Category Archives: The Year of the 12 Directors: Korean Cultural Centre, UK

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간: 2008)

Director YIM’s first commercially funded film, Forever the Moment, is based around the true story of the South Korean Women’s handball team who came second to Denmark in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. The first film about handball – a sport that I hadn’t heard of before last year London Olympics when people were snapping up tickets in the desire to see some Olympic action firsthand and details of the rules and history were being exchanged by people who like myself were new to the game  – Forever the Moment is an entertaining film, strongest when the focus is on the troubled lives of the women themselves rather than on the on court action – although that might be because of my unfamiliarity with the game rather than any shortcoming of the film.

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Much of the conflict and action off and on-court is a result of the tension between older players including Mi-Sook (Moon So-Ri) and Hae-Kyung (Kim Jung-Eun) and the younger ones, Oh Su-Hee (Jo Eun-Ji) and Bo-ram (Min-ji) as the new coach, Ahn Seung-pil (Uhm Tae-Woong) attempts to improve the team’s prospects by introducing new ‘Western’ style training to the women’s chagrin. Old bonds are reformed and new ones are formed as the women become united against the attempts of Seung-pil to dictate their diets, their training and relationships and victory becomes a possibility.

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While Forever the Moment follows closely to the structure of the sports film, we are denied the moment of triumph with which such films generally end signifying the completion of the teams/protagonist’s trajectory from underdog to eventual victor overcoming seemingly unsurmountable odds in the process, instead the final image is a freeze frame of the women at the conclusion of the game – capturing a moment of loss reconfigured as triumph. While the team might come second, the women themselves are victorious in their negotiations of identity formation within a patriarchal society in which they are accorded secondary status – relegated to supporting roles unless contained within the domestic sphere as good wives/daughters. Director YIM offers identifiable characters whose lives may well seem overly melodramatic to some, but who are nonetheless authentic representations of a feminine identity still in the process of formation and whose resistance to patriarchal constraints is envisaged as a point of liberation through an attempt – however fractured it may be – of self-definition. Although Director YIM does not seem herself as a feminist director, the concern of the film with women’s struggle – in which sport functions as a metaphor for society as a whole – does offer glimpses of a feminist viewpoint if not aesthetic.

Whether sports films are your cup of team or not, Forever the Moment has a great deal to offer viewers, in both its quiet meditations on female identity off the pitch and frenetic reconstructions of key matches on the pitch. It is not my favorite film by Director YIM as I think her talents are better utilized in a smaller more independent features such as Fly Penguin(날아라 펭귄: 2009) and Rolling Home with a Bull (소와 함께 여행하는 법: 2010), when the emphasis is on character rather than action, but it was a smash hit in South Korea where it topped the box-office on its opening weekend. This commercial success was followed by critical success when Forever the Moment was awarded Best Film at the 29th Blue Dragon Film Awards in 2008.

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Director YIM Soon-rye

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It was nice to end the wonderful Year of 12 Directors, with a month devoted to the films of a female director, YIM Soon-rye (임순례). I didn’t make the first screening which was Waikiki Brothers (와이키키 브라더스: 2001), Director YIM’s second feature film, but managed to catch the other three films that were shown. While I wasn’t that keen on Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간: 2008) – probably because I am not a fan of sports based films – I really enjoyed both Fly Penguin (날아라 펭귄: 2009) and Rolling Home with a Bull (소와 함께 여행하는 법: 2010) and it was great to have the opportunity to meet and talk to Director YIM before the screening of the later at the Apollo Cinema on the 20th December. Director YIM’s films focus on marginal characters and identities and as such can be considered within the broad banner of social issue cinema. While her primary focus is not on the oppression suffered by women under patriarchal capitalism, she does bring a sense of truth and authenticity to her female characters, who are more rounded and complex than generally found in female centered films by male directors that struggle to find a midway path between the virgin/whore binary or the good wife/the new woman, and in which women’s voices are often appropriated in order to construct/reconstruct a viable and sometimes violent masculinity. Poignant moments in Forever the Moment tell of an authentic female experience, from not being acknowledged as authoritative  or as being able to be in a position of power and/or being torn between the seemingly exclusive roles of being a good wife and an independent woman. In Fly Penguin, two of the interlinked stories concern woman’s struggle to be heard in both the domestic – the home – and the public – the workplace, while in Rolling Home with a Bull, a young woman helps guide a would be poet on his journey to spiritual enlightenment.

