Im Kwon-taek reflects on films exploring Koreanness, pressures of expectations

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Im Kwon-taek reflects on films exploring Koreanness, pressures of expectations

Filmmaker Im Kwon-taek / Courtesy of BIFF

Master of Korean film shares glorious past, as well as how it limited his creativity

By Kwak Yeon-soo

BUSAN ― Having created more than 100 films over his 60-year-long career, Im Kwon-taek is a prolific filmmaker who has focused on exploring the meaning of Koreanness throughout his cinematic oeuvre. With his overseas success during Korean cinema’s darker days, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest Korean filmmakers of all time.

A pioneer of modern Korean cinema, Im has brought numerous iconic stories to the silver screen, including: “Seopyonje” (1993), “ChunHyang” (2000) and “Chihwaseon” (2002).

From his 1962 debut with “Farewell Duman River,” a film about independence fighters in Manchuria during Japanese colonial rule, to 2014’s “Revivre,” which explores the subject of death, he has persisted in his desire to make significant films in the industry with his own unique vision.

Im recalled that early in his career, he made commercial films with entertaining qualities, aiming to imitate Hollywood movies. It was in the mid-1970s that he realized that continuing to do so was an absurd dream, so he began to develop a storytelling style that conveys more of Korea’s history and culture.

Explaining how his 1979 film, “The Genealogy,” which depicts people who try to maintain their family name during the Japanese colonial period, set a standard for his other films, the director noted, “‘Jokbo (The Genealogy)’ allowed me to find my signature style of filmmaking.”

Im lived through a period of film censorship, which began during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial era and continued through the 1950-53 Korean War and the subsequent military regimes. When democratization was achieved in the late 1980s, following years of pro-democracy protests that took the lives of numerous people, he was finally able to make a breakthrough into a more artistic period.

Im is a major figure of the new wave cinema of the turn of the millennium, which resulted in a boom in Korean cinema and intrigued international audiences at film festivals. His 2000 film, “ChunHyang,” the plot of which centers on a traditional folk tale and incorporates “pansori” (traditional narrative music), became the first Korean film ever to compete in the Cannes International Film Festival.

Im Kwon-taek reflects on films exploring Koreanness, pressures of expectations

A scene from the 2002 film, “Chihwaseon” / Korea Times file

Two years later, Im won the Best Director Award at Cannes for “Chihwaseon” (2002), which featured actor Choi Min-sik as a 19th-century painter battling alcoholism and a repressive regime.

He also received the Honorary Golden Berlin Bear, which recognizes a filmmaker’s lifetime achievements, at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005.

Such overseas success, ironically, created trouble for him at home.

Im confessed that, owing to the pressures of working, he was unable to enjoy the actual process of making films.

“It was deeply painful and burdensome for me to live up to people’s expectations when I felt that I was not good enough. The pressure coming from the media frenzy kept me away from enjoying the process of making the film. I constantly worked in pain,” Im told reporters at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).

Even after winning the awards, Im felt that he had a debt to repay. “I gained a reputation by winning awards from overseas film festivals, but they also sort of limited me. If I had not been obsessed with film festivals, I could have expanded my artistic vision much more,” he added.

Im Kwon-taek reflects on films exploring Koreanness, pressures of expectations

A scene from the 1981 film, “Mandara” / Korea Times file

He elaborated on how his films’ themes explore Korean values and sentiments.

Im showed affection toward his earlier films, such as the 1981 film, “Mandara,” about Buddhist monks, and the 1996 feature, “Chukje (Festival),” a reenactment of traditional funeral rituals in Korea.

Although he has made more than 100 films so far, he said that there is still one idea that he has not been able to develop as a film.

“As a director who has made over 100 movies, I have filmed almost everything that I could think of. Regretfully, however, I couldn’t make a film about Korean shamans and the religious spirit of Korean people. I thought about making one, but I didn’t have an opportunity. And now, even if I have the chance, I am at this vantage point of age where I should give that opportunity to someone else who can do better,” he said.

The director expressed his content with the overseas success of Korean filmmakers as world-class creators. He talked about the time when he called director Bong Joon-ho after watching the Oscar-winning film, “Parasite.”

“Until a few years ago, it troubled me to watch Korean films because there were holes in them. But Bong’s film, ‘Parasite,’ felt nearly complete,” he said. “I think Korean films have finally become world-class.”

Asked if he has plans to make another film, Im said that he’s at the age where he should distance himself from the industry.

“I’m struggling toward the end of my career. I feel like now is the right time to distance myself from the industry and give more opportunities to younger filmmakers,” he said.

Im Kwon-taek reflects on films exploring Koreanness, pressures of expectations

A scene from the 2000 film, “ChunHyang” / Korea Times file

Continuing, the director said he expects that moviegoers will return to theaters after the pandemic.

“Looking back at history, films have always given people comfort, motivation and pleasure. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought weird changes to our daily lives, but I’m confident that the film industry will boom again because everyone has the desire to go to theaters,” he said.

Im thanked his wife for being there for him throughout his long career.

“I’ve never expressed my gratitude toward my wife in public because it’s quite embarrassing. But I would like to use this time as an opportunity to thank her. I could not make much money so our life has not been easy, but she put up with me for decades,” Im said.

At the 26th BIFF, he received the Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award for his prolific career, spanning six decades, and his role in promoting Asian films around the world.

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