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We had a very happy reunion with Director Lee Joon-ik during his visit to New York City this summer.  Following his return after five years to the New York Asian Film Festival to present his latest movie, Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, Director Lee was given the honor of becoming the first subject of the Korean Cultural Center of New Yorkís Master Series retrospective of his films. 

I chatted with Director Lee about his cinematic successes, his disappointments, his filmmaking process and his future.

Dig it!


Master Series: Lee Joon-ik

Korean Cultural Center New York


The Lady Miz Diva:  Director Lee, please tell us how you feel about having this retrospective of your films in New York City?

Lee Joon-ik:  Well, it was something that I was completely not expecting.  The way I approach filmmaking is kind of like how a farmer plants the seeds and sows; itís just something that I work hard on.  Iím very uncomfortable about being in the limelight, but Iím very thankful to have this sort of opportunity.


LMD: Are you able to look at your past films objectively, or do you think, ĎI couldíve done this or that better?í

LJ-I:  Contrary to what I look like, Iím a much more emotionally fragile person.  Itís really kind of hard for me to watch previous works, especially when Iím watching TV and one of my films comes on; I just immediately turn the channel and thatís what itís like for me, particularly because I feel a lot of remorse about certain scenes or certain films.  When I look at a particular scene, I really think, ĎOh, I shouldnít have shot it this way.  If I were to do that scene again, I would never do it the way I did in the past.í  So, whenever I see the scenes or moments that Iím embarrassed about, my heart starts leaping and that is kind of hard for me.


LMD: Speaking of being emotionally fragile, the great actor, Sol Kyung-gu said something very interesting about you during my interview with him, when he was here at the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival for your movie, Hope: 

ďHe trusts the actors he brings on board.  Heís very emotionally fragile, so he has a difficult time of doing many takes of the emotionally-charged scenes.  He cries a lot too.  So, he has a difficult time separating himself from his characters and he cries a lot and everybody makes fun of him.Ē 

What is your response to Mr. Solís description of you?

LJ-I:  When I start the process of screenwriting, I approach it from a very rational point of view, because I believe the process of screenwriting is a science; itís very scientific and itís very logical.  Itís kind of like physics, in a way. 

But I feel when you go into production, and you are actually putting these words into being, it actually becomes like a sort of chemistry.  I feel like what is involved in the physics changing into chemistry, is the true emotions that come from the actors.  So, because of that, I really tend to go into my characters and the emotions that my actors are feeling.  So, whenever I am filming and I witness the first moment of expression, of emotion from the actors; that is such a deep and profound experience for me, which is why I cry a lot and there is a lot of emotion happening for me, as well.  But for me, I would have to say that those moments make me happy; seeing those expressions of truthful emotion is something that makes me happy.


LMD: On the other hand, Mr. Sol did also say you canít stand a lot of pressure on your set.  This might surprise people considering some of the heavy subject matter of some of your films.  Is his description correct?  Do you feel that is your responsibility to keep a light set, or do you feel you get better results from your actors on a looser set?

LJ-I:  It is my belief that filmmaking should be fun.  In the experience of filming Hope, because it deals with such a tragic and excruciatingly painful subject matter, I really tried to consciously act in the opposite way.  In this case, I really tried to make people laugh and sort of clowning around on set, because I feel that when you express some sort of emotion as an actor once, afterward, it never comes out the same. 

So in order to be able to capture the emotion that I wanted in a single take, I wanted to help the actors experience a completely different energy than was needed in the filmmaking process.  Thatís when the magic happens, I feel.  You give them a completely different energy, and when the filmmaking starts, they are able to channel into an opposite energy force.  So, I think that is my thinking behind that.


LMD: The last time we spoke was when you were here in 2011, showing Battlefield Heroes.  After that, you retired for a while, you took a break.  Did your time away from filmmaking give you a different perspective or energy regarding the films that youíre making now?

LJ-I:  To give you a sort of long-winded answer, I never really dreamed of becoming a director; it sort of became a living for me.  And so because of that, I never really had any sense of entitlement about being a director.  I mean, Iíve had my successes, especially with The King and the Clown, and Iíve had my failures, as well, but after saying that I would retire, I had a lot of doubts about myself, about my abilities as a director, and also wondering if I was really fulfilling all my responsibilities as a film director? 

So, during that time, I approached the film, Hope, and that was the turning point for me where I thought, ĎMaybe this is the project were I will be able to fulfill my true responsibilities as an artist and a filmmaker?í  So, I guess from the point of Battlefield Heroes and on to Hope, thatís when I became able to start to focus more on the inner lives of the characters and the inner life that was happening within the film, rather than focus on the outer aspects of filmmaking.


LMD: Please talk about your method of direction that makes so many amazing actors want to work with you, and allows you to get such outstanding performances out of them?  Do you approach them collaboratively or strictly?  Does it vary from actor to actor?

LJ-I:  I essentially think itís a collaboration, and so I have no strict method of approaching actors when it comes to acting, because the moment I cast my actors, I trust that they will do their job 100%.  The moment that I cast someone, I let go of all the preconceived notions that I had for the character that I wrote.


LMD: This was a very difficult decision to come to because I love them all, but I think I actually have a favorite moment from a Lee Joon-ik film.  It is in Sado {The Throne}, during the scene when Song Kang-ho and Kim Hae-sook, as the King and the Queen Dowager, face off against each other about his abdication.  The tension and sparks fly off the screen.  How much of Director Lee is in a moment like that?  Are you overseeing or guiding it, or are you just letting the actors do what they do?

