Yesterday I was lucky enough to interview one of my favourite South Korean directors, Kim Jee-woon for the second time. If I remember correctly, Director Kim was the first director that I ever interviewed. At least this time, I was less terrified and overwhelmed by the experience. As before, Director Kim was charming and his responses thoughtful. There was some confusion about whether the interview was a group or individual, and I had prepared for a group interview, so my questions would have been different if I had realised that I was going to be given the opportunity to interview him one-to-one. I only had fifteen minutes, so managed to ask just three questions.
CB: One of the issues in the news at the moment is about cuts to Korean films for international release, e.g. Snowpiercer. In opposition, the international DVD release of I Saw the Devil is different to the Korean DVD release (which we got in the UK). Such changes, as in the case of I Saw the Devil, and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, alter the meaning of the film. How do you feel about having to make changes to your own films for different markets?
KJW: Director Kim explained that the reasons for the differences in the international and Korean cuts of I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad and The Weird were different. In relation to I Saw the Devil, cuts were made because the Korean system does not have a restrictive (R or 18) rating, therefore if he had not made cuts in terms of the graphic violence then I Saw the Devil would not have received a theatrical release in Korea (which is a shame because the cannibalism scenes were the most interesting for me). With The Good, The Bad and The Weird, it was necessary to get the film edited quickly in order for it to be entered into competition at Cannes. In this case, it was the Korean version that was the Director’s cut, as he had longer to actually edit together and produce his directorial version. Normally therefore it is the Korean versions that should be taken as the director’s cut.
Commentary: I asked this question in light of the ongoing debate about whether Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will be cut for the international release and also in light of the fact that last year when writing a book chapter about Director Kim’s I Saw The Devil, I mistakenly ended up with the Korean DVD cut of the film and not the international cut. While the Korean cut of I Saw the Devil is longer by 2 minutes I think, most of the references and scenes to do with cannibalism had been cut and replaced with either exposition or in one case an extended sex scene. As I was writing about cannibalism, this then proved to be slightly difficult for me. I was also aware that the international version of The Good, The Bad and the Weird was different to the Korean cut. While such strategies may well be seen as necessary in terms of localization, the end result is that a film’s meaning is altered by such changes. Of course, the worst example of this is Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), which when released as Creepers with half an hour missing which rendered the film unintelligible.
In relation to Director Kim’s response, it is interesting to know that in most cases (with the exception of I Saw the Devil and Director Park’s Thirst) the Korean version should be taken as the director’s cut.
CB: You lived in France for a while. How important was this in terms of your subsequent career? (it seems to me that France always made less distinction between art and genre cinema – which is what defines your films.
KJW: I spent 5 months travelling around Europe and 3 months in Paris, during which time I watched over 100 films which gave me a wealth of cinematic knowledge and understanding.
Commentary: There was a bit of mistranslation going on here, and I don’t think Director Kim knew what I was asking (or it might be that I was being a bit unclear with my phrasing of the question). For me the striking feature of Korean cinema is its affinity with French cinema, and my point here was that the type of distinctions between art and genre cinema in French cinematic thought and practice are not mutually exclusive as they tend to be elsewhere. You only have to look at the fact that films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, both Italian horror film directors, were premiered in France at art-house cinemas, whereas in the US they were much more likely to have appeared on double bills of exploitation cinema for the drive-in crowds.
CB: Despite the fact that The Last Stand opened to mixed reviews, I have read that you are attached to another English language feature Coward. What lessons have you learnt from The Last Stand that you will be able to put to use with Coward? (based upon graphic novels).
KJW: The Last Stand was difficult as the studio system in the US is very different to the system in South Korea. The shorting days were shorter, as was the shoot itself. In the US, you are answerable to producers, the studio, actors, assistant directors and thus has less say over the final product. Having experienced this, I believe that it will be easier making Coward as I now understand how the system operates. I also feel as it is a noir film that it will fit in with my style better.
Commentary: I was particularly interested to read that he had signed on for another English-language production despite the fact that The Last Stand had not done particularly well either critically or commercially, unlike Park Chan-wook’s Stoker which did very well critically although not commercially. Very few foreign directors had managed the transition, especially those who have a very strong directorial signature. The horror stories about experiences with studios that foreign directors have had are well-known. At the same time, I fully understand a director’s desire to take on additional challenges and be able to address the widest audience possible, and have no problems with the fact that foreign directors attempt to make this transition. Success stories though are few, John Woo mainly managed it, Hideo Nakata flunked badly and Dario Argento said that after the experience of Trauma he would never again make a film in the US again (one can only wish that he had kept to this promise).
Do I think that Director Kim will have a better experience this time? I am not sure, I hope he does, but at the same time fear that his strong aesthetic sensibility and imagistic vocabulary will be contained. I live in hope and wish Director Kim the best of luck.
Thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging the interview, and of course to Director Kim for being so generous with his time. Apologies for any mistakes in transcribing his responses.
The reviews of Director Kim’s shorts and the Q&A session that followed will be posted shortly.