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It is not surprising therefore to learn that Director YIM had participated in the first Human Rights  omnibus film, If You Were Me/ 여섯개의 시선 in 2003, with The Weight of Her, a short film about female students being forced to change their appearances  – lose weight and/or have plastic surgery – in order to accord with the dictates of compulsory femininity under a patriarchal society (there have been four other films in the series since, including an anime film). Director YIM has a cameo appearance at the end of The Weight of Her, juxtaposing reality and fiction, and foregrounding the centrality of image as constitutive of female identity in contemporary South Korea.

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Meeting the Director

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Before the screening of Rolling Home with a Bull, I was invited along with other critics/reviewers to meet Director YIM for a group interview. A number of us, including myself, were interested in her experiences as a female director and her feelings regarding responsibility to women to deal with specifically female issues/identities (this came up again in the Q&A session with Tony Rayns after the screening). Director YIM pointed out that her films did not deal specifically with female experiences/identities, and that in fact she was as interested -if not more so – with male identities and in particularly oppressed male identity and the violence such oppression often results in. I think for a woman, it is always exciting to meet a female director – as there are still so few of them relatively – and there is a need (for me at least) to see the representation of woman outside of patriarchal constraints, fears and desire. I think this need is difficult for some male critics (including Tony Rayns) to understand. It is not that we want female directors to be limited to telling female stories (and I am not being essentialist here, I think it is our experiences as being woman that unites us in a multitude of complex and difficult ways) but we want to be able to connect to female characters on screen rather than disconnect.

Director YIM pointed out that when she started in film in 1996, she was the only female director, and therefore there was pressure on her to direct female-orientated if not feminist films. However these days there are feminist film directors in South Korea who have emerged over the last ten years, and this has taken the pressure of her. Interestingly enough – and in opposition to some of the articles I have read on Korean cinema – Director YIM said that there are no more female directors today in South Korea than when 10 years ago. However, in terms of people involved in the making of films including production staff and editors, the industry is divided equally 50/50 .  While this demonstrates a significant shift in gender relations in the film industry, it does not take away from the fact that there is a shortage of woman at the helm of the industry. (There will be a link to the full transcript of the group interview in due course).

It was such a pleasure to meet Director YIM and was a wonderful end to a great year of Korean Cinema in London courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre in London and the London Korean Film Festival. I am looking forward to what 2013 holds for Korean Cinema with a great deal of anticipation.


A Better Tomorrow (무적자: 2010)

A remake of John Woo’s seminal Hong Kong classic (1986), A Better Tomorrow updates and relocates the action from a pre-handover Hong Kong to contemporary Busan where Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-moo), lives the good life, selling illegal arms together with his best friend, Lee Young-choon (Song Seung-hun). However, this ‘success’ is overshadowed by the fact that he was forced to leave behind his mother and younger brother, Chul (Kim Kang-w00) when defecting from North to South Korea some years earlier leading the pivotal plot conflict between two brothers,  more or less intact from the original.

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While there is no doubt that visually A Better Tomorrow is stunning, or that the action sequences are well choreographed and spectacular, it pales into comparison with John Woo’s original, which is almost the Holy Grail of the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre of the 1980s. In addition at 125 minutes, the film was at least half an hour too long and the periods of lengthy exposition that punctured the action were to the detriment of overall narrative coherence and spectatorial engagement. As a fan of John Woo, I suspect that it was always going to be difficult for me to appreciate a remake of one of his most seminal works and I lost interest half way through, which did not help. And unlike other reviewers, I missed the melodramatic relationship between Sung Chi-Ho (Ti Lung) and Jackie (Emily Chu Bo-Yee) from the original, which gave the film ‘heart’ which the remake lacked.

