[The sub-heading of Better and Sweeter is both a reference to Lee Myung-se’s film “Bitter and Sweet” and a reaction to how the man is in person compared to my first thoughts or anticipations]
Award winning films, “Nowhere To Hide”, “Duelist” and “M” are amongst those directed by Lee Myung-se. In between directing (& writing) these action, fantasy & thriller-noir titles he’s given the world further tales made up of dramas, love stories and comedies. However, it’s not only the genre-busting he seems to do well it’s also in his filming techniques. Rarely does a scene pass without some brilliant imagery. With all this in mind, it’s my reckoning that this down-to-earth and funny guy is more than capable of pulling off his forthcoming feature. We cover that film and others in our interview together. Well done, ‘Mister Lee’!
MM: You started out as an assistant director. Was “Gagman” based loosely around your start in becoming a director? Or was it based on experiences with other industry people you met?
LM-s: Of course, I watched other directors work and I think I tried to go the opposite way of what they were doing, & tried to re-interpret it into my own style.
MM: Some of “Gagman” reminded me of early Woody Allen, as well as Jacques Tati and, of course Charlie Chaplin. Do you have a favourite comedy actor? Is there one who’s inspired the comedy aspect of your writing?
LM-s: What was quite funny was that a lot of the reviewers at the time said a similar thing to what you’ve just said and mentioned all those directors, but actually until then, & at that time in Korea it was impossible to watch those films or those directors’ works. When I went to New York with my second film I took a real interest because at my time, and even when I was studying at film school, there were only two text books on films. There was no such thing as a cinematheque and it was only at the end of the 80’s that video started coming in to the country.
MM: Between “Gagman” and “Nowhere To Hide” you must have learned many new filming & post-production techniques. Even now, are you still learning new techniques?
LM-s: It’s now a digital era so you have to learn new techniques [laughs]. There are so many new things to learn, as well. The next film will be shot using digital technology but it’s difficult to memorise everything… but I think I‘ve got a rough idea of how to proceed.
MM: It’s clear from the start of “Nowhere To Hide”, and other films of yours that you’ve got a good passion for music. The music which accompanies the scene makes it a very balletic and stylish visual & sound. Is that piece of music in your mind before, or even while the script is written?
LM-s: Sometimes, yes. It’s a case by case scenario. I mean, I don’t intentionally choose that music but following the rhythm of the film it will be in there… or the film will be following the music I had in mind before. Even now I’m listening to music to prepare for my next film but Im not sure whether I’ll include it or not. Another problem is that the rights costs are so high.
MM: How did “Duelist” compare to other films you’d made up to that point?
LM-s: I thought that the audience would have evolved by that point. People were using mobile phones or using new emoticons. They were compressing language and emotions using technology, so I thought that they would have evolved. But actually, when the film came out it turned out they hadn’t evolved at all. Actually, “Duelist” is a really simple story but the audience didn’t know how to take it and it was something that they couldn’t comprehend. It wasn’t even a [Andrei] Tarkovsky* film but they found it as difficult as one of his films.
MM: Most of the movie was filmed at 20 different indoor and outdoor sets, which had been specially built. Do you generally prefer studio sets or working on location? For example, is it easier in post-production if shot on a studio set?
LM-s: If I can I prefer to shoot in the studio. The studio is like a home to me. You can control the light. If you’re shooting outside on location you’re constantly chasing the light and being controlled by the time, but when you’re shooting in the studio everything is under your control, so that’s why I prefer to shoot there.
MM: In “Duelist” and other films of yours, what percentage of the process takes place in post-production, rather than whilst shooting?
LM-s: Post production is extremely important. For example, “Nowhere to Hide” actually only took one month to do everything, including the editing and the mixing… Because in Korean cinema the distribution of the cinemas showing the films aren’t pre-decided. If they give you a good date you have to do it by then. Even if you have sleepless nights you have to make it by that date. But I believe that an equal amount of time should be invested in both the pre and post production.
MM: I really admired the film, “M”. It’s very atmospheric and moving & I was taken in completely, especially by the early bar scene. Could you tell us a little about that particular scene?
LM-s: There are several reasons for that particular choice. It was really difficult to get the funding for the film, and so for economic reasons that’s why that idea was used for the shooting. It was a completely basic standard film set and the only thing that was made was the light stand. Everything had to be covered in darkness in order to give the illusion that it was this really big bar. It was also a concept for the entire film, this idea of shining darkness. There was also a philosophy of high decors but I kind of wanted to try and attempt this shining darkness.
MM: You obviously love effects, whether lighting, editing tricks, slow motion, jump shots, still frames, image layering or vivid & tainted colours. How much do you think about these when writing the screenplay?
