As August arrives and the world comes to London for the Olympics, so does the cinematic vision of Lee Yoon-ki, the KCCUK’s director of the month. Like always, there are four film screenings to look forward to, which I am all going to miss out on except the last one (I will be out of country). That last one – 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다 (Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, 2011) - I have been wanting to see so much that I gave up on an extra week or two that I could have still spent away and booked my return flight to arrive, just in time, the day before the screening plus Q&A. Yes, that’s the extent of my K-film addiction.
About the Director
Born in 1965 in Daejeon, South Korea, Lee Yoon-ki completed part of his university education abroad, reading for an MA in Business Administration and Economics at the University of Southern California. His career in film is somewhat recent, his first feature, 여자, 정혜 (Yeoja, Jeonghye/This Charming Girl, 2004), being less than a decade old. He describes his beginnings as follows:
To make the long story short I made my hobby into a career. I majored in economics in college and didn’t know anyone in the film industry. But I grew up watching a lot of films, and quite naturally I joined a film collective, which got me more engaged in the field. But even after I got involved I wasn’t fully into filmmaking for a while. I was an assistant to the director Lee Myung-se (“Nowhere to Hide”) but I was let go. Then my script got picked up in a screenplay contest and one day I found myself making a film. (quote source)
However short Lee’s career is if measured in number of years, he has been highly prolific - making five films in the years that followed Yeonja, Jeonghye - as well as successful. His debut work instantly brought him to the attention of major international film festivals (Berlinale, Sundance) and won multiple awards. Lee Yoon-ki did direct some shorts previously and also refined his skills by working in different aspects of the filmmaking business: directing, producing and scriptwriting.
‘Small budget productions’, ‘stories of ordinary people’ and ‘inner worlds of loneliness’ are keywords that fittingly describe Lee Yoon-ki’s oeuvre, but in particular it has been the fact that his stories nearly always have a female character at the centre that has been lauded (Vcinema called him “the patron saint of modern female ennui”). His nuanced exploration of women’s place in a patriarchal society demonstrates “a sensitivity more delicate than that of a female director” (requoted from hancinema.net, original source of quote unknown), Lee’s films having provided several Korean actresses – from Jeon Do-yeon to Bae Jong-ok, from Han Hyo-joo to Im Soo-Jung – with the opportunity to shine on the screen. Indeed, some actors believe so much in Lee’s projects that they even worked for free, with neither Im Soo-Jung nor her co-star Hyun Bin receiving any pay for their parts in Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda.
While some critics describe Lee Yoon-ki as an “auteurist filmmaker” and his work as “festival films” that are not meant for a wider and/or more commercial audience, the director himself resists this idea:
Filming in Korea has never been easy, but I think it’s been particularly difficult recently due to the shifting industry structure. The notion of diversity in film simply doesn’t exist anymore. Diversity did exist here for a brief period, but we lost it. The idea of “a festival film” is really nonsense. We show in festivals because that’s the only platform available to us [...]. There’s no such thing as “an auteurist filmmaker.” Every film directors is an auteur. We only make films that we do because we cannot put on clothes that don’t fit us.
Lee names Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (童年往事/Tong nian wang shi/A Time to Live, a Time to Die, Taiwan, 1985; 悲情城市/Bēiqíng chéngshì/A City of Sadness, Taiwan, 1989; 戲夢人生/Xi meng ren shen/The Puppetmaster, Taiwan, 1993) as his film mentor, commenting that he always finds Hou’s perspective on life “startling” (quote). Further influences include directors Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese (early films), Woody Allen as well as independent USAmerican films from the 70s and 80s. Finally, it is also worth noting that the director’s films are often adaptations: 아주 특별한 손님 (Aju Teugbyeolhan Sonnim/Ad-Lib Night, 2006) and 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008) are based on fiction by the Japanese writer Taira Azuko, while the inspiration for Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda came from the 2003 short story,「 帰れない猫」 (Kaerenai neko/The Cat that Can Never Come Back) by Areno Inoue, another contemporary Japanese writer.
Lee Yoon-ki worked on a some award-winning short films before his debut feature-length film. Details on the shorts he directed are hard to come by or very incomplete. I will update this section if I find reliable information in the future.
- 여자, 정혜 (Yeoja, Jeonghye/This Charming Girl, 2004) – feature film - REVIEW
- 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005) – feature film
- 아주 특별한 손님 (Aju Teugbyeolhan Sonnim/Ad-Lib Night, 2006) – feature film
- 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008) – feature film
- 티파니에서 아침을 (Tipanieseo Achimeul/Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 2009) – feature film
- 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다 (Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, 2011) – feature film
Awards and Nomination
Lee Yoon-ki has won a number of awards for his various films, starting with Pusan International Film Festival’s New Currents Award, the Berlinale’s NEPEC Award, the Deauville Asian Film Festival’s Lotus Jury Prize, and Best Director and Best Actress awards at the Singapore International Film Festival – all for 여자, 정혜 (Yeoja, Jeonghye/This Charming Girl, 2004). 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005) was nominated for the Crystal Globe at the 2005 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Czech Republic) but did not win.
Film screening dates, trailers and short synopses
For trailers, click on the Korean titles. Information on how to reserve a (free) seat for the London screenings can be found at the website of the KCCUK.
Jeong-hae is a postal worker. Monotonous routine and social distance define her mundane life, until she starts noticing things in the world around her, including a lost kitten and a shy writer that keeps returning to her place of work. The new experiences slowly bring to the fore a trauma, hidden beneath a quiet and seemingly emotionless façade over the years.
August 16th: 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005)
Shot entirely on location in California, Leobeutokeu follows several individuals – all Koreans expatriates – as they navigate their present lives in multiethnic LA while dealing with emotional wounds and scars from the past. Leobeutokeu is Lee’s only original story (other films are adaptations or were scripted by others) and reviews seem to concur that it has its flaws, but it also is “an intriguing, awkward film that works in fits and starts” (Jason Klorfein, Slantmagazine).
August 23rd: 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008)
Jobless, miserable and in need of money, Hee-soo seeks out her ex-boyfriend, Byoung-woon, to demand 3.5 million won (around £2000) back she once loaned him. Byoung-woon however is as moneyless as Hee-soo, so they trek around Seoul together to spend a day to “collect money, and memory” (hancinema.net). Based, just like Lee’s 2006 film 아주 특별한 손님 (Aju Teugbyeolhan Sonnim/Ad-Lib Night) on a story by Taira Azuko, the director found the Japanese novella, titled 멋진 하루 (Meotjin haru/One Fine Day) in Korean, calling out to him from a lonely pile in a bookstore. Rather different from other contemporary Japanese fiction, the tale warmed his heart, Lee commenting that ‘[t]here’s something old-fashioned about it, something very unique and intimate… it felt like an old, forgotten fable” (thedivareview.com).
Lee’s most recent work, Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda, stars Hyun Bin and Lim Su-jeon in a quiet, nearly plot-less film that observes them on their last day together as they have decided to divorce. Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda actually did screen in London earlier this year at the Pan-Asia Film Festival in March, but now returns with the director, who will be attending the Q&A screening at the Piccadilly Circus Apollo Cinema.
It’s a fab list of films which I would strongly encourage you to watch if you are in London during the month of August – my only regret is that 아주 특별한 손님 (Aju Teugbyeolhan Sonnim/Ad-Lib Night, 2006) is not on the programme.
- Article on Lee Yoon-ki in Slant Magazine.
- Q&A from Berlinale screening of 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다 (Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, 2011).
I will be providing more film-specific links in my reviews of Lee Yoon-ki’s works – yes, I will be reviewing them, as Hangul Celluloid kindly offered to lend me his Lee Yoon-ki DVDs since I won’t be on site for most screenings!