I am not against remakes in principal, but this was not a patch on the original (which I believe was itself a remake 1967 Cantonese film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner). I missed the presence of  Chow Yun-Fat and the flair and technical proficiency of John Woo – I am off to watch the ‘original’ again then.

 

 


Failan ( 파이란, Song Hae-seong: 2001)

Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik) is a small-time gangster, eking out a living by selling porn videos to teenagers in the small video shop he manages. Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a young Chinese woman who comes to Korea looking for her remaining relatives after her parents die. Failan agrees to a paper marriage with Kang-jae so that she can stay in Korea, after she discovers that her relatives have emigrated to Canada. Just as Kang-jae is about to make a deal to serve 10 years in prison on the behalf of a big-time gangster, he finds out that Failan has died. During his trip to pick up his wife’s ashes, Kang-jae discovers that Failan had fallen in love with him and changes his mind about going back to prison: a decision which can only led to tragedy.

This short synopsis makes Failan sound like a straightforward romantic melodrama, but in fact there is little that is straightforward about it with the ‘romance’ between Kang-jae and Failan unfolding through a series of flashbacks which fracture Kang-jae’s present journey to retrieve Failan’s possessions. Failan’s unrequited love for Kang-jae is told through  letters to him that he discovers amongst her belongings.

However while Choi Min-sik’s is excellent, as always, in this role as a petty gangster whose downward spiral has almost robbed him of his humanity, Cecilia Cheung does not convince as the dying Failan who is meant to be the emotional core of the film. While I am aware that Failan has been seen by many critics as one of the best films of New Korean Cinema, I was unconvinced. As much as I appreciated the construction and aesthetics of the film, I found it lacking. I much preferred Director SONG’s later Maundy Thursday/우리들의 행복한 시간, in which the doomed relationship between the lovers is fully fleshed out and believable. Failan was like a  beautiful piece of postmodern art, all surface and no substance.  I just hope that the emotional core of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow/  英雄本色 (1996) one of the best examples of ‘balletic bloodshed’ has been preserved in Director SONG’s recent remake ( 무적자: 2010).


Maundy Thursday (우리들의 행복한 시간: 2006)

 

Moon Yu-jung (Lee Na-young), a successful University Lecturer, attempts suicide for the third time. Jung Yun-soo (Gang Dong-won) is on death row for rape and murder. Neither wants to continue living as a result of events in their past. Yu-jung is traumatized as a result of a rape when she was 15 and Yun-su’s criminal path was predestined when his mother abandoned him and his brother when they were just children.  The two meet when Yu-jung’s aunt, Sister Monica (Yun Yeo-jong), persuades her to accompany her when she goes to visit Yun-soo in prison. What transpires is a touching love story between two damaged people, whose love for each other reignites a desire to continue living, but can only end in death.

Unlike the conventional death row film, Director SONG”s 4th feature, Maundy Thursday is not so much concerned with critiquing the penal system as it is with illuminating social injustice in wider society and specifically class inequalities. Yun-soo ends up on death row because he cannot access health care for his girlfriend who suffers an ectopic pregnancy in a manner in which mirrors his younger brother’s death, who dies as a result of starvation compounded by a severe beating by a group of young thugs because of lack of access to medical care. In addition social injustice is compounded by familial neglect as embodied by the mother who neglects her child/children. Yu-jung’s mother blames her daughter for the rape, while Yun-soo’s mother is too wrapped up in her own problems to care for her children. The figure of the mother, here as elsewhere in contemporary South Korean cinema, is a metaphor for the nation, collapsing the personal and political onto one composite uncaring and unforgiving figure but whose affections are desired irrespective of her disregard for the needs of her children/people. This is highlighted by the fact that what brings the doomed couple together is the national anthem, as seeing Yu-jung sing it on television when he is a child, and with his brother, marks one of the truly happy times in Yun-soo’s life and this is the reason that Sister Monica takes Yu-jung with her when she visits him for the first time. It is therefore particularly poignant that as Yun-soo waits to die in the execution chamber, he sings the national anthem while Yu-jung listens on the other side of the one-way glass.

