An Interview with Kim Tae-yong
by Darcy Paquet
Kim Tae-yong majored in politics at Yonsei University and later attended the Korean Academy of Film Arts, the famed school that has produced Bong Joon-ho, Im Sang-soo, Hur Jin-ho, Jang Jun-hwan, and many other established directors. He was part of the directing duo who made Memento Mori (1999), which in some ways might be considered the most influential Korean horror film of the past decade. Although it was not a box-office hit, the film is frequently cited by young filmmakers and cinema fans as a modern-day classic.
At the time of its release and in the intervening years, most critics tended to focus their attention on the other of Memento Mori's co-directors, Min Kyu-dong, however the release of the award-winning Family Ties in spring 2006 established Kim as a highly regarded filmmaker in his own right. Apart from his feature films, Kim has been active in a variety of creative endeavors, from hosting a cinema-themed TV show to directing plays, shooting documentaries and making cameo appearances (both times as a film director) in the films All For Love (2005) by Min Kyu-dong and Family Matters (2006) by Nam Seon-ho.
When did you first decide to become a filmmaker?
When I was attending university I never expected to become a film director. I wanted to be a writer, or to try something else. Of course, I liked movies, but the idea of directing seemed out of reach to me.
After graduating, I happened to spend a couple of months helping a friend as the assistant director of an independent production. I'm an unusual case in that instead of being inspired to become a filmmaker by watching a particularly impressive film in a theater, I first became attracted to the experience of working on the set. It was almost a party atmosphere, with everyone working together towards a common goal. That experience left a big impression on me.
So then you enrolled in the Korean Academy of Film Arts?
Yes, a couple of years later. These days there are more sources of funding so it's a little bit easier, but back then it was really difficult to get any filmmaking experience. By entering KAFA, I could make films and everything was funded by the government. I enrolled in 1996 and at that time I met Min Kyu-dong and we began working together as a team. There were 12 people in our class and we made short films, acting as crew members for each other, doing lighting and such. I wasn't expecting to get the opportunity to shoot a commercial film, but in 1999 as we were preparing another short feature we were asked if we wanted to do a sequel to Whispering Corridors. So we said sure!
I really love that film. It's become sort of a classic among foreign fans of Korean cinema. as well as in Korea.
We didn't really know much about filmmaking then. It was a crazy time, sleeping two hours a day... We shot it in 30 shooting days. Since we had only made smaller films up to that point, we thought that 30 days would be more than enough, but once we started we realized what a huge amount of material there was to shoot. Also, we kept revising the screenplay as we went along. If we'd been working with established stars like Kim Hye-soo or Moon So-ri it would've been impossible, but since they were all debut actresses we often gave them new scenes on the night before we would shoot them.
Most of the filming was like that, shooting during the day and then writing like crazy at night. I think rather then being a particularly accomplished film, we were successful in putting a kind of energy into it.
Have you re-watched the film in recent years?
For a long time I didn't watch it on purpose, but two years ago when they produced a Memento Mori DVD box set, I saw it again. On the one hand I was embarrassed by certain scenes, while other parts made me wonder, "Wow, how did we pull that off?"
So you were involved in making documentaries before shooting Family Ties?
There is a small personal project that I've been working on. There is a man in Japan, a first generation Korean-Japanese from North Korea who performs as a dancer. He is 62 years old but still extremely active in his dancing. Also, as you know, the Korean population faces many difficulties in Japan. I'm not done with it yet, I've been shooting for five years now.
There was also a music documentary about the Yoon Do-hyun band, called On the Road, Two. I did that sort of off the cuff, like a travelogue, accompanying them for two months on a tour through Europe. I'm not sure how interesting it is for viewers (laughs) but for me it was tremendous fun. I'm really crazy about music.
Recently I also directed a play and shot a short film. It's not as if I decided to take such a long break from feature films. All this time I've been preparing, but it kept getting delayed. With Family Ties, I started off at one company, but after they saw the completed script they turned it down, so I moved to a new company.
When you first came up with the idea for Family Ties, what was your starting point? Was it a particular message that you wanted to convey, or the characters, or the film's structure ?
I tend to be very conceptual by nature. There are good and bad meanings associated with that word, but in my case, when I start a project, rather than thinking up a particular narrative or incident, I come up with questions like, "What causes people to separate?" "Why do some people become close, and others grow apart ?" So it's not like I planned for three interconnected narratives, or for some message related to family from the beginning. From there I went on inventing characters, such as Moon Sori and Go Doo-shim's characters, and thinking about how they might interact with each other.
In terms of the film's structure, Min Kyu-dong contributed in a key way. I was explaining my ideas for the project, and after listening to me he suggested, "How about extending this to a broader group of characters? It seems that would be a more effective way to handle this." So it developed from there. Then, as it turned out, he too went on to make a film with a broad group of characters [All for Love (2005), -ed].
What are your own perspectives on the situations the characters face, such as in the last segment where Bong Tae-gyu and Jung Yoo-mi face a crisis in their relationship? Is one of them at fault?
Personally I tend to be drawn to smaller dilemmas, rather than grand themes. In the first segment, Moon So-ri faces a situation [when her long-lost brother brings home a wife who is much older than him] where it's really unclear how she should act. In the second, the daughter is unsure whether she should embrace her mother given all that has happened between them.
The third segment is not a family issue, though in some ways the dynamics are the same. The boy has been attracted to the girl because of her generosity, but ultimately this generosity becomes the biggest issue they must face. There are some people who are uneasy if they can't feel the other person's attention and love, and from his perspective her feelings keep being diverted to other people. This difference in their characters is what attracted him to her, but can they continue being close with this difference between them? That was the idea I started with.
As for the issue of who's at fault, I suppose you could say that it's Jung Yoo-mi's fault (laughs). But it's sort of their fate. The funny thing about relationships is, sometimes it makes no difference if both partners are good people, you can still have one person who acts in ways that harms the relationship. So from that perspective, in the film it comes across as if it's her fault.
But at the same time I wanted to portray her as being somehow fundamentally more generous or good than Bong Tae-gyu's character. Even though it may make no sense to say that the better person is the one who causes the problems.
How have you changed as a director between the time you made Memento Mori and now?
I had a lot more fun when I was shooting Family Ties. I felt much more comfortable. With Memento Mori, I wanted so much to make an outstanding film, it was like having a knife stuck in my chest.
People around me who have seen my films are divided into two groups. Some feel that Family Ties lacks the inspiration of Memento Mori, while others say that it's much more true to life and genuine than the earlier film.
Is there any director or film that has influenced you in particular over the years?
It keeps changing. I'll be drawn in by Wong Kar-wai, or Bergman, and then later it will change to someone else, but the only one who has remained constant over the years is Ken Loach. I can't say I've been greatly influenced by him, but I continue to really like his films... For example, Kes, and Land and Freedom... Not so much the really political works such as Carla's Song. He takes a very cold look at people and society, but the films themselves are never cold. They're not optimistic, but they're filled with a sense of purpose.
What are your plans for the near future?
I'm writing the screenplay for my next feature, which is a melodrama. A story about love. I want to start shooting it by the end of this year, but we'll see how it goes. I'm also preparing to direct a play, so I have these two projects that I'm working on now.
Darcy Paquet, SEOUL March 2007
(This interview first appeared in the official catalogue of the 2007 Udine Far East Film Festival)