New York Asian 2015 Interview: THE WHISTLEBLOWER Director Yim Soon-rye Talks Changes For Women In Korean Film Industry

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
New York Asian 2015 Interview: THE WHISTLEBLOWER Director Yim Soon-rye Talks Changes For Women In Korean Film Industry

As part of the New York Asian Film Festival's celebration of female Korean filmmakers, South Korea's most successful female director, Yim Soon-rye screens her latest, The Whistleblower. Director Yim spoke with me about the changes in the industry landscape since her debut, and the importance of clinging to one's creativity.

The Lady Miz Diva: Please tell us how THE WHISTLEBLOWER came to you?

Yim Soon-rye:
 The main character in THE WHISTLEBLOWER was the journalist who goes digging into this scandal. In the process of his investigation, there were a lot of facts and things left out that he still wanted to reveal, so he actually published a book talking about his process of uncovering this story. Our producer acquired the rights for that book in order to make that into a film, and so the producers offered it to me to make this into a film.  

Some parts of the book mainly deal with the technical fabrication of the story and how it all came about, but that wasn't what I was interested in. What I was interested in was actually the persistence of a journalist that is looking for the truth, so that is what pulled me into this story.

LMD: I wasn't expecting to have as much sympathy as I did for Lee Geung-young's character, the scientist at the heart of the scandal. What was your intention for that character?

It was definitely my intention to portray this character as a three-dimensional person, because I felt that this whole debacle didn't happen because he alone was this sadistic or evil person. I felt that this was the doing of everyone involved; including his peers, the government, venture capitalists, the mass media, and even the masses who choose to be deceived by these lies. So I really wanted to portray that it wasn't his own doing, but the doing of all of us involved.

LMD:  Your cast is excellent, but in particular I'm intrigued why you thought Yoo Yeon-seok would make a good WHISTLEBLOWER character? He's usually either a lovable loser, or a very not-lovable loser. He's never played a father before, and here he's a dad who adores his child and is worried about all children.

 You're very well-informed about Korean actors. {Laughs}  Actually, that part was the hardest to cast. For the two main characters, we have very established and very well-known actors, who are Park Hae-il and Lee Geung-young. So this {WHISTLEBLOWER} character has smaller screen time and it's not the main character, but still, we needed an actor who could portray subtle, internal pain and anguish. So we were trying to cast from a pool of actors who were still a bit established and not people who were completely unknown. 

To narrow down that pool and to find someone who was willing to act for that sort of screen time was sort of a challenge for us, but luckily, when we met Yeon-seok, he agreed to do it, because despite the small screen time, he looks up to Park Hae-il as a role model as an actor, and he just really, really wanted to have the chance to work alongside Park Hae-il.  He agreed to do the role.

LMD: There were times I was reminded of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN between the subject matter and also all the noirish cloak and dagger. Did a film like that enter your mind when you were planning THE WHISTLEBLOWER?

  Actually, when I was starting to develop this project, the producer actually suggested The Insider for certain inspiration. I did look into The Insider, but not to copy it; I was looking to get more of a feel for this movie. I don't know if you've noticed, but this film really deviates a lot from my style of filmmaking. If you see the editing, the speed of the editing is very fast cut. There's a lot of movement of the camera, and even the music, it's more like dramatic music that's being used, different from what I usually do.  

The reason I did this was because, as you can see, there's a lot of technical terminology going on and also the subject matter is heavy, so I felt that if I was going to go for that deep, dark mood and just go with it, that would drag the film down too much. In order to counter the weight of the subject, I made the choice to make it cinematically a little lighter; so, like a lot of close-ups, the music, a lot of movement in the camera.  It was my choice in order to overcome the limitations of the subject matter.

LMD: Whether it's THE WHISTLEBLOWER, "The Weight of Her" your short from IF YOU WERE ME, an omnibus funded by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, or your award-winning debut, 3 FRIENDS, messages addressing the ills of society, or how to make things better seem to be an important component of your work.  Is it your mission to include such ideas?

Yes, I would say that's an important component because I'm naturally very interested in Korean society and being able to portray Korean society through my films, and also especially to look beneath the surface of Korean society.  As you just said, you can see that's more prevalent in my earlier films, but to this day, that's how I'm naturally inclined.

LMD: Your films THE WHISTLEBLOWER and FOREVER THE MOMENT are based on real life occurrences.  Do you have a different approach working on something that's based in reality, rather than something that's completely fictional?

 I think there are pros and cons to making a film based on a true story.  The cons would be that because a lot of people tend to identify fictionalised characters with the real life person that the character's based on, I feel like I have to work harder in order to shut that away and to try to avoid and steer people from identifying that person as a real person, and make them see the character in a piece of art.

But I guess the pros is that, for example, I used real-life footage from the women's handball games for Forever the Moment, and I used footage from when they actually got the medal.  I feel like sometimes when it's a true story, and you use footage in that sort of way, you can actually harness the power of something that was actually real, so that can be a pro, as well.  Also, in terms of audience awareness, if you're working with a true story, a lot more people are already aware that this is a story that actually existed, and they tend to be more interested or it's easier to gain more attention.

