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Hey all, we had the pleasure of chatting with Lee Joon-ik, one of Koreaís most impressive directors.  Serving up biting satire, slapstick comedy and serious social commentary dressed in period costume, the man behind the 2005 smash, The King and the Clown visited the New York Asian film Festival with Battlefield Heroes, the last film he made before abruptly announcing his retirement.  Between talks about rice bowls, communal toilets, planting trees in the Mongolian desert and an appreciation of his art, I think we just mightíve have convinced Lee to come out of retirement.  You can thank us later.

Dig it!


Lee Joon-ik


The Lady Miz Diva:  Welcome to the New York Asian Film Festival.

Lee Joon-ik:  Thank you.  Itís my first time in New York.  Iíve been invited many times, but this is actually my first time coming here.  I was busy shooting movies.


LMD:  Are you surprised to find that Western audiences are familiar with your works considering they haven't had a wide distribution here?

LJ-i:  It is very surprising especially because most of my movies deal with stories that are very specifically Korean.  So, I kind of wonder if they will be able to get everything in the movies, but Iím very surprised by such a passionate audience.


LMD:  I think the question everyone wonders is about your retirement.  Is it true? Are you really retired?

LJ-i:  It is true, but I am kind of a rash person.  I live without thinking and suddenly I might go back on my word and do films again. {In English} Life is sudden!


LMD:  What caused you to say that?

LJ-i:  I felt like my life started to lag; kind of lacking tension.  I started to become too lax.  And I lived my life not looking back, just looking forward and always running forward.  So this is the first time I feel like I have breathing room, like I have a break.


LMD:  So your decision took off a lot of pressure?

LJ-i:  Since Iíve distanced myself from movies, itís been really great.  Iíve had the opportunity to travel a lot.  But in my head, there are about there are about five projects that are circulating.


LMD:  But how can a director not direct?

LJ-i:  I think I will do it!


LMD:  How did Battlefield Heroes, the film that is premiering at the festival come to you?  I understand itís a bit of a sequel?

LJ-i:  This is a sequel to Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield.  This movie was inspired by the political situation in Korea in 1995, when there were a lot of regional conflicts among different prefectures in Korea.


LMD:  What struck me about Battlefield Heroes is that it seems quite current. I know that in the US military, you have people who join because they are poor, or because they feel itís the only way towards advancement.

LJ-i:  Yes, youíre right; the movie feels very relevant to now because Korea is a country that is affected a lot by the superpowers that are around it, like China, Japan and the United States.  In this movie, I wanted to show that 1,300 years ago, when China was Tang dynasty, that these superpowers had exerted an enormous amount of power over Korea, thus causing a lot of internal conflicts within Korea.  Both Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield and Battlefield Heroes reflect this.


LMD:  One of my favourite lines in the film is when Thingy, the main protagonist says to his fellow soldiers, ďIt doesnít matter who we fight for,Ē that life was going to be the same for him and his friends.  I wondered if that wasnít a statement about the futility of fighting? 

LJ-i:  I think war in general is a battleground for the powerful to fight for their own causes, and the foot soldiers, the only thing they have is the instinct for survival.  And all the time in wars, individuals are sacrificed for the profits of the powerful, so I wanted to raise their voice on this movie.


LMD:  In Battlefield Heroes, you have those serious messages with the hilarious scenes with the Trojan rice bowl, the bee attack and the communal toilet.  How do you balance the filmís humour with the serious point youíre trying to make?

LJ-i:  In Korea, their sense of humour and wit is sometimes derived from the very downtrodden, from misery.  And in that way, there is a very Korean sensibility that derives a humour from these very miserable situations and characters, and in that sense it has some parallels to Montyís Python and the Holy Grail, or the Life of Brian. 


LMD:  I wonder if there was a reason that the one person that seems to believe in the war for the protection of their home is a woman?

LJ-i:  Korea from the way it looks, it seems like a very male-centric, male-dominated society.  But once you go inside, behind the doors, mothers figure very heavily in this culture.  To protect the motherland, it may be the men who go out to the wars and struggle and fight, but itís always been the women - the mothers and wives - that open their arms to them, that protect them when they return.  So, the figure of a woman and the mother is very important.


LMD:  Which was more challenging in Battlefield Heroes, directing the wartime action or the drama?

LJ-i:  The drama is more difficult, because action scenes are just physically difficult. Something that is physically difficult can be fine; can be enjoyable, whereas to create drama, itís kind of difficult in the mind, so thatís more challenging.


LMD:  One of my favourite films of yours is The King and the Clown, and I wondered if you were more comfortable conveying your thoughts and messages through historical period films?

LJ-i:  I do like working in this historical movie format, because if you look at the perspectives on Asian histories in the west, thereís relatively much more known about Chinese or Japanese history, people are more knowledgeable about it.  Whereas Korea is still pretty unknown, not many people know about it, itís kind of an obscure history.  And so I think I have a desire to kind of inform and spread the word about the history and traditions of Korea, because contemporary movies are fine for me, too, but there are many filmmakers that are working at making movies about contemporary Korea.  So I choose to work in this format.


LMD: The King and the Clown also has a theme about people just trying to make their way in life, being held back or held down by authority figures in kind of a similar way as Battlefield Heroes.  Is the historical period easier to show support for the plight of the downtrodden?

LJ-i:  Even in Radio Star and The Happy Life itís about a smaller, ordinary person trying to make it in the world.  So Iím making the same case in all of my movies, whether theyíre contemporary or historical, and I always like to defy the authority and put more value on the individual.


LMD:  Back to your retirement quickly, when we first heard about your statement, we understood that it was a reaction to the box office numbers for Battlefield Heroes.  Do you really care that much about the box office?

LJ-i:  Before I was a director, I was also a producer and I have also imported foreign films and distributed, so I know all the stages of commercial filmmaking.  I understand how important the capital for a commercial film is.  So, for me, failure at the box office can even mean failure for me as a commercial director.


LMD:  Do you know that Woody Allen never had a number one film?

LJ-i:  Of course, of course, but for me, it was very important.  I donít know why.  I didnít want to lose the money. {Laughs}


LMD:  You mentioned that you had been traveling, but what else have you been doing since you took a break from directing?

LJ-i:  Iíve been to Mongolia four times already this year to plant trees in the desert.


LMD:  Really, how do you do that?

{Lee Joon-ik produces his Iphone and shows a series of photos of people gardening in a green field.}

LJ-i:  {In English} Six years ago, that was desert.  It was half desert.  An actress, Park Shin-hye, Yi So-yeon, the first Korean female astronaut, and a well-known photographer went with me.  I started going three years ago.


LMD:  Would you please give a message our readers?

LJ-i:  I first of all thank you for watching Korean historical movies.  I hope to continue to make movies that deal with Northeast Asian history and I hope the readers and the audience will be with me.


LMD:  So, no more retirement?

LJ-i:  I think, yeah.


LMD:  I think I have a scoop!


~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 17th, 2011




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