Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 1

Spring in my Hometown

by Donato Totaro, Peter Rist Volume 3, Issue 3 / March 1999 16 minutes (3838 words)

Korea was the spotlighted nation at the 1998 Montreal World Film Festival (August 27-September 7). One of the nine Korean films featured was Lee Kwangmo’s Spring in my Hometown , a poignant story about the effects of the Korean War on two neighboring families in a small village in South Korea. The story, which begins in the summer of 1952, is told principally through the relationship of two boyhood best friends, Chang Hee and Sung Min. Their blissful friendship becomes victim to the ideological crossfire between a Soviet Union backed North Korea and an American backed South Korea. Sung Min’s father, Mr. Chey, gets a job on the US army base and exploits his situation by smuggling goods from the base and serving as a pimp for the US soldiers. Meanwhile Chang Hee’s father has been absent for most of the war, leaving the mother to fend for her two children. However, the friendship between the two boys is not affected by the contrasting fortunes of the two families. One day while Chang Hee and Sung Min are investigating the village’s abandoned mill they see Chang Hee’s mother prostituting herself with a soldier. A few days later the mill is set on fire and Chang Hee goes missing. A year later the body of an unidentified boy is fished out of the water. Mr. Chey is caught stealing on the army base and is doused in red paint by the US army. The armistice is signed and the two families are left to pick up their shattered emotional pieces and start life anew. Director Kwangmo Lee presents these story fragments in a unique, contemplative style that underscores narrative enunciation. This aesthetic includes the use of static long takes, the predominance of long and extreme long shots, and a subtly symbolic use of color and landscape. The highly personable Kwangmo Lee was one of many invited Korean guests of the festival. We interviewed the director on September 2, 1998. Thanks must go to Korean born Montreal resident Mi-Jeong Lee, head of Cine-Asia , for making this interview possible. Mi-Jeong Lee was present in the event any translation was necessary, but we soon discovered that Kwangmo Lee’s English was very fine indeed.

DT: Can we begin with some background?

KL: I studied English Literature at the University of Korea and my major was T.S. Eliot, especially modern poetry. From my high school years my dream was to become a poet, which is why I studied English Literature and Modern English poetry. I suddenly realized that the written word is not the medium for me because I always thought there was a gap between what the poet was trying to say and what the reader gets from the poetry. This gap is too much.

PR: Is the gap too much in English, whereas in Korean because the written language is more visual, there’s not so much of a gap?

KL: No I don’t mean that. More generally.

DT: You mean interpretation?

KL: Yes, that’s right. When a poet writes about one apple, the poet says apple with a red dot, blue dot, but when people read that kind of word from the paper they always think in a different way, so I thought the gap was too much. I think T.S. Eliot thought that way too, which is why I liked his poetry. He thought that the romantic poets, like Wordsworth, always say one thing but the reader gets something different from what the poet is trying to say. So T.S. Eliot tried to make the gap smaller. He came up with a theory, “the objective correlative,” and with this theory Eliot thought that the poet has to find some objective correlative of what he’s trying to say, rather than just speaking. So I was fascinated by that theory, but then I realized that T.S. Eliot’s poetry is the most difficult for everyone. It became a dilemma for me. Why is Eliot’s poetry more difficult than the Romantic period poetry? I tried to solve this mystery and concluded that the problem comes from the medium itself, the written word, because the apple doesn’t really relate to the real apple, it is just a promise between human beings. What I wanted to express was very concrete and the total experience of a human being’s life, and I thought in literature there is some wall that I can’t get over. So I thought I need a new medium to express myself, to work, and started to watch several films from that time. I was not a cinema kid from my childhood, and I realized that film is very concrete and very delicate. It is not conceptual. In a conceptual way it is a pretty weak medium. But it is a better medium for expressing the whole total and concrete experience of a human life. So I chose to change my medium to filmmaking. I went to UCLA film school for filmmaking and I studied there for 5 1/2 years. After studying there I went back to Korea in 1991 and since 1991 I have been teaching in several small institutes and universities, while I tried making my first film, this film, Spring in my Hometown . But it was very, very difficult because the film industry in Korea is very commercialized and no body wanted to produce this film, to finance it. It was almost impossible until I won the Grand Prix at the 7th Hartley Merrill International Screenwriting Contest. Suddenly several people approached me and showed interest in this film. Still, it was very difficult. I got the award in 1995 and it took 1 1/2 years to finalize the deal because they didn’t see any commercial merit in this film, so they hesitated very long and it took about 1 1/2 years. So I couldn’t start this film until 1997. In terms of my teaching, I’ve been a lecturer at several universities, I became a professor in 1996 at Chung-Ang University in the Film Department.

