Having written over 40 plays and film scripts, Lee Yoon-taek is one of the most successful playwrights and stage directors in the nation. So he didn't think he would have too much of a problem making his most popular play into a movie.
But Lee found out the hard way that this wasn't the case. The film, "Ogu," opening in theaters on Nov. 28, almost wasn't completed due to lack of funds. From the beginning, Lee had a hard time convincing companies in Seoul's Chungmuro, a local equivalent of Hollywood, to invest in his first attempt at a feature film.
Lee and the film's production company, Mao Film, were eventually able to generate the 1.8 billion won needed to complete the film from investors outside of Seoul. "That we finished filming itself is a miracle," Lee said at a news conference after a screening Thursday. "And I wait for its release as I would for a miracle."
The director said there is too much of a bias towards new voices in the cinema world. Instead of generations of directors existing side-by-side, "there are only new directors," Lee said, unable to hide his dissatisfaction.
"The film world is only interested in a few superficial genres and how to make money from them," Lee said.
The director knows all about tearing down genres. Born in Busan in 1952, Lee started out writing poems in 1979 before entering the theater world in 1986. Feeling that local plays were too dependent on the West, Lee began writing works that specifically dealt with Korean traditions and culture.
His most successful play, "Ogu," premiered in 1989 and was seen by some 2.7 million people over the next 13 years. A humorous and contemporary look at "mudang," or Korean shamans, it also became popular with foreign audiences when it was staged in the late 1990s at Changdong Theater in Seoul with Japanese and English supertitles. The play is "one of the most exhilarating, funny, charming and enjoyable works this writer has seen on stage anywhere," wrote Andrew Salmon in a 1998 review for The Korea Times.
The film version of "Ogu" expands on the play, adding subplots and fleshing out concepts, Lee said. "If I was a bit more adept at using the language of film, I could have made a better movie, but I tried my best."
"Ogu" stars many of the actors from the stage version, including Kang Bu-ja, a popular TV actress. Kang reprises her role as an old woman who foresees the end of her life in a dream and wishes to have a shaman perform a ritual, called "kut," before her journey to the afterlife.
Many people in her village, however, are against holding the ritual, having agreed to ban them six years ago. Since then, the four sister shamans of the village have gone their separate ways, taking up less spiritual occupations. All throughout, three spirits from the underworld sit just outside of human perception, watching and waiting to take the old woman away.
With a large dose of humor, the film brings traditional ideas of the spiritual into a contemporary setting. Kang, who has been acting for 41 years, said "I never had a job that made me so excited and emotional as this film."
"This film can become a film I am remembered for, or it can even be my last," Kang, 62, added. "But for me, it will be considered an important point in my career."