The title of the film, Maundy Thursday, refers to both the day on which Yu-jung visits Yun-soo, but is also the day on which Yun-soo is executed: a date marked in Christian calendar’s as the Last Supper, when Jesus dines with his 12 apostles for the last time before his execution. This religious subtext adds another level of meaning to the film’s diegesis and stresses the need for redemption and forgiveness for those cast aside by society and the state. Director Song constructs a multi-layered narrative of pain and suffering, love and hate, which never once degenerates into mawkishness. Both Gon Dong-won and Lee Na-young are excellent as the doomed lovers, while Kim So-hee – who plays Yu-jung’s mother – exhibits a considerable range of acting skills as she transforms from an unfeeling Matriarch to a vulnerable woman coming face to face with her mortality and finally recognizing her own sins (of denial/omission).

I thoroughly enjoyed Maundy Thursday despite the persistent chattering of some of the audience, and am looking forward to seeing more of Director Song’s films this month.


Director Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Director JEON is still relatively early on in his career, yet has produced an oeuvre of exceptional films starting with his town-trilogy (2009-2010) – Mozart Town (모차르트 타운: 2008), Animal Town (애니멀 타운: 2009), and Dance Town (댄스타운: 2010). His next film was the critically acclaimed From Seoul to Varanasi (바라나시: 2012) which was screened on the 27th September 2012 at Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, and was followed by a Q&A.

The group interview was well-attended and thought provoking, especially hearing about the difficulties that independent cinema still faces in terms of exhibition and distribution in South Korea which brought home how lucky those of us in London are to have access to such a wide range of South Korean cinema via the Korean Cultural Centre in London.

I asked Director JEON about his latest film The Weight, which had recently won the Queer Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and whether it had been his intention to make a ‘queer’ film. His response was that he was more concerned with addressing issues of marginality thus continuing the themes of his other films, rather than a conscious intention to make a ‘queer’ film.  My interest in asking this question was a result of my research in South Korean ‘queer’ cinema for the Directory of World Cinema: South Korea that I was in the process of completing, through which I gathered that dealing with issues surrounding ‘queer’ identity was still considered relatively taboo in South Korea. So it was interesting that homosexuality and transgender issues were less significant in terms of the film that other issues of marginality including social class that were addressed. I did not have the chance to see The Weight when it screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival as I was at a conference in Cardiff that day, but I have heard and read very positive responses and hope to be able to see it fairly soon.

My second question was also a product of my recent research and indeed preparation for the group interview during which I read an article that talked about Director JEON’s films as working within a ‘traditional Korean aesthetic’. For those of us that study South Korean cinema, one of the topics that is addressed the most is what exactly South Korean cinema is – how we define it? and what are its particular characteristics that set it apart from other cinemas? In these terms the concept of a ‘traditional Korean aesthetic’ seemed to come in handy, but I felt perhaps hard to see in the films of a Director who is concerned with contemporary social issues. This was confirmed when Director JEON said that he did not know what it meant either, in general, or how it pertained to his films. Instead, he suggested that it is up to the audience to complete the film, rather than a film to complete the meaning for its audience – a view, that I as a film scholar and sometime Deleuzian, have always ascribed to. All in all, I found the group interview really interesting and extremely useful in terms of what I am working on at the moment.

The full transcription of the group interview can be found, as always, at Hangul Celluloid:

Group Interview with Director JEON

I would recommend Director JEON’s films to anyone interested in South Korean Cinema. I only managed to see Dance Town due to work commitments and unfortunately was not well the night of the screening of Seoul to Varanasi.

Dance Town,the last in the town-trilogy,  focuses on the plight of North Korean defectors to South Korea. The narrative is focalized through the point-of-view of  Jung-rim (Ra Mi-ran) whose husband is arrested by the North Korean authorities when a neighbor reports him for bringing in banned South Korean goods, including cosmetics and DVDs, to North Korea. She attempts to make a life for herself while waiting for news of her husband, but finds herself doubly displaced, away from home while at the same time lacking any sort of belonging in her new ‘adopted’ home. As a result, she is forced onto the margins along with society’s underclasses whose lives intersect with hers including a disabled man, Lee Joon-Hyuk, whose wife has abandoned him as a result of his disability;  Ji-na (Noh Seul-gi), a young schoolgirl who is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, Kim Song-heui (Ju Yu-rang), her ‘minder’ whose job it is to integrate Jung-rim within the community;  and a  South Korean police officer, Oh (Oh Sung-Tae), who takes a shine to the lonely Jung-rim, but whose attentions are unwanted. Dance Town also boasts a small role for Darcy Parquet, whose work on South Korean cinema has been a pivotal in the growing appreciation of South Korean cinema in the West, as an American missionary who works in the community in which Jung-rim has been placed.