DT: Were there differences between the original script that won the award and the final version?

KL: Yes, of course, because filmmaking or making any art is not like making any other product, like television or video. If you have a design or parts you can combine them to make a product, but when you make art it goes through a quite different process, pretty organic I think. It is like a plant with its own life and grows up. You have to always watch the pot, to see how it grows and grows. So it always changes. As a filmmaker you have to adapt to these changes, and keep your eyes on this process.

PR: I was wondering how visual the script was because the style of your film is very different from a conventional film. Did your script include how the film was going to be shot?

KL: No, not at all. It was a pretty conventional screenplay because I wrote this screenplay in 1988 and I just started to study filmmaking in 1986, so after studying filmmaking for two years I don’t think I had any ideas for the film’s style or filmmaking. As I’ve said, I’m from a literature background so the screenplay was pretty much like literature. It was a very conventional drama. When I got a chance to direct this film, my idea for film had changed from when I wrote the script. I found myself in a real dilemma in terms of how I would direct this film because the script was too dramatic and there was too much storytelling. I had to decide how to break down the storytelling and how to say it the way I really wanted to say. I tried to re-write the screenplay into a totally different form. And during the process I made many decisions to make drastic changes. The final version is quite different from the original screenplay. I finally finished the screenplay last summer before I started shooting.

PR: It is interesting because of the way you were discussing poetry and how you needed to go into another medium to achieve your goal in being poetic, that’s exactly the style of the film. When you were talking about poetry, I was thinking about the style of the film, and how it is a very poetic approach and this is what makes the style different from mainstream film. You studied film at UCLA, so there would also seem to be a contradiction between studying film in America and making this kind of film. Were you exposed to other kinds of film at UCLA apart from conventional Hollywood films?

KL: At UCLA I studied filmmaking and I could learn the grammar of filmmaking, but I never learned how to make this film. Since I went back to Korea in 1991 and while I was teaching filmmaking to the students I had thought a lot about what I learned from UCLA. As you said, it is contradictory from what I’m trying to do. I learned a lot from UCLA, but I had to change my mindset and the concept of cinema. I watched and studied many other films, like [Ingmar] Bergman, and [Theo] Angelopoulos, and this helped me a lot to reach the point where I could make my film. In fact in Korea when I couldn’t get my film made I wondered why they didn’t have these types of films? The answer was that there is no audience for these types of films. So I decided to make my own company to distribute the Tarkovsky’s and Kiarostami’s and other great masterpieces, in Korea. I started my company in 1994 and we have distributed about 30 art films in Korea

DT: When you say this type of film, you mean the style, not so much the content, right? Do you think if you had taken your script and made it in a more conventional style it would have been easier to get made in Korea?

KL: Yes, but still they want some essential subjects and this film wouldn’t fit in as one of these essential subjects. The script would still have been a problem if I would have made it in a conventional way. So part of my idea with this company was to help create an audience for these art films in Korea, because they are used to Hollywood films and they prefer those films. When they showed Tarkovsky films there, they were totally shocked, and they couldn’t enjoy them at all! So what we had to do was first bring out some kind of an audience for these films, and it has been quite successful. We have survived!

DT: Where are the films shown?

KL: We co-operated with one of the local theatres to make the first cinematheque in Korea [The Korean Film Art Center], and we always release our films there.

