The Korean director talks literary inspiration for his award-winning new feature, Poetry.
Few directors could boast a run of films as varied, audacious, intelligent and emotive as Green Fish, Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Secret Sunshine, which makes one-time high school teacher and novelist Lee Chang-dong a treasure to be cherished. With his latest multiple-award-winning film Poetry hitting UK cinemas this week, LWLies catches up with Chang-dong to discuss his views on poetry, filmmaking and life.
LWLies: Poetryis the second film, following Secret Sunshine, that you have made with your own production company, Pinehouse Film. What advantages (and disadvantages) does this independence bring to your filmmaking?
Chang-dong: I was guaranteed complete independence even when I made films at productions companies before Pinehouse. Therefore, there's not much difference in that regard. I rather had the tendency to restrain myself in a producer's point of view rather than to be faced with intervention from a producer. For instance, I would not use expensive equipments if possible or refrain from using costly filming methods. However, in Korea these days, it's the financiers that interfere and control the directors rather than the film producers in most cases. I've been granted a certain freedom from the financiers so far, but I'm not sure when this will end.
There were elements in Poetrythat recall 'So Much Water So Close To Home', the Raymond Carver short story that inspired Ray Lawrence's Jindabyne and one of the narrative strands in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Was this a conscious influence? And how did you get from Carver to a sexagenarian woman looking after her feckless grandson while experiencing the confusion of early dementia?
Raymond Carver is one of my favorite writers. He depicts small details in daily lives to portray fatal things in our lives. Showing small things to talk about something big – his novels in this regard are very cinematic. What attracted me the most from 'So Much Water So Close To Home'was the feeling of the main character reacting to other people's pain. My understanding for this poetic yet difficult title was: the pain of others is not evident but linked with oneself. Like the water that flows beneath the earth under my feet. I hoped that audiences would feel that from Poetry. The dementia element had nothing to do with Carver.
You brought Yun Jung-hee out of a 16-year retirement to play the lead role of Mija in Poetry. Could you tell our readers a little about who Yun is, and how you coaxed her into appearing again onscreen after such a long absence. Was she your first choice for the part?
Yun Jung-hee is a star who has performed in more than 300 films from 1960s to mid 1970s, and was like an actual shining star for me when I was young. But she had disappeared from the screen one day after her marriage. When I first thought about the character for this film, I most naturally pictured her. I did not know her personally, except having met her in film festivals a couple of times. But I knew by instinct that she is very close to the Mija character. Moreover, her real name is Mija. I didn't think it was a coincidence. It wasn't difficult to persuade her to take this role at all. Before writing the screenplay, I told her the storyline of the film over a dinner and she liked it very much. And she told me she had been waiting for such a script during the long period that she was away from cinema.
"If you really see something you can feel something naturally", Mija is told by her poetry teacher. In what way do these poetics of naturalism match your own as a filmmaker?
That comment made by the poetry teacher represents what I would like to say about poetry and about film. How do you see the world? This is the fundamental thing to write a poem or to make a film. Films show the world for the audiences' eyes. But the films that we make now, what kind of eyes are they showing the world to the audiences?
The poetry teacher also suggests that writing poetry is about finding beauty "in our everyday life." For much of the film, Mija struggles to see and express the beauty in a life tainted not just by disappointment, but also by such seemingly unpoetic themes as gang-rape, teen suicide, and the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Was it equally a challenge for you as writer/director to transform these disturbing materials into cinematic poetry, or do you think that these are precisely the sort of materials suited to poetic treatment?
To write a poem is an act of pursuing beauty. However, beauty itself doesn't exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it's visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Therefore, art is an irony on itself - like our lives are. I wanted to ask the audience how to discover beauty in our lives.
In the film, one of the young poets at the Love Poetry club takes paradoxical delight "in an era when poetry is dying." Do you regard cinema, too, to be a dying form?
Poetry and cinema are dying. These do not seem like simple rhetorical figures. Some films are still massively consumed whereas some films that I'd like to create or to see are more difficult to find. Those films are like things that don't get sold at local grocery stores any more but ones that you can only buy at flea markets that only come once a year. A flea market called film festival. To see the world with different eyes, to feel beauty that is not visible, to ask questions of life, to think about the meaning of my life. If that is cinema, does cinema still exist? Do you wish for the cinema to exist? Those are the questions that I’d like to ask. Those are the questions that I made this film for.
Your film features no added score, it elides certain key scenes, and it ends with the otherwise central main character conspicuously absent. What motivated this blank, elliptical approach in your filmmaking? Might you, for instance, have been encouraging viewers to fill in these gaps with their own poetic response?
My intention was not to reveal whether Mija reports her grandchild's deed to the police. In a way the film is about her 'choice' which is not clearly shown in the film but left empty like a blank. It is Mija's secret as well as the film's secret. And it is the audiences' part to interpret that secret. I hoped that the audiences would fill in the blank with their own choices. Mija finally completes a poem at the end of the film. But the audiences cannot see her again at the end. Where has she gone? I also wanted the audiences to find an answer for this on their own. The ending of the film is within the audiences' minds.