The overall impression of the film is one of bleakness and sadness, which culminates in tragedy: Jung-rim is raped by Oh after a night of heavy drinking only to subsequently discover that her husband, her soul mate, has been executed by the North Korean authorities. The feeling of loneliness, of isolation and alienation is communicated through the use of a realistic aesthetic, which is only punctured when Jung-rim fantasizes about being with her husband again, suggesting that fantasy is the only mechanism through which to deal with the social isolation experienced by the society’s underclasses. As such, Dance Town as Director JEON’s other films, contains an explicit critique of contemporary South Korean society, whose capitalist surfaces hide beneath them the suffering and brutality experienced by those who are positioned as societal outsiders through no fault of their own whether it is a result of birth, disability or gendered expectations. I found Dance Town a profound mediation on the cruelty of contemporary capitalism, whether in South Korea or elsewhere, and its creation of marginal communities. In short, Dance Town is a profoundly moving mediation on postmodern identity formation and fragmentation, that while it is specific to its place of production, has a message that rings true elsewhere including here in the UK where we learn to ignore the homeless while navigating our way around the city and where people in power would rather the rich had more money than provide for those less fortunate – which as Dance Town suggests, could be any of us, any day, any time…..


Videos from the Year of 12 Directors at the Korean Cultural Centre, UK

Director E J-Yong (February 2012)

Director Park Kwang-Su (March 2012)

Director Song Il-gon (April 2012)

Director Jeon Kye-soo (May 2012)

Director Lee Joon-ik (June 2012)

Director Lee Hyun-seung (July 2012)

Director Lee Yoon-ki (August 2012)

Director Jeon Kyu-hwan (September 2012)
 


Director Lee Yoon-Ki

Director Lee’s films are quiet reflections on the everydayness of ordinary existence. His films are the very antithesis of the fast, frenetic Korean blockbusters of commercial cinema. Time unfolds, allowing perception of time in the image, rather than the viewer being distracted by speed and movement. In his introduction to the final screening of the month, Saranghanda, Saranghaji Ahnneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, Director Lee in a self deprecating manner warned the audience that the film represented a challenge to produce the most boring film ever and even went so far as to say at one point that the aim was for the audience to fall asleep within 10 minutes. A comment, which actually, was for me personally very far from the truth, as I found Come Rain Come Shine (a more appropriate translation of the Korean title is however, Love You, Love You Not as the translator told informed us during the group interview) a nuanced exploration of a disintegrating relationship and indeed the most interesting of his films that I have seen, noting that I missed the screening of Reobeu tokeu/Love Talk due to work commitments. I suspect what I liked most about Come Rain Come Shine, and Yeoja, Jeong-hye/My Charming Girl – Director Lee’s directorial debut – was that there were moments in which both films could have shifted genres into horror. Good horror cinema is built upon an understanding of character and performance, and the way in which horror emerges from the ordinary, often as a result of fractured personal relationships, especially within South Korean Horror Cinema. The moment when Jung-hae confronts her rapist in This Charming Girl and when the two strange neighbours descend upon the married couple who are in the process of splitting up looking for their cat in Come Rain Come Shine, represent such moments when the films could have morphed into full flung horror. Having said this, there is much to enjoy about Director Lee’s films even if they require a great deal of patience on the part of the viewer to fully engage with them.