PR: We both wanted to ask you questions about your influences, which you are talking about. I think that a North American or European audience looking at your film is going to see more of Asian influences than European. So Tarkovsky and Bergman are also art filmmakers, but I’m curious about the style of your film because it’s like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami in some ways, but in other ways it is different. Rather than belabor the point, I imagine a lot of critics would say, oh it’s just like Hou Hsiao-hsien, because to a western audience it is strange that way. It struck me for example, that your film is both subjective and objective in an interesting way, and this involves the use of titles as well. Could you talk about that?

KL: I mentioned Tarkovsky and Angelopolous not because they influenced my films, but I feel they are great because they are conscious of what they are doing and how they are doing it. Most filmmakers don’t know what they are doing, in fact, which is why I mentioned them. With regard to my film, I think there are four ways to make a film. Hollywood makes a film to tell a story. Most Europeans make a film to describe or to show the psychology of a human being, they focus on characters mainly. And third is like Tarkovsky, where they make images, and they try to say something with those images. With Spring in my Hometown I wanted to be totally new, even if I like them [third group], I wanted to be free from them and totally new. So what I was trying to do, I don’t know if I was successful or not, was to make a perspective, so I speak with perspective, not with story or characters or images. I wanted to make some big perspective, that was my main concern with this film. And as you have said, there is a subjective and objective perspective at the same time, which was my intention. There is my father’s experience of the 1950’s, that he wrote down in his diaries; and when I read my father’s diaries I imagine another landscape and another experience. With Spring in my Hometown a very subjective point of view was involved and when I read my father’s diary I have a very objective point of view, an objective eye, and I’m trying to have a gaze on my father’s life to find some meaning in it. I tried to combine these two point of views, and this accounts for the unique perspective of this film.

PR: These two images [see photos below] are like a point of view shot and a reaction shot, but it works completely differently in your film because you spend a lot of time on each of the shots, and the shots themselves are very beautiful to look at, globally. In point-of-view, when we look subjectively, like in a Hitchcock film, we are always gazing at a point, with the idea that we focus on something, whereas in your subjective images we also have to sit back and look at the whole image. I think in that sense that’s an objective and a subjective way of looking at those shots. And I was very struck by this shot, how beautifully it is framed in a subjective way, but we need to look at the whole image, and the image is prolonged, which for a conventional audience would be awful because they want to cut back and forth. Whereas there are other scenes which are done in tableau style, which is completely objective, where you are just looking at the whole action. And this is where Donato and I were talking about Tarkovsky and even a Western painter, Breughel, and how sometimes there’s this wealth of material behind it, but still as you say, you are doing something original.

DT: It’s also interesting because you have two props that recur frequently in the film, the binoculars and the mirror, which are also related to this notion of looking, and one of them you can say is objective, the binoculars, and one is subjective, the mirror. I was also struck when I watched the film for a second time with the scene early in the film where the two boys at school walk away and have lunch together at the top of a hill. You have the framing of the camera, high up looking down at them in the mid-ground and the children in the playground in the extreme background. This reminded me of a similar shot set-up in Tarkovsky’s Mirror where you also have the same vantage of the camera up looking down at a boy and the military school in the extreme background.

PR: I was thinking of Andrei Rublev a lot actually, but anyway it is interesting that we are making similar associations but as you say, what you are trying to do is completely original. The title of your film, I understand, is ironic. Could you talk a little bit of that?

KL: There are two meanings with the title, Spring in my Hometown . In my film there is no spring at all, and there are three seasons in fact, summer, fall and winter. I wanted to make spring a symbolic season. In difficult times when there was no hope, but everyone was looking forward to spring during the wintertime. So this is pretty simple and symbolic. But in another way, Spring in my Hometown is one of the most popular children songs in Korea. And in the beginning of the film the children are singing it. And the song says that you miss your hometown because you cannot go back to your hometown, and that is the main content of the song. The song evokes nostalgia for Korean people because we are a divided country and many people cannot go back to their hometown. The song evokes personal emotion, which is nostalgia, as well as a very tragic reality of Korean history, that time period. So I wanted to use this title to evoke that kind of reflex, that personal emotion and historic reality of Korea. But the Korean title is Beautiful Season, so I used that title very ironically. First of all it is not beautiful at all. That period is the most difficult time in Korea, so I wanted some ironic nuance there. And also I thought that, well, maybe that period was better than our times now in Korea. Because our times are so materialistic, we are so much richer and better off, but when I look at the personality of the modern human being in Korea we are so superfluous and artificial. So when I remember my father and my grandfather I always feel that their personality is different from mine. So maybe at that time there were many real human beings, so that’s why in Korea I kept the other title ( Beautiful Season ).