LM-s: I need to have the scene in mind in order to write the script, and that continues to develop until the shooting period, & it’s continuously evolving throughout that period. It can’t all be contained in the initial script. Once the actors are all cast and the locations are decided then that changes some of the decisions you have to make along the way. Money, of course is very important too.
MM: The various effects in your films are definitely a Lee Myung-se trademark, but because you’ve got so many in the film do you feel the art aspect is more important than the story, or that the two go hand in hand?
LM-s: Yes, I have been asked that question many times and so I’ve been able to get a concise answer in my head. Regardless of whether it’s in Korea or foreign lands, it’s always a conflict between the story or the visual.
[LM-s addresses MM personally:] I really hope that you are able to explain this false dichotomy between story and visual to many, many readers.
[There are smiles & laughs… including a nervous one from MM]
Simply because I shot this face it doesn’t mean that’s a visual. If you shoot the landscape with the cloud and it’s pretty, people think that’s what a visual is. It’s just like having two pieces of art that just depict the really simple landscape and thinking that’s the visual.
A real visual is like the sculpture of Balzac that is born.
To explain, a true visual is something that slowly evolves through the process much like making many millions of sketches when you’re trying to make the sculpture of “Balzac” by [Auguste] Rodin, where it’s like fitting in millions of different jigsaw puzzles… that’s what a true visual is. Even when you look at all the classical films out there, there are only a few which can really truly represent what a real visual is. It’s that difficult to find.
Have you watched a film called “Late Spring”?
MM: No, I don’t think so.
LM-s: There’s a scene in that film which is a close-up and that represents a true visual.
And, if you watch “Cameraman” by Buster Keaton, in the beginning there’s a scene where he mis-shoots so that the sea and the city landscape is all mixed up. Those kinds of scenes are true visual.
Also… In the film, “Mr Hulot’s Holiday”, there is no main actor in that film but you really get the sense that this is a true vacation… And that’s all contained in the last image of a stamp.
[MM relays to LM-s his thoughts on the film, “M”]: Even though the film was confusing the great scenes complemented it… For example, there’s a shot of the guy cycling round and round in the dark, outside the barbers. It is a part of the story but good imagery as well.
MM: What film have you enjoyed making most or the one you feel is your greatest achievement or accomplishment?
LM-s: In terms of achievement, “Nowhere To Hide” because previously to that I wasn’t able to get much commercial success… But that did so well and so of course I felt that was a huge point [career-wise]… And with that film I’m still able to make films now. But all the films were quite exhausting to me. I think the next film will be difficult to shoot as well but I’ve been able to gain some kind of relaxed state of mind, so I can actually enjoy the process a bit now.
MM: Is there an actor you enjoyed working with the most?
LM-s: I think all the actors I work with, it’s always a pleasure and an enjoyable experience… Including Gang Don-Won; Ha Ji-Won; Park Joong-hoon; Ahn Sung-ki; Kim Hye-su… And, regardless of whether they’re a commercial success at the box office or not, each film was cinematic and was able to get good cinematic reviews.
MM: Do you have any influences, such as other Korean or International directors?
LM-s: The time period I was growing up in, it was difficult at the time to be influenced by films in the cinema like the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ genres and directors like Jean-Luc Godard. Instead my inspiration had to come from books and especially poetry, like [Charles] Bourdelaire; [T. S.] Elliot** and they were my sources of inspiration which I took.
MM: I feel your films are very unique. How does it feel being so different with your filmmaking? Can you think of any other directors who have a similar style?
LM-s: I try to self analyze myself and there are still parts I don’t know about myself, but at least i know I dont shoot in the same way as everyone else. Absolutely.
MM: Finally, what’s next for Lee Myung-Se?
LM-s: “Mr K”. It’s a 007 movie… but not the actual James Bond!
[Laughs are shared]
MM: Thank you for your time.
First and Foremost [although almost Last in this article!], many thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre, London for arranging this interview and allowing it to take place.
 1999 – Blue Dragon Film Awards
 2005 – (25th) Critics Choice Awards
 2007 – (27th) Critics Choice Awards
[Reviews of all these films and more will be on this site soon, if not already. I guess it depends on at what point in time you read this…]
*I believe that this is whom was being referred to – it is known that he used to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. On transcribing this interview fully I thought that it could only be Tarkovsky, or perhaps the less likely, Darren Aronofsky.
**T.S. (rather than George) is who it’s believed is listed as one of his influences. I understand that [Franz] Kafka was also mentioned.
But… The fun is not over yet! Keep an eye out, and continue to regularly check out the Korean Cultural Centre’s homepage. For what?
Perhaps this – found on their website – will (hugely) hint at what this year holds for us…: