Song Il-gon creates an impression not so distant from Kim Ki-duk, one of the few independent directors from South Korea whose films are well known to arthouse audiences in the West. Song’s features, like Kim’s, are largely ignored by mainstream audiences at home. While Korean pictures averaged more than 300,000 admissions in Seoul in 2004, Song’s Spider Forest (Geomisoop) and Kim’s 3-Iron (Binjip), released six weeks apart that year, encountered difficulties in finding a domestic audience. Each gained little more than 30,000 admissions in Seoul, one-tenth of the average.
Song and Kim both spent formative time in Europe. Kim pursued a career as a painter in France, the influence of which is most plainly evident in Wild Animals (Yasaeng dongmul bohoguyeog,1996). After a Fine Arts education at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, Song detoured to Poland and studied at the National Academy of Film in Lodz, the school renowned for producing graduates such as Roman Polanski and Krzystzof Kieslowski. Song had originally intended to study in America, but his visa application was rejected (he still openly harbours a great deal of resentment towards the US over this). Fortuitously, he saw and liked a film made at Lodz by friend and compatriot Moon Seung-wook (Nabi, the Butterfly), the first Korean to study there. Twelve days later Song became the second. “The film school was really good”, he says. “I really learnt a lot and they trained me very hard. I had good teachers.”
A final comparison between Song and Kim is worth mentioning: both have cast infrequent actress Suh Jung in arguably their best films to date. Her voiceless, inexorably grim performance was a striking feature of Kim’s The Isle (Seom) (2000). In Spider Forest, Suh Jung plays two roles: one a playful newlywed in a happier past, the other a wistful photo-developer who mystifies the present. In contrast to the ready-made ingénues, the current and ex-TV actresses, and the commercially overexposed mega-stars of Korean cinema, Suh Jung remains quite an exceptional enigma. On Spider Forest, she joined an emerging trend among some of the more expensive local talent when she accepted a back-end deal in lieu of a large up-front salary. While it has been a lucrative move for others, Suh Jung received very little compensation for her points contract, which was only tied to domestic release. Spider Forest may have bombed at home, but it has been selling abroad. (For the record, leading man Kam Woo-sung’s salary was 20 percent of the film’s production budget, about US$260,000.)
Since winning the Jury Prize at Cannes for Best Short Film with The Picnic (Sopoong,1999), which also won the Grand Prix at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Song has made four feature-length films. The digitally shot Flower Island (Gotseom,2001) swept the award pool at the Pusan International Film Festival, satisfying the Hou Hsiao-hsien-led New Currents jury, as well as claiming the audience and FIPRESCI awards. When it was released in Seoul on a handful of screens in November 2001, Flower Island attracted just 6,419 viewers, establishing a pattern of domestic box-office failure that Song’s films have yet to overcome.
Spider Forest‘s short domestic run received scant attention from local critics. The Korea Herald astutely, but disapprovingly, referred to the film as a “a jigsaw puzzle with some of its pieces missing”, calling attention to Song’s intentional plot-trimming strategies. (1) Song had originally written a script that thoroughly explained the mystery driving the plot, then deliberately removed as much of that explanation as he thought he could get away with. His storytelling method is very much from the European arthouse mode: he leaves the answers, the interpretation, up to the audience. Spider Forest began its overseas festival campaign at the Toronto International Film Festival and has since travelled to San Sebastian, Adelaide, Brussells (for the International Festival of Fantastic Film) and Hong Kong. According to Song, it was successfully sold to various foreign territories at the European Film Market (EFM), a widely profitable event for Korean sales companies in 2005.
Song returned to the digital format with the 70-minute romance Git (also known as Feathers in the Wind), which was shot in ten days for US$60,000. Originally developed as part of an omnibus project for Seoul’s Green Film Festival, Git separately obtained a short theatrical run in early 2005. So far, it has been withheld from festivals and is yet to make an impact overseas. In Korea, the critical consensus was extremely positive. Flower Island established Song as a comfortable and incisive director of women, a reputation that he solidified in Spider Forest and has maintained by way of the fluid performance of Git‘s Lee So-yeon (last seen as the concubine in 2003’s Sukaendul, Chosun namnyeo sangyeoljisa [Untold Scandal]). Song’s status as one of Korean cinema’s most interesting visual stylists also remains intact. Few Korean filmmakers shoot as much nocturnal footage as Song. His stories about ambiguous, faint and shadowy characters drifting through bleak environments encourage the way he embraces an absence of light in the frame. Unrestricted camera mobility is another prominent feature of Song’s æsthetic, one that he has thoroughly pursued in his latest picture, Magician(s).