PR: Well I really appreciate what you are saying because my emotional response to the film was that it was extremely sad, but at the same time very beautiful. And this is another connection with directors like Tarkovsky and Kiarostami, in that they also are not afraid to show the dark side, and they want to show the darkness. But there’s a sense of hope in the way the film is made, and I think this is a connection between your work and their work in that the beauty is there, but the beauty comes through your approach to the medium of film, whereas the subject and treatment of characters is very sad. So yes, the title, whether it is in Korean or English, is perfect in regard to that double edge in the work.

Tell us about your research because apparently you read just about everything you could get your hands on about the Korean War. Can you talk a bit about that process?

KL: As filmmakers, when we choose a subject matter like this, a history you didn’t experience, it is problematic. So I think I had to be assimilated into that period and we collected many books, references, images, many, many things, and it took about half a year to collect and analyze them. So that I can be at least familiar with what really happened during those times. We sent interviewers to meet and talk with a lot of old people and did research, especially for the visuals.

PR: It’s incredible that you would go to that extent, when in fact you weren’t showing the war. So you read all about the war but you managed to always suggest the war and give it that personal perspective.

DT: I was struck by the strong anti-communism exhibited by some of the characters in the film, the anti-Communist education in the classroom, the anti-Communist propaganda rallies. Historically, what was the source for this anti-Communist sentiment? Did it come from the US presence, or elsewhere?

KL: After our independence from Japan in 1945 my country was divided by the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union army came down to North Korea, and the American army to South Korea. And many political leaders were divided ideologically at that time. And they fought each other. The Korean War is a result of that ideological conflict. So this story happens in South Korea [in 1952] so there were many instances showing anti-communism. But I am not for anti-Communism, I just want to describe what happened there and how this ideological conflict makes our people a victim of history, I think, so I just wanted to describe how this process went through.

DT: Yes and I think this is expressed in the scene at the rally, where the man is egging the children on with his “kill the communists” slogan, and the camera placement specifically reveals that the only two children not raising their arms in unison to the chanting are the two friends Chang Hee and Sung Min.

KL: Yes, Chang Hee’s father was communist and his father was the man who was dragged from the well and beaten up in the beginning. So I wanted to show how the people were hurt by the ideological conflict of the times, and I wanted to show the two children in the foreground to show their heartbreak.

PR: We were also struck by how, politically, the film seems to refer to present day Korea as well, even though it is set in the past. For example, Chang Hee’s mother, Mrs. Song, how she finally gets isolated from the village and lives in this little shack. Her isolation felt to me like the isolation of the two Korea’s now. Was there a lot in the film that you were trying to represent the present day situation as well?

KL: When I wrote this screenplay there were three parts in fact, present, past, and present, but structurally I thought it was silly, so I just cut out the present day, and just left the past. When we live with our parents or grandparents it is very difficult for our generation because they went through such difficult times that their personality and mindset is totally different from us. Sometimes I feel like I have a copy of their mindset, so the present can’t be free from the past, especially in Korea because we went through such crucial moments in the 1950’s, and yet we are still living together. So to overcome the present time I thought we had to understand or overcome the past in some way, so when I wrote the screenplay it was always with the present in mind and myself. There is something inside me from my parents’ days or the past and maybe that’s why the whole film reflects the present day in some way, I think.

Part 2

Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 1

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 1

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 3, Issue 3 / March 1999 Interviews   country_asia_korea   korean cinema   lee kwongmo   political cinema