Year of the 12 Directors: Yim Soon Rye

Interviews with Director YimAs 2012 comes to an end, so does the Korean Cultural Centre UK‘s most ambitious project yet: ‘Year of the 12 Directors’. Rounding up this excellent year was the fabulous Yim Soon Rye. December sees the one and only female director of the project and what a fabulous lady to close this year of films and director interviews. A lady looking to mend the world and help Korean society tackle their issues, she uses film as a medium to help people and society see and face their issues. With a knack for exploring the lives of ordinary everyday people in the most captivating and engaging way ever, Yim Soon Rye’s films leave its audience with a subtle smile and a warm uplifting feeling. Yim Soon Rye is truly, a magnificent lady. At the round table interview before the screening of Rolling Home with a Bull we got to learn a lot about her experiences as a woman in the Korean film industry.

Korean Class MASSIVE was both excited and solemn about this last director visit. We have personally loved this epic project and the director interviews are always a highlight of the month for us. We were lucky enough to also be given the opportunity first by London Korean Times to join in the round table director interviews and have meet some MASSIVELY amazing Korean film buffs of London over the past year. Shout outs to MiniminimoviesKoreaffinityEastern Kicks and Colette Balmain. And a MASSIVE shout out goes to the legend that is Mr Hangul Celluloid, the Godfather of Korean Film in the UK. He has been there at every Director interview with sheets of questions, starting and ending all the interviews with grace and class and then transcribing the interviews after. We were all very upset to hear he was unable to attend the December interview, the final interview of the year. So in honour of Mr.  Paul Quinn, Hangul Celluloid, we attempted to transcribe the interview for him. We never expected transcribing to be so difficult and take so long. How have you done it for the whole year?! It was torturous, it was hard, we don’t know how he does it, words cannot describe the respect we have for Mr. Hangul Celluloid.

So here it is, featuring the publications London Korean TimesMiniminimoviesThe F Word, Eastern Kicks and Colette Balmain, our attempted transcription of December’s Director Yim Song Rye’s round table interview (covered in blood, sweat and tears):

London Korean Times: About Rolling Home with a Bull, were there any difficulties faced when filming the relationship between the man and the bull, and was there any animal training to make sure the bull worked well on set?

Yim Soon Rye: The bull that you see in the film is actually a professionally trained bull that can be used in film or drama. This particular bull has a lot of experience. There are about five bulls in total in Korea who are regularly appearing in some films or TV dramas. Originally the idea was to have a female cow in the screenplay, but out of the 5 available bulls, this one stood out so the screenplay was adapted. This bull had a really good sensibility in terms of acting and had a great relationship with the actors, so you can see an understanding developing between the actors and the bull, especially with the man who plays the poet. The actor was probably initially afraid of the bull, because as you can imagine a bull is quite MASSIVE and quite present on the set, but after two months or so they really got on and had a great time and towards the end of the shoot it was quite sad that the actor and the bull had to part.

Colette: I wanted to ask about what barriers you’ve had to overcome as a female director. I know that you did a documentary about female directors in 2001, and I wondered how things have changed since you made the documentary?

Yim Soon Rye: Yes, comparing to how it was in 2001, you could say there has been change. For instance, the change can be noticed in the difference in the number of female staff working in the film industry. In 2001, probably 20-30% of the staff working in the film industry were female, whereas nowadays the numbers have grown and it’s probably about half the staff. But, having said that, in the case of female directors working, it hasn’t really changed much. The number over 10 years hasn’t really grown and the reason for that is because first of all there aren’t many female directors who’ve succeeded in making commercial films, and in the area of commercial films, female directors are still marginalised, so there hasn’t been a big change in this area.

Eastern Kicks: You seem very committed to the cause of human rights, having been involved in two of the If You Were Me films and also Fly, Penguin which was produced by the Human Rights Commission of Korea. I wondered what inspired you to get so personally involved and do you think these films can make a difference?

Yim Soon Rye: Even before making human rights films associated with the subject matter, my films, like my first two features Three friends and Waikiki Brothers, dealt with and tackled people marginalised to the fringes of society and I naturally have interest in these particular people, so it wasn’t unnatural for me to take offers and suggestions from say the Human Rights Commission of Korea and these opportunities to make films about people’s human rights. So far there probably have been about two features and two animation films and maybe 50 or so short films about human rights made in Korea, but obviously they don’t attract big audiences and you wouldn’t say it makes any big impact in that sense. But these films are continuously used as text for educational purposes, so within schools and universities they’re used to educate students about human rights, so in those aspects I think they’re playing quite an important role.

