In conversation with the master

The legendary Korean filmmaker Im Kwon Taek is in London for the Korean Central Centre’s retrospective on his career. The KCCUK has partnered up with the BFI and ICA to showcase 15 of his key films. This is the perfect opportunity to experience his masterpieces in the UK.

On the 25th October, the BFI hosted a conversation with Im Kwon Taek with his former assistant and now professor of film at Korean National University of Arts Kim Hong-Joon. This discussion was to be followed by a showing of his first artistic piece Mandala released in 1981.

Director Im has been called the embodiment of Korean Cinema and his career follows the development of the Korean Film industry. He has lived through the key events that have shaped the Korean identity and in his words left an element of sadness. This sadness is to do with the occupation, war and subsequent military rule, in a sense the Korean identity is linked to oppression and subjugation.

I was lucky enough to be part of a group press interview with my film critic colleague Wai Lu Yin before the main event began. This intimate setting provided the perfect atmosphere for us to gain his thoughts on his career, films and the industry.

The director born in 1936 has had an esteemed career with 101 films and many awards under his belt. He was an accidental director, after the civil war he was penniless and struggling to survive when an action director Chung Chang-Hwa gave him a lifeline. He was offered the opportunity to work for the director as an assistant and within five years he released his first film Farewell to Dunman River as a director in 1962.

He worked under the studio system for the next twenty years where films were replicas of Hollywood films and there was a quota on the number of films that had to be produced commercially. More importantly he had to work under the military rule which saw strict regulations over what could be shown (films could not be critical of the government and could not show dissatisfaction with society).

It was only in the 1980’s that he turned his back on the commercial system and wanted to get back to the art of filmmaking. For a successful director this can be seen a career changer with less people interested in artistic films. However this worked to his favour and he released his first artisitc film Mandala. This echoed in a new era for Kwon Taek with beautiful films with strong Korean ideas and commentary on society.

For the director, his first 50 commercial films films have no bearing on his mind “I am ashamed of those films and I wanted them to be burned so that nobody would see them”.

On the question of the representation of women in his films (with many featuring a female protagonist) Im felt that he was in no place to comment on their experience as he lacked experience. Rather he wanted to comment on their place in society and the history of their treatment through his films.

Surrogate Woman released in 1986, deals with the preference of men in the Joseon era. The film follows the wife of a high status man in society who cannot bear him a son; although her husband is patient his mother deems this a travesty. The wife in desperation settles on obtaining a woman who can provide her husband with the son that she desperately wants. We all know that emotions can get tangled leading to dire consequences and this is the focus of the film.

In the film Im, sought to challenge the notion that men were better than woman and the seeming patriarchy of the society. By showing the harsh treatment of this woman deemed as a ‘producer’, he showcases just cruel society can be. This film he said could be seen as his way of trying to affect change by bringing the issue to the consciousness of society.

It is clear that Im has a strong love of the traditional side of Korean society. In a sense, Korea’s rapid growth has seen it lose some of its traditional arts and people have seemingly forgotten about the rituals of the past. He brings back the wonderful art of Pansori, portrayed beautifully in his film Seopyeonje released in 1993. Pansori is a vocal and instrumental performed by a singer called a sorrikun and a drummer called gosu who plays the traditional buk drum.

He also focuses on traditional rituals, especially those seen in thanksgiving and funerals. Interestingly he didn’t follow himself the rituals as youth “I rebelled against my mother and did not want to do the ancestry rituals and this caused conflict between us”.

His films also seem to focus on Buddhism, in Mandala he follows two monks searching for enlightenment in two different ways. Whist in the film Come, Come, Come Upward he follows the journey of a woman in search of enlightenment and fulfilment as a Buddhist nun.

Speaking about this Buddhist connection he said “Buddhism is part of Korean culture. I wanted to show that the beauty that comes from a life searching for self perfection and the practise of southern Buddhism. I use it as a metaphor for the narrow world in which Southern monks are living in”.

Im Kwon Taek is a living legend; he represents the history of Korea and has documented the history of its people through the art of film. He feels that the next generation of film makers will continue to develop as the country develops. This is a positive outlook on the current nature of the film industry from a man that has seen it all in his 76 years of life. He is truly one of the world’s best story tellers and being in his presence was a huge honour.

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