I was fortunate to sit down with Lee Sang-woo a few weeks ago on a Saturday evening in Hongdae after having seen his latest two films Barbie (which came out last week in Korea) and Fire in Hell (which premiered in Jeonju earlier this year).
Lee has been in the industry for a long time, most notably as Kim Ki-duk's assistant director, before making the transition to becoming a prolific director in his own right. His official debut was Tropical Manila in 2008 and he has released six films up until now, including Mother Is a Whore (2010), but has actually shot as many as 12, most of which will be released in the near future.
Lee was extremely frank during his interview which, it should be noted, was conducted after a few bottles of soju. Be warned however, some parts of our discussion may not be to suitable for all tastes.
Your new film Barbie is coming out in Korea on October 25th, how do you think that local audiences will react to it?
For the audience this will be the first time they've seen a commercial film from me and I'm very excited to see how they will respond to it. I usually distribute my own films but this is the first time that I've worked with a separate distribution company (Barbie is being distributed by Mirovision). This is also a commercial film so it was a new experience for me. I used a lot of shots, more than I usually do, as well as different angles. I think my other films are shot more like documentaries. It was also the first time where I used professional actors and crew, which was new for me as a director.
Why did you choose Kim Sae-ron?
Actually, when I finished the screenplay and sent it the production company, Kim Sae-ron's agent read it and liked it but I really wasn't expecting them to choose this one. They knew my previous film was Mother Is a Whore<, so I was really afraid! I met her mother and she said 'I know you, you made Mother Is a Whore' so I thought she wouldn't let her daughter do the film. But she told me 'It's okay, I love you're screenplay, I don't care about your previous films.' She wanted her daughters (Kim Sae-ron's younger sister Kim Ah-ron also appears in Barbie) to play in the film.
Speaking of performance you often appear in your own films and you always take on interesting roles. In Barbie for instance you play a lodger who attempts to sleep with Kim Sae-ron. Why do you take on these very particular parts?
Well actually I started my career as an actor. When I was in high school I worked with Jeong Jae-young on my first film. I always wanted to be a director but being one back then was hard. I became an actor so that I could work in the film industry. When I made Mother Is a Whore I had nothing. For my previous film, Tropical Manila, I took out a private loan so I didn't have any money to work with and I couldn't hire any professional actors. That's why I cast myself. But I love working as an actor and I hope to keep doing it.
However in Barbie, when I did that scene, Kim Sae-ron was crying so I had to stop filming. She became very afraid of the situation. That was the most embarrassing situation I've ever had as a filmmaker. She couldn't stop crying, she thought I was a real molester! It was an upsetting moment.
What about for Fire in Hell?
Well again I had to because we went to the Philippines and we only had a small cast. Everyone, even the director of photography (he played the minister), was in the film.
Your latest film, Fire in Hell, feels very experimental in its design. How were you trying to challenge yourself as a filmmaker with this particular production?
Editing was the hardest part. I edit all my films but with Fire in Hell I spent too much time editing!
(Lee Sang-woo and I look through a few screenshots taken from his latest film on my laptop, we stop on the below still)
Oh, this was the hardest time! It was a holiday and there were over 2,000 people outside. We shot the scene without permission from the temple.
It must have influenced the performance!
I know, but this mob would have killed us, no one can have sex in the temple.
It was certainly a striking opening scene.
Yes, but they enjoyed it. The woman couldn't help doing it with the guy. She told me 'Oh, I just love this actor!' (laughs)
(stopping on another still, a sex scene between the main characters)
This one? You know these two actors got into a big fight. This guy gave her a hard time, he had an erection. She said 'It's hard, how can I do it?' It took more than 10 takes, she almost fainted!
(we scroll down to another picture) So there you are.
Were these all crew members?
Yes, this guy was also in Tropical Manila, he raped a Filipino boy.
He must be a good friend!
He's not afraid of nudity. He always shows his dick, except here.
(another picture) This is an incredible scene.
Yes, it's like he's having sex with two women! I liked that that they are touching each other with many hands. He had a hard-on here too and she complained 'he's always got a hard-on, I can't do this!'
Fire in Hell is quite critical of Christianity, and includes many scenes of ritualistic dancing. Were you trying to make a commentary on an existing phenomenon in Korea?
Yes, absolutely. That sort of thing happens here, it's crazy. But the film is based on a true story, an incident that happened here two years ago.
Are you also criticizing Buddhism?
No, but that's based on a true story too. A Buddhist monk was trying to rape women but he failed. People think they can't have sex or have a baby but Buddhists are human like us and have the same desires.
Some people have compared your work to that of Kim Ki-duk, have you been influenced by him at all?
No, before I worked with Kim Ki-duk but I don't like being compared to him. The only similarity is that our films are harsh. It's a compliment but my style is very different.
Given the recent Golden Lion win for Kim's Pieta, do you think this might change the environment for independent filmmaking, especially for someone in your position?
The only person it will change anything for is Kim Ki-duk. The rest of the independent scene won't be affected. Small films will still be seen on only five or six screens.
You recently starred in Lee Hyeon-Jeong's Virgin Forest. Being a busy director, how was it starring in someone else's film?
I love acting and I've been in more than 20 films. I teach at university right now so whenever my students make films I always appear in them. They always use me for free!
You mentioned during a recent Q&A for Virgin Forest (at CinDi) that there was no script for the film.
Yes, everything was improvised.
Was it your idea for your character to be peeing on everything?
Yes, that was my idea.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?
Well, I have I Am Trash and I Ate My Mom coming up.
I love your titles!
I'm actually really worried. When I say I have a new film called I Ate My Mom, people say 'Are you crazy? This will ruin your career!' In Korea, people could be very annoyed by that title. The film is about a teenage boy who rapes his own mother, which is something that really happened this year.
You also have a commercial period film coming out.
Cha Seung-jae, the producer of Memories of Murder (2003), called me one day, he wanted to see me. The first time I worked with him was Barbie and then I sent him this period script and he loved it. It's a made-up story of the first Korean plastic surgeon during the Chosun period. I'm going to Thailand soon to begin pre-production. But first I have three films coming out, I Am Trash, I Ate My Mom and Erection of Youth.
Erection of Youth?
Wow, do you like being controversial?
Yes, as I make films with a small budget that's the only thing I can do. It's my personal mark but I love these subjects, that's why I want to film them. I'm a pervert. (laughs) In the Busan catalogue last year they called me 'Korea's most perverted director.' I took that as a compliment.
What are your influences as a director?
Wong Kar Wai, I love Wong Kar Wai. Actually, my favorite film is Titanic (1997), I want to make a film like that.
Finally, what are your favorite Korean movies?
I love Bae Chang-ho, Deep Blue Night (1985) is my favorite. I loved his movies and I went to his company when I was younger and begged to work on his films but they said I was too young.
Barbie is out now in Korean theaters.