The head of CUEAFS Spencer Murphy interviews Korean director Lee Jeong-beom at the 2011 Udine Far East Fim Festival. Jeong-beom’s latest film The Man from Nowhere (2010) left no empty seats at the Italian premiere screening. Spencer Murphy: Your film The Man from Nowhere received a very warm response both here at Udine and at the London Korean film festival. Are you happy with the way the audience responded?
Lee Jeong-beom: Yes, indeed, I was very happy. I could tell from the expressions on people’s faces that they appreciated the film.
SM: There are some strong influences apparent in the film. Would it be a fair assessment to say that in terms of the film’s style, one could see elements from John Woo in particular, Johnny To or even Michael Mann?
LJB: Yes, it is a fair assessment. I don’t think it’s just a few directors. In terms of the style, from the time when I was a film student I’ve been very influenced by European classical film makers. I’ve been searching for and developing my own style, while getting influenced by a wide variety of film makers. Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa for example have been a great influence.
SM: The action scenes were very stylish and have received a lot of attention internationally – very gritty, very realistic in the way they’re shot. And they certainly recall the Western cinema – the particular aesthetic of the Bourne films for example. That is very different to the aesthetics of Hong-Kong martial arts cinema for instance, so was it a conscious decision to shoot the scenes in that style?
LIB: In developing the action style, what was more important even than the influences of films, which have come before, was the fact that the main character is a special agent and I tried to find a martial arts style, which would suit him and his profession. I went through different styles and settled on one, which might actually be used by a special agent. I was indeed very influenced by the use of ‘Silat’ in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), I was very impressed by the action sequences and I used a similar style in my film.
SM: This is your second film, the first one being Cruel Winter Blues (2006), and both have strong elements of action. Are you happy with being labeled as an emerging action auteur? Is this particular genre one you are happy to pursue in your future films?
LIB: It is really not the case of wanting to continue in this particular direction. My second film is very different in style than my first one and I’m consciously looking to develop. Looking forward, I do expect a lot of my films to feature male characters in scenes of conflict and action. But what I’m really hoping to pursue is sort of finding the humanity and telling stories about people. The action is not my main focus.
SM: Let’s turn to the main actor in The Man from Nowhere, Won Bin. Other directors we’ve mentioned today like Michael Mann, Johnnie To and in particularly John Woo – they focus on masculine films and they form particular actor-director connections.The obvious example being John Woo with Chow Yun-Fat. Can we expect a similar working relationship being formed with Won Bin?
LIB: In Korea there has been talk of The Man from Nowhere 2 and the discussion is up to the point where we’re talking about it being a prequel. Having finished this film with Won Bin, it is seen as kind of risky for the actor to continue playing the same role. I have great respect for the actor and I hope to work with him again sometime in the future, but there are no immediate plans for collaboration. I think he is interested in creating a different image for himself and even if we do work together again it will probably be on a different character.
SM: There has been a trend in South Korean cinema for very violent revenge films, like Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil (2010) for example. What are your thoughts on that cycle of films and do you think they’ve run their course in South Korea?
LIB: To a certain extent, even though a lot of fairly violent revenge films have come out in the past few years, I don’t see it as a specific movement or cycle. In some ways I see it as a coincidence that for example I Saw the Devil was released the same month as The Man from Nowhere. And in the case of Park Chan Wook I see these as being very personal films. I just don’t see it as a trend but rather as a coincidence.
SM: I focused on a number of American film directors in terms of a comparison, and certainly a lot of press have focused on the similarities between The Man from Nowhere and a film like Taken (2008). In light of this, What do you think makes your film distinctly Korean? What gives it a Korean identity?
LIB: In a way I see Korean cinema and Korean culture in general as being placed in-between other bigger cultures. So in one sense, Korea is located between China and Japan and it’s had to search for its identity. At the same time, I think among the Asian countries Korean cinema has been most interested in finding the middle-ground between Hollywood and Asian cinema. Akira Kurosawa, for example, has been an important precedent in terms of focusing on commercial cinema and artistic cinema at the same time. And it’s again a case of searching for one’s style and this is a continuous process.
SM: Just one more observation about The Man from Nowhere and a number of other films – there seems to be a pre-occupation with memory – with an attmept to forget the past. This seems to be a repeated theme in a number of genre films emerging from South Korea. What are your thoughts and how does this relate to the idea of Korea searching for its identity among dominating cultures in Asia?
LIB: This may be different for people who are in their 20s right now, but one big influence for this generation is that in recent Korean history there are still memories of the Korean war. I lived with a parental generation, which have experienced the war directly and my generation has been very influenced by that. There is that sense of depression, very influenced by the past. Maybe this links into your observations. There is this dark element to recent Korean cinema, and there is in a sense a struggle to forget the traumas from the past. I hope there will be success in forgetting them and moving on into the future. It is a lot brighter future, not so troubled.