Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sai Yoichi talks filmmaking in Japan, South Korea and New Zealand

Respected zainichi Korean filmmaker Sai Yoichi's first foray into South Korean cinema "Soo" has finally seen the light of day in Japan, which is definitely something to be grateful for considering its troubled production and the demise of the Korean wave, not to mention the fact it failed to click with domestic audiences and received quite a few patchy reviews to boot. To mark the film's limited Japanese release, the May issue of film mag Eiga Hiho interviewed the outspoken director and I've translated it for your edification below.

Eiga Hiho (EH): I was blown away when I heard that you'd suddenly gone off to South Korea by yourself to make a South Korean film. How did "Soo"� come about?

Sai Yoichi (SY): "Blood and Bone"� (2004) represented a culmination of my work to that point, and when I was thinking about what to do next I was approached by an up-and-coming South Korean film company. They'd gone to the trouble of watching the films I'd made here and they told me "We want to make the kind of hard-boiled film that's never been done in South Korea until now", so naturally I was quite pleased [laughs]. Of course, as a film director I was interested in making a film in South Korea, so I went to meet them first.

EH: The film is based on a South Korean manga entitled "Double Casting". What did you think of "Old Boy", which was also a manga adaptation?

SY: "Old Boy" was apparently made by the young generation, and I think it's well made, but it would have turned out differently if I 'd made it. In terms of adapting "Double Casting", I didn't think it'd be a good move for me to offer my opinion from the start, so I had the South Koreans write a screenplay first. So then, what came out of that was something pop like Tarantino would write. Pop's fine, I like pop. However, its approach to the source material was too sarcastic, and it didn't work for me much. So, I decided to rewrite the whole thing from scratch myself. The South Koreans were happy with that, but it worked out to be about four hours worth of story, so from there I began the process of whittling it down.

EH: So then you completed the screenplay and at last began pre-production, then the shoot. What was it actually like to work in the South Korean film industry?

SY: What I realised from working there is that the young generation is clearly attempting to break away from the older generation. For the older generation, the epicentre of South Korean film is a place in Seoul called Chungmuro. It's roughly equivalent to Shochiku's Kamata, or Toei's Oizumi, or Uzumasa in Kyoto. In contrast, the offices of the younger generation of filmmakers are concentrated on a strip of prime real estate called Gangnam-gu, which is across the river from Chungmuro. Alright, quiz time: do you know what the young generation of South Korean filmmakers places the most importance on?

EH: Hmmm, I wonder.

SY: Appearance. Looks, in every sense of the word. The offices of these film companies are amazingly unnecessary and lavish. A bit like Roppongi Hills. With two gorgeous surgically-enhanced receptionists sitting side by side [laughs]. The same applies to the rest of their staff, and the first stylist I thought of using for "Soo" was one too. She showed me the work she'd done in New York, and it was all patched together from the kind of costumes you'd see in some trendy cop show, so the content of her work was underwhelmingly shallow. As if she had absolutely no grasp of the basics.

EH: Has that got anything to do with the South Korean government's policies to stimulate the film industry?

SY: I think so. As a result of the government's unified effort to take things to new level, films became eligible for corporate investment. Because they built film into a huge entertainment industry in an unduly short period, it's come to resemble a structurally unsound building. Its foundations are wobbly. Resultantly, there were many occasions when I'd try to do things my way but they couldn't handle it.

EH: Specifically, what kind of things?

SY: In the middle of the shoot, the art design team ran out on me. There were about 15 of them, but every single one ran away one night [laughs].

EH: I hear that your shoots are famous for their severity, so were you in a situation where you had to push the crew hard?

SY: No, of course not. The things that were necessary for the sets were already written in the script. Despite that, they tried to put single sheets on a double bed, so I had no choice but to tell them they'd messed up. As a result of them running away the shoot was shut down for a month, which did cause problems, but as the director I couldn't let that go. But of course, there were also many highly skilled staff. The special effects makeup team were particularly excellent. I was amazed by the ingenious dummy corpse they created.

EH: What was it like directing the actors? Your lead Ji Jin-hee said in one interview that "the set was like a warzone". He starred in "A Jewel in the Palace" and is strongly associated with the gentle image typical of South Korean television dramas, so were there various gaps to overcome?

SY: Ji Jin-hee had wanted to play a tougher role in order to change his image up until that point, and I was aware that he wanted the part. Then when I met him, he seemed extremely masculine in comparison to what I'd seen of him in "Jewel", and his enthusiasm for the role appealed to me, so I decided to cast him. He probably said that "the set was like a warzone" because I made him do so many action scenes, and because of the trouble surrounding the shoot too. For Korean films, apparently they don't do much in the way of rehearsal and include the actors' ad-libs as they go along, but that's not the way I do things. I do rehearsal after rehearsal, and give directions on everything from subtle hand movements to eyelines, so from what I hear everyone was a bit taken aback in the beginning. And it wasn't only them either; in some ways, everyday was a battle for me too. That's because it was just myself and the associate producer there from Japan.

EH: So that's how the film came into being, and it's overflowing with passionate energy. The opening car chase and the climactic brawl were especially amazing!

SY: The passion probably comes through because the shoot was so tough. We shot the opening car chase over two days. I wanted to take more shots for that scene, but we weren't able to shoot certain cuts due to the restraints of our budget and schedule. We had to reduce the scale of some parts of the climax, but we did everything we could within our limitations.

EH: And still you created something so powerful... Also, regarding the fierce violence and the treatment of the action, I felt that fearfulness of blunt instruments and knives was portrayed very realistically.

