New York Asian 2016 Interview: Lee Joon-ik and Shin Yeon-shick on DONGJU: THE PORTAIT OF A POET's Unflinching Look at Japan's War Crimes

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New York Asian 2016 Interview: Lee Joon-ik and Shin Yeon-shick on DONGJU: THE PORTAIT OF A POET's Unflinching Look at Japan's War Crimes
For someone who claimed retirement during our interview back in 2011, director Lee Joon-ik, has been one busy man.  Returning to the New York Asian Film Festival with Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, his third film since his break, Director Lee, and fellow NYAFF alum, screenwriter Shin Yeon-shick, talked with me about the film’s unflinching look at Japanese atrocities in Korea.
The Lady Miz Diva:  Director Lee, why did you make a biographical picture about the poet Yun Dong-ju, at this particular time?
Lee Joon-Ik:  There was a film nominated for the foreign Academy Award called Son of Saul, and that was about Auschwitz.  When you think about it, there are so many films that deal with the Holocaust and the Nazi reign during the 1930s, but there were basically no films that dealt with the colonisation of Korea by Japan, and the imperialism that Japan was going throughout the time.  I didn’t feel that there were any films that portrayed young people in that time period and the tragedy of that time period.  
Even for the Korean audiences, because it happened such a long time ago, I think there was an effort to sort of just shove it under the rug and just not remember about those things.  Because of that, that is what really sparked me to produce this film.
When you think about Germany, Germany has done its best to apologise for its past war crimes.  But if you juxtapose that with Japan, they have tried and struggled to portray themselves as the victim of World War II.  For instance, when President Obama visited Hiroshima, they were constantly trying to play the victim, but in essence, they are the perpetrator of war crimes in that time period.  So, I feel that the film, Dongju, does a very clear job of explaining the historically accurate relation between victim and perpetrator.
LMD:  I know Mr. Shin as a film directoras well as a screenwriter.  With Dongju, you are writing about someone who existed recently; someone people still living may have known and remember.  Does the writing process change when you’re writing about someone who actually lived, that people can recall, versus a completely fictional creation?
Shin Yeon-shick:  I think the process is completely different for those two types.  I think we got a little lucky with Yun Dong-ju, because as you know, he lived a very short life.  He died when he was about 28.  And because he died a student and a very young person, I think he sort of preserved that sort of innocence that you have a young age. 
So, in the process of researching a person’s life when you’re writing for film, you tend to see the not-so-great sides of the person, and also if you were interviewing descendants or loved ones, they can give you information that may not be in line with what you were thinking of.  But in the case of Yun Dong-ju, because he had such a short life, he had that innocence inside him, so there was no need for us to glorify in any way; it was really just as it was.  Also, when you’re interviewing the descendants, some of them may respond very sensitively and sometimes as a writer, you find yourself self-censoring what you’re writing in order to sort of balance that out.  But in the case of Yun Dong-ju, there was none of that, so as a writer I could say was very lucky in that sense.
LMD:  Were you able to contact people who knew him?
SYs:  I was able to meet a distant relative of Yun Dong-ju.  Most of the research came from his biography.
LJi:  The person who wrote the biography was the cousin of the character, Song Mong-iyu, who was Yun Dong-ju’s cousin.
LMD:  So everything that we’re seeing was real?
LJi:  The story about the two cousins was 100% real.  The two women who appear in the film, they are fictional, but all the other characters are real.  There were hints about the character, Lee Yeo-Jin, in the biography, but it wasn’t that specific that we could go off of, so we had some creative license with that. 
LMD:  Mong-gyu’s character is the more dynamic one through the film, whereas the main character, Dong-ju, was much more subtle and quiet.  Both performances are excellent, but how did you strike the balance between the very forceful presentation of Mong-gyu and the gentler portrayal of Dong-ju?
LJi:  I think the balance comes from, actually, I feel that when you’re portraying two friends, that the friendship bond is stronger when they actually possess the opposite personalities.  For example, Song Mong-gyu, he’s a go-getter; he’s quick to anger.  On the other hand, Yun Dong-ju is introverted; you could say he is a bit feminine in a way.  And because he’s a poet, he has so much inner life inside him, but as a poet, his mode of expression comes through his writing, rather than outward action.  So I think the juxtaposition of those two things works very well.
One interesting thing to note is that the actors, though, they have the opposite personalities of the ones they portrayed in the film. {Laughs} That is the actor’s job, but in the case of Kang Ha-neul, who played Yun Dong-ju, he is a very energetic and outgoing person, and Park Jung-min, who plays Song Mong-gyu, he is actually very considerate and quiet and he is very thoughtful.  So they were different than the characters they portrayed.
LMD:  How did you prepare the actors to play the cousins on screen?  Their bond is so palpable in the film, I wondered if you gave them any exercises or instructions to help with that bond?
LJi:  Park Jung-min is actually two years older than Kang Ha-neul, but they are in the same agency.  Actually, the actor Hwang Jung-min, he is the person who picked them up and put the two of them in his own agency.  So they knew each other before, but when on set, a lot of actors tend to feel competitive and not want to support each other, but these two, they did their best to support each other on set and help each other out.  I feel like that sort of dynamic came through in the film, as well.
Actually, when they were on set, there was really no room for me to give adjustments or different type of direction, because they would sort of talk it out beforehand and they would come up with a perfect balance of what we needed for the film.
LMD:  You have one more rising star in your film that I’d like to ask about: Mr. Shin Yeon-shick’s big cameo in the film.
{All burst out laughing
LJi:  Wow!  Director Shin actually comes out in the film like five times, but when he’s handing out the papers is the only time when his face is actually visible. 
SYs:  We were doing this because we wanted to reduce production costs. {Laughs}
LJi:  I’m doubly shocked, because especially Americans or westerners, they are not very aware of who’s who, but you have a great eye! You’ve got a hawk eye.  Wow.
LMD:  What would you like audiences to take away from DONGJU: THE PORTAIT OF A POET?
LJi:  The first thing I would like western audiences to know is the accurate history between Japan and Korea, and the way that Japan was the perpetrator of imperialism and militarism.  But I feel like the astounding thing and the really important thing to know from this film is that Yun Dong-ju, in a form of nonviolence, was able to say what he wanted to say through his own form of poetry.  I know that with regard to nonviolent protest methods, Gandhi is one of the most representative people, but I feel that Yun Dong-ju, also, in his own quiet way, was exposing the injustices of what was happening at that time period.
SYs:  I would say, especially in Korea right now, the zeitgeist that we would say, is pretty much in turmoil, especially for the younger generations.  But when you think about it, Yun Dong-ju and Song Mong-gyu, they were like ordinary students when they were living their lives, and they only became famous after their deaths.
So, in that time period, even for ordinary people, the question facing that time period was, how do I find my place in this world?  How do I make a decision?  What is the decision for the time period I’m living in?  In the case of Song Mong-gyu, he decided to pick up his knife.  In the case of Yun Dong-ju, he decided to pick up his pen.  They were two very different decisions.  But I hope that for Korean audiences and American audiences alike, that younger generations can watch this film and contemplate about what the zeitgeist is for today’s world, and also be able to contemplate on their own values and their own passions, if you will, and so that this film will help them understand their own place in this world.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Lee Joon-IkNYAFF 2016Yun Dong-ju

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