An Interview with Im Sang-soo

by Paolo Bertolin

The President's Last Bang

  After majoring in Sociology at Yonsei University, Im Sang-soo (Seoul, 1962) attended the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) for one year and then worked as assistant director to Park Chong-won and Im Kwon-taek (on The General's Son, episodes I and II). In 1998, he unveiled his directorial debut with Girls' Night Out, registering a solid success among Korean audiences. In 2001, his sophomore outing Tears failed to raise equal interest, but in 2003 his third and most refined picture, A Good Lawyer's Wife, a mature and convincing drama on the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, intelligently bashing the institution of the traditional family, topped the local box office for three weeks and was invited to the Venice Film Festival's competition.

Surrounded by major controversy for its depiction of President Park Chung-hee's assassination in October 1979, and still in the courts due to Park's son's reproaches of defamation against his father, Im's fourth film, The President's Last Bang (Keuttae Keusaramdeul) had its international premiere at Cannes' Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors' Fortnight). The following interview took place in Cannes the day after the first screening of the film.

I was surprised to see that the version of the film screened in Cannes was the same that was approved for release in Korea. I was hoping that for the international release of the film, the documentary scenes ruled out by a Seoul court would be reintegrated.

For the moment, this is the definitive version of the film. But, of course, if the French distributor opens the film in January next year, perhaps then, if we have a positive result in the courtroom, the version with the cut scenes would be restored.

I keep saying the uncut version, but actually in Korea there was only one premiere and very few people saw the film with the documentary scenes. The definitive version of the movie thus would be the cut version, also because all the international buyers are seeing this version and it was this version that was selected for Cannes.

The President's Last Bang The original title of the film, "Keuttae keusaramdeul" (The people of those days), refers to a song by singer Shim Su-bong, who was at the private party the night of the assassination. Why did you choose this title?

"Keuttae keusaram" is a very popular song in Korea. In my film, singer Shim sings Japanese enka at the private party, but according to the official versions, it is said that she was singing the song "Keuttae keusaram". For this very reason this song is very popular with Korean people, because they are familiar with the fact it was sung in that context. Hearing the title of the song immediately makes a bell ring for Korean people, as they know what is the issue under discussion: Park Chung-hee's assassination. The title "Keuttae keusaramdeul" thus is meant to immediately bring people back to the night of Park Chung-hee's murder.  [note: the song's original title is "The Person of Those Days," and Im's title is modified to read "The People of Those Days." --ed.]

It seems people in Korea know quite a lot about Park's assassination.

Yes, everybody knows about the assassination case. When the President of a country is murdered by the secret service, that is undeniably a very important and shocking event. In Korea we have a lot of archives and documents about the murder case, but in order to write the film we needed to find details and had to reinvestigate the facts in detail. The problem is that in Korea the investigation was done very quickly, and people just forgot all the details because they were regarded as "not important". Everything was very fast and very vague: the investigation was very fast, the trial was very fast, and even the executions were very fast. (in English) They buried the truth.

Was there a long or particularly difficult process of documentation in order to reconstruct the happenings of that night?

(in English) It was very fun to me.

The President's Last Bang The judge's sentence that eventually allowed the release of the film stated that it is clear that the film is fiction, that it is a satire. I was wondering how much of the plot is faithful to what documentation has proven, and how much is a satirical or grotesque rendition of the events?

You can see an insert before the opening credits of the film saying, "This film is a work of fiction"; that is the point of view of my producer, because, as far as I am concerned, this is the truth. Even if no one knows the real truth, except the gods! There are only three people who survived the event: the two girls -- the singer and the starlet -- and Secretary Yang who are still alive, and we really cannot confirm that what they are saying about that night is the truth, because what is the truth? Truth is when you have a lot of details and lots of explanations about facts and who was there, from a lot of different people. Here instead we just have three people. I would then say that this is the Im Sang-soo version of what was going on that night. I would not say that this is a satire, or a work fiction or a grotesque rendition of reality. I just say that, as far as I am concerned, this is the truth and that it is my version of it.

How would you describe your style, especially in comparison to other films dealing with the historical trauma of assassinations of a head of state, such as Oliver Stone's JFK?

I would not say my style is this or that, because I think this should not be my concern. I just shoot my film and it happens to have some kind of style, but that is something that comes out naturally to me as a director. Thus, regarding the style of the film, it is more up to you to know how my style is, according to what you find in it.

I think JFK is quite different from my film because the aim of that film was to discover the mystery behind that assassination, while my movie is "just observation" (in English) of what happened then. More than trying to discover something that nobody knew behind the surface of events, with my film I was just trying to deal with the issue of corrupted power.

The President's Last Bang To Park Chung-hee's son, who tried to block the release of the film, one of the seemingly most contentious aspects is the depiction of President Park as infatuated with Japanese culture. In the film he speaks Japanese fluently and loves to listen to enka, traditional Japanese songs. KCIA Director Kim often resorts to speaking Japanese as well. Are these details faithful to the historical truth?

(in English) Yes. My father who is same age as Park Chung-hee or Kim speaks Japanese fluently because during the occupation [by] Japan everybody was forced to learn and speak Japanese. That is quite natural. About the Japanese enka, according to the official records, singer Shim never sang Japanese enka that night. Back in those days, though, she was an underground singer famous for enka songs. She was often invited at such big power men's parties and sang enka, and all the power men who adored Japanese culture applauded her enka. So, I still believe she did sing enka, even though the singer herself denied it, the investigators denied it and nobody acknowledged that. Still, there is a big possibility she really sang enka.

But what about Director Kim and his frequent use of Japanese quotes?

(in English) For a person of his age it is natural. He can speak Japanese. That's natural, realistic in cinema, but symbolically... (switches to Korean) those people, President Park and Director Kim, during the Japanese occupation used to be army generals who were in charge of capturing Koreans in the resistence movement who were fighting for independence. They were collaborators repressing the struggle for Koreans' independence. After Korea's independence, they became President and Director of the KCIA, and I think this fact represents the biggest tragedy in contemporary Korean history, and I wanted to symbolize it through their use of Japanese and fondness for Japanese culture.

Of course, this all has to do with the role of the US, because the US preferred to have in government people who had been working for the Japanese Army, who were compromised and corrupted, because it was much easier to manipulate them than people who had fought for independence.

The President's Last Bang What brought you to this controversial project? What pushed you into engaging in such contentious issues?

Well, there is a basic, practical reason, because my high school was very close to the place of the murder. Anyway, I think that as a director I wanted to make this controversial issue into a filmic adaptation and it just came as a natural instinct for me to do so.

Why did you focus only on the very last night of Park Chung-hee and the events following his murder?

Yes, the film only deals with that night, and not the whole night, but just a few hours of that night. I think this is a very effective cinematic presentation, as I wanted to put in a one-hundred minute film not only the few hours of that night, but the whole eighteen years of Park Chung-hee's regime. That's why I resorted to all these symbols, the enka songs and the Japanese language: my ambition as a director was to represent those eighteen years through just one night and in one hundred minutes.

Paolo Bertolin, CANNES May 2005

(This interview was co-conducted with Italian newspaper Il Manifesto's Cannes reporter Cristina Piccino)

Back to Korean Film Page, posted June 2, 2005.