MiniMiniMovies: I have a question about Forever The Moment, it’s to do with the interest again, I just wondered why the sport of handball was picked, was it suggested to you, and also maybe you wanted to highlight the popularity of the sport? The other thing was, there’s quite a bit of humour in the film, I just wondered how you decided how much humour to put into a real life story?

Yim Soon Rye: The idea of that film was actually suggested by the producer Shin Jae Myung, a female producer who is actually quite well known in the Korean film industry, she has made a lot of successful films as well, but this film was suggested. I myself watched that particular match at Athens in the Olympics and then after the game the producer suggested to make a film about this and I got interested and although I was slightly doubtful, I got interested because it was a minor kind of sport in some way. In Korea handball it was about women probably older and then also married and some had kids, so the fact that these women actually made a team and put so much effort into that sport to basically fight for victory, I thought that was quite an interesting subject to deal with. Although they didn’t actually win gold, they only won silver, it was quite triumphant in some way that these women actually fought all the way, but still I was doubtful but I trusted the producer and her ability to produce films. It was my first big budget motion film so obviously there was a lot of pressure upon my shoulders and plus to make it worse the production company was also undergoing a sort of difficult crisis at that time and of course they had made some feature films that didn’t really do well at the box office at that time, so there was a lot of pressure. Naturally, we come to your second question, the reason why I put a bit of humour and a bit of dramatics in the film in because although they might not be my taste, I have to in a way negotiate with the audience and try to put in some elements that will speak and communicate quite well with the audience. There was a balance I had to set for myself and I actually thought that was quite a key to making this film.

Korean Class MASSIVE: When you were making the documentary Keeping the Vision Alive, how was it for you personally getting to meet a lot of other females working in the Korean film industry?

Yim Soon Rye: The purpose of making that documentary was to follow the history of female Korean filmmakers and find out how they worked in the industry, so the people I met were all in the older generation and people who were older than me. The people who were working in the 90s were working in a slightly improved condition of film making, because when I met these Korean female filmmakers who worked in such a conservative system, the stories that I heard were moving and made me think how lucky I am today actually working in these kinds of conditions, although there were still quite a lot of problems as well. Say for example, the first female Korean director, whose name is Park Nam Ok, she made her first feature in 1955, when she was working on set and called for ‘action’, she had a kid on her back, so these were the kinds of situations they were working with. Also with a lot of technicians, like technical staff, there were superstitions and superstitious beliefs. In Korean society, there is a belief that if your first customer of the day is female, say if you’re a taxi driver or shopkeeper, then you’re unlucky throughout the day. That was a widely believed superstition, so when a female director visited places like mixing studios or editing suites to quicken the process, if she turned up early in the morning, the technicians wouldn’t really like that idea that they’re getting a female as the first person to walk through the door. These are just some of the kinds of stories that not only female directors, but women who worked in costume and other areas of film making, they all in some way suffered and experienced marginalisation. Hearing about these stories was really touching for me and made me realise the kind of benefits that I’m actually getting because of what they went through.

Q&A with Director Yim  

The F Word: Rolling Home with a Bull deals with a kind of crisis of masculinity where the main character, because he doesn’t have children or a wife, he’s sort of seen as low status. Can I ask what drew you to that theme and is it a common one in modern Korean culture?

Yim Soon Rye: The background of the film is a farm and the countryside, so obviously you see a man who works on a farm and lives with his parents, and he’s a writer and poet, so all these realities cause him to not marry anyone, so in a way it was that reality more than anything else that caused his status. If you were in that situation as a Korean man, you’d probably have to get married to a female worker from South Asia. Obviously he didn’t like that idea. These circumstances came together for the background of the character, it wasn’t deliberately intended to talk about a crisis of masculinity as such, and part of the reason the character is set up in that situation is because he was hurt by previous love affairs and relationships, so he couldn’t really open up. That’s one more crucial reason why he was unmarried and leading that kind of life. These were just circumstances for the character.

Korean Class MASSIVE: I have a question about Fly, Penguin. I understand it’s sponsored by the human rights commission. I’ve seen it, and the way that each issue was talked about flowed really well with each other. I wanted to ask how those social issues were picked and whether they were ones that you felt strongly for, or whether they were just purely for the flow of the film?

