Exclusive Interview with Director Lee Joon-ik

By Jazmin Justo

NYAFF has collaborated with the NY Korea Cultural Center for its 15th Anniversary special. This year, NYAFF will be screening two recent films, “The Throne” and “Dongju”, produced by the “Master of Historical Drama” Director Lee Joon-ik. At the SVA Theatre, NYAFF and the Korea Cultural Center will be screening Director Lee Joon-ik’s previous historical films including his most famous debut film, “King and the Clown”. Director Lee Joon-ik is well-known in Korea for his ability to bring history alive to the audience, with all of the human emotion and drama featuring Korea’s historical figures. For Director Lee Joon-ik, he hopes his films will ignite people’s interest to learn about Korea’s culture and history. NYAFF has awarded Director Lee Joon-ik with “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” and “The Throne”.

AsianinNY was able to interview Director Lee Joon-ik and his friend, the scriptwriter Shin Yeon-shick.

Q: Congratulations on your awards for your film Dong-ju! Do you plan to make more films similar to Dong-ju?

Lee Joon-ik: Yes I will love to keep on making these sort of films like “Dong-ju”. Actually I’m in the process of trying to produce another film that deals with a character that was a victim of Japanese imperialism in Korea. There are countless of people who have fallen victim to Japanese imperialism. So yes, I’m in the process of developing that right now.

Q: The colonial period is a sensitive topic in Korea’s history, what were the challenges in recreating that time period?

Lee Joon-ik: As you can see, because these films dealing with that time period, they are not usually seen as commercially successful films, when going to development. So in the case of “Dong-ju”, we were doing this as a low budget film in order to take that into consideration and to make sure we weren’t going into debt by doing this film. I see that in some ways there is a trend of these historical pieces becoming blockbuster action films, I don’t know if you have seen “Assassination”, that was done in a genre of an action film, so there are more efforts to do that. But in the case of “Dong-ju”, it wasn’t a blockbuster action film, but it was more historically accurate and is also something that we’re trying to reveal the humanity of Dong-ju. It was a low budget film but it did well at the box office so I’m hoping to see a lot more being produced that way.

Q: When creating the film, which character intrigued you the most, aside from Dong-ju?

Lee Joon-ik: I would say the character that peaked my curiosity aside from Dong-ju, was Song Mung-ju. This was because I was sort of diluted into thinking that I am very much like Song Mung-ju myself, and when you think about it, it’s a sort of reflects the relationships between the other characters kind in “King and the Clown”, which was my film in 2005. I feel that the character Gong Gil is similar to Yun Dong-ju, and Cheol Shin is similar to Song Mung-ju. (laughter) So basically this I also relate a lot to the character Cheol Shin. So basically this is the writer, Mong-ju and I the director, Dong-ju. (laughter).

Q: How much research did you have to do in order to recreate the characters and the conversations they have?

Lee Joon-ik: In the case of this one, it wasn’t as excruciating process because there is a very extensive biography that is written on Dong-ju. We were primarily looking into that, well he (writer) read a lot more. (giggles) But other than that, because there’s a lot of work done onto Dong-ju life in Korean books and text, but I thought I needed another perspective not just the Korean perspective, I sort of also looked into Japanese text that were dealing with Dong-ju’s life as well.

Q: Was it difficult to work with Korean and Japanese language at the same time?

Lee Joon-ik: As the director, there wasn’t really a problem but for the actors, it was harder for the actors because they had to speak in Japanese and Korean. When director Shin was writing the screenplay, he didn’t even write it in Japanese. He would just wrote, parenthesis “Japanese”. When we were on set, one of the actresses who plays Kuni) in the film, she is actually a native speaker of Japanese. So when we were filming scenes, she was next to Director Lee, constantly monitoring their accents and the way the accuracy of the language. There is an interesting fact, they feel that it was very fortunate to have an actress who was monitoring the language, because it’s not just about saying or spewing words, but its actually about being able to convey the emotions or the emotional arc the characters are going through, through the language. So in that case, the actress who was with us, is an actress as well as proficient in Japanese, we were able to really get the tone and quality that we wanted in the film.

Q: Do you think people will learn history better through films like this?

Lee Joon-ik: Yes, I have the complete conviction that it is possible and that people do learn a lot of history through film. To elaborate more, I feel like there are two ways of learning history. One way is through textbooks, and the other way is through film. But in the case of textbooks, I feel that both of them have facts and they’re trying to get to the truth but in the case of film, you have the facts and based on the facts, you work through a fictional platform in order to get through the truth that you want. In the case of text books, you want to keep on checking those facts and the fact-checking process is the way you get to the truth. So I feel there are two processes or two ways you endeavor to get to the truth but no one knows which is better of more effective. But in my case, I truly believe the way of achieving the truth, is based on facts but going through a fictional platform. Because the thing about facts is that someone or something or some sort of in power may be behind those facts to contort or manipulate those facts, so you can never be really sure actually what is an actual fact. So, I think that’s one thing you have to take into consideration.

Q: Do you consider this film a new documentary style?

Lee Joon-ik: When I was filming, I really didn’t go about it thinking it was a documentary. Of course, it’s pretty historically accurate based on the research that Director Shin and I have done. But I feel like it deviates from the documentary genre because there are emotional parts involved, so I wouldn’t consider it a new style of documentary.

Q: What do you hope for the film’s impact to be?

Lee Joon-ik: I hope that Japan will come to their senses and really acknowledge their role in history as perpetrator of violence rather than putting on a face of a victim.

Q: In retrospect, which historical period do you like to film the most?

Lee Joon-ik: So the film “Hwangsanbul” which is called “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield”. So that one deals with the three nations in Korea called Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, that was the most fun time period. (laughter) The one I enjoyed the most. (laughter)

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