This interview was originally posted on Hangul Celluloid and is republished here with permission (Note: original Korean film titles have been added). All the hard work of transcribing the interview was done by Hangul Celluloid. The photos (from the interview and the Closing Night Gala Q&A) are my own. Special thanks to the KCCUK for organising this interview.
Ahn Sung-ki Mini-Biography:
Veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki was born in Daegu, South Korea, becoming a child actor at the age of five and appearing in Kim Ki-young’s 하녀 (Hanyeo/The Housemaid, 1960). After stepping away from acting for a period of ten years Ahn Sung-ki returned to the film industry in the late 70s and has appeared in nearly 100 movies including a large number [such as 남부군 (Nambugun/The South Korean Army), 실미도 (Silmido/Silmido), 만다라 (Mandala/Mandala) and 칠수와 만수 (Chilsu wa mansu/Chilsu and Mansu)] that have shaped Korean cinema as a whole, over the years. Ahn was also appointed by UNICEF as a representative and in his career he has acted twice as the President of South Korea; in 피아노 치는 대통령 (Pyano jineun daetongryeong/Romantic President, 2002) and 한반도 (Hanbando/Hanbado, 2006). His latest film to be released is Im Kwon-taek’s 화장 (Hwayang/Revivre).
The following group interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on November 15 2014, prior to the London Korean Film Festival Closing Gala screening of 화장 (Hwayang/Revivre) and Q&A with actor Ahn Sung-ki.
Hangul Celluloid: Over the years in your long and illustrious career, as well as starring in a number of films that could be seen as pure entertainment you have also acted in many speaking of social issues, historical events and even controversial issues; 남부군 (Nambugun/The South Korean Army), 실미도 (Silmido/Silmido) etc., and even your latest film 화장 (Hwayang/Revivre). What are your thoughts on the power of Korean cinema in raising awareness of social issues and even lead to changes in society itself?
Ahn Sung-ki: In terms of background and context, Korea was historically subject to a lot of confusion, pain and suffering as a result of many events that happened over the years. That translates into our emotionality as a nation, as well, and has provided various topics for our films which produce something quite dynamic rather than gentle or mellow, when expressed in a cinematic format. That in itself underlines the power and strength within Korean cinema as a whole. For example, our neighbouring country Japan is quite jealous of Korea; of our vitality in spite of our experiencing of often difficult historical events – that we were largely subjected to – and the fact that those terrible situations have provided and continue to provide a rich source of cinematic topics and subject matter. They are quite envious of that.
And in relation to our national emotionality, I think that the fact that there is also a lot of enthusiastic energy in Korean output, not least because of the K-pop generation, means that we continue to deliver that emotionality very well.
Filmdoo: You are, of course an acting legend yourself and recently you have been working with veteran director Im Kwon-taek who has directed over 100 films. What drew you to take the leading role in 화장 (Hwayang/Revivre) and what was it like working with director Im?
Ahn Sung-ki: I first worked with director Im Kwon-taek in 1981 on a film called 만다라 (Mandala/Mandala) and since then we’ve worked together seven times, so relatively speaking we have a rich experience working together. Compared to other directors, he doesn’t have a storyboard meeting until the morning of the shooting of a particular scene – the scene itself doesn’t exist until that point, he just has a broad scenario in his mind – so until that morning the actors and crew don’t know how the scenario might evolve or change and, of course, they might be anxious about that, wondering what director Im might do and what direction he might take but because I’m familiar with working with him I tend to have a sense of what direction he’s likely to head in. So, as opposed to having a very perfectly planned and illustrated storyboard which doesn’t give much space for an actor to play with, Im Kwon-taek is very open and you really have to prepare your work beforehand as well as having to think of your whole picture overall within this space of freedom. Director Im is also a type of director who keeps you thinking on your toes and as an actor you have a strong sense of responsibility within the freedom that he gives. That’s how it has been throughout the many times I’ve worked with director Im and it was also the case for this film.
easternKicks: I’d like to ask you about 칠수와 만수 (Chilsu wa mansu/Chilsu and Mansu) which was seen as an incredible step forward in freedom in South Korean film. What was it like making the film and did you have any idea how important it would become?