LJ-I:  Basically, Iím not a director who is good at rehearsal.  Iíd probably do it about just once, but even then, I donít ask for a full on rehearsal; Iíd just ask for about a 50% rehearsal.  What I really try to do is to allow them to focus 100% on their first take.  What I feel my role is, is to be considerate of the actor in order to do his or her best work; so my job is to set the stage and let go of distractions, and when the actors are able to give what is needed on the first take, I always really, really praise them for their really hard and good work.  And when one actor is able to do very good work, then the actor that is acting alongside that actor also is able to give a really great performance.


LMD:  When I heard that the story of Prince Sado was being filmed, I was happy because you were making it, but a little hesitant because I can be claustrophobic, and the whole story really comes down to the box.  Whether itís the rice crate in Sado, or Dong-juís poisoning, or if it is the terrible rape in Hope, you have an amazing way of taking a very heavy, emotional subject and portraying it so that it affects us, but it doesnít scar us. 

Itís thought-provoking and even haunting, but it doesnít shock unnecessarily; you donít walk out of the cinema feeling overwhelmed.  How do you find the balance to keep the audience with you, when youíre presenting such tough subjects?

LJ-I:  I feel like the films that I have been making these past few years involve characters who experience extreme pain; but really, when you watch these films, it is through the relationships that they make and the relationships that they forge that we understand and we see how they acted helped them survive in these extreme situations. 

I feel that everyone in this world, including myself, experiences extreme pain at one point or another in our lives, but I think the key to not getting lost in that pain is to really understand the relationships that arise within that pain.  And so, because I am not in this filmmaking to simply express pain itself, is to delineate the relationships that arise from this pain, and that is how I achieve a sense of balance.


LMD: We spoke earlier in the week about the film Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, and your words stayed in my mind.  You stated that the reason you made this film was because it was important to you to show what the Japanese had done to the Korean people during World War II. You were very straightforward and honest with your words.  You are also a film producer, so I wondered if you ever think back on making such bold statements and how it might affect how some people look at your films?

LJ-I:  Because I am basically a very talkative person, I feel that the more talkative you are, the more you are prone to having moments where you feel like you shouldnít have said something.  But the way to not have these kinds of moments is to basically not talk as much, but then if I were to choose to not talk as much, then I feel that a lot of people might mistake myself for being a pretentious director. 

So, yes, I would say there have been moments where I do regret saying things.  {Laughs}  But I do feel that some sort of good does come from these mistakes, because when youíre going through them and you think, ĎOh, why did I say that?í  I think those moments sort of help you look back on yourself and it helps you to sort of reach more of your potential because you are looking back on those moments.  So my goal is to make mistakes well.


LMD: Can you please talk about your upcoming projects?

LJ-I:  IĎm slated to work on two more projects in the future.  The first one is a sci-fi film, and the second one will be a second in the series very much like Dongju.  The second one is set in 1923, in the Gwandong region; there was an earthquake and it is about a person who is dealing with that disaster.  Iím struggling a bit to write the screenplay for that, so weíre still in the screenwriting process for that one.  The sci-fi film is based on a Korean sci-fi novel and it follows some of the Hollywood narratives of the sci-fi film, but I feel that it is taking it to the next step; itís something that is unprecedented.  Basically, it follows the relationship between religion and science.  Both subjects, weíre having a hard time getting screenwriting done, so Iím not 100% sure whether we are actually going to be able to follow through with both projects, but they are still in the works.


LMD: Have you ever had any desire to make overseas projects? Many of your contemporaries are now making films in the west.

LJ-I:  Basically, I donít really have much of a desire to work on foreign or Hollywood projects.  I would say I have gotten a few offers, but the screenplays of the ones Iíve read, they werenít very good.  I think Iím pretty satisfied being in Korea and making Korean film projects.  I would say if I were more proficient in English, maybe I would have a stronger desire, but because itís not the case, I am quite happy with what Iím doing as of now.


LMD: When we spoke in 2011, after your announcement about retiring from filmmaking, you were very excited about a charity project you were involved in with the actress, Park Shin-hye and Yi So-yeon, the first Korean female astronaut, where you planted trees in Mongolia.  Are you still planting trees in Mongolia?

LJ-I:  Not anymore.  But instead of me, someone else is doing that in my place.  I feel like being in the same place and doing the same thing for too long a time is never good.  So I think the most important thing is to help others to do what youíve started.  Like Goran {Topalovic, founder of the New York Asian Film Festival}, who has been giving his duties and responsibilities to other people and moving from that place.


LMD:  Will you please give a message to our readers about what we might expect from Director Lee in the future?

LJ-I:  I would say I donít really specifically think about my future projects in that sort of way, because right now I am focused on the screenwriting process for both my future projects and Iím very concentrated on that.  I donít really have any sort of vain desires, thinking, ĎOh, I hope readers or viewers will get this from my movies,í because we are still very much in the making process of all these projects.

I donít really like to plan out the future.  The thing that is most important to me is giving my 100% to whatís in front of me right here and right now.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 2nd, 2016


Click here to read out NYAFF 2016 Exclusive Interview with Director Lee Joon-ik and Writer Shin Yeon-shick for Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet


Click here to read our NYAFF 2011 Exclusive Interview with Director Lee Joon-ik



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