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.