Two versions of Magician(s) exist. The shorter 30-minute version is part of another omnibus film, this time commissioned by the Jeonju International Film Festival. For theatrical release, Song has “put in more money” to produce an 80-minute feature. (At the time of writing, it is yet to be released.) Again shot digitally, each version encompasses the action with a roaming Steadicam in one single take. The use of rigs enabling the camera and the five-person cast to fly help differentiate Magician(s) from previous earth-borne single-shot films like the often overlooked Timecode (2000).
In what seems to be a major turning-point for Song, his latest project, Knife, recently a participant in the 2005 Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, is being handled by bom Film Production, a major player responsible for such international box-office hits as Untold Scandal, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and the Korean segments of the “pan-Asian” omnibus pictures Three (2002) and Three … Extremes (2004).
Song accompanied the Australian premiere of Spider Forest as a guest of the 2005 Adelaide Film Festival. I spoke with him about the picture, life as a film student in Poland, his seldom-seen early short films and where he sees his artistic future within the context of a mass-market Korean cinema. The interview was conducted on February 21, the day before Korean actress Lee Eun-joo committed suicide.
James Brown: Could you explain the intentions behind the script for Spider Forest? It is a very complex story.
Song Il-gon: I started to write about one man’s real story: how he killed two people, how he grew up, what happened with his wife, what he saw when he was young, his first girlfriend. The second story is when he wakes up. It’s another story, about how he desires and how he wants to be. It’s like his dream. Desire changes the reality … into the unreal. That’s why I had the idea to write two stories about this character. And then I started to mix what was real and what was his dream, what he really wants. I started to make it a mystery as well. But we have to know about his unconscious, that’s why I had to transfer or take out the real facts and start to re-mix the stories. And that’s why it took so long to write the script. It was a painful time for me.
JB: You must have studied some psychology at film school.
SIG: Actually, I read a lot of Karl Jung. Some people like Freud, but I really like Jung’s theories about … I don’t know the words in English … but like the origin, the mythology, and people who dream, [theories about how] people have a psychological illness because they lose or they forget about [their culture’s] mythology. For me, that was very important because nowadays people forget about the method of dreaming. So I brought a lot of mythology into Spider Forest, like Orpheus.
JB: Mythology influences a lot of your work.
SIG: I adore classical [Western] literature and I really love Korean literature, but I’m more interested in mythology because when I was studying film, making short films in Poland, you couldn’t deal with Korean themes or Korean history, only international or universal themes. That’s why it was better to talk about mythology, or make films without words.
My next film [Knife] is going to be about student demonstrations in Kwangju and the coup d’etat in 1980. I’m going to start to touch and deal with more realistic themes and people. There are few films about this moment in Korean history, so now is the time to talk about it. Even a few years ago we couldn’t. After the new democracy [in 1987], people already forgot about history. Twenty years have passed. That’s the problem: people forget.
JB: What was Spider Forest‘s budget and where did the money come from?
SIG: It was US$1.3 million. Thirty percent of the money came from KOFIC [Korean Film Commission]. The government supported it, which was very important.
JB: There was some finance from France?
SIG: It was very mixed up. [French producer] Francesca Feder, a very good friend of mine, lent some money to Oak Film. She wanted to get some [distribution] rights but Oak had already sold the picture to CJ Entertainment.
JB: Not to [French distributor] Wild Bunch?
SIG: Wild Bunch was a very difficult deal, because we needed the first money, but they didn’t pay. They didn’t give us good conditions. Under the Wild Bunch contract, we couldn’t start the film because we needed cash. Without cash we couldn’t make the film. They played ‘the game’ with the Korean company [Oak], so we decided we don’t want to work with Wild Bunch. And then CJ came to the project and they gave us the money. It was very small money, but we sorted out all the rights so we could start.
JB: Art cinema in Korea rarely succeeds financially, but there is often substantial interest from festivals and buyers overseas. How does this effect your work?
SIG: In Korea, it was really, really very difficult to get the money to make and finish Spider Forest. It was a very tough time. Our $1.3 million budget was very low in Korea, where now the average is something like $3 million. Even a stupid comedy, it costs like $3 million. We expected sales abroad, but we couldn’t get the first money to start the film. We got the money later, like last week [late February]. Suddenly, it’s been sold a lot [at EFM].
Even Kim Ki-duk is still fighting a lot for the money, although now that he is a kind of a brand it is easier than before. He’s also a fast shooter, so with a small amount of money he can still shoot. But because I studied film for a long time, I couldn’t work that fast. It took a really long time to finish Spider Forest. It took like 3 years. I’m very young, but it took away a lot of energy that one film. And I want to make many films. So now I’ve started to make my films quickly.
JB: How did Git become a feature?
