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Starting his cinematic life as a screenwriter for films like Green Fish and Christmas in August, Oh Seung-uk made his directorial debut in 2001 with Kilimanjaro, a tense story of crime and hidden identities.  Fourteen years later, Oh steps behind the camera again with The Shameless and explains what took him so long to return.

Warning! Thar be {some} spoilers!

Dig it!


The Shameless

Oh Seung-uk


The Lady Miz Diva:  After such a wonderful film like Kilimanjaro, why did it take 14 years for you to direct a feature again?

Oh Seung-uk:  I feel like if there were more people like you who really appreciated Kilimanjaro, I wouldnít have had as much time between the two films as I did. {Laughs} At the time Kilimanjaro was released in Korea, it was strictly ignored and some audiences actually despised the film, so I think it made it harder for me to have a comeback.  I think there was a small cult following in Korea, but for the majority of Korean audiences, it was hard for them to stomach, I think.  I feel that even worldwide, everyone has a hard time watching a movie thatís super stressful.

Within that fourteen year span, Iíve been continually trying to write my own screenplay and get it on its feet, but every single time itís sort of fallen through.  It actually takes about two or three years to prepare for a single film, but when that falls through, then you have to work on another project that also takes like two or three years.  So if you go through that process four or five times, fourteen years just passes by.


LMD:  So after that unhappy reception for Kilimanjaro, what was it like for you to bring The Shameless to the Cannes film festival?

OS-u:  So, in terms of reception, like you said, this film went to Cannes, but I feel like in Korea, the reception was the same as fourteen years ago.  The audiences that went to see Kilimanjaro was about 95,000 people, and for this film, The Shameless, it was about 410,000.  But if you take into consideration the number of theaters that are even in Korea right now; fourteen years ago, there were only ten theaters that released a film, but right now thereís like three or four hundred.  So taking all of that into account, I feel like the actual level of reception was pretty much the same.  But I guess something that is relieving is that itís been getting favorable responses from international film festivals, so that is a solace for me.

I would say I was bit luckier with The Shameless, and I was not very lucky with Kilimanjaro in terms of audience response.  I think maybe the reason for that is Kilimanjaro mainly deals with the strong friendship between males, so more guys responded to that, but women didnít really like it or despised it.  There were a few women who raved about it; women who really had terrible lives and that {their response} gave me some encouragement.  But for The Shameless, I felt the guys werenít as enthusiastic this time and I think it was a bit more of a peak in the female audience because it has more of a romantic aspect in it.  I also feel like maybe another factor that makes this more popular is that I sort of loosened up when dealing with the aspect of crime and punishment, which was not so much the case with Kilimanjaro.

So, I feel like Iím actually stealing from my own film, because I feel in essence, Kilimanjaro and The Shameless are actually the same film with different actors playing the same roles.  For example, in Kilimanjaro, the role that Ahn Sung-ki played is played by Jeon Do-yeon, and Park Shin-yangĎs character is played by Kim Nam-gil.  It feels like the pain of the characters go through and express in this film are actually pretty much the same.


LMD:  Jeon Do-yeon is one of my favourite actors.  She seems to have a total lack of vanity when she acts and turns herself inside out emotionally for her roles. Sheís not concerned with how she looks on screen. Her character, Hye-kyung is a mess; even when she tries to look impressive, thereís still something a little shabby or off about her appearance.  Was Ms. Jeonís willingness to overlook her physical appearance part of what made you cast her?

OS-u:  Thatís true.  She is completely selfless as an actress.  I think one of her biggest talents as an actress is she perfectly understands the intentions of the screenwriting and the scenes that sheís playing.  Coupled with that, she takes the pain of the character with her throughout the film process, which was just horrifying.

She actually declined the role three times before she accepted it.  She would just flip back and forth, saying, ďNo, I canít do it,Ē one day, and then the next day sheíd say, ďOkay, Iíll do it.Ē  So she told me that she thought the script was absolutely fantastic, but she thought that it would be very gruesome for her emotionally to go through that, so thatís why she was going back and forth.

In the film you can see that Jeon Do-yeonís character, Hye-kyung, is the subject of exploitation; men continually try to exploit her.  Sheís a character that tries to get by and survived that process. But even off set, while were filming this, while not to say that we exploited her, but she was kind of like an island.  All the crew members were all male and weíre all used to filming very macho-type, male-driven films, so it was kind of like she was kind of this lone island in a sea of men.  Even when I tried to talk to her, we were kind of like cats and dogs because it was sometimes hard to communicate or understand what itís like being in that sort of position.  I think the filming was a really, really hard process for her, and I think she sort of managed by being very selfless and forgiving.  I think by the end of the filming process, she did feel that we respected her as an artist, so I think she opened up little bit more and accepted us into her arms.


