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After delighting the New York Asian Film Festival audience in 2013 with the wit and pure charm offensive of his romantic comedy, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, director Lee Won-suk returns to our shores with his sumptuous and splashy feast for the eyes, The Royal Tailor, a fantastic mash-up of Korean fashion history.  Between laughs, Wonsuk talked about his first and possibly last foray into Korean period cinema.

Dig it!



Lee Wonsuk


The Lady Miz Diva:  After the critical reception of How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, you have this extremely high profile production of The Royal Tailor.  Tell me what changed logistically from that first film to this production?

Lee Wonsuk:  How to Use Guys took me seven years to make.  As it was my debut as a director, it was a lot harder on the set.  We had a good crew, but as it was the first movie, it was really hard because everybody thought they knew better; that they had more experience.  When I made a decision, I had to ask, was I doing the right thing, the wrong thing?  And they had never seen a movie in the style of How to Use Guys, so it was really hard to convince people to do it, but with this one, after that movie, people knew my style, so people understood. It was a lot easier. 

But the thing is, it was a much bigger budget, so I had more responsibility, plus multicasting with Ko Soo and Han Suk-kyu, especially Han Suk-kyu, who is considered the god of acting in Korea.


LMD:  What was it like to work with veteran actors like Han Suk-kyu and Ma Dong-seok?

LW-s:  Ma Dong-seok, he wants to come here to work!  It’s funny, man.  He’s making all these portfolios of him acting.  He’s from here, in California, I met him when I was in LA, he was a health trainer.  He came to Korea as part of Sidus HQ {talent agency}, they brought him as a body trainer, that’s why he came to Korea.  Later, he told me it was his plan, because he wanted to act so badly, but he couldn’t go, so he proposed himself as a trainer in the industry.


LMD:  Were the more experienced actors open to your interpretation?  Was it easier for you to work with them?

LW-s:  I mean, it’s different.  Ma Dong-seok was very open, and other actors were very open, but Han Suk-kyu and Ko Soo, we talked a lot.  Ko Soo had a different idea about the character, but we talked a lot and we drank a lot, we met a lot, and still, we’re really good friends now.  He’s a really good dongsaeng, and we meet and drink, but we talked about it a lot and it was really good, actually.

Han Suk-kyu was really hard because he has a certain way of acting, so I had to convince him a lot, and we fought a lot.  I wanted him to be a little gay, a kind of homosexuality.  When I first read the script, the first script wasn’t like this, the final movie you saw.  It was more of two people’s movie.  It was much smaller and I really loved it.  But as investors and all these companies wanted to make a bigger film, so they put in these two young people - you know, to be honest, Ko Soo and Han Suk-kyu are not bankable actors; Han Suk-kyu is not like Choi min Sik - so they wanted to make it bigger, so they got Park Shin-hye and Yoo Yeon-seok got cast.  So the story got bigger and bigger.


LMD:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about the movie growing out of its original proportion, because I think the actress Lee Yu-bi is really up-and-coming, but there isn’t much of her in the film.  Before you mentioned having to add extra storylines, I wondered if there was more to her character that had to be omitted for time?

LW-s:  She’s a party girl, yeah! {Laughs}  Yeah, we shot it.  Every character had more story to it, but we had to fit into a two-hour timetable, so that was the hard part.  She’s great, Yu-bi’s great.


LMD:  Probably the best-known name in the film is your queen, Park Shin-hye, who’s practically considered a national treasure in Korea.  What was it like to direct her?

LW-s:  She doesn’t need direction.  She’s really well prepared.  Like, sometimes she would amaze me, she would think about all other options, and with the king and queen’s emotional line - I’m not a woman, so there’s some details I can’t catch - and she would say, “I think she would do this,” and “The queen felt like this and that’s why she made this kind of choice.” And I thought about it, and it was very different. 

Park Shin-hye studied really well and she brought all this different emotional line and she convinced me.  And I told her, “You saved the queen.”  Because I was being very superficial; like making a very one-dimensional queen and she brought all these details that amazed me.


LMD:  That leads me to ask about your king, Mr. Yoo Yeon-seok.

LW-s:  He’s a really nice guy, seriously he’s so sweet and he’s so funny, too.  On the set, everybody was so serious about shooting, and me and him {would be laughing} and my AD was telling me, “Please keep it down, they’re trying to act.”  He and I were making fun of each other.



