Im Sang-Soo, South Korean director and jury member of the International Competition section of the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) on why he likes to make films on subjects which are inherently provocative
What is more exciting for you at the MFF — the screening of your film The Taste Of Money or the judging process for the International Competition for the First Feature Films of Directors?
I have to watch three or four films a day and for the judging process I have to interact with the other jury members, which I don’t like. Presenting my own film is more exciting for me. My film is in a way like a Hollywood film, in the sense that it is made by an Asian director for the world, especially the Western world. I really want to see the reaction it garners from the Indian filmmakers.
Is this your first time in Mumbai?
Yes, and I feel I should have visited the city before. I think it is a shame but it’s the truth. I am an Asian director from a small Asian country. European and American critics are very important to my career as a filmmaker but as an Asian director, I need to connect with other Asian films and other Asian critics too. So, I decided to come here. It’s kind of late but yeah…
Do you watch Indian cinema? What is the last Indian film that you have seen?
I am sorry, despite being a filmmaker, unfortunately I am not a big movie maniac. I am not a movie-goer, which may sound surprising to you. I am a director who makes films but doesn’t watch too many films. And sadly enough, in Korea, we can hardly find an Indian film. I do respect the situation in the Indian film industry. Like in the rest of the world, Korean films also take a backseat due to the abundance of big Hollywood films. The entire market is dominated by Hollywood. I know that Indians love films. Some 30 to 40 years ago we could watch an Indian film in Korean cinema halls. But that was a long time ago and I was a little boy then. I remember watching a film about an elephant and a boy. Today, we can hardly find an Indian film in Korea.
You moved from screenwriting to directing your own films. Was that like a natural progression?
I started my career as a screenwriter because I wanted to become a director. To become a director, I had to start as a screenwriter. There is no fixed way to become a director or a screenwriter – some become a director first and then move to screenwriting and for some it’s vice-versa. It depends on each one’s idea or perspective. I became a screenwriter first and then the opportunity to become a director came to me.
You have directed films which you have also written. Do you see the possibility of directing a film written by someone else?
There is no hard and fast rule that I have to direct what I write. If there is a good script, I am open to directing it. For example, one of the movies I have directed, The Old Garden was not a script completely written by me.
What is more important: critical acclaim or box office success?
(Long pause, laughs) Primarily and initially, box office success is more important because it earns me money so I can make my next film. I know that I will not be able to make more films if I don’t have box office hits. To be very honest, when I made my first film, I was very opposed to what the critics had to say about my film and I even tried to say things against them. But now, I just let them go. I am not so concerned about the critics anymore. But I am an Asian director and I know that what the European and American critics have to say is very important in Korea.
By your own admission, European and American critics are important to you. Is that why you did not take it too kindly when your film The Taste Of Money was rated the lowest among the 22 films vying for Palme D’Or at Cannes 2012? In retaliation you reportedly said your film was “a very Korean story” that foreigners can’t understand.
When I go to a big festival in Europe, it is important for my career, because my kind of film is not popular in the Korean market. When you aspire to be there, at that kind of a festival, it can also lead to frustration. I just make what I want to make. After that, if they invite me, that’s good. But when I feel desperate to be there or desperate to win a prize, it is not a good thing. After I finish making my film, I have nothing to do in the festival. Mainstream distributors and mainstream society in Korea don’t like my film. So, I felt that my whole career was sort of jeopardised (when the European critics rated my film low) because I make these kind of films in Korea. So at that time, I really wanted the prize not for the money, not for my big ego but to secure my career.
You consciously choose provocative and controversial subjects for your films, right?
Very true! Most of my films are like this. The Taste of Money almost jeopardised my career because the power of money is so strong and so direct, they don’t like if you are being critical. In the film, I don’t just criticise the lifestyle of the super rich. They have the money, they have power, they have the freedom to live their life. With such big money, you can do everything. I have no problem with that. The most important thing is that they think they are like emperors or kings of yore. They have no respect for the people who don’t have money or for those who are poor. I mean, we are poor people, yeah? Even though we don’t have our own money, we have to have our own dignity.
Your earlier film The President’s Last Bang also got caught in a political web and you had to edit out some footage. That’s much like in India. In such a scenario often the Censor Board gains a lot of importance. What is the scene in Korea with regard to censorship?
Officially, in Korea, there is no censorship. There is no Censor Board but a judicial power sometimes edit scenes when they want. It is all corrupt. But your society and our society will hopefully overcome this kind of a situation someday.
What are your expectations of how The Taste of Money will be received at the Mumbai Film Festival?
In the film, there is one American character. He is a rich guy doing business with a rich Korean businessman. He has a line in the film ‘Money is easy. F*#@ing is great. Korea is Fantastic.’ This line is mainly for the Western, young generation. That line is the essence of Western colonialism. Why did Englishman come to India 200 years ago?
Will you continue to make films which disturb the powerful, the rich and the establishment?
Yes. I think these are the best ideas – disturbing the rich and powerful people.