I couldn't go on working on sculpture for a time, and film offered an escape. Then, once Id helped make some short films, I found I like it and wanted to go on with it.
Yallasung was founded in 1980 by Hong Ki-Sun, Kim Dong-Bin and others. It was initially a kind of hobby for them I joined in 1981, and brought with me my contacts in other cultural fields - particularly with the Yonwoo Mudae theatre group, which was doing covertly dissident plays. No art could be openly political after the Kwangju Massacre in May 1980; dissidence and protest had to be underground. We called it living in the Black Age. Any how, we presented ourselves as a cultural movement, not a political movement, but the Yallasung Group did make two documentaries on political issues: one was about student rallies, the other was about the American presence in Itaewon.
Later, when I started the Seoul Film Group with Hwang Gye-dok and others, we were invited to team up with another group which called itself 'The People's Cultural Committee', a very Communist sounding name. We declined, but we did have some links with them. Eventually some people left our group and went into the labour movement or had shop-floor involvement. Myself, I was never too comfortable with agit-prop film-making. I tended to think that the films made by underground groups like Changsan-Gotmae were simply the other side of the coin of government propaganda films. But it was enjoyable to watch ten, of course.
Before I went to Paris, I formed two other Super-8 film-making groups, which were involved with the labour movement and underground culture. The idea was that when I came back to Korea we would merge these two groups with the Seoul Film Group and start making underground' 16mm features. In the event, that plan had to be abandoned because each group went its own way and formed its own identity. Mean while in Paris my own sense of the possibilities changed. In France I saw a lot of features and documentaries from Third World countries and realised that they weren't being made underground but quite openly. Some of Lino Brocka's films, for instance. I found myself thinking that similar film-making should be possible in Korea.
I had those ideas in mind when I made Chilsu and Mansu. I made the film in the year of the Seoul Olympics, and thought that it would be easier to get it through censorship for that reason. The film was inspired by a story by the Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, which had already been used as the basis for a play by the Yonwoo Mudae group. (Moon Sung-Keun played Chilsu in the original production.) Hunag's writings were banned in Korea at that time, and so it couldn't be credited to him. In the film, I set out to make something that would appeal to the young audience and that wouldn't come across as something too serious. I was reaching for the mass audience, and so the politics were muted.
Then, when Chilsu and Mansu didn't do all that well at the box-office, I had a rethink. I'd made quite a lot of compromises in the hope of reaching the mass audience; since I failed, I thought that I should forget about trying to please people and make a more personal film. If Chilsu and Mansu had been as successful as it was supposed to be, I shouldn't have changed course. As it is, Black Republic was written as an original script and it expressed a lot of my feelings about Korea and Korean politics in the years since Kwangju. The central character was based on a real-life poet who got involved with the labour movement, but he wasn't famous or anything; the audience wasn't expected to recognize him. It wasn't as hard to get Black Republic through censorship as I expected, but the Committee did demand a few cuts. What was lost was flashbacks to the protagonist's history between the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 and the present (1990): the original idea was that these flashbacks would show the ten-year development of t he political underground, but most of that has gone from the film as it stands. In 1945, there was no prosecution of war criminals in Korea - unlike France and Germany. The Koreans who had served the Japanese remained in power and became the new ruling class. They are still there today. I think this is one of the fundamental problems in Korean society.
In Black Republic, the mine-owner's son (played by Park Joong-Hoon) represents the complacent but fucked-up offspring of that class. The mining industry was actually begun by the Japanese, and what remains of it now is inherited directly from them. The idea, obviously, was to contrast the mine-owner's son with the newcomer, the man who dreams of reforming society.
The woman in the story is a prostitute because that is the reality in such villages. The only woman a man could approach would be a prostitute. Also, I didn't want him to meet a reform-minded woman, someone like himself. It was important that the meet someone who would challenge his ideas and his stance. The village is anyhow intended as a microcosm of Korean society, and the reality in the 1980s was that the country had some half a million prostitutes, The military government was very repressive in some ways, but it had no trouble tolerating the entertainment business.
The original idea for Berlin Report dates from 1985. It was conceived to be set and shot in Paris; the story was expanded to Germany to allow it to include German reunification. After making Black Republic, I came under a lot of pressure from people in the film industry and government film circles, and I rushed into Berlin Report too quickly. Of course, I hoped to shoot during the reunification of Germany - the demolition of the Berlin Wall and so on - but I was slowed down by production problems here in Seoul and didn't get there in time. The whole thing was intended as an allegory of Korea's historical fate at the hands of the colonial powers. I wanted to show how the country was raped.
To the Starry Island is set largely in the past because I wanted to move away from the immediate political and social problems raised in the other films. I wanted to find another way of examining the partition/reunification questions, and I wanted to explore that I'd call the originality of Korean people - especially Korean women. I'm very much aware that I'm moving towards a much closer empathy with women. When I began directing, I have to admit I didn't know that much about women; now I find women characters much more interesting than me.
The film is being made independently because the commercial production companies simply aren't interested in financing films like this. The situation in our film industry gets worse all the time, and our options are shrinking fast. I'm managing to produce the film myself, but I'm still stuck with the old distribution system. That's why I've had to put so many well-known actors in the film; it will help to persuade exhibitors to play the film in their theatres. I suppose the real reason that I'm now an independent is that I hated lying to the producers of Chilsu and Mansu and Black Republic about my commercial intentions. I didn't totally mislead them, and I was sincere about putting some commercial elements into those films. But my relationship with those producers was fundamentally wrong.
Interview (1993) by Tony Rayns, translated by Park Ki-young