Former teacher, novelist, and minister of Culture and Tourism in South Korea, Lee Chang-dong has an extensive resume that extends far beyond cinema. That said, he is most well-known for his film output, with Venice and Cannes awarding him top prizes for the brilliant “Oasis” and “Secret Sunshine” (finally released through IFC last December). Lee’s 2010 effort “Poetry” was no different, garnering a well-deserved Best Screenplay award at Cannes, celebrating the Korean director’s ability to tackle many subjects with elegance and unwavering beauty. Granted, a first viewing was a bit overwhelming, but subsequent ones display the man’s expertise in weaving multiple thematic threads together seamlessly, not to mention the brilliant performance by Yun Jeong-hie, who makes a similar late-career triumph/rebirth akin to Kim Hye-ja in “Mother.”
We were lucky enough to chat with the filmmaker at 2010’s New York Film Festival, where he expounded on the casting of main character Mija, his peers, his observations on modern cinema and how “Avatar” affected him. “Poetry” opens in limited release this Friday, February 11th.
The Playlist: There’s a difference between “Poetry” and your past films, with much more going on thematically in this picture. What was your approach to the film?
Lee Chang-dong: As far as “Secret Sunshine” and “Oasis” go, the stories and themes are more simple and this story is more complex. Before I actually made the film I didn’t think of having it complex with many, many themes, but the event in the movie, the actual rape of a young girl by students and her suicide actually happened in real life so I didn’t want to show it in a simple way. Many movies do it in that fashion, I didn’t want to represent it in the way they do because it’s not that type of movie. When I wrote the film, as I was writing it all the elements naturally became part of it, it developed in an organic way.
Poems are about things and occurrences that we don’t see visually, it’s the needing of beauty and meaning, that’s what poetry can be. In a natural way there are many stories that interweave throughout the film, and the film’s big scene is not just about the tragic event, but it also meets with what poetry is about, they interweave together.
What struck you about Jeong-hie Yun that prompted you to cast her?
I thought her outer persona was very bright. When it came to casting, what I thought was the person who’d play Mija would have to be an actress who existed in the real world, and I could meet her, and after meeting her I could bring her into the film. It turns out that Jeong-hie Yun is somebody who is out there in the real world. In the 60s and 70s she was a legendary star in Korean film. Eventually she got married, so for 16 years for the most part she did not appear in any films, but often I would meet her for a short time at events or film festivals. I don’t really know … why but I felt that the actress and the role had something in common.
Mija’s character is carrying a heavy burden, but there’s restraint in your direction and she never gets a typical big breakdown scene. What kept her from these moments?
She’s a conclusive character for the film, what I wanted to say is that you can’t separate reality from the character. She’s elderly but has the heart of a young girl, she’s innocent, she looks at life in a very fresh way, like somebody writing a poem for the first time has a very fresh approach. Life is dying for her but she stills looks at life like a young girl, she is very fanciful, wears a scarf and a hat, and these are very important to the character.
In another interview you mention that poetry is dying, but people still write it and read it. You were interested in what that meant, people interested in this dying art. You mentioned film was the same way. Why do you think film is dying?
Don’t you think? (laughs) At the time that this film was released in France, many critics and reporters asked exactly that question, saying that in France poetry has died. They wanted to know if it was still alive in Korea, because I said that it was dying. Do people in other countries still read poetry? Even though there are not a lot of people who read and write it, there are still people that do. Film is still alive, “Avatar” is a good example of that. But some certain types of films are dying, and these are the kinds of films that I make and want to see. These are the kind that are dying.
You mentioned that a certain kind of film is dying. Audiences and venues are becoming more limited, but there’s also the internet that increases exposure and audience.
I don’t think that it is necessarily a good tool. Some people do want to see films on the internet, but not the ones that I think are dying. Watching these types of films is kind of like consumption, they’re not films that reflect our true lives or throw out questions or challenge the audience. There’s a problem with watching films on a small screen, you can’t truly appreciate a film’s qualities if you’re watching it like that, you have to see it in the theater. The reason being is that they’re not quick, speedy, or stimulating to the viewer, they generally want to watch movies that entertain, genre movies like horror, thriller, erotic films, etc. There was a deep concern amongst theater owners that people will stop going because of home entertainment. That movie [“Avatar”] brought moviegoing back to life because it was a movie that people could greatly enjoy, but when it comes to making a 3D film you need a lot of capital, and the film has to be a blockbuster in order to gain its returns. Because of that it kills other movies, the opportunities to distribute smaller movies decreases because of that. In Korea, it screened at 8 theaters in cineplexes. It keeps theaters alive but other films are quickly dying.
Did you see “Avatar”? What did you think?
I saw that while I was in the midst of editing. My son told me that I had to see it, he was very excited and my daughter made plans so we went with my wife. You can say that I enjoyed it, but the movies that I see and make and a film like “Avatar” are at extreme ends of the spectrum, they’re very different. Then the next day I went to the editing room again and I felt like I didn’t want to edit that day, and I don’t really know the reason for that feeling.
The tone in your films are very delicate, often combining humor, discomfort, sadness, and various emotions in a single scene, how deliberate is this?
Yes, that’s what I wanted to do. The reason why you can say that in one moment there are all those emotions involved, is that life itself is beautiful but it’s also ugly, life is bright but it is also dark, there’s a lot of heaviness but also a lot of lightness. I wanted to have these different feelings together in one moment. An example is after a poem has been read, the next scene might be where something unpleasant occurs, I wanted to show that in real life our lives have many different complex elements.
Do you find anything in common with your peers such as Hong Sang-soo, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook?
Sure, but there are many differences as well. In terms of Bong and Park, I think they’re directors that make films for the sake of being very cinematic, and that’s not my approach. Hong is a director that makes films for filmmaking’s sake, but he also makes it for people who are involved in the arts and for intellectuals. I make films for the kind of people that are characters in “Oasis” or “Poetry.” I’m not saying that there’s a bad or good way to make films or a bad or good approach, but there’s a difference in our approaches and in film personality.
How do you figure out what medium to use when you have a story?
By instinct. It’s very different between writing a novel and making a film, in a novel you’re using language to bring a story to life, so through this you’re speaking of it. Film is not a medium that is carried through with language, but something else. A film can tell a story very strongly, and a film’s great asset is that it can depict characters very well. For the most part, telling a story from a novel is very strong, but I feel that films have more power to do that.
There’s always been some talk of an American remake of “Oasis.” What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think it’s a problem, the story of the two characters can be seen as universal. A point that I want to make concerns the female character, on how she would act or how a female actress would be able to perform the character.
Right now I have two ideas but I haven’t decided which to take. One is about the apocalypse, and one is where the lead character is a samurai.