Indeed, in Come Rain Come Shine, physical space provides visual shorthand of the emotional estrangement between the couple – the distance between the couple, who are continually framed inhabiting the same space within the house at different times, only being overcome at the conclusion to the film, when both are in the same space – the kitchen – at the same time. For me, though, the roles of the husband and wife would have been better cast with older (the couple in the source material are I believe a good deal older) and more experienced actors in order to fully communicate the despair of a relationship in crisis, although both Hyun Bin as the husband and Lim Soo-jeong as the wife acquit themselves well enough.


The roundtable interview with Director Lee was informative and provided something fascinating facts, including the criticism levelled against his adaptations of Japanese literature – it seems that some national wounds never really heal – and the use of cats in his films, which have more to do with the fact that he owns two cats rather than any conscious directorial intent to create meaning – in response to my question about their symbolism in This Charming Girl and Come Rain Come Shine. A full transcript of the roundtable interview can be found at Hanguel Celluloid:

Interview with Director Lee Yoon-ki

I personally find the roundtable interviews really useful and think that Directors actually relax more in this informal setting than in one to one interviews. In addition, for my work I find it incredibly useful as other interviewers often ask questions that I haven’t thought of myself. I have learnt as much in this year’s series of interviews and Q&A sessions as I have in reading through numerous books on Korean cinema, and for that I am extremely grateful to the KCCUK which has put on such a great year of South Korean cinema, with more to come.

The Q&A was chaired by Dr Jinhee Choi, King’s College London, and author of The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs (2010: Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press), one of the most authoritative and informative books on South Korean cinema to date.


This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki: 2004)

This Charming Girl was the first film screened in the Lee Yoon-ki month at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, as part of the ‘Year of 12 Directors’ on 9th August 2012. KCCUK was packed with the film having sold out, with indicates the popularity of Director Lee, and I am expecting similar audiences for the remaining 3 screenings this month.

The protagonist of This Charming Girl is Jung-hye (Kim Ji-su), an ordinary young woman who works a mundane job in a post office and whose life is the epitome of loneliness and post-modern alienation. We are drawn into her daily life, as she goes about her day to day routine, the film detailing the very minatue of her existence. A naturalistic film, with almost no extraneous noise and the very bare minimum use of soundtrack,  This Charming Girl is an exemplary example of what Deleuze calls ‘cinema of the time-image’, in other words, a film concerned with the expression of lived time, and the movement of memory which disrupts the flow of time, actualising the virtual through its interpenetration into the present: a key example of this is the present in which Jung-hye  is lying on her sofa, while her new kitten licks her feet, which ‘becomes’ the past, and instead of the kitten licking her feet, we see instead her mother cutting her toenails as the two share a tender moment of mother-daughter bonding. The day-to-day life of Jung-hye is continually interrupted by such ‘becomings’ as past and present dissolve into one temporal continuum. It is through such temporal disruptions that we access Jung-hye’s interiority, seeing events from her past including leaving her husband during the honeymoon, past encounters with men including a ‘rape’ – the trauma of which prevents her entering into meaningful relationships with men in the present. In line with the naturalistic depiction of life, Director Lee offers no resolution to Jung-hye’s traumatic past instead choosing to end the film on the cusp of the future: a moment of virtuality which still remains to be actualised.

Time unfolds slowly in This Charming Girl and the film relies on the strength of Kim Ji-su’s performance to draw viewers into the cinematic diegisis and ultimately to care about what will happen to her in the future, and thus resolve the film themselves  rather than relying on a diegetic [re]solution to Jung-hye’s inability to move on from the ghosts of her past.

While I personally found that time moved slightly too slowly for me, and I would have liked a nice scene of bloody revenge (there was one moment when I thought this was going to happen), This Charming Girl deserves the awards and accolades that it won, and is well worth going out of your way to see.