SY: That's what we were aiming for. I brought sound effects recordings with me from Japan, and paid a lot of attention to each sound. I spent four months in post-production, including the acoustic design.

EH: What do you think about the current state of the South Korean film industry, now that the bubble has burst and the slump has begun? In contrast, the Japanese industry is said to enjoying a boom...

SY: South Korean films were industrialised rapidly, so I imagine that's why they've gone off the boil just as quickly. There was a continuous string of blockbusters said to have been seen by more than 10 million people in a country with a population of only 45 million, and I think that was something of an aberration. If you think about it, Japan's film boom probably won't last long, and it's an odd situation. I've been saying this for a long time, but a huge hit in Japan only rates a C in world terms. As long as there's no domestic change in the structure of the film industry, nothing will change. And this applies not only to filmmakers; Japanese audiences have to start demanding better quality films. Come to think of it, in the sense that the Korean wave*1 was so lucrative, it instilled the South Korean film industry with a great deal of confidence.

EH: In South Korea they say "If a film's a hit, the director builds a house".

SY: Not just a house, more like a large building [laughs]. The Korean wave had spread to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, and Japan was the slowest country in Asia to catch on. Anyway, from now on the film viewing environment will change as in watching movies over the internet, so people's ability to adapt to new media, including Blu-ray, is being challenged. In particular, the relationship between film and the internet is a major issue. Even with the net, there are more people accessing it via cellphones rather than computers, so as devices become more and more mobile, it'll become easier to watch only what you want to watch. On that basis, South Korean films could make a comeback.

EH: In Japan, young people who enter the film industry wanting to become involved in filmmaking often end up overworked and underpaid, having their dreams used against them by employers who have the attitude that such jobs are a privilege that they bestow, and then they eventually give up.

SY: As an industry, the Japanese film world probably doesn't have the soundest approach to finance sometimes. The fact that people aren't paid enough is a big problem. It makes it difficult to attract new talent. Speaking of which, that reminds me of the time I met filmmakers in New Zealand.

EH: Something to do with your new film?

SY: I was considering doing post-production for "Kamui Gaiden", the film I'm currently working on, in New Zealand, and visited Peter Jackson's Weta. When I went to New Zealand to shoot a home appliance commercial in the '90s I used a local crew, and was amazed by their high quality. At the time Australian films were doing well, but I thought it wouldn't be long before New Zealand films would start to take off.

EH: Speaking of recent films, "The Golden Compass" director Chris Weitz had no experience of making a big budget film with CG, so he took a special one-week lesson with Peter Jackson. I see he does lectures like that too.

SY: When I was visiting, Jackson wasn't there so I spoke with Weta staff about many things, and the place was buzzing with energy. It had a great atmosphere. Eventually, there were several things that we couldn't settle on, especially in terms of the budget, so we weren't able to work with them this time around, but I hope I'll have another chance sometime. The success of "The Host" came partly from working with Weta, and there's nothing stopping Japanese films from doing the same.

EH: Finally, how do you feel after completing "Soo"?

SY: Very refreshed. I have the confidence to go anywhere in the world and make a film, not just South Korea. It's a bit of a shame that "Soo" will only be given a limited screening in Japan as part of a festival*2, but it'll receive a normal roadshow release in Europe, including Germany. So, I'll be pleased if some European producer who has no idea who Sai Yoichi is watches "Soo" and says "That was great, I want to work with this director". I'm ready to head off on my own at the drop of a hat!

*1 The surge of popularity of South Korean popular culture in other countries, especially in Asian countries. Called "Kanryu" in Japan.

*2 Kanryu Cinema Festival 2008, a travelling collection of South Korean films playing the Cinemart chain.


  1. Sai actually wrote an essay called 韓国映画撮影記 in JUne 2007 issue of Bungei Shunjyu.There he was a bit more harsher to the producers of "Soo" and as I trust Sai's words there,the production was a fiasco.

  2. That was interesting as hell.

  3. I thought that was very interesting as well.

    As for Soo, it's not what you might expect from a typical revenge film. It's as brutal and violent, but it's also very uneven in tone. It's not up to the par of Blood and Bones, but it's still something worth checking out for his fans.

  4. Ryuganji, this was a super effort. Thank you! My recollection of Sai's words, based on some machine translation (probably of the same source Aceface mentioned), was indeed a grueling, more hellish one. The most white-washed version however, is still Sai's Q&A with Park Chan-wook for a Korean film councili monthly. It's nice to see he's looking forward to more (pleasant) co-production experiences though.

  5. It was really interesting. I didn't really like Blood and Bones - I felt the story was too big to make a film and could be edited (text wise) better.

    So I was never really interested in Soo despite the fact that the plot was good - now after reading this, I really am curious on how the film turned out after so many problems.

    The bit where the art crew put single sheet on a double bed really suprised me.

  6. Aceface,
    Thanks for reminding me about that article. I've managed to track down a copy, so I'll probably translate that as well.

    Beats the hell out of the usual pre-release puff pieces don't it?

    Golden Rock,
    The reviews I read prevented me from buying the Korean DVD, but now I think I'll try and catch it at Cinemart Roppongi later this month.

    You're welcome! Do you know if that Q&A is online in English?

    Ditto on the piqued curiosity re: "Soo". I had mixed feelings about "Blood and Bone" as well, and even though I usually don't rate Beat Takeshi's acting highly he certainly embodied the role. It'd make a lovely cheerful double-feature with "There Will Be Blood".

  7. Ryuganji, the Sai/Park Q&A (puff puff, LOL) is on pg 56:

  8. Brilliant Ed, thanks heaps. Sai and Park's mutual admiration society was still an interesting read. If only Unijapan had the resources to produce something similar...