Yim Soon Rye: To answer your question, in the case of Fly, Penguin, the first two related to issues of education, especially the first one. We have a specific Korean term called ‘wild goose father’, which means fathers live in a different city or country to the other family members, so they live and work by themselves to support their family and they have their own kinds of predicaments and issues to deal with. The second one was about vegetarians and the third one was about issues with the elderly in Korean society and especially late stage divorces that happen in that age group. Personally, I have a huge interest in education and problems with education, so I wanted to tackle that. I’m a vegetarian myself, so again I wanted to tackle that. Not just vegetarians, but people who can’t drink, so when they go socialising, in society they’re often seen as not normal. Those issues were pretty interesting to me. The third one was the divorces that take place in the later stages of life, so elderly couples getting divorced. Because of the fast change that happened in Korean society, the females and older woman seemed to adapt themselves to that change quite well, so they would probably go to some social centres and learn new hobbies and get new interests and try to find a way through that change. However, the older men are still sort of patriarchal types of characters still believing in old fashioned values and find it really difficult to adapt to new changes. I wanted to talk about those kinds of issues, problems and struggles that these men actually go through. These issues were all picked in relation to what I’m personally interested in and want to talk about, and there comes a fluidity between each issue and problem, and in the end this fluidity comes from me. The first one about the ‘wild goose father’ character, he may be seen as quite a hard type of character in the workplace and could boss people around, but at home he’s got his own situations to deal with and struggle with. From that, what I wanted to strongly say was when you talk about human rights, you often think it’s a serious subject and the way you talk about it has to be serious too. Human rights issues are often about victims of those issues and problems, but I wanted to show the other side where anyone can be a perpetrator but can also feel marginalised as a victim too. I wanted to talk about how easy it is to violate human rights in everyday situations, so that was my intention behind the project.

Colette: Some critics argue that if you’re a female director, you’re obligated to deal with feminist issues, and I wondered whether you think that’s true or not, and how your gender influences your choice of stories.

Yim Soon Rye: I think I’m quite free from that obligation, from having to talk about any subject or having to have that feminist identity. In my case, instead of being solely interested in feminist issues, I’m largely interested in Korean society and the problems that Korean society had and has, regardless of gender. So I was quite free to talk about anything, especially in the case of men, there are a lot of issues with their masculinity and the kinds of violence they have to go through in military service and in society in general, so there are a lot of stories I could deal with in that sense. If you see my first two films, they’re all about men, so like Three friends andWaikiki Brothers. I started making films in 1996, and was the only female filmmaker working, so there was a lot of expectation from other filmmakers in the industry and even critics said that I should be talking about feminist issues, but I was actually talking about men. I even had some criticism for that reason. But if you look at Forever The Moment, all female characters, and that was pretty much a statement saying ‘look, I can make films about females as well’, and also short films I made like The Weight of Her, they also dealt with female characters. So I’m quite free from obligations, let’s say, and after me, there are other female directors coming to join the film industry, and they are making room for feminist films out there, so in a way the pressure has been lifted off my shoulders.

London Korean Times: Actually, I was quite interested why you selected Kong Hyo Jin as she’s been featured in dramas, and what it’s like to work with Kong Hyo Jin. She’s actually one of my favourite female actresses.

Yim Soon Rye: For the story to work [in Rolling Home with a Bull] the female character has to be someone who’s thick skinned and quite confident and cool about things. Especially even after her husband died, she could be quite cool about meeting up with a previous lover. In contrast, the guy is quite timid and he still has a lot of baggage from the past as well. These characteristics and traits work perfectly with how I know the actress Kong Hyo Jin to be and the way she’s appeared in films and the way she is in real life. I thought she fit the character perfectly, so that’s why I cast her. The actor was completely unknown I think at that time. Before I cast him, I cast Kong Hyo Jin first because although the film wasn’t meant to be a deliberately commercial film, but to actually get some sort of funding you need actors or actresses who have some sort of public awareness, and who have some ticket pulling power. You sometimes need actors to secure funding. In this case, Kong Hyo Jin was actually cast first then waited until the man was cast too, so she waited for a year for casting to be complete. I thought she was just perfect for the part.