SIG: CJ, the sales company, really liked the film. We didn’t expect it. I thought it was going to be a short or middle-length film, because I made that film very honestly, with pleasure, with no stress, with very good friends. It was fun. The film is light, not like Spider Forest. That’s why I think people really like the film. It’s a very romantic love story!
JB: I was actually going to ask you earlier, given the pain and suffering on display in Flower Island and Spider Forest, are you happy?
SIG: I am happy. After Git, I think. Until Spider Forest, I was like the main character [Kang Min]. I was in the tunnel [where Kang Min ultimately sees himself die], a long and very painful tunnel. But now, I want to go out from the tunnel and make a lighter film about people, happiness and sadness … more cool, I want to say, like a cooler film. But I couldn’t help the way I made Spider Forest, because you have to confront these kinds of heavy things if you want to start talking about something else. I think you must confront [Kang Min], for me, because that’s my character.
JB: You’ve been making films for a long time, but not much is known about your short and independent work. Could you briefly describe your first three films, The Wall (1993), Ophelia Audition (1994) and The Dream of Clowns (1996)?
SIG: The Wall is a 50-minute, 16mm workshop film with 555 shots made at the Seoul Institute of the Arts when I was 22. It’s about a man and a woman in between a wall. It’s a sad, depressing film! [The Wall won the Best Film award at the Institute of the Arts.]
Ophelia Audition is about an actress doing an audition for Ophelia’s role. It is also 50 minutes and 16mm. The first shot is 25-minutes long. The camera does not move because it’s an audition. She talks a lot, like theatre. [Ophelia Audition was selected for the inaugural Seoul Short Film Festival.]
The Dream of Clowns is a documentary about circus students who want to be clowns. There was a national circus school in Poland. That for me was very interesting: how circus can be learned in school. Now they don’t have it, the school was closed. At Lodz, they teach a lot of documentary because they have a very strong tradition. Like Kieslowski: he was a very good documentary filmmaker. That’s why we had to learn. The first year, we had to shoot an 8-minute, 35mm documentary. It was good fun. I really learnt a lot about how to observe and interview people. [The Dream of Clowns won the Outstanding Film prize at the Seoul Short Film Festival.]
JB: How important was it to win all the awards at Pusan for your first feature, Flower Island?
SIG: It was very important. First of all, because it was a cash prize. Economically it was a very difficult time. I could live with that money. To independent filmmakers, cash prizes are very important.
JB: You were the first Korean to win an award at Cannes. How did you feel about Park Chan-wook winning the Jury Prize for Oldboy (2004)?
SIG: It was very good! I was very happy that he got an award. Winning festivals is not that important, but in a certain way it focuses the international audience on Korean film. A Korean filmmaker can have a better chance to introduce their films, which is very good. He opened one of the doors. And I really liked his film, Oldboy. I was surprised that it got an award in Cannes, because it does not look like an art film. It’s an action film.
JB: What are your thoughts on the Korean films you grew up with?
SIG: There were not many examples we could respect. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were some very good films, but I couldn’t find any masterpieces. Then, when I was studying film in Poland, the text was not a Korean film. They were old films from Russia, France, Poland and Third World films; not Korean films.
JB: What about the relative scarcity of Korean films investigating traditional culture?
SIG: The young generation, we don’t need to deal with traditional stuff because we don’t know about it. Of course, if it’s something important we have to know. But we are living now, not in the Chosun Dynasty [1392–1910]. If we focus on something from the past then we have to deal with traditional things, but not all the time.
Soon there are going to be more good films, we hope. Of course, it’s not about the film, but history. And not just history, but about the people. What Korean people look like and how they live.
JB: Do you have a desire to be make popular mainstream films?
SIG: Yeah. Knife is going to be like that. If I want to continue making the type of films that I like, I have to make big films. I’ve made three independent films already that commercially weren’t good. For many reasons. That’s why I’ve decided to make a film with a major company [bom]. They are good producers, but they only produce major films, with major stars and with mainstream domestic distribution through CJ. They asked me to make a public, more commercial film, and then I can make a more private film that they will distribute properly, not like Oak Film which has no power at all.
In Korea, it’s still not a good system for independent film. I must have power as a director [to keep making independent films], so I need to make a commercial film. It’s not going to be completely commercial, of course. The theme is very heavy.
In Korea, the director has a lot of power over the script – even on commercial films. It’s a very strange system. The production company asks a lot of questions but the director has the final decision. But bom has power, too. They find it very easy to get the money from CJ and they can cast major stars, which is very good. It will help me. [Song lists Choi Min-soo, Song Kang-ho, Sol Kyung-gu and Choi Min-shik as the four male stars he’d particularly like to work with one day.]
- Yang Sung-jin, “Spider Forest weaves story of tormented soul”, Korea Herald, 20 July 2004 (accessed 6 May 2005).