An Interview with Jang Sun-woo
by Paolo Bertolin
Jang Sun-woo (b. 1952) is undoubtedly one of the most relevant and distinctive voices in contemporary Korean cinema. Since his debut feature, Seoul Jesus (1986), co-directed with Wan Son-u, his works have always displayed an incessant need to find and explore new resources in the language of cinema, and have often questioned audiences about controversial issues in Korean society. In the early 90s his films began to acquire international recognition, thus contributing to the detection of the first signs of a renewal in Korean cinema. In 1994, Hwaomkyung was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival; in 1996, the International Film Festival Rotterdam chose Jang as one of its Filmmakers in Focus.
A couple of his subsequent features, Timeless, Bottomless, Bad Movie (1998) and Lies (1999) stirred up great controversy and had serious problems with censorship. The latter, based on a novel that was accused of being pornographic and which had gotten its author imprisoned, was the first Korean film to compete at the Venice film festival in thirteen years, and found wide distribution in many European countries. His latest, long-in-the-works feature Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002) was also his most expensive and one of the most expensive Korean films ever. The ravaging flop of the film at the box office put Jang once again at the centre of polemics. We met him at the 33rd International Film Festival Rotterdam, where he was member of the official jury, and talked with him about his career and Little Match Girl.
I would like to start from the very beginning. How did you come to make movies? Did you study at a film school?
Well, it was quite a long time ago, so it's a bit hard to recall. Anyway, I have never actually studied cinema, but when I was at the university I acted in some theatre productions, and wrote my own plays as well. In 1980 I just decided to make a film, but there was some political incident and I ended up in jail. Afterwards, I decided to go straight into the work of moviemaking and I started my career as an assistant director.
What was the situation of Korean cinema when you started in the 80s?
When I started making movies the situation was quite different from the present. When I first decided to become a director, everybody just told me to go into the movie business and work. At the time, audiences were not so keen on seeing Korean movies and the political censorship was quite strict, so almost everybody in the Korean moviemaking industry could only afford to make melodramas.
When you started making films was it your intention to change something in Korean cinema, to speak out in your own voice; or were you just willing to find a job and integrate into the industry?
Well, actually my intentions were both.
Between the late 80s and early 90s you were one of the very first Korean directors to capture international recognition. Was this international acclaim a factor that changed your approach to cinema, pushing you to make even braver films?
More than the international recognition and prestige, what I really needed to change the course of my career as a filmmaker was the radical change that Korean cinema passed through when the military government came to an end. Their control over expression through cinema was very severe, and the change in our political reality was the real factor that prompted me to try new things. In my work I always tried very hard to overcome that difficult situation, and that's one of the reasons why I got used to making movies with different styles.
And, in fact, all of your films look quite different one from another. Where do you usually take your inspiration for their different styles?
The reason I make films that are all different from one another lies deep in my personal character: it's just a reflection of my personality. I always like to try new things and, just like the little monk who was the protagonist of my film Hwaomkyung, I think that always trying different experiences is a sort of journey that leads you to becoming something different, to evolve into a different human being. I also tried different styles because my main concern is to speak to audiences about contemporary issues that require specifically adapted languages and means. In general that's the way I make my movies.
How did Korean audiences usually receive your films?
Starting from a film called Road to the Racetrack my movies became very controversial in Korea. Unlike the movies made in the Hollywood style that only give a straightforward message to the audience, in my films I always prefer to just ask questions to the audience. I kind of make films that are open towards audiences. My works have been quite controversial up to Resurrection of the Little Match Girl. They have always been the center of controversy and discussion so they stirred up a certain degree of interest from the audience.
As a filmmaker whose work is always at the centre of controversy, what is your stance towards contemporary Korean society?
In Korea there are a lot of traditionally oriented ways of thinking, which means that there are lots of prejudices against certain things. These things might become a sort of social pain, in the sense that they provoke painful situations for some people. I want to ask people whether they really think that such things are right, if they are good or whether instead we should try to change them and thus modify the way we all look at the world. When I ask these questions in my films, some people can appreciate them, some others can criticize them; either way the important thing is to provoke discussion and even controversy. I think it is very important that everybody has his/her own different opinions or views of my films.
Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie and Lies were films that had quite big problems with censorship. How did you come to such a major departure just afterwards with a film like Resurrection of the Little Match Girl? I mean, to a Westerner's eyes, this is a big budget movie that's filled with action and that seems a lot more commercial than the two previous ones.
It's very good that you see this film as commercial, since audiences in Korea had a different perception of the movie. They really didn't accept it as a commercial product and actually this film was not originally conceived as a big budget production. I wanted to portray contemporary Korean society through the device of virtual reality, but at some point the film started to take on some traits of action movies and the budget started to rise. The reaction of audiences obviously was not the same as for conventional big budget pictures and this was reflected at the box office where the film registered a huge failure. So, afterwards, people criticized me very severely for spending such a large amount of money to make a personal and difficult film.
But undeniably, compared to your two previous features, this is a much more commercial film, so how the idea of this film came to your mind?
To answer this question I would have to admit that I wanted to meet more audiences with this film, that I wanted to bring more viewers to the theatres and converse through the movie. In my opinion in Korea there is a too clear-cut a distinction between art films and commercial films, films made for the public and films made for the festivals. This is a very wrong way of conceiving cinema because I really think that films might be commercial and artistic at the same time: it is a little bit just like the distinction between reality and virtual reality! Anyway, I am not very fond of films that are conceived as being only commercial or being only artistic, so my films always try to find a balance between the two poles: even the most commercial film can be an extremely beautiful film and even a film that wins prizes at festivals can still remain a bad film. In that respect, I brought many standards and formulas from commercial cinema into Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, while still making it a personal film. What I wanted to show with all these elements was chaos, confusion: there are a lot of genres all mixed up in the film, because I didn't want it to be clearly boxed into a limited definition of genre. All the chaotic images in the film are supposed to ask the viewer questions about the nature of the images themselves: are they real or not? Are they just illusion, or are they reality?
What about the evocative image of the Little Match Girl: how did it come to your mind?
At the very beginning of the film there is a poem regarding the Little Match Girl. Actually that poem was the real starting point for this film. I originally read it on the back of a magazine in Korea and the tone and mood of the poem really impressed me: it was very dark and gave a bleak vision of contemporary society. I started thinking about how I could make a film from this poem and how I could effectively use the powerful image of the Little Match Girl. Then I came up with an idea involving videogames and play stations, which are increasingly popular, and I decided to bring the Little Match Girl into a video game.
Sometimes the film seems to be making fun of the imagery and icons of such American blockbusters as The Matrix or Lara Croft.
Well, actually mocking films -- especially some icons of American cinema -- was not a deliberate part of my intentions. In my personal interpretation of the film, my criticism is mainly meant to strike against Korean conservative ways of thinking, or even against capitalism and things like that. So, it was not really intentional if the film at some point might appear as if it's making fun of American cinema. Regarding this precise topic, I would rather say that this film tries hard to reproduce or copy an incredible amount of pre-existing texts. My intention was not to create anything new: I have quite a bad memory and I also see a lot of films, so I tried to copy as many things previously produced as possible, just as they came up to my mind: anything from American movies to Hong Kong movies. I collected all these disparate elements merging in my bad memory and put them into the film: that was my main intention.
Do you think there is any particular reason why Korean audiences didn't respond to the film, determining its commercial flop?
The movie was not the action movie that many might have expected. It is very different from the standards of this genre of films, but actually I didn't mean to make a big budget movie in the first place. Another element is that this is an always-ambiguous film, a picture that never neatly tells you this is this and this is that, leading the audience into a doubt that's based on the chaotic nature of the film itself. Perhaps audiences felt lost in this chaos! Furthermore, unlike other recent films, this is not a film based on an existing video game, but the movie itself is conceived as a game, so even the viewers are called upon to play with and in it. Some people might have won; some others might have lost! I would also add as a possible reason for the commercial failure of Resurrection of the Little Match Girl an interview that was published in a magazine when the movie was released in Korea. There I stated that usually audiences evaluate movies, and that instead my film was going to evaluate the audience, put them to a test. Perhaps this statement might have been perceived as too elite or preposterous.
Do you have any new project now? Do you think that the flop of Resurrection of the Little Match Girl might affect your future choices and opportunities?
At this moment I am thinking about two different projects: one is rather peaceful and relaxed, a film meant to be watched with all your family set in Mongolia; the other is more controversial, a political subject concerning a failed revolutionist. Although quite divergent, these two ideas are coexisting in my mind right now. The problem is that the big loss of money following the commercial flop of Resurrection of the Little Match Girl might make it difficult for me to raise a big budget, especially for controversial subjects, so although both ideas seem very interesting to me, I think I'd better settle for the more peaceful project!
What about a project that has long been rumoured, an animated film for which ideas and suggestions were collected from the contributions of internauts?
That production's title was Princess Bari. Actually, even now the producer attached to it has not given up on that idea. It is true that we tried to collect ideas from people through the internet, and the producer is still developing the project through this method. But to see Princess Bari come to light I really think you're still going to have to wait a long, long time. I think it might take maybe ten years!
What is your opinion about the currently very healthy state of Korean cinema?
Well, I am no doubt very happy about the fact that in Korea we have such directors as Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo, and I am also very glad that the market share of Korean cinema has been constantly around 50% during the last few years. The general state of Korean cinema is today incredibly healthy, but I really don't know how long this is going to last.
You have just mentioned Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo. Is there any Korean director or film that you particularly appreciate right now?
At the moment I can't really think of a particular film. If you think of the work of one single important director, you will always find one film you think is very good, let's say his best one, but to me the most important thing is to make good films continuously, to keep on working and to produce personal movies.
(Thanks to Miss Kim Ji-eun for the translation from Korean)
Paolo Bertolin, ROTTERDAM January 2004