Korean Class MASSIVE: I have another question about casting. In Fly, Penguin, the child who played Seung Yoon was really adorable and good at acting. How did you go about casting someone so young and were there any limitations on using such a young actor?

Yim Soon Rye: For that child actor, I auditioned many children to cast for the part. When I auditioned them, they auditioned with the woman who plays the mother, Moon So Ri, so I could see the interaction and how they played together. This particular child actor was just brilliant in terms of relating to the mother and working with actress Moon So Ri. In Rolling Home with a Bull, this child actor appears again.

Eastern Kicks: I’ve read that your next film is an adaption of Okudo Hideo’s novel,Southbound. I wondered what attracted you to that book and what you thought about what seems to be a trend in Korean film at the moment for adapting Japanese works.

Yim Soon Rye: Well, the trend in adapting Japanese novels and literary works probably started around 2005, and was prevalent for a while, but then it started dying out a little bit nowadays, it’s towards the end of that kind of wave speaking of in the Korean film industry. But having said that, quite a few successful films made by female Korean directors this year are based on Japanese novels and works, like the film Helpless by director Byun Young Ju andPerfect Number, directed by Bang Eun Jin (based on The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino). There’s been a trend, but it’s sort of dying out. This particular work was actually bought in 2005 and has been tried to be adapted in the insider industry a few times but it didn’t really work, and somehow they couldn’t actually find a way to adapt the situations from Japan to Korea. But in my view, the way to make it work is as the film’s about the people who fought for democracy, we have a generation who went through that period, and in Japan there was also a period where people fought really hard to restore democracy and values in their society. I thought that was what I could work on and that’s how it’s been adapted. It’ll probably be released in January.

MiniMiniMovies: I’ve got a question about how not only do you co-write a lot of the films, but you’ve produced films like Romance Joe. I saw that film, it was really good. I wondered how that came about. Did it have something to do with the actor Kim Young Pil? How did the whole production come about, was it his recommendation or your recommendation?

Yim Song Rye: I actually restrained the director from choosing this actor, because when he did this film, his first film project, he had mainly worked in the theatre before. When he worked in front of the camera, the details needed for acting in front of the camera etc weren’t really there, so I had to work quite hard to actually get those details needed in my film, so I actually tried to talk the director out of using him, but after having talked to him about the supposed cons of using this actor, he was still chosen. Did you like him?

MiniMiniMovies: Yeah, I like him, he’s a good actor. I enjoyed Romance Joe.

The F Word: Why do you choose films as mediums to explore modern Korean society and things you’re interested in, and not another medium?

Yim Soon Rye: Probably, the answer to your question is related to the reason why I started film making in the first place. Film in a way, as a medium is really close to the public and is consumed by them. Say if you see a lot of films, or a lot of Korean commercial films, they don’t really deal with problems in society, they may feature or show some sides of life, but normally it’s about forgetting the miseries of life and enjoying the fantasy, and those feelings of euphoria and happiness through cinema. That is obviously some of the functions of film, but for me I thought Korean society had many problems to be talked about, and more than anything it’s important to share and be aware of those problems. I wanted to provide a platform for Korean audiences to think about those issues through watching films. When I studied film making in Paris, France, I watched a lot of French altruistic films which dealt with numerous sides of life and so many other issues relating to society. That made me contemplate a lot about what I needed to talk about and what I need to address in Korean society, so I hope that films give Korean people a chance to think about their own Korean society and their own lives, and issues in life. In that way, just by sharing it, you can further hope that society can be made into a better place. Obviously, like we said earlier, the film itself doesn’t actively change anything but the fact that they actually shared issues and experienced them together can soothe their pains and struggles of life, and can make them think about their own lives as well.

Korean Class MASSIVE: I have a question about Waikiki Brothers, there was a lot of nudity in the film, especially male nudity. As a female director on one of her first films, were there any problems, like were the actors shy or anything?

