I was honoured to be part of a group interview with Director IM Kwon-taek during a major retrospective of his work organised by the Korean Cultural Centre in London. Screenings of Director IM’s films were split between the BFI and the ICA and offered audiences an opportunity to see films from the most influential South Korean director, who at the age of 76 still finds enthusiasm and energy to continue to make ground-breaking and extraordinary films. His most recent, Hanji (달빛 길어올리기: 2011), brought the retrospective to a close.
Since his first film, Farewell to the Duman River (두만강아 잘 있거라) in 1962, Director IM has been at the forefront of South Korean cinema. Starting off making quickie genre films, Director IM has developed into a visionary auteur, whose work has been responsible for raising awareness of traditional Korean arts both domestically and globally. His 1993 film, Seopyeonje (서편제) about the dying art of Pansori, was the first South Korean film to break through 1 million admissions at the domestic box-office, and demonstrated that a low-budget lyrical film could compete with commercial cinema.
He was also the first South Korean director to win best Director at the Cannes Film Festival with his 2002 film, Chihwaseon (취화선), as well as being made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor in 2007.
As there were a number of us interviewing Director IM, unfortunately due to time restraints I did not manage to ask a question of my own. However a full transcript of the group interview can be found at Paul Quinn’s site, Hangul Celluloid.
I had hoped to ask Director Im about what made him still want to continue making films and in particular experiment with new film-making technology. His 101st film, Hanji, was shot on digital. I had also prepared a question regarding why he felt it was so important to preserve and/or bring to light dying cultural traditions. The final question I had prepared was regarding how different he found it making films now than he did when he started out. Much of the detail of my questions were covered in the Group interview, and I am hopeful that I will get another opportunity to interview Director IM in the future, perhaps even after the release of his 102nd film. I did, however, manage to get his autograph!
IM KWON-TAEK in Conversation
This event took place before the screening of Mandala (만다라: 1981), with Tony Rayns interviewing Director IM, inbetween clips of some of the Director’s most famous films including The Surrogate Woman (씨받이: 1987) and General’s Son (장군의 아들: 1990).
Talking about The Surrogate Woman, Director IM told us that the film was made in protest at the repressive military regime and strict censorship control over cinema at the time. The emphasis on the destruction of the family as a result of the necessity to give birth to a son, provided the type of social commentary that Director IM would be associated with in the second half of his career. As a result The Surrogate Woman can be seen as a proto-feminist text.
The second clip shown was from Mandala, which concerns two Buddhist monks who seek very different paths to Enlightenment. Director IM talked about the difference between Southern and Northern Buddhism. In Southern Buddhism ‘enlightenment is achieved through practice’, while Northern Buddhism concedes that the road to enlightenment is a difficult one and needs to be sought through interaction with the ‘common people’.
The third clip was from Seopyeonje, which saw a revival of the nearly forgotten Pansori art-form in South Korea. It is an example of the very best of South Korean cinema, both beautiful and lyrical and an cinematic experience not quickly forgotten.
The final clip was from General’s Son, which marked a return to genre filmmaking – a type of filmmaking for which Director IM has little time going so far as to wish his early genre films no longer existed – but a genre film very much in the style of auteur cinema.
It was a privilege to meet Director IM, who not only was generous of his time to participate so fully in the retrospective including making time to meet critics and fans, but was in person an extremely lovely man, his humility impressive given his standing in the film community. I wish I had been able to attend more of his films, and came away feeling inspired and hoping to make time to make some in-way in to Director IM’s substantial back catalogue.
Some of Director IM’s films can be accessed via the online Korean Archive youtube channel: