An Interview with Kim Eung-su
by Kyu Hyun Kim
The second Korean filmmaker I interviewed as a guest committee member of the Third Annual San Francisco Korean American Media Arts (KIMA) Festival, was director Kim Eung-su. He was represented in the KIMA Festival by Desire, a brazenly off-putting but exquisitely filmed story of a bisexual love triangle. The film, completed in 2002 and shown in film festivals around the world, was finally given a domestic theatrical release in the spring of 2004. As of April 2004, it is available in the DVD format as well.
A longtime activist in the independent film scene, Kim has previously directed to considerable critical acclaim Time Lasts (1997), a meditation on the aftermaths of the '80s democratic student movement (a work that deserves a DVD release of its own). Draped in a bright orange scarf and sipping a cup of coffee with deliberation, Kim exuded the air of a bon vivant with a razor-sharp intellect, who would not suffer fools gladly. One could easily imagine him responding to a less-than-perceptive question from the hapless interviewer with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow. However, as our interview progressed, Kim displayed far more of the raw passion and fully engaged critical mind I associate with the generation of activists who had lived through the democratization of Korea, than the type of Continental irony I am familiar with from the cappuccino-and-black-turtleneck crowd congregating in college-town coffeehouses. Beneath his eloquent, sophisticated, sotto voce analyses of his own film, I sensed a committed cineaste grappling with the realities and ideals of making films in today's Korea.
Tell us about how you came to make Desire.
The idea was to explore human desire. There are many types of desires. There is one for political power, one for economic status, or one for increasing the amount of material possessions. These are generic desires, recognized by the society at large, if you will. There are areas in our lives, though, where our personal differences can become noticeable. As in, say, when a person remains unmarried far too long, when he is disabled somehow, or when he shows up dressed casually for a public ceremony. I thought, why not make a movie about these "personal" dimensions of the desires we have?
And of course, my approach was to avoid any moral judgment on the ways the characters express themselves. Aside from actively harming others, I believe all human beings have rights to pursue their personal desires. I wanted to make a film about more private and secretive yearnings, ones that we know that they exist, but do not talk about, or bring them up only to refute them. Such as homosexuality, for instance, or any kind of "special love" not approved by the mainstream Korean society.
"Love" is presented in many movies as something romantic, pure and idealistic, abiding by the rules supposedly transmitted from our parent's generation. But in reality, love can be confusing and "dirty," because it is inevitably a product of our own selfish desires. However, in my view, even these unattractive forms of love, these ugly and grimy desires, must not be judged or oppressed in the name of social conventions.
On the other hand, I did not wish to make the movie too sensationalistic. Some have pointed out to me that the film is aesthetic and meditative. Others have called it surrealistic. I am happy with these observations. I tried to convey in this film certain feelings, or senses, that cannot be articulated in language.
In an ordinary Korean film, the fact that the male protagonist's partner for an extramarital affair is another man would have been a climactic revelation, or at least an important "plot twist." But in Desire, this issue is taken care of in the first five minutes. What were the viewer's reactions to this?
I conceived Desire as a film that presents a question, rather than offering an answer: to ask the audience, "what would you do, if you were caught in such a love triangle?" From Rosa's [the female protagonist] point of view, she would feel a mixture of revulsion, curiosity, sorrow, but also a new motivation for self-exploration. Did my husband betray me, or does he still love me somehow? Does he feel the same way for his lover? She is compelled to find out for herself. From Leo's [the young lover] perspective, he feels inferior and resentful toward Rosa, and also... maybe a sense of rashness, a youthful desire to confirm his superiority, sexually and otherwise.
But in the end, it is pointless trying to figure out whether Rosa seduces Leo or vice versa. Ironically, they might even feel a degree of pleasure for engaging in a conspiratorial relationship, for "sleeping with the enemy."
True, they are sometimes cruel to each other, perhaps even sadistic... but I still prefer their cruelty over...
You find their acknowledgement of irrational desires preferable to the hypocritical cover-up practiced by society...
I mean, when we break up from our romantic partners, we do love and hate them at the same time. Even if we know in our hearts that we should let go, we really cannot. "I wish her all the best" is, in many ways, a dishonest statement. We know that in some moments, at least, we do not wish our former partners all the best.
One of the observations I have heard from a non-Korean fan is that sex scenes in Korean cinema are not very erotic. I, too, feel that sex in Korean cinema is often portrayed as desperate, uncomfortable or even ritualistic.
I think for many Koreans, that's the reality of their sex lives. (Laughter) From a European-American perspective, men in Korean cinema might appear to be "having fun" at the expense of women, whereas women seem to be "serving" men all the time. The Euro-American viewers might wonder, "what's the point of sex if there is no pleasure, or no love involved?" Well, I could be wrong about this, but I think many Koreans watching "romantic" Hollywood films are probably wondering, "what is so darn pleasurable about that [having sex]?" (Laughter) Of course, I cannot speak for the Koreans in their teens and early 20s. They may have a different outlook about this issue.
In any case, the behaviors the film's characters are engaged in leave little room for romanticism. That was my choice for the film, although, of course, the way sexual relationships are portrayed in it is open to interpretation.
I was impressed by the production design and cinematography. They were beautiful and gorgeous, and yet were somehow cold and alienating at the same time.
Yes, that was an intended effect.
One scene I particularly liked in Desire was the one in which the dinner guests are huddled together in front of a TV. (Laughter)
The mise en scene and style in this film are rather formalized. But at the same time, many aspects of the film's style are reflective of unique Korean conditions and realities.
As for the dinner scene, if you really sit down and think about what ordinary Koreans would do after having an elegant dinner, the answer is, of course, they watch TV. (Laughter) This is such a routine practice that I don't think people are conscious of what they are doing.
Tell us about your sojourn in the world of independent cinema. I also heard that you studied in Russia. Were there particular reasons for choosing Russia over other nations?
I used to be involved in making documentaries in the late 80s, the type of films that used to be called "people's cinema (minjung yeonghwa)." As you probably know, the documentaries we were making at that time were pretty political. To make a film like this was to subject oneself to the possibility of legal persecution. We could have ended up in jail, if we were not careful.
Was this after the release of Before the Strike (1990), produced by Jangsan Kotme [the legendary guerrilla filmmaking band organized by college students] ?
No, it was around that time. 1989, to be precise. We did lend some help to those guys [Jangsan Kotme]. Nothing technical or financial, just providing moral support, or looking out for the cops during an illegal screening session.
And then, at a certain stage, I developed a desire to make a narrative film, not just video documentaries. So I enrolled in the Seoul Institute of the Arts, attempting to deeply and precisely understand cinema as an art form.
As for studying in Russia, the primary factor in my decision was money. Studying in Russia was cheaper, even more so than in Eastern Europe. (Laughter) Seriously, one of the reasons was probably that I have always loved Dostoevsky's novels. He showed me the world in which a human being can become hysterical and ugly, can literally sink to the bottom of their being. And yet Doestovesky plays his characters like a piano, pounding the most amazing melodies out of their sufferings. So I have been thinking about Russia as a source of inspiration for some time.
And of course, I was quite taken by Tarkovsky, especially his Mirror, a true masterpiece. Individuals and history fit into one another as if they are cogwheels, and the director's imagination freely spans the expanse of time and space. Marvelous film.
How do you feel about being a filmmaker in Korea today?
I think I have strong desires. I have a desire to be loved by the audience, for instance. But as time passes, I have come to learn not to be greedy, or possessive. Honestly, I would like to enjoy life, or the process of filmmaking, more.
Do you think that the Korean film industry is unique in the sense that it is strongly director-driven? Also, is the future prospect bright for the rapidly expanding stratum of potential filmmakers in Korea?
I think it depends on one's point of view. I do think that there is a concern that commercial film production is increasingly driven to find new, fresh talents and discard the "used" talents all too quickly. But to a certain extent this reflects the nature of commercial filmmaking. Of course, some filmmakers might prefer to build their careers somewhat removed from financial concerns, alternating successes and failures, so to speak. I don't think it is a matter of clear-cut value judgment.
Having said this, I do agree that the Korean film industry has been willing to take risks with young or first-time directors, perhaps more so than in other nations.
I heard that you were going to adapt for film Hong Se-hwa's The Parisian Cab Driver.
Ah, yes, but that one fell through, unfortunately.
What is your next project?
It's called Way to Go, Rose! Rose is the name of the protagonist. It is going to be a comedy. At this point we managed to secure financial support from the Korean Film Commission. Hopefully we can start pre-production soon.
Acknowledgement: This interview was conducted in November 2003 at a San Francisco location. I would like to thank Program Director, Professor Cheol Ho (San Francisco State University), Guest Service Coordinator Hyojung Kim and other KIMA staff for making this interview possible. Photograph on 'interviews' page courtesy of Korean American Media Arts Association, 2003.
SAN FRANCISCO November 2003