Yim Soon Rye: Notably there are two main scenes of nudity, like at the beginning of the film you have youngsters running towards the sea taking off their clothes, and at the end of the film one of the main characters is seen singing karaoke nude. Those scenes were really essential, especially because of the symbolism. The first scene was meant to be about freedom and youth and the way to express this, but in stark contrast the final scene was about humiliation, so that kind of contrast was really necessary for me to talk about the subject and the story. In the first scene when we actually filmed, we started shooting around the time of October, so we had to shoot that scene first, because otherwise it would be too cold. When we were shooting, pretty much everyone had just met and were still trying to get on with each other and trying to work together, so it must have been quite difficult for the actors. But the actors didn’t really mind me as obviously I was quite a lot older than them and weren’t concerned about me, but they did have concerns about young female staff, so they did request that the female staff be removed and placed somewhere else while they were being shot. Apart from that, there weren’t really any other issues. For the final scenes, the actor covers the main parts with the guitar, so it’s still ok, and there are some other scenes where you have a public sauna with a bit of nudity, but it was to address the particular town in Korea where the spa is actually quite famous.

Korean Class MASSIVE: In Waikiki Brothers could they actually play their instruments, or were they pretending?

Yim Soon Rye: Yeah, they could play and they practiced a lot. Probably apart from the main character, the rest of the cast actually sang and played.

Colette: Could I ask which female director has been most influential on you? Who would you say is the most important South Korean female director in history?

Yim Soon Rye: I watched some films of Agnes Varda, and I really did enjoy those kinds of films. There are about six other older generation Korean female filmmakers in the history of Korean cinema, but again, the films sort of disappeared or somehow didn’t really get properly restored or kept so it was hard to get exposed to those sorts of films. Even the first great female Korean director Park Nam Ok that I talked about, her film The Widow, is not possible to watch anymore. There may be other two Korean female film directors, but again their films are not really available. There’s one more female director, Lee Mi Rye, but she worked on mainly commercial films at the time so again, that didn’t really influence me. So for that reason, I can’t particularly say they had much influence on me.

The F Word: Can I ask how important the Buddhist element of Rolling Home with a Bull is to you and why you chose to explore it.

Yim Soon Rye: There’s an original novel that the film is based on, so I obviously read this novel and was quite inspired by the Buddhist context of it. There are many Buddhist themed films in the history of Korean cinema, but not many that deal with the Buddhist principle or discipline in the context of men and women and relationships or romance, so I thought that would be quite interesting. I personally have a huge interest on Buddhist teaching. I thought about how to talk to the audience about it in a much more receptive way and that particular subject matter like romance, which I think really worked. I still have great interest in it, and try to communicate that through film.

MiniMiniMovies: How do you feel about rounding off the ‘Year of the 12 Directors’?

Yim Soon Rye: I was actually invited earlier this year in the Spring, but I was delayed due to my project Southbound, so I happened to come at this time of year. To really express Korean culture in this case and to communicate it widely, there’s no medium that’s better than film. I think it’s really important that this great effort has been made to spread Korean culture and Korean films. These films may be about a particular culture, but they’re still about human beings so you can still easily relate to what’s being talked about, so again that’s why it’s a powerful medium and why it’s great to use it to talk about Korean culture and Korean people. I often made this analogy to other people – if the Americans had seen any Iranian films that featured small children, because there are lovely Iranian films out there, if they had seen these films, perhaps they wouldn’t have attacked or started anything in the Middle East. So I think films are that powerful. When Japanese films first got imported to Korea, as before the 90s there were pretty much no Japanese films in Korea, I was able to watch Japanese films. Films made by Kurosawa or other directors, the father characters were exactly similar to Korean fathers and the kind of characters I grew up with in Korean society, so again all the hatred and grudges that came from the legacy and history with the Japanese and Japan just melted immediately through the experience of watching these films. I hope that Korean films are seen by many people, and that people know how friendly and how passionate Korean people are in terms of how they live their lives.

KCC Year of 12 Directors

It was a very fun and friendly chat with Director Yim Soon Rye. Please do make sure you check out her works. Why not take a break from all the Christmas sales shopping and head to the KCC on 27th December 2012 for the last film screening of the year Fly, Penguin (2009). Fly, Penguin has to be a favourite movie of ours and is one for the whole family! Sponsored by the Human Rights Commision, it tackles social issues in classic engaging Yim Soon Rye style with some very interesting and captivating characters. We personally feel it makes a perfect post Christmas movie :) So don’t miss out and book your spot now HERE!

And that is the end of the last round table director interview of 2012. A MASSIVE thanks and congratulations to the KCC UK, all the KCC staff and hard working translators for working on this event, and congratulations on such a significantly successful year. And last but not least, make sure you keep an eye on the Korean Cultural Centre as they have some exciting plans set for 2013! We can’t wait!

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