LMD:  That’s just it, he seems like a really sweet, nice person and he often plays very sweet, nice people, otherwise, he plays kind of one-dimensional, very mean people.  The king has to go through the whole arc of being this pure-hearted guy who really loves Park Shin-hye’s character, who, as he grows more powerful, becomes twisted into someone ugly and hateful.  What made you think that this nice guy could be effective?

LW-s:  See, every person has complexes, from small things.  When I read the script, the thing that I really liked was when he was young, his brother got everything: That scene with the beef?  It was really a small scale {petty} guy who kept a grudge his whole life over beef.  Who does that?  But people do that - I do that!

All these people in this film have all these complexes inside, they carry it all the way through.  And no one gets happy in this movie, it’s very conservative.  The reason that I loved the script was everybody’s become so conservative.  The way I felt was, I thought I was very crazy and wild, and then I got married and had my kid and I became really conservative, without knowing sometimes.  Sometimes I’m like, “Really? Seriously? I said that? Oh my God, I acted like that?”  My mind has become very conservative, trying to protect what I have. 

In this movie, everybody wants to protect what they have; the tailor wanted to keep his job, the king wants to keep his throne, the queen wants to be loved by the king.  The only person that gets everything and is happy is Ko Soo’s character.  He got what he wanted and he went to La La land.


LMD:  Did you paint yourself into a corner by casting Ko Soo? You really can’t help but love his character immediately and then there’s the conflict in the film.  I felt like either of the ways the film could turn out, you would have been stuck.

LW-s:  Yeah, I mean, I didn’t want to kill him.  You know what the audience said?  “They should’ve killed the freaking director, and not Ko Soo!”  No, actually, some person hated my film and wrote a long-ass blog - there’s so many people writing that stuff where I don’t care, but this one thing really pissed me off, writing about me and my writer and all my crew, so I sent an email to her.  I was so angry at what she said, so I sent her an email and she sent me an email, “I didn’t know the director would read something as stupid as this, it’s so embarrassing.”

The ending I wanted to use was in the first script; he becomes blind and he cuts his finger, so he can’t sew anymore and in the end, he’s sent away to an island and Han Suk-kyu comes back to see him, and that was the original ending.  But we couldn’t end it like that, because we had so many freaking characters!  My producer strongly insisted that he has to die and so we had to kill him. 

But the day we shot that scene, it was really weird, Ko Soo got into the character so deeply, we were so depressed.  I was like, “Why are we so depressed? It’s only a freaking movie and we are so depressed.”  It was really weird; that day, the clouds really got darker.


LMD:  That was God sending you a sign!

LW-s: {Laughs} Yeah, yeah, everybody kept saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t shoot this?”  Ko Soo kept telling me that the first film he did was a death row character, so he doesn’t care.  I said, “Are you okay, man? We’re killing you.”  He was really sad two days before, he was drinking, and he was really, really getting into the character.


LMD:  When we spoke two years ago, you said: “The next film I’m doing is a period piece, a very serious one.  It’s a 400 years ago story that’s very serious, but I’m trying to use a lot of electronica music and opera music.  It’s a very dark movie.  It’s like Amadeus; Salieri and Mozart in a Korean version.” Was that meant to be The Royal Tailor?

LW-s:  Yeah, yeah.  Showbox had a random monitoring, where they brought in a focus group and they monitored the film, and every person wrote “The music sucks!” “This is a Korean period drama and it’s insulting.”  And we had opera songs; in the end in the snow, you hear opera, and people hated it.  Everybody talked about the music, so we had to take everything out.


LMD:  Since the Korean audiences didn’t seem to tolerate your innovations with the music, I can only imagine how they felt about my favorite part of the film, the giant bunnies on the moon?

LW-s:  They hated it. The Korean people hated it.


LMD:  I knew it.  What’s sad is, to me, those fantasy sequences really capture your style, your creativity.  Were there other things along those lines that you had to get rid of, or temper?

LW-s:  To keep that, I had to give up so many things.  And the rabbit was done before the release of the film.  When we screened it, we had a bad bunny, like an unfinished bunny.  Then before release the film, we barely finished it.  People wanted us to take it out. 