LMD:  The Shameless is like a classic film noir and while watching Kim Nam-gilís performance and the way you capture him, he reminded me a little of a young Robert Mitchum, as he looked in Out of the Past.

OS-u:  Out of the Past, my favorite movie! {Laughs}


LMD:  Were there any classic Hollywood film noir movies you had in mind when you made The Shameless, or perhaps asked Mr. Kim to watch to help create his character?

OS-u:  It wasnít intentional, but I really want to thank you because itís one of my favorite movies. 

I donít think of this film more of as a noir film, I think of it more as a crime film.  Iíve been influenced by the Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s that deal with crime, so I really love those. Of course, because itís set in Korea, we canít make it in the exact same style, but I would say maybe that couldíve been an influence.

In terms of asking actors to read or watch something, I never asked my actors to watch a movie, or read a book, or watch a certain actor.  I never do that.  I think what is most important to me when Iím communicating with the actor is to see if the actor or actress has understood the intention of the script.  The reason I look for this is because if the actor doesnít understand fully what Iím trying to get through with the script, he or she will misinterpret and the acting will become false in a sense.  So thatís why I try to steer away from that.  If I get to feel that the actor or actress has understood the intentions, then I put in offhand comments or compliments, Iíll say something like, ďYou look like Alain Delon,Ē or something like that. But whatís hilarious is that Kim Nam-gil didnít know who he was, but it was still a compliment.


LMD:  All but one of your film projects uses the underworld as the setting, but at the same time, in both The Shameless and Kilimanjaro, you explore the question of identity.  In Kilimanjaro, the cop assumes his criminal twin brotherís life after he dies.  In The Shameless, we have a cop who is tempted toward the criminal element heís undercover in.  What fascinates you about the subjects of crime and identity?

OS-u:  Itís interesting that you mention identity, but I feel like throughout my films what Iím really trying to get at is the sense of violence that Korean men have in Korean society.  Theyíre complicated beings.  Sometimes, they are really proud one second, {or} they lie through their teeth sometimes to achieve their goals, and sometimes even when they know theyíre achieving their goals through cheating and lying, they have a sense of, ĎOh, Iím winning over this person.í  Thereís this ego thatís also weighing in.  Iím interested in exploring what is at the root of this behavior that Korean men have in Korean society. 

And I think while I was filming The Shameless, I felt that I canít tell the story of Korean men without telling the story of a Korean woman.  I especially wanted to try to portray the fear and the guilt toward women that Korean men have in this film.  Iím not sure if it was completely successful, but I tried to at least touch the surface with that.


LMD:  That moment when Jae-gon tells Hye-kyung over the breakfast table, that she should forget her lover, Jun-gil, and just run away with him made me hold my breath.  It feels like the whole movie shifts at that moment.  Can you talk about working on that scene?

OS-u:  The filming process was very, very easy because Jeon Do-yeon and Kim Nam-gil already understood the scene perfectly and they had embodied their characters perfectly, so all I had to do was set the stage.  One thing I can say about the film is that I did not want to use a lot of close-ups for this film, but I feel that one of the most important moments in the scene was Jeon Do-yeon saying, ďDo you mean that?Ē And Kim Nam-gil saying, ďSo naÔve.Ē  So, that moment, from the very first point of screenwriting, it was set in stone that that would be a close-up.

The problem with that scene was after I filmed it, the investment company and the production company were telling me, ďThis is wrong.Ē  I guess the problem comes from them have a different point of view; I guess they wanted it to look more like the two of them were playing a game.  I was really upset about that scene because everyone was saying, ďYou have to re-film this.Ē  I actually called up Jeon Do-yeon and I said, ďYou know, I really think the way I shot this is the way to go. What you think?Ē And Jeon Do-yeon replied in kind, she said, ďYes, I think thatís the way it should have been shot.Ē  So, at least I knew she was on my side.  Thereís a scene right after the breakfast scene, where they part ways in the car: I actually felt like I wanted that scene to be the exploding fuse, the most emotionally charged scene in the film, but I feel I wasnít able to achieve that.  But it was my intention to make that the most emotionally charged scene.


LMD:  Did you always intend to have an open ending?  Did you ever have a version where we see what exactly happens to Jae-gon?

OS-u:  I donít actually think itís an open ending because if youíre pierced at the stomach {as Jae-gon is} you can live.  If it doesnít go through your liver, you can live.  It didnít go through his liver and he didnít take it out, so he doesnít bleed to death.  I think thatís why itís not open ended, because heís probably going to go stitch it up and heís going to do the same thing again.  So for me, I donít view that as open-ended.  That kind of goes back to the point about how Korean men will just keep on getting hurt and doing things they donít want to remember, but they just keep on doing it over and over again.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov 7th, 2015


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