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Ko - production in Busan
  • Film Critic Tony Rayns
  • by Pierce Conran /  Nov 16, 2012
  • "I’m happiest when I can make films"
    - With a new Korean documentary about you and a starring role in KIM Dong-ho’s debut short Jury, you’ve become quite the ‘cause célèbre’ in Korean cinema. How do you feel about these new roles you’ve taken on in the industry?
    I wouldn’t really say that I’ve taken on any new roles but the reason the documentary was made was because KWON Jae-hyeon, who was my assistant director on The Jang Sun-woo Variations (2002), said “you realize that next year will be your 25th anniversary since you came to Korea?” He felt that we should mark the occasion by making this documentary.
    They began shooting it in Busan last year. At one point they had very ambitious plans for it, they wanted to shoot in Prague where BONG Joon-ho was filming Snow Piercer, but of course they only had a small budget so various things were abandoned. What we hoped was that through the documentary there might be some portrait of Korean cinema itself. Personally I’m not that keen to have myself commemorated!
    - Over the course of your career, you’ve programmed festivals, authored books, directed documentaries, written screenplays and much more besides. What has been your favorite role to date?
    I’m happiest when I can make films but that doesn’t happen that often. Writing is essentially a very solitary activity. Festival programming is also a solitary activity, the only social part is when you program a film and the filmmaker comes to the festival. Part of the job is to introduce the film and hold the Q&A, which I find very pleasurable. However, filmmaking can only happen with a group. I love teamwork, for me that’s the most rewarding thing.
    - You’ve followed Korean cinema’s ups and downs for a quarter century. How far removed is today’s incarnation of the industry compared with what you first came into contact with?
    It’s totally different: it’s been a 180-degree turnaround. What happened in 1993, where the old industry effectively closed down over night, is a case unique to Korea. None of the studios from the old era produced any more films and suddenly dozens of new startups appeared. The old industry had links to the government and was tightly regulated, so when the old military government disappeared, so did the film industry. Censorship, while not completely abolished, was dramatically liberalized.
    Things changed rapidly and the ‘chaebol’ began to invest in films. Many mistakes were made. There was, and still is, a chronic short-termism in the industry, many company executives seemed to be unable to think beyond six months. Companies closed down often as they were governed by the short-term success or failure of their projects. Which is absurd as to survive in this business you need a longer-term view. You need to find a way to offset your hits against your misses.
    However, the possibilities now are vastly greater then when I first came to Korea. Back in the 1980s the industry was tightly regulated and most companies made cheap films to fill quotas so that they could get the right to import foreign films. As a result Korean films were downgraded: the industry was largely happy to be disposable.
    Once that industry died in 1993, as the government changed, it cleared the way for many companies. The floodgates opened and deregulation made it possible to make independent films. A lot of today’s companies got their start at that time and they made their fair share of mistakes. But perhaps the most significant thing that began at this time was the Busan International Film Festival, which revealed a nationwide hunger for cinema. I think every screening was sold out during the first edition. The Busan organizers initially thought the festival would be a nice thing to do but they had no sense of how big it would be.
    - What keeps you coming back to Korean film?
    The fact that it remains very lively. If you compare it with other film cultures in the region, I think it’s the most diverse and unpredictable. If you compare China for example, I would say that their mainstream industry became pretty dull as it turned more aggressively commercial and the government began to exercise greater control. This is not the case in Korea, at least for the most part.
    - How do you view the role of film criticism in the digital age?
    Nobody cares anymore. I’ve come to accept the fact that what you write no longer has a significant impact. I don’t mean that to be quite as absolute as it sounds. I think it’s true to say that the new generation of film viewers is much less cinephile than previous ones. There has been a devolution of curiosity and people are far less inclined to explore the heritage of cinema.
    In that context, film criticism in the modern era means a lot less. It’s still important for some people but it doesn’t have the wide reach that it used to. My sense is that I’ve had the best of it. I was from the generation that explored cinema in new ways. During my lifetime we took on art cinema, auteurs and reassessed Hollywood cinema.
    - What are your musts for any trip to Korea? When your character in Jury is asked ‘Why are you here?’ your answer is ‘Gamjatang? Jjimjilbang?’
    Part of my original answer was sex, but I was censored! That was all a joke of course but there is an underlying truth in it, regarding food especially. I’d recommend Korea to anybody, as it’s a lively and interesting place. It has evolved enormously over the last 20 years, particularly since the political change. The 1990s were tremendously exciting. There was this sense of new possibilities, of things changing. A lot of the old structures remained but within them, new possibilities suddenly arose. It’s still exciting and there remains that sense that things are in transition. People don’t quite know where things are going.
    - Finally, what are you favorite Korean films?
    The first seminal film that really hit me was IM Kwon-taek’s Mandara (1981) and I think it remains one of his very best films. He told me that his own understanding of Buddhist issues was rather limited at that time. He thinks that this was precisely the reason why his film was successful. The public’s understanding was also naïve so they were in perfect sync. It’s also a snapshot of Korea in 1981: it offers a completely faithful picture of what Seoul and the national climate was like at the time.
    Moving to the 1990s, JANG Sun-woo towers over everybody else: he is a major figure in world cinema. As BONG Joon-ho pointed out, The Road to the Racetrack (1991) completely predicts HONG Sangsoo’s career. Everything, including his narrative tricks, alternative possibilities, going around in circles, was already there.
    This was followed by Hwaomkyung (1993), which was his first overtly Buddhist film and also a very powerful political protest. Next he made To You From Me (1994), a film of consummate vulgarity and outrageous social and cultural satire. He then went on to make to A Petal (1996). What a career! He’s a man who surmounted himself by setting incredible challenges and achieving something radically different each time. It’s hard for me to choose which one of his films I like the most.
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