LMD: The other film of yours playing at the festival is WAIKIKI BROTHERS {also produced by Shim Jae-myung}, which seemed to have inspired a lot of people. There was a musical titled GO! WAIKIKI BROTHERS that played both in Seoul and Los Angeles, and then there's a song named after the movie by HaHa of the popular RUNNING MAN TV show.  What do you think touched so many people about this film?

 When I first thought about why it would be popular in Korea, I initially thought that maybe it was because of the songs that are used in the movie. A lot of the songs that are portrayed in the film are very popular Korean songs. But then gaining positive recognition from audiences in the West, maybe that's not the only reason.

I feel like the biggest factor is that the film portrays the gap between dreams and reality, and I feel like that's something that anyone who lives experiences at one point in their lives, or another. The point when we realize that sometimes we can't obtain our heart's desire, and I think that's a universal experience that everyone has, and I feel like the film really deals with the inevitability of facing that reality. So, I feel maybe that's part of the universal appeal.

LMD: NYAFF has assembled this program to celebrate female Korean filmmakers and you are exactly the person to discuss that with. In 2001, you made a documentary called KEEPING THE VISION ALIVE- WOMEN IN KOREAN FILMMAKING. You interviewed many pioneering female directors, but did not add your own comments.  If you were interviewing yourself now, what would you say about your feelings being a woman directing in Korea? Have things changed from 14 years ago?

 The scope is a little large, but I'll try to narrow it down. There was quite a gap in the number of female directors 10 years before I made my debut. Not to say that there weren't any, but it was hard because the filmmaking system was basically different before I debuted. So, in the past, if you wanted to become a director, you had to go a prominent director and start as a production assistant and go up the ladder for 10 or 20 years, and not knowing where you would be able to go.

So, that film system sort of changed as I came into filmmaking, and also in the late 80s and early 90s, new producers came on board to produce new films, namely Shim Jae-myung, who is a very influential film producer today. Also, there started to be more film festivals that were screening short films: Actually, I had gotten my start because I received an award for one of my short films and that gave me a boost in my career, as well. Also I feel like a lot of the schools and universities in Korea have been developing to produce a lot of talented young directors.

I would say that my start in my development as a film director came concurrent with the changes in Korean society.  And even now, the roles of women in this industry goes along with what is happening socially, because we still have a lot of equality issues, sexism - which is always prevalent in Korea - so I feel like our roles ebb and flow according to that social screen that's going on and on.  
So I feel like there's still a lot to improve, but I feel that it is still incrementally improving, in a way, and because I feel like there's a lot of good young female directors that are up-and-coming, I still feel like there's cause to be optimistic, but it's one step at a time.

LMD: Last year, the actress Moon So-ri was here and I asked her about being an actress of a certain age in Korea at this point in time, and she said, " it's a period where it's movies with mostly male actors.  Truthfully, it makes me very sad." Implying that at one point there were more women in movies, and at this point, it's a more male landscape, that it was cyclical.  Do you see that ebbing and flowing as well, and does that translate behind the camera?

Yeah, I do agree that that ebb and flow also pertains to the women behind the camera, as well.  For example, there's a lot of action films that are being produced in Korea right now.  Because a lot of producers want to produce these kind of films, that also translates into more male actors being used, rather than female actors.  I also feel it's sort of a difference in how we approach the filmmaking process.  
For example, Shim Jae-myung, she would have a particular project in mind that she would want to develop and then search out for the right people, or the right actors. But right now, I feel that especially for male producers, they are more concerned with linking star actors and actresses with the investors, and the investors right now are more interested in blockbuster-type movies. So I feel that, yes, that is an accurate statement also for behind the camera.

LMD: What advice would you give to aspiring female directors, who might perhaps feel intimidated by the amount of males in the industry?

 I do feel that female directors are at a disadvantage when it comes to networking, because it's very male-dominated. The activities that are involved in networking are usually male-oriented activities, so we are at a disadvantage, but I feel that always, investors and producers are still looking for films that can have a certain type of artistic excellence to them, and not just films that are geared toward making money.

So, I feel that if you can get your hands on a screenplay that is creative and that is new and fresh, or if you are able to write a screenplay that is new and interesting, I feel like if you start from that point, you'll have more luck in being able to create your own vision.

LMD: Do you find that actresses are more considerate of or happier to appear in projects that are helmed by women?

 Although I can't generalize on this subject, I feel like contrary to what people may think about this topic, I feel that some actresses aren't actually as willing to work with female directors. Especially when you look at the top female stars in the Korean film industry; a lot of the actresses want to be pampered and treated like royalty, in a sense.  
And I feel like male directors do that better, because it's a different sex dynamic going on there, so I think maybe they feel that that's more appealing to them. I mean, I won't name any names, but I feel like sometimes some actresses don't feel as comfortable.

LMD:  Is there an upcoming project you can tell us about?

The next project I'm going to be filming in China. It's a romantic comedy; it was originally a German film called Mostly Martha, that was remade in America with Catherine Zeta-Jones as No Reservations, but I'm not sure what our title is going to be.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Korean CinemaNYAFF 2015Park Hae-ilThe WhistleblowerYim Soon-ryeYoo Yeon-seok

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