Ahn Sung-ki: Out of the films I’ve done, quite a few were seen as progressive and a step forward for Korean cinema and of course 칠수와 만수 (Chilsu wa mansu/Chilsu and Mansu) was a major example of this forward move in its dealing with social issues after the Korean war which continues today in terms of ideology. During the 80s there were a lot of difficulties being under a dictatorship and authority figures and Korea was really only able to achieve democracy from the mid-90s. During the 80s, the influence of communism and the problems around that were suggested through the film format – for example, if you had a member of your family who used to be a communist your entire family would be placed at a disadvantage for generations afterwards – and of course it wasn’t comfortable shooting stories of such issues during the period. However, adding elements of entertainment and in a way hiding the underlying themes technically as a film, such as adding comedy and not placing the issue at the forefront made it possible for this film to avoid censorship. I began acting as a five-year-old child continuing until the late 60s; then I took a ten year break during which I completed my military service and I returned to film-making in 1977. At that time, Korea was going through a really frightful and horrifying period under the rule of Park Chung-hee and that was a really dark time for Korean cinema too, and when I returned to acting thinking it would be my lifelong career I discovered there were many things I couldn’t communicate through film and I found that disappointing and difficult. After Park Chung-hee’s death, you could feel we had more breathing space – there was a movement of life slowly creeping in – and when I worked with director Lee Jang-ho on a film called 바람 불어 좋은 날 (Barambuleo joheun nal/A Fine Windy Day) it allowed me to be acknowledged as an adult actor. From there, I specifically chose to focus my acting on stories that I wouldn’t have been able to in the 70s – for example, in the 70s if a story had a female lead it would always have to be a love story – and those choices of course included 칠수와 만수 (Chilsu wa Mansu/Chilsu and Mansu); as well as 남부군 (Nambugun/The South Korean Army) and 하얀전쟁 (Hayan Jeongjaeng/White Badge) which dealt with the Vietnam War and shows the perspective of soldiers and the consequences of being in war whereas films had previously dealt with soldiers’ performances and the good outcomes they achieved. These were the types of films I was choosing.
Mini Mini Movies: You just mentioned taking a ten year break from acting between 1967 and 1977. Two years of that time was taken up with military service but was the rest of that time spent doing other projects, or perhaps trying other methods and getting your career together?
Ahn Sung-ki: In 1957, I began working as a child actor and at the time the Korean War had just finished, nothing had really recovered and the working conditions were very poor. My father had actually been an actor, working in two films, before deciding to leave the profession and those two films were for a time almost lost until I managed to find three reels at the Korean Film Archive. I watched them and despite him being very good looking I think it was the right call for him not to continue acting. After those movies he changed his career to working in film production and planning and one of the films in which he was involved needed a child actor and a friend of my father’s was a very famous director, Kim Ki-young – you may be aware of his film 하녀 (Hanyeo/The Housemaid) – and he decided to ask me to play this young character. I did well and was then offered a bigger role as a child actor – word had spread that this young child was god at acting. So, it wasn’t my intention or my parents’ intention but rather it was because of that early role that I began acting and continued for ten years. However, while there were many roles for young children and adults, there were far fewer parts for teenagers so I decided at that time to return to normal life, focus on my studies and become a normal high school student. I went to university and did my military service and the reason I returned to acting was because at university I studied Vietnamese and I had a desire to participate in the Vietnam War but though there was a scheme that allowed university students to participate in military service and apply to be a general [Reserve Officers Training Course] but at the time I was about to graduate they began withdrawing soldiers from Vietnam and eventually in 1975 the Vietnam War was over. So, I wasn’t able to use my degree in Vietnamese, the war had depleted and I couldn’t find employment for about two years afterwards. That led me to return to films because I felt I had some ability, and that’s how I started my acting career again.
Otherwhere: You have had a long career, starring in both commercial films and some that have been very significant in the history of Korean cinema. Do you think it’s possible for young actors today to have a long and distinguished career like yours or do you feel it was very different when you started out from those starting out today? And relating to that, I was wondering if there are any young actors nowadays that you feel are worth watching that you think might see 30 or 40 years on the screen and have a long career like yours?
Ahn Sung-ki: There are many talented actors in Korean cinema. Obviously, that comes from there being many great directors but it is also contributed to by having many actors who can read and understand what the directors want; able to read their hearts, if you will. So I’m very hopeful about the future of Korean cinema but I don’t think there will be many actors who will be able to have as long a career as I’ve had in terms of just number of years because acting while living through a very difficult, turbulent period nationally is very different to simply acting as an actor. Nowadays, there are hardly any barriers; censorship is almost non-existent, whereas in the past censors had very strict control on the film industry and methods of expression weren’t free; and the audience at the time knew that too, so there was an implied agreement when they were watching films. However, in the present day everything is far more open, these unnecessary emotions are no longer needed and as a result actors today are free in their emotions and expressions – expressions which are very novel and refreshing – so it appears that in the future there will continue to be no barriers; the atmosphere will further improve and we’ll see more and more talented Korean actors emerging, I think. In 1993, I was invited to a smaller film festival in France and there my films were showcased for a week. Seven films were invited and the response I received was “Is it really one person acting in all these roles?” because they were so diverse. In my opinion, rather than my own acting being varied it was just because of the fact that there just weren’t enough actors to play these roles whereas nowadays there is a lot more thinking around which actor will fit a particular role. So, when I watch young actors today I’m very surprised at their depth of acting and their energy. I can also see they are trying extremely hard and they have a lot of confidence, as well.
