Director Lee Joon-ik has certainly enjoyed his share of commercial success, from his recordbreaking
hit “King and the Clown” (2005) to more recent releases like “The Throne” (2015).
But it’s clear that his passion for filmmaking extends far beyond box office revenues. Throughout his career,
Lee has thought long and hard about the kind of stories he wants to tell, thereby contributing
to the cultural discourse taking place in Korean society.
Lee Joon-ik has made 11 movies since his debut in 1993. The posters decorating the wall behind his desk at his office give a condensed view of his career. From left are the posters for “The Throne” (2015), “Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet” (2016), “King and the Clown” (2005), “Radio Star”(2006), and “Hope” (2013).
In early 2016, Lee Joon-ik’s film “Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet” enjoyed a very special kind of success. An independent feature with a budget of only 500 million won ($440,000), this biographical film about one of Korea’s best-loved poets, Yun Dong-ju (1917–1945), was rapturously received by critics and audiences alike. Shot in black-and-white, it explores Yun’s coming of age during one of the darkest eras in Korean history. It is both an unflinching look at his tragic death after being arrested in Japan as a “thought criminal” toward the end of the colonial era, and a celebration of his sad but beautiful poems, which appear interspersed throughout the film.
Thanks to word of mouth, “Dong-ju” remained in theaters for an unusually long release for a low-budget, independent production and ultimately sold more than 1.1 million tickets. The film has also received some international exposure, opening in the United States in a targeted release this spring, and also screening at the New York Asian Film Festival. A theatrical release in Japan, where the poet has a significant number of fans, is scheduled for the fall. We caught up with director Lee Joon-ik at his office in Chungmu-ro, the Seoul district that in decades past served as the hub of the Korean film industry.
A scene from “Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet.” Lee Joon-ik says he chose to work in blackand- white to depict Yun Dong-ju as simply and honestly as possible, true to the shortlived poet’s image in the black-and-white photos that he was familiar with.
Historical Fiction and Hollywood Techniques
Darcy Paquet From your filmography, you seem to have a strong interest in history. What
attracts you to films set in the past?
Lee Joon-ik I grew up watching a lot of Hollywood films, and saw a lot of Japanese classics
in my youth. People learn about European history both through European films and Hollywood
films. But while working in the film import business I realized that people from other countries
knew very little about Korea. They knew about Japan, and China, and their particular histories.
But they had never seen any cultural products that might spark an interest in Korea. So one
thing that inspired me to make films was to fill that gap, and explore the question of what makes
Korea different from China or Japan.
That’s how I ended up making “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield” (Hwangsanbeol) in 2003.
People are familiar with the Crusades in Europe, but actually the seventh-century war depicted
in this film, between the Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms, was on a similar scale. During 30
years of fighting, over 130,000 troops sailed in from China to take part. If I were shooting the film
now I could probably do it on a much bigger scale, but at the time we decided to use comedy to
appeal to viewers, and it ended up working quite well.
Still, the humor and content of that film was very local, with the dialects and all, so after that
I decided to explore something more universal, and that resulted in “King and the Clown.” There
was a play that formed the basic source material, but I spent a lot of time researching the concept
of the clown. There’s the Pierrot in commedia dell’arte (comedy of craft), and clowns also
appear in Shakespeare or in Tarkovsky’s film “Andrei Rublev.” I spent a lot of time thinking about
the differences between clowns in Europe and those of the Joseon Dynasty. Ultimately, I think
more than just being a foil or a vehicle for expressing an author’s thoughts, clowns in Joseon
culture represent the masses in some way. They strongly assert their own point of view, and
their relationship with powerful figures like the king is more tense. I shot the film with this concept
in mind, and it was a success not only in Korea, but also seemed to connect with international
DP I agree with you that Korean culture has its own distinctive qualities that clearly differ
from those of Japan or China, but where do you think that uniqueness comes from?
LJ Throughout its history, Korea had diverse influences from its neighbors. Until the early
part of the 19th century, China had a tremendous influence, then from around 1900 it was Japan
that influenced the country. Following independence from Japan’s colonial rule and the Korean
War, the United States exerted predominant influence. So you have these cultural influences
from three major empires all mixed up together. Besides, artistic creators tend to draw the most
energy from strong emotions. Because of their tough history, the Korean people have had a wellspring of hardship, pain, and anger inside of them.
In terms of film production, the United States, Japan, and China
have often drawn on literature and novels, but in Korean culture
there are fewer fictional stories to adapt. That is why Korean filmmakers
have been pushed to develop original stories. Often they
do that by combining the emotions contained in their difficult past
with the filmmaking techniques of Hollywood, which has resulted in
A Low-budget, Black-and-White Film
DP What was the starting point for the film “Dong-ju: The Portrait
of a Poet?”
LJ Actually, in the late 1990s I produced a film called “The Anarchists,”
which was set in Shanghai during the colonial era. The
screenplay was written by Park Chan-wook, and while we were
researching and preparing the film, I thought a lot about how to
reconstruct this period on the big screen. Ultimately the film wasn’t
a success, and I moved on to other projects.
