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There must be something really special about your movies when youíve only made two and you find yourself the subject of a retrospective at the legendary Smithsonian Museum.  Our dear friend, Lee Wonsuk, director of the brilliant and hilarious How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, and the award-winning feast for the eyes, The Royal Tailor, gave us his thoughts on the honor, looks back on the making of those films and reveals his future projects.

Dig it!

 

Lee Wonsuk

Korean Film Festival

Freer and Sackler Galleries,

Smithsonian Institution

 

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  Wonsuk, youíre about to come back to the US for a very special occasion: The legendary Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC is devoting the weekend to discussing your films, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips and The Royal Tailor.  How do you feel being the subject of such a big retrospective having made only two features?

Lee Wonsuk:  Iím so honored because Iíve only made two films and they invited me, one of the most prestigious institutions.  Iím so happy and honored, but at the same time nervous because as soon as I get there I have to go to George Washington University and I have a showcase with {Textile Museum curator} Dr. Talbot Lee, who is really famous.  He sent me a question about hanbok, and I was like, ďWhoa, what is this?Ē 

It was so deep and so specific that I called my wardrobe designer, Jo Sang-kyung {The Royal Tailor}, I said, ďHey, check this out, look at all his questions. I donít have answers to it.Ē  And she goes, ďOh, I donít have an answer to it, either.Ē  So all my people were doing research, right?  Some of the words that Dr. Lee sent me are really professional hanbok terms that hanbok people only know. So, Iím learning.  Maybe they shouldíve invited the hanbok designer?

 

LMD:  The festival organisers were kind enough to invite me and I really wanted to go just to see what your answers were going to be.

LW:  But Iím studying it; I bought the hanbok book.  When I made The Royal Tailor, I didnít realize they made a book like this.  I shouldíve read it before I made the movie.  I regret that.  Itís very interesting.

 

LMD:  Itís been a year since we spoke about The Royal Tailor, which has played international festivals and won awards at the New York Asian Film Festival and at the Udine Far East Film Festival.  You were kind of down on it back then, because you felt it didnít do well and had a lot of criticism in Korea.  Has the distance from it and the international reception softened your view of making the film at all?

LW:  Just now, Iím at the company where we made The Royal Tailor, and weíre still talking about it just today, what we should have done better.

 

LMD:  What do you think you should have done better?

LW:  The story should have been focused on two persons, Dol-seok and Gong-jin, as it was originally, not four people.  And everybody thinks now, seeing the movie, that it shouldíve been very historic and very serious, because we were looking at all these patterns of successful period pieces, and they all turn out to be very serious.

But because of this movie, Iím still getting a lot of period piece films; like last week, I got a script from a major company that was a period piece. I told him Iím not going to do a period piece. A period piece will never end, it goes on and on.

 

LMD:  When you first told me about your ideas for The Royal Tailor back in 2013, what was so exciting was that you described such a different take on the usual period piece.  It was sad to hear about all the compromises that you had made while in production. The thing is, it seems like the movie is loved everywhere but in South Korea.  What do you think the Western audiences reacted to in The Royal Tailor that Korean audiences might have missed?

LW:  Western audiences think itís really exotic and the hanbok is very beautiful and the story itself is very classic, kind of.  I think thatís why it worked for a western audience.  I mean, like in Udine, I had a standing ovation for like 10 minutes.  I never experienced anything like that; I was overwhelmed.  I was like, ďAre they kidding me?Ē  

But in Korea, the audiences look at the attitude of a movie - on the history.  There are some people who loved the movie, but other people thought I was playing with the history, joking around with the history.  People take it very seriously.

If I wanted to make it silly, if I wanted to make a fantasy out of it, I shouldíve gone all the way.  But thereís a pattern to all the failed Korean period pieces recently; theyíre all fantasy, like The Magician with Yoo Seung-ho.

 

LMD:  I wonder if looking back on The Royal Tailor might have made you think differently about how to regard advice or suggested changes to your film? You said that people did not like some of the comedy aspect; you changed your idea about using a modern soundtrack, they hated the CGI bunnies on the moon, and in the end, you werenít as happy with the final product as you couldíve been. Do you think that with the next project youíre going to stick more strictly to your own idea?

LW:  I think with the future movie that Iím doing, I will have more control over because itís a subject matter that I know better.  The period piece was something that I wasnít familiar with, and there were certain rules of period pieces that I had to follow, which I couldnít ignore.  I wanted to break that, but if I wanted to break that, I shouldíve gone all the way.  Itís all my fault, I chickened out.

Thereís a moment where you start doubting yourself.  I think everyone gets that; every director gets to that point.  There are a couple of moments where I was shooting the film and I knew I made the wrong decision.  And also at the editing bay with all these people, all these politics, everything, it was another big time where I doubted myself.  At that point, I made a mistake, I took the wrong turn and that I regret.

The Royal Tailor, Iím happy with what it is.  There was something that I wanted to do more, that I couldnít, and that is the part that I regret.  Iím not saying that my film is bad, or that Iím bad; but this was one of my big experiences.  A very expensive learning experience.

 

LMD:  Have you considered making films overseas?  I think your style and sensibilities would do really well in Europe.

LW:  Iíve actually had a couple offers from Singapore and other countries, and India, too, and Japan, but Iím under contract at the time being.  You know this industry so well; I mean, it never happens until you sign a contract.  Everybody just talks and talks.  The Singapore project is a very serious project, and I met the producers from Singapore, but itís a period piece and thatís the part Iím unsure about.