Korean Class Massive: How do you choose your acting roles? Do you find directors approaching you or do you attend auditions? Also, is there a role in particular that you sought out?
Ahn Sung-ki: I’ve never taken part in an audition; generally directors send me scripts and for me the script is of the utmost importance. If a script is slightly lacking but I’m close to the director and trust him and can imagine it will turn out a certain way, then I will participate but generally the script is the most important consideration for me. When I start reading a script, I observe my emotions but ultimately when I finish reading and close the script, whether I’ve been moved or not plays the biggest part in my decision on taking the role. If I have been touched or moved then I will definitely do the film but there are very few in between situations. Most of the time you are left in the middle ground thinking “Should I do this film?” or “Will it do well?” and it is usually in this state of uncertainty that I will make my decision. It’s extremely hard to find a good script and it is my belief that a great script will never fail as a film. One good thing about being an actor is that obviously there is the premise that you have to do well and you must continue to appeal but there are roles and characters that you can play even as you get older. I have singer friends who have produced hit songs but as they become older it’s not as easy to produce big hits and lifelong they’ll be repeating the hits they had when they were younger. In my opinion, I wish they’d try something new or do something different but it feels they are unable to. As an actor, as you get older and get more wrinkles there are more roles that those wrinkles can speak to. There aren’t any specific roles that I’m attracted to but thinking about the cathartic effect that a film has is what attracts me ultimately. If I can move people’s hearts and touch them in some way, those are the roles I want to take. As you get older, the roles in films and the parts you play may get smaller but the most important thing is that my presence and my skill is not reduced. So, rather that concentrate on size, you focus on constantly having depth in roles and thinking is something I will contemplate in the future continually. By having continued depth I’ll still be able to move the hearts and minds of people.
Korean Class Massive: One of the sold out event at the London Korean Film Festival 2014 was ‘The Youth’ which featured idol actors. What are your thoughts on idol singers moving into acting and do you feel there is any stigma in the Korean film industry regarding idols going into acting?
Ahn Sung-ki: Nowadays, a lot of the stigma and prejudice has become undermined but many senior actors of my generation for a long time still believed that even theatre and TV actors coming into film was something that shouldn’t be done. There was still a lot of pride in being a pure film actor but the world has changed and the thinking of film audiences about and towards film has gone now through many shifts. Previously, when people wrote down their hobbies, they would write something like ‘film appreciation’ which today nobody ever writes, and film now has a much lighter connotation and is largely seen as simply something that is watched and enjoyed. In that sense, drawing a line between who gets to act becomes a strange situation and personally, in my opinion, there is no need to differentiate. On an individual level, how much a person tries and works in depth to become an actor is far more important. However, I do feel there is a risk associated with working with people who are pursuing more than one professional career – their attention, their energy can easily be divided – and though for a time it may work for them achieving a lifelong career from such divided efforts is less far less easy.
Mark Morris: I’d like to ask you a question about 만다라 (Mandala/Mandala) which I think is an incredibly important film: When my students at Cambridge University study Mandala, they read various accounts of the difficulties director Im Kwon-taek and the actors had to go through when making the film. Could you tell us about the various things people went through while Mandala was being made, such as finding a temple to use for the location shots?
Ahn Sung-ki: Mandala was made in 1981 and while it was a Buddhist film there weren’t political issues being dealt with within it so there was no issue with censorship but in terms of finding a temple in which to film it was very difficult indeed because of the hostility and resistance from the Buddhist community. The original story by Kim Song-dong deals with a Buddhist who gives up on his religious ideals and it was greatly disliked by Buddhists for its exposing of the corruption within the Buddhist community. As such, they were reluctant and resistant to have anything to do with the film and therefore finding a fabulous and fantastic temple to shoot in was terribly difficult. Eventually, we decided on using a temple that housed married monks and in my opinion that was a great choice as the temple was far less flashy and showed itself as it really was. We did a lot of illicit filming while making Mandala; hiding behind the opening gates of the temple and then rushing through them to get the shots we needed etc. In short, the resistance we faced made Mandala incredibly difficult to make.
Daehan Drama: I want to ask you about your experiences working in films outside Korea; you have made films in China, have worked with foreign directors and more recently you worked in the US: How is working outside Korea different from working domestically, from your perspective?
Ahn Sung-ki: There are several films that I shot abroad with Korean directors: 이방인 (Ibangin/Taekwondo) was shot in Poland and it deals with Korean martial arts, in 1985 I shot 깊고 푸른 밤 (Gipgo puleun bam/Deep Blue Night) and that was all shot in the US, and of course 무사 (Musa/Musa the Warrior) which was shot in China. Using those examples, I think that when the director has a large amount of influence, such as was the case with 깊고 푸른 밤 (Gipgo puleun bam/Deep Blue Night), it was fine working on location. However, when a director’s strength is somewhat mediocre when you go abroad that translates as well. For example, when the director of 이방인 (Ibangin/Taekwondo) went to work in Poland because he was new to directing it was very difficult to convince the Polish members in relation to filming; reflecting his lack of prowess abroad. As such, making the film wasn’t a great experience and is similar in some respects to my experience during the making of 페이스메이커 (Peiseu Meikeo/Pacemaker) which was also helmed by a new director and was shot in Korea as well as the UK. By contrast, 깊고 푸른 밤 (Gipgo puleun bam/Deep Blue Night) was a great experience. In terms of working abroad with Korean directors, I think it’s about 50-50 and from my perspective it really depends on the director’s ability and confidence. I also starred in 墨攻 (Muk Gong/A Battle of Wits) and a Japanese film called 眠る男 (Nemuro Otoko/Sleeping Man) as well as, not yet released and it’s a minor role, making a film shot in the beginning of last year in Czechoslovakia called 더 라스트 나이츠 (Deo Raseuteu Naitsu/The Last Knights) – produced in Hollywood and made by a Japanese director who studied in the US – starring many European actors including Clive Owen, and though I didn’t originally intend to participate in that film given that there was investment from Korea they said “Why shouldn’t you join?” So, as an experience I took part. In terms of 眠る男 (Nemuro Otoko/Sleeping Man), playing a comatose man who is sleeping, it was a brilliant experience just lying there and my dialogue consisted only of a very short line saying something like “Over that mountain there is a village”. I practiced that line almost to death and when I said it in the filming the director just said “No”. He suggested dubbing it and I insisted that I’d try to change it and when he said the tome of one word wasn’t Japanese enough we changed that word too. Obviously saying a line of dialogue in Japanese with that nation’s emotionality is extremely difficult. Also, even though I’m playing the role of a comatose man, the very subtle movements and vibrations I had were also very difficult as well. In the film 墨攻 (Muk Gong/A Battle of Wits), I was playing a Chinese general and I had to speak in Chinese extremely fluidly and that was virtually impossible so when the film was released, in Korea cinemas it had my voice but abroad it was dubbed by a Chinese actor. In terms of 더 라스트 나이츠 (Deo Raseuteu Naitsu/The Last Knights) there was some English dialogue which pretty much drove me crazy. Again I practiced it thousands of times from when I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night and recently when I watched Lucy and saw Choi Min-sik speaking in Korean with total freedom to express his emotions in full I was incredibly envious.
LondonTree: You’ve already said that you began your career as a child actor. Were there any situations where you had difficulty adapting to a role?
Ahn Sung-ki: As a child actor I would often play the part of a mischievous son so there wasn’t much difficulty in adapting to such roles. However, the one thing I found difficult was crying and now I see many child actors who cry extremely well on screen which astounds me. When I was younger and having difficulty doing crying scenes I was always hoping someone could help me cry and some of the better directors out there would just ruthlessly hit me. Even as an adult actor, sad emotions have been difficult for me so I would always try to persuade directors to cut just before the tears would fall and not to wait until after. I believe that the moment before tears fall is the saddest moment of all and once he tears fully appear the true moment of sadness is gone. In 화장 (Hwayang/Revivre) there is a scene in which I’m walking down a street for around two minutes and I’m about to cry but the tears never actually fall and I thought that was much better than crying outright. I think the tears just hanging on and the glistening in the eyes makes for a much better scene. In the last ten seconds of that scene the tears did actually fall and I felt that some of the emotion had been broken and it did make me think that implication rather than full-on tears speak to a greater emotion. As you’ll see in the film, there is a lot of editing done at the beginning and the end of the situation so there is less continuity when it comes to emotion which I think is a bit of a shame.
The following are links (plus Twitter ID) to the various sites of the critics, writers and bloggers who took part in this interview:
- Hangul Celluloid: http://www.hangulcelluloid.com/ (@hangulcelluloid)
- Filmdoo: https://www.filmdoo.com/ (@filmdoo)
- easternKicks: http://www.easternkicks.com/ (@easternKicks)
- Mini Mini Movies: http://miniminimovie.com/ (@miniminimovies)
- Otherwhere: https://alualuna.wordpress.com/ (@alualuna)
- Korean Class Massive: http://koreanclassmassive.com/ (@KCMassive)
- Mark Morris: http://www.ames.cam.ac.uk/directory/morrismark
- Daehan Drama: http://daehandrama.com/
- LondonTree: http://www.thelondontree.com/ (@TheLondonTree)
Photos from the Q&A for the LKFF Closing Night Gala screening of 화장 (Hwajang/Revivre):
Gallery (Interview Photos):