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Im Kwon-taek, world-class movie director

2005/02/11 Source

Tony Rayns, a famous British film critic, once said about Im Kwon-taek that his movies unfold like drawing a circle, not a line, that keeps growing around the subject of the movie or conversely keeps narrowing down toward the center, and that the meaning of his movies is created through the repetition of such movements. Im's movie "Seopyeonje", which became the first Korean movie to draw over one million viewers to the theaters, deals with the director's favorite subject of family. Even during the period of military dictatorship, Im was able to withstand sharp censorship, thanks to his strong family values.

Im never gave up his role of projecting the family-based history of Korean society onto the big screen. He doesn't know how to exploit his talent, and he refuses to look stylish. His entire life, he has silently walked the path of portraying tragic personal stories and the turbulent history of modern Korea. The corns on his feet are the traces of his efforts to sublimate the pain of his nation.
Favorite in Korea and recognized globally

Im is recognized as one of the best movie directors at the world's top-3 film festivals. At the 55th Berlin International Film Festival, he received the Honored Golden Bear Award, which is only conferred on a minority of people who have contributed greatly to world cinema. The winners of this award so far include, among others, such high-profile cinema figures as Robert Altman, Kirk Douglas, Catherine Deneuve, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder and Sophia Loren. Why did Berlin give Im such a highly coveted award? Korean citizens probably know the answer better than anyone else in the world: Because he loves all things Korean more than anybody else.

The award that Im received at the Berlin film festival, which prioritizes artistic value above politics, is no doubt the pride of the Korean cinema and the dignity of Korean movies, which are reaching out to the whole world these days. It is his highest honor, according to Im, in the 43 years of his life as a filmmaker since beginning his career in 1981. That year his movie "Mandala" competed at the Berlin International Film Festival for the first time and grabbed the global spotlight. Now, his films have become genuinely global.
Until he becomes the best of the best in the harsh world of cinema

Im was born in Jangseong, South Jeolla Province, a town with no theaters. He remembers watching silent movies that were shown in his town once a year. But after his family was accused of clinging to the leftists and became scattered, Im had to drop out of high school. He ran away from home several times, and lived the life of a vagabond. Rather than looking for a hope to live, he felt lucky he was alive.

Im got involved in cinema in 1956, when he joined a film production company as a production assistant. As one who spent his adolescent years and grew to adulthood in the world of cinema, the only thing that Im knew and liked was movies. He developed from a tool and light assistant under Chungmuro's traditional apprenticeship into a film director, and in 1962 completed his first feature called "Farewell to the Duman River".
99 movies born out of the endless struggle with himself

In 1987, Im won the best picture award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for "The Surrogate Woman", introducing to the world actress Kang Soo-yeon. In 1989 he finally brought her the title of best lead actress for "Adada" at the Montreal Film Festival, and once again for "Aje Aje Bara Aje" at the Moscow Film Festival. That accomplishment was certainly one of his greatest feats. In 1990, "Gilsotteum" was shown on BR TV3 in Germany, and in 1993 he won the best director award for "Seopyeonje" at the Shanghai Film Festival. His realistic depiction of Korea created a sensation in Korea. That year, the Cannes Film Festival even held a "Week of Im Kwon-taek". But he did not stop there. He went on to create more characters that seemed to magically appear before our eyes and become more mature with every movie.

Following the nomination of "Chunhyang" at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, Im won the best director award at the 55th Cannes festival in 2002 for "Chihwaseon", which portrays the life of painter Jang Seung-up. Even after producing 99 movies since 1993 and becoming the "national film director" through "Seopyeonje", Im has embarked on producing his 100th movie, once again showing his zest and unswerving spirit as a cinematographer.
Depiction of Korea's modern history through movies

Im has been at the forefront of Korean cinematography since the 1980s. He tells everybody to look at people in the movies, because you can see the world through people. In his movies, Im makes the world live the "Im Kwon-taek way". His personality is a living personage. He keeps waiting for the moment when his actors seem to actually become the characters of his movies. Only when they become the characters, he puts down his megaphone -- and that is when a movie is created.

As the one who was born during Japan's occupation of Korea, Im lived through the Korean War, and had to suffer considerable hardships as the son of communist parents. He lived through the pro-democracy and military revolutions, and suffered the ordeal of dictatorship. That probably explains the presence of so much pain and affection in his movies. He spent the "dark" 1960s by producing action movies and the 1970s by cranking out state-funded movies. His movies, which are the exact representation of Korea's modern history, send the message of hope amidst despair. It is natural that his films, which portray the facets of life in all its entirety, appeal to viewers all over the world.
Three masters of Korean cinema

CEO of Taehung Pictures Lee Tae-won, movie director Im Kwon-taek, and filming director Jung Il-seong joined their talent in producing dozens of great movies together, including "Mandala", "Seopyeonje", "The General's Son", "Chunhyang", "Chihwaseon" and even "Low Life". These three masters, who say they know one another better than their wives, were always there for one another in times of hardship, and stood behind Im during his rise to world-renowned prominence. Lee Tae-won, who always supported Im in all his endeavors without hesitation, and Jung Il-seong, who showed Im the world from a different camera angle, always watched closely how Im was rising to fame. They are the "troika" that has been leading Korea's movie industry. The collaboration of pluck, endurance and sensibility has resulted in great feats.
Letting the audience decide

The common feature of all of Im's movies is "uncertainty". His films always leave the audience wondering about the answer. This so-called "unfriendly" director, who never gives a clear-cut answer to his viewers, says his movies take the audience's feelings into consideration as much as possible. It is up to the audience to decide what the answers to the questions posed by his movies are. One does not have to cry in front of others to make sorrow complete. Im's movies throw each one of us out into real life. It is said that while his stubby awl does not easily bore holes, once it manages to bore one, feelings come rushing in with extraordinary ease. And Im's awl has finally penetrated global cinema.

Im has devoted his entire life to producing movies. Completely engrossed in his craft, he has created almost 100 movies over the past 40 years, and he is determined to continue doing so in the future. Brushing aside his title as the world's cinema master, this tenacious director is once again exercising his skills to produce his 100th movie.


Born in Jangseong, South Jeolla May 2, 1936
Dropped out of Sungil High School, Gwangju
Debuted as film director in 1961 with "Farewell to the Duman River"
Currently, advisor at the Korea Film Research Institute, visiting professor at Chungang University, professor at the Department of Film & Digital Media at Dongguk University

Berlin Film Festival, main competition ("Mandala"), 1981
Chicago Film Festival, World Peace Medal, 1986
Berlin Film Festival, main competition ("Gilsotteum"), 1986
Venice Film Festival, best lead actress (Kang Soo-yeon) ("The Surrogate Woman"), 1987
Montreal Film Festival, best lead actress (Shin Hye-soo) ("Adida"), 1988
Moscow Film Festival, best lead actress (Kang Soo-yeon) ("Aje Aje Bara Aje"), 1989
Culture Medal, 1989
Shanghai Film Festival, best director and best lead actress (Oh Jung-hae) ("Seopyeonje"), 1992
Fukuoka Asian Culture Award, 1997
San Francisco Film Festival, Kurosawa Award, 1998
55th Cannes Film Festival, best director ("Chihwaseon"), 2002
UNESCO Fellini Medal, 2002
55th Berlin International Film Festival, Golden Bear Award (for the first time in Asia), 2005

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