 

LMD:  But you do have other projects lined up?

LW:  Yes, I have a Chinese comedy with Chinese stars and I donít think I could ever do this kind of comedy in Korea.  Itís just going really slow right now, I donít know whatís gonna happen.  

The other project Iím working on is an adaptation of a Korean manhwa, called Lookism by Park Tae-jun.  Iím just getting started writing that.

 

LMD:  I want to talk about you as director. Last time we spoke you mentioned how you and Yoo Yeon-seok had to be stopped from laughing too much on the set because you were disturbing the work.

LW:  {Laughs} Our set, still, our staff, when I visit other film shoots, I meet my staff and they always say, ďOh, I miss the set on The Royal Tailor.Ē It was a fun set, we had a bunch of laughs.

 

LMD:  Why did you think Ko Soo was right for the character of Gong-jin in The Royal Tailor?

LW:  See, people were very conservative back then, and everybody has to follow rules, and there were noblemenís rules, bla, bla, bla, but probably back in the day, they probably had a crazy guy.  Somebody who was very open, somebody who didnít give a shit about anything.  And Ko Soo had been playing all these very serious roles.  Then I saw him in Haunters with Kang Dong-won, and I thought, ĎOh, that guy looks like he could be really crazy.í  Then I met Ko Soo and we had a drink together and I felt that this guyís not serious at all.  He was casual and a very fun-loving kind of guy.  I always felt he was very protective of himself because thereís a lot of mystery about him that not many people know; heís not really open in media.  But when I had a drink with him, he was totally different, more down to earth, kinda.  So this was the person that I want; people like him probably existed in Joseon two or three hundred years ago.  So I asked him to do it and thatís how we joined.

 

LMD:  You decided after having drinks with him that he was the right guy.  Do you feel happier to know a person and get a sense of them in that way before you cast them in a film?

LW:  Yeah, you have to live with these people for three or four months when youíre shooting or in preproduction.  When I meet people, I can just feel their energy; whether this guyís good, or whether this guyís evil.  I really want to work with good, fun-loving people.  Theyíre actors, they could play the character, but they themselves have to be really good and really open and thatís really important for me.  Probably a lot of other directors do the same thing, but I ask the actors to come out and we talk about all this stupid stuff, and you know, Diva, when you talk, you start clicking, but there are some people that never click.  But, if you feel comfortable with people, you could talk all the time, about the characters, and when you run into trouble, you can talk it out.  But with somebody that is very hard to communicate with, itís really, really hard; they just shut it down.  They just want to do their stuff.

 

LMD:  That goes back to what you were saying about the set, there being a level of comfort.  Is that something that you consciously cultivate; an easy-going, comfortable set?

LW:  Yeah, because Iím with these hundred people every day.  Iím not a serious person and I always make a mistake, but if thereís a serious kind of environment, Iím not comfortable, so I canít be myself.  But when the environment is very free and fun, then I can be myself and enjoy it.  And the crew too, they have every right to enjoy it, theyíre not slaves.  If theyíre happier, they do better and they give you more.  Iím being very much a fox, kind of, because I know what I have.  I know my limits; Iím a person who knows my limits, what I can do, what I canít do - but with these good people bringing all these ideas and how they think just adds on and makes it bigger and bigger and bigger.

Thatís what I love about filmmaking, I mean, if the set is good and the environment is good, everybody is talking and commenting and throwing at you all these ideas, and as a director, you just have to choose.  You have to choose within the boundaries of your blueprint you made, so itís fun.

Youíre spending half a year of your life with these people; itís one of your memories that youíre always gonna have.  Iíve only made two films, but with the last film, when I look at the film, I donít look at it like ĎOh, the stupid mistakes that I made.í  Every time I see a scene, I remember what happened on the set.  Thereís all these memories that come up.  Thatís the fun part as a director watching the movie.  

With The Royal Tailor, it was the same thing.  I think that everybody probably has the same thing; that one day weíll probably think, ĎOh yeah, The Royal Tailor, we had so much fun. We made a good film with good people.í  I think thatís really important, and I think itís really important for my crew to feel that. 

Movies are movies, the person is more important than the movie.  Itís just a movie, one day itís in the theater, people watch it, it could disappear next week, but the memories of these people goes on forever.

People from the set, they still meet!  They made a group and they still meet.  And there are two couples who are pregnant who met on the set and one couple that is dating.

 

LMD:  It sounds like they went to camp!

LW:  I know! {Laughs} Maybe it was too much, I dunno.  Everybody says the director has to be charismatic and take control of the set, but charisma and controlling the set, I take it differently.  You donít have to get like, ĎOh yeah, Iím the freaking director. I have the answers, you do whatever.í  That doesnít work, anyway.  I mean, Iím not that talented; I donít have the answer for everything.  I need help from these people and if I want to get help from these peopleÖ

You know, you do something nice before you ask someone for a favor.  The least I could do is make the set, the shooting production enjoyable.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 2nd, 2016

 

Click here for our 2015 Interview with Lee Wonsuk

Click here for our 2013 Interview with Lee Wonsuk

 

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Photos  

Exclusive photos by LMD

Exclusive Photos of Lee Wonsuk at the Smithsonian Institute courtesy of Korean Cultural Center Washington, D.C

The Royal Tailor Stills courtesy of Showbox Films

How to Use Guys...  Stills courtesy of LOTTE Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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