Then in 2011, I was invited to a film festival in Kyoto which was
devoted to historical films. I screened my films “Battlefield Heroes”
(Pyeongyangseong) and “Blades of Blood” (Gureumeul boseonan
dal cheoreom), and while I was there, I decided to visit Doshisha
University, the last school that Yun Dong-ju attended. We went to
see the poetic tablets that were erected to him, and we also walked
along the bridge that appears in Jeong Ji-yong’s poem “Apcheon”
A couple of years later, on the way home from a Directors’ Guild
workshop in Jecheon, I happened to sit next to director Shin Yeonshick
on the train. He’s a specialist in low-budget films, whereas I
had only shot commercial films. I told him I’d been thinking about
making a film about Yun Dong-ju, but that it wouldn’t be possible to
do as a commercial feature. It costs a lot of money to recreate that
historical period, and investors won’t finance it if they think it won’t
recover its budget. I asked if he’d be able to write a script that could
be shot on a low budget. He was excited about the idea, so I asked
him to aim for a budget of 250 million won
($220,000), and proposed centering the
drama around Yun’s relationship with his
cousin Song Mong-gyu. That’s how it started.
DP How would you introduce the poet
Yun Dong-ju to people from other countries
who aren’t familiar with him?
LJ Actually his work has been translated
and published in several languages, but he’s
not internationally famous, so few people
will have come across his poems. In general,
there are very few Korean poets who are
known abroad, except Ko Un perhaps. Yun
Dong-ju’s poetry itself is quite important,
but his life and death are no less important
The colonization of Korea by Japan is not
well known outside of Asia. But I think the
death of poet Yun Dong-ju in Fukuoka Prison,
after undergoing medical experimentation,
is something that belongs not just in
Korean history, but in world history. There
was an instigator of this experimentation
named Shiro Ishii, the surgeon general who
created Unit 731 in the Kwantung Army and
experimented on 200,000 people in Manchuria.
He was responsible for the medical
experiments in Fukuoka Prison that were performed on 1,800
people, including Yun Dong-ju and Song Mong-gyu. It’s obvious that
Shiro Ishii should have been tried for war crimes, like those responsible
for Nazi medical experiments, but he lived out a comfortable
life and died of old age in his 90s. This film is not just the story of a
poet, it is about the conscience of a certain historical era.
DP What do the two real-life protagonists of this film, Yun Dongju
and Song Mong-gyu, share in common, and how are they different?
LJ They were born in the same place, and died in the same
place. They were cousins, close friends, and competitors. Yun
Dong-ju’s poetry did not emerge simply from sitting alone in a room
and writing. We can also feel in his expressions the influence of the
people who most influenced him psychologically and emotionally.
More than anything, it was the historical era in which he lived that
affected him most. But we may argue that after leaving home and
embarking on their journeys, it was Song Mong-gyu, the person
closest to him, who left the greatest influence on his work.
A poet expresses the pain of a particular era. But that pain was
also reflected in their friendship: in feelings of inferiority, or antagonism,
or at times, in the sense that each person was a mirror of the
“The colonization of Korea by Japan is not well known outside of Asia. But I think the death of poet Yun
Dong-ju in Fukuoka Prison, after undergoing medical experimentation, is something that belongs not
just in Korean history, but in world history.”
Looking Back at Modernity
DP These days there are quite a number of Korean films set in
the colonial era. In the past, directors seemed to consciously avoid
that period, and there were very few films that garnered commercial
success. What has changed, in your opinion?
LJ Yes, in the past the colonial era was largely passed over by
filmmakers. The reason is because it was an era of despair. When
viewers spend money to go to the theater, they want to experience a
sense of triumph.
In times when Korea was struggling and life was tough, telling
stories about failure was unwelcome. But economically, Korea has
grown a great deal, and I think perhaps now we can more confidently
tell stories about our past failures. A good example is Choi
Dong-hoon’s film “Assassination.” The film is set in the dark days in
our history, but the story also emphasizes personal triumphs, such
as when Jun Ji-hyun’s character succeeds in her mission. I think
that enabled the film to be successful, and in a way it opened up
three decades of potential stories for Korean filmmakers.
DP What are you working on these days? Do you have another
film project under way?
LJ I’m developing two or three screenplays, but I’ve chosen
some tough subjects to tackle, so it’s a bit of a challenge right now.
What I’d most like to make is a film that pursues the issue of Korean
modernity. In the case of the United States or Japan, the introduction
of modernity was fairly straightforward. But in Korea it’s
quite complicated. How it’s usually explained in terms of world history
is that Japan colonized Korea and introduced modernity. I think
there are problems with that narrative.
Personally, I think we can locate the start of modernity in the
encounter of late Joseon-era society with Catholicism. It touched
off a movement called “Seohak” (literally, “Western Learning”) to
introduce Western thinking and science to Korean society. Eventually
this was counterbalanced by the “Donghak” (“Eastern Learning”)
movement, and in many ways the conflict between the two
movements led to Japan’s colonization of Korea.
I think a film that explores the growth of Seohak and then Donghak,
leading to Korea’s loss of national sovereignty, could say something
interesting about the nature of modernity in Korea. But perhaps
I’m being too ambitious. Discussing all this in a single screenplay
is a huge task!
Lee Joon-ik (third from left) chats with the actors during the shooting of “Dong-ju.”