[Interview] John H. Lee: I think I can even make a movie in Africa!
Born in Seoul, Korea, Lee moved to the U.S. at the age of 12. Upon graduating from the film school at New York University, Lee made his feature debut with "The Cut Runs Deep". Since his successful debut, Lee has directed numerous international music videos and T.V. commercials in East Asia and Europe, eventually opting to move his residence back to Seoul in search of his spiritual roots. In 2004, Lee directed his second feature film, a love story, entitled, "A Moment to Remember", which became the highest grossing domestic film in the romance genre in the history of Korean cinema. His next films include "Sayonara Itsuka", a Japanese- language film, "71-Into the Fire", "The Third Way of Love", a Chinese film. Hi latest movie is "Operation Chromite" the first Korean film to cast an A-list Hollywood actor in a prominent role, Liam Neeson.
We talk to him about his life, career, commercial success, his plans for the future and other topics.
At the age of 12 you moved to the US, studied film in New York University, and after a film and a number of music videos and TV commercials you decided to return to S. Korea. Can you tell us a bit about this "trip"?
Yes, that's how my journey began. I wanted to make a film in Korea, then planned to move to LA. To the La La Land, but I ended up staying in Seoul a lot longer. My early plan was first NYC, then Seoul, then LA… But final destination hasn't been nowhere in sight yet. Might happen soon, who knows. Luckily, my interesting journey in Asia coincided with the birth and the full-flourishing of the K-Pop "New Wave" movement.
Did you find it difficult to implement the lessons of an American film school in Asian cinema?
Sometimes. Especially in the storytelling realm… The classic "three-act" structure of Hollywood cinema is also taught in Korean film schools, but not on a practical level. So, when you have script meetings in Asia, you realize people around you have a very different sense of the story structure. But, on all aspects of filmmaking, I try to merge the best of the distinct filmmaking cultures. Then again, I'm the byproduct of two different worlds. I later utilized what I learned from this kind of challenging environment, on how to cope with different cultures and sensibilities, onto my other foreign films shot in different countries, like Japan, China, Thailand, et al…
You have directed Korean, Japanese and Chinese films. How did that occur? How difficult was it to cooperate with actors and crew from different countries? Are there any differences in the way people from different countries work?
I tried to go "global" from the very start of my career. So when you try work with people not from your country or your culture, what do you do? You try to find something in common. Don't meander in the differences. That's how you make friends. I made great efforts to understand others, instead of insisting on others to understand me. I still approach work this way. That's my initial and on-going mindset: finding commonness. That's the key to making films in foreign countries with the language you don't speak. Of course, as a film director, you have to have a total command of the language, whatever it is, if it is going to be heard in your film. I created my own system of controlling dialogue, and it's pretty costly, but it's worth putting the effort.
There's not much difference working with foreign actors. I love working with foreign actors. When it comes to art and aesthetics, we are all speaking the same language. Technically, I am a foreign director working in Korea! So what's the difference? Sometimes I wonder where my home is. Home, in a sense, that is in your heart… I think I can even make a movie in Africa!
This diversity extends to the themes of your movies. You have directed film about youth gangs, the war, and romantic ones. Is that a way to challenge yourself? Which genre do you prefer?
I always tell my agents I am dying to do a science fiction movie! I don't have preferences. Some old remarks by André Bazin comes to mind: "auteurs are a subject to themselves; whatever the scenario, they always tell the same story…" Same story, but different movies… But "story" here shouldn't be confused with the common understanding of the word. There are things and elements I personally respond to in a script when I approach a new film, and not surprisingly, there are repeated patterns to it. The abstract, conceptual things like beauty, love, tolerance, rage, heroism, city, vast landscapes… I'd love to tell my stories in many different genres. Like Stanley Kubrick, whom I admired since I was 12 years old. Newer the film, bigger the challenge…
Despite the differences in countries of origin and genres, most of your works have been huge commercial successes. How do you explain that? Did you aim at commercial success with your films?
I don't know how to explain that. Through numbers? But I can offer a conjecture. Maybe, I struck chord with people in that region. How did I do it? Maybe, universality, with a nice balance of peculiarity… As a commercial filmmaker, you must aim at the commercial success of your films, if you're not paying for the film yourself. There's always a risk when you're putting out a new film, but you have to do everything you can to ensure the film's quality is good enough to reach "the breaking-even" point. That takes a lot of guts and hard work.
Liam Neeson was already interested in the Korean War and Gen. Douglas MacArthur even before I sent him the script. It didn't hurt that Liam and I shared the same agency, CAA. My agent told me he decides based on two things only: the script and the director. I sent him some of my past movies. So I had my fingers crossed and waited for a few weeks, and then got a "yes" from him. I didn't believe it at first. I had a lot of fun working with him. He was very open-minded and always welcomed suggestions. He was very humble whenever he gave his opinion on things. A great actor. A great guy. I would love to work with him again.
In general, how does the casting works in an S. Korean production?
There are no "true" casting directors working in S. Korea. Often times, directors have to do most of the casting.
These two war films were offered to me by producers. And I like war genre, because the genre itself is packed with human drama. You see human beings in the worst possible situations. Plus, when you see "Based on true events" on the screen in the beginning of a movie, you immediately tend to believe the film. To a certain extent, the film gains credibility. But as a filmmaker, you're not documenting or chronicling a chain of real-life events. You're trying to convey a certain emotional truth. I like true stories, but I don't prefer them over fiction. As long as there's truth to it, anything works for me, fiction or non-fiction.
What is your opinion of the S. Korean movie industry at the moment? We see bigger and bigger productions and a lot of quality of movies, but at the same time there seems to be much controversy (Busan Festival, censorship). Do you feel that S. Korean productions have adopted Hollywood aesthetics to a very large degree?
I think S. Korean film industry was always in growth. It's still growing, which is great for me and all other filmmakers in Korean. You hear about how some film industries in Europe and elsewhere are dying, and that's scary. It could happen in Korea. So, you have to thank the audience for the success the Korean film industry is currently experiencing. As for the controversy regarding censorship and the "black list", it truly disturbs me. However, I'm sensing a turnaround, that things are starting to move in a positive direction. I hope it stays that way.
Regarding aesthetics, some have adopted and emulated the Hollywood aesthetics, but I can't speak for all. When you look at some Thai films and they look more Hollywood than Korean films.
Which directors have influenced you the most and what movies do you like to watch?
There are so many directors that influenced me. To name a few: Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, David Lean, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, François Truffaut, et al.
What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?
I am developing a few projects. Many interesting and challenging projects. My plans for future? Personally, I'd like to find a wife! That's been a big challenge in my life.