Director Lee Joon-ik

Introduction (as written for the booklet for July, with some minor amendments)

Lee Joon-ik was born in Seoul on 25th September 1959. Originally Director Lee studied painting at Sejong University, before financial difficulties led to him quitting University and getting work as a magazine illustrator. In 1985, Director Lee became the marketing director at Seoul Cinema, designing posters and other marketing materials for both foreign and domestic films, and quickly gained a reputation for his artistic ability. In 1993, Lee launched his own production and distribution company, CineWorld, with his first film, a family comedy, called Kid Cop (키드캅). However, it was his next film, Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield (황산벌: 2003), a historical comedy set in the 7th century, that established Director Lee’s reputation for sumptuous visuals and cinematic flair as well as expressing a particularly Korean sensibility that appealed to both domestic and foreign audiences. In 2005, Director Lee’s The King and the Clown (왕의남자) was the highest grossing film at the domestic box-office and garnered a number of awards including the ‘Lotus Du Jury’ at the Deauville Asian Film Festival in 2007. He followed this with Radio Star (2006), The Happy Life (즐거운 인생: 2007), Sunny (즐거운 인생: 2008) and Blades of Blood (구르믈 버서난 달처럼: 2010). In 2011, Director Lee returned to the historical comedy with his sequel to Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, Battlefield Heroes (평양성). Director Lee’s experience in the film industry, both as a director and producer, makes him one of South Korea’s most important and influential contemporary directors.

As such it was a great honour for me to be asked to meet Director Lee and conduct the Q&A session after the screening of Battlefield Heroes at the Apollo Cinema on the 28th July 2012. It was made even more so by the fact that his Excellency Ambassador Choo and Madame Song were also present to the screening, and to officially launch the K-film section of The Korean Cultural Centre’s  ‘All Eyes on Korea’.

Director Lee is a charming man with a great sense of humour – something which shines through in his films. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Once Upon a Time on a Battlefield and Battlefield Heroes, I have to admit that The Happy  Life was my favourite film – with the codicil that I have yet to see Radio Star, which turned out to be Madame Song’s favourite. In The Happy Life, Director Lee perfectly captures the desire to recapture one’s youth, as a band reform to recapture their halcyon days,  an event which is precipitated by the death of one of the members, Sang-woo, making the remaining members realise that life is for living and that you are never too old to fulfill your dreams. It was a life-affirming film from a Director on top of his game.

As was noted at the group interview that was held before the screening and Q&A, that Director Lee’s war films, Once Upon a Time On a Battlefield, Battlefield Heroes and Sunny mediate on the cruelty of war, captured by a Korean sensibility, one linked to a feeling of sorrow which is the result of continued historical trauma, either as a result of the continuing division between North and South Korea and/or South Korea’s strong presence during the Vietnam War on the side of the US. A full transcript of the group interview can be found at Hanguel Celluloid by following the link: http://www.hangulcelluloid.com/leejoonikinterview.html

The broad humor in these films provides a counterbalance to the melodrama. During a conversation with Director Lee, I asked him about the influences on Once Upon a Time On a Battlefield and Battlefield Heroes, having noted references to both Shakespeare and Chaucer (in particular The Miller’s Tale) during viewing the films. This led to a discussion of Monty Python, and in particular The Life of Brian, as one of the formative influences on Director Lee’s historical war films. Although I have to admit I prefer Director Lee’s films to the Monty Python ones.

Another subject of discussion was the frequency of unhappy endings in South Korean cinema, to which Director Lee commented that ‘happy starts’ are more important for him that happy endings. One could extrapolate that this is a consequence of the fact that Korea has not yet had a happy ending , one that is only possible through reunification, something which after substantial progress in the early part of the twentieth first century seems ever more remote in light of recent events.

The Q&A session went smoothly, with the audience asking Director Lee a number of questions about his films and indeed, his plans for the future. Following the Q&A was a raffle, prizes included a Big Bang signed CD, which was without doubt the most sort-after prize (not surprisingly given the popularity of K-pop in the UK), after which Director Lee met and talked to fans in the foyer. The fact that there was a long queue to speak to him, testifies to his importance in terms of South Korea cinema and also the sheer comedic brilliance of his films. Details of Director Lee’s films can be found in my post  ‘TheYear of the 12 Directors’: https://orientalnightmares.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/the-year-of-the-12-directors/

It was a delightful experience and I must once again thank the Korean Cultural Centre for asking me to be involved. I feel that my understanding and appreciation of South Korean cinema was been extended as a result of my involvement in this particular event, but also through attendance of the film screenings and Director interviews that have accompanied what is a truly wonderful introduction to South Korean Cinema.