Like his unconventional films, Im Sang-soo
defies any expectation one could have about the way an established director should look. Instead of bulky jackets or classic suits, Lim comes with a black and white t-shirt, an earring on one ear and a sporty mullet hairstyle. The serious-minded director doesn't appear serious.
His buoyancy and distaste for holier-than-thou attitudes show themselves in the characters of his new film "The Old Garden
" set for nationwide release on Jan. 4. The story of a doomed love between a democracy activist (Ji Jin-hee
) and a teacher (Yum Jung-ah
) against the gloomy backdrop of the 1980s isn't overly sentimental and sometimes sounds even cheerful, recalling the couple's six-month affair and separation in the era of suppression.
"In the face of death and retracing her solitary life, Han Yun-hi (Yeom) feels that the love of six months was the most powerful experience", he said in an interview at a cafe near his residence in Seoul.
"But I had a talk with Yeom about the plot. I said Han's life would be desolate, but don't let her look desolate, let her look tough sometimes", he said.
The reticency was a way for Lim to deliver a melodrama from the 1980s, when pursuing romance almost felt like a sin. Young people sometimes jumped off buildings or set fire to themselves as a protest against the military dictatorship.
Adapted from the novel of the same title by acclaimed writer Hwang Suk-young, the story unfolds with the release of Hyeon-u, in his late 40s, after serving 17 years in jail for opposing the military government of Chun Doo-hwan. The first news he gets to hear is the death of his long-lost love.
While the director calls it a melodrama, its backdrop is entwined with politics. The film comes out as the activist generation has become the power holders in South Korean society as lawmakers and presidential contenders. Once praised as personifying the democracy movement, they are now the target of political wrangling, denounced by conservative critics and media as self-righteous and incompetent under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration.
Recalling the sensitive era, Lim remains balanced. The film may sound like an ode to the activism of the 1980s at first but it also gives a critical look, such as the scene when a young activist gets peer pressure to turn himself in to the authorities simply to make newspaper headlines and draw public attention to their struggle. The era evolved with great energy of young activists to topple the dictatorship, but it also silenced critics and created another kind of suppression within their community.
"To look into something carefully means to look into its good and its bad", he said, "I believe my film has dealt with the more fundamental sadness, thoughts in higher levels than they (political circles) do discussing the 1980s for political interest", he said.
A college student of the 1980s, Lim didn't participate in the struggle because of his psychological distance from group activism, a reason why he feels indebted to his generation. But it is also the reason why he, at 44, has energy to reflect on the era, as the insiders have been consumed and devastated by the harsh times, he said.
With "The Old Garden
", Lim's reflection of modern Korea comes full circle. In "A Good Lawyer's Wife
" (2003), he slammed the hypocrisy in the institution of the bourgeois, traditional family in contemporary terms. "The President's Last Bang
" (2005) went back to October 1979 when then President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his intelligence aide. Park's son Park Ji-man waged a defamation suit against the film for its controversial depiction of his father, and as a result 3 minutes and 50 seconds were cut from the original film.
"The Old Garden
" stands between the two films in terms of time.
The story happens after Park's assassination, which was followed by another dictatorship by Chun Doo-hwan and the civilian revolution in the southwestern city of Gwangju, and before the country's achievement of democracy and development in the 1990s. (Yonhap News)
"I make a self-assessment. Are these three films a portrait of Koreans who have passed through the seventies and the eighties and are living in Korea today? With 'The Old Garden
' I was able to wrap up my work on modern Korean history. It is the portrait of myself and everyone", he said.
Despite the heavy political backdrop, Lim hopes the audience sees it as a love story.
"As a film of mine, my fifth, it could be radical in any ways",
"It is against the backdrop of the eighties, but as much as the films nominated for the Oscar in the United States, this one is also very conservative, beautiful and familiar to the taste of the ordinary moviegoers", he said, referring to the romantic relationship of the characters who keep their love despite their long separation.
Keeping up with his intentions, the story suggests a hopeful ending. After 17 years in jail, Hyeon-u encounters his daughter, whom Yun-hi never told him about, walking down a street on a snowy beautiful night. Despite the gloom of her parents, she turns out to be an easygoing, buoyant teenager like the aura carried by the director.
"She is the new generation that is playful and nonchalant, which may not look so good to the old generation but is so mature inside. She looks so casual and easygoing, but that way she accepts what her parents' generation went through", he said. (Yonhap News)
By Kim Hyun