They still think the movie didn’t do well because of that kind of stuff.  They said it should’ve been more serious - that’s what the investors said.  I don’t know, it’s like when a film doesn’t do well, people start blaming everybody, so I told them, “It’s all my fault, so don’t say anything,” that’s what I told them.  There was a lot like that in the film.  I wanted to make a lot of lighter scenes, which we had to take out so many of them.


LMD:  Wow, this sounds like it was a nightmare for you.

LW-s:  Yeah, that’s why I wear sunglasses, because by the end of this shoot, I just got so stressed, my eyes just went bad.  Still, my eyesight - one side is okay, in the other one I can’t see.  Everybody went through it.  But the set was the happiest place; we had a fun time, we would wrap early and people wouldn’t leave.  People would be drinking and barbecuing.  It was like a picnic.  But like me and Ko Soo, we went through a hell of a time.


LMD:  We would be remiss in this interview about The Royal Tailor for you not to talk about your collaboration with your costume master, Jo Sang-kyung.  Tell us about things you learned from her, or things you didn’t know before you started this project.

LW-s:  Everything!  I mean, I wanted the film to be like some French people discover Korean clothes from 400 years ago in their museum, and they come to Korea, and it’s like we’re saying the Korean costumes have become like the French Renaissance.  I wanted to start as a fantasy, and when I got the script, the first person I called was Jo Sang-kyung.  I said, “Hey, I have something for you.  Come on, meet me.”  She owns a hanbok shop, so I went to her shop and I gave her the script, “I’ll give you one day to tell me the answer, but you have to do it. You have to call me tomorrow. Read it, but even if you hate the story, you have to do it.”

The next day, she got back to me.  I told her the dress has to be very foreign, like French looking, and she hated it.  She said, “What you going to say about hanbok, then? You’re saying the French clothes are better, is that you are trying to tell people?”  I said, “Okay, I’m sorry,” so I admitted it.  The thing is, how are we going to design Ko Soo and Han Suk-kyu?  Han Suk-kyu is very traditional and Ko Soo is more funky, but how can you tell whose clothes are better because people have their own visions in their own tastes.  So I asked her, “What can we do?”  She said she didn’t want Han Suk-kyu’s hanbok to be bad, so we were arguing, “Let’s make it black-and-white, and make everything that Ko Soo designs in color,” and she said, “That’s too easy. Just trust me, let’s go.” Everything in this movie has to look pretty.  I said, “How are we going to tell the difference?” It’s the fit and other things that were hard to translate to film, the audience is not going to understand, but this is the story of hanbok, so she convinced me. 

She’s amazing and I don’t know anything about hanbok, so she made me the entire map of hanbok over 400 years, she made me a presentation. I said, “Let’s mix these up. Let’s make this into a timeless piece, like Joseon in some areas,” and that’s the other thing the audience got really unhappy with.  The Koreans are so serious about history; it has to be like this king has to have done that.  And because of Jo Sang-kyung, I met a lot of people from museums and professors and they say there are so many unopened treasures from Joseon, because if they open it up, it’s going to mess up the timeline they built.  So, there are so many hidden artifacts that the museum has, and they won’t release it because it’s gonna change the history and the timeline.  Everything they’ve built is going to be bullshit.  Because of this movie, Jo Sang-kyung lost a lot of weight and she started chain-smoking.


LMD:  Well, you’re here amongst friends in New York, what do you expect the American reaction to be like?

LW-s:  I don’t know.  It did really well in Italy {Udine}.  I never had that long of an ovation, to the end of the credits, the full theater, everybody just stood up and clapped.  I was like, ‘Man, are they making fun of me?’ because I wasn’t really happy with the film.  I didn’t know what to do.  And here, I just really wonder, but I think it should be better than Korea.


LMD:  Do you have anything coming up next?

LW-s:  I’m going to China to do a Chinese movie.  I’m probably going in September, we’ll start shooting in March.  It’s a two woman movie, they’re probably gonna cast two of the top Chinese actresses.


LMD   Is it modern?

LW-s:  Yeah, modern.  I’m not gonna do a period piece ever again!  No way!  People hated it.  There’s so many angry audiences in Korea; people complaining like, “You jerk! You’re messing up the history."


~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 8th, 2015


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 by L.M.D.


Stills courtesy of Showbox










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