The 2011 London Korean Film Festival gave the London audience a chance to assess, and in my case reassess, the work of Ryu Seung-wan. Ryu has had several of his films released in the UK on DVD, but he is not as well-known to the viewing public as the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. And I confess that when I knew that he was the featured director of the festival I was lukewarm, not being a particular fan of any of his films I had seen up to that point (No Blood No Tears, Arahan and City of Violence)
But a couple of people whose opinions I respect persuaded me to think again. So I rewatched the three films I had already seen (which reinforced my broadly neutral view of the director) and watched Crying Fist for the first time (which made me much more enthusiastic). And The Unjust was reputed to be Ryu’s finest film to date, so I began to look forward to the closing film of the festival. And watching Die Bad and Dachimawa Lee for the first time as part of the festival heightened my sense of anticipation.
The Unjust certainly did not disappoint. A strong cast, with a strong plot and plenty of style made for exhilarating viewing. Yes, it presents a depressing picture of justice system in Korea, but it also provides plenty of entertainment.
As if to address this head-on, Ryu’s first comment during the Q&A which followed the screening was “Korea’s a great place to live”, and this was not meant ironically.
The Unjust presents a pretty bleak picture of the morals of the people we should be trusting to enforce justice. And there’s believability to the story, as according to Ryu there has been a real-life instance of a corrupt prosecutor. But in a world where politicians are suing a comedian for bringing the political class into disrepute, Ryu hopes he’s in the clear: for this is the first time he’s worked off a scenario that someone else wrote – and he makes sure people know that. And when he was involved in the shooting, he made sure people didn’t know what scene it was they were filming and how it all fitted together.
Given Ryu’s sometimes instinctive, improvisational approach to shooting a scene, this was not as dfficult as it might at first seemed. “I spend a lot of time debating as to the right way to approach a scene, what the camera angles should be. And most of the time I end up thinking my wife was right all along,” he laughed in response to a question about his directing style after the screening. His wife, he explained, is also his producer.
The Q&A coursed over a wide range of topics. One point made was that all of his films were very different.
Ryu explained that the massive success of the grainy, low-budget debut Die Bad enabled him to make his next film with a bigger budget – and have an actress or two in the cast (No Blood No Tears). But he found working with actresses rather stressful, so he cut down for his next one (Arahan). But having produced a film with a generous input of CGI, it was back to the streets for Crying Fist. And so on.
But ultimately the style and genre of a film is less interesting to Ryu than the characters themselves, and in The Unjust there are some great characters.
Another question: Where does Ryu get his inspiration? “In the morning, on the toilet. I get a great feeling of release, and that’s when my best ideas come.” Tony Rayns butted in at this point. “That’s quite the opposite of Bong Joon-ho. He says he gets his best ideas when he’s constipated.”
“Bong Joon-ho is a pervert,” joked Ryu. “I am a normal person.”
Another question: “What are your concerns when you’re making a film?”
My main concern is “Is it going to suck?” In fact, once a film is made, the most important film is his next one. He refuses to be drawn on which of his past films he prefers – that’s for the audience to decide.
The Unjust rounded off a successful festival with a number of strands. It was a good idea to introduce a more lighthearted strand (Sunny, Detective K, Suicide Forecast) to counter the impression that many people have that Korean film is either horror or violent, as well as a strand on North Korean escapees (Yellow Sea, Dance Town, Poongsan) together with animation and short films. For the past couple of years Tony Rayns and many visiting directors have been pretty pessimistic about the current state of the Korean film industry. But the variety and quality of the films we saw this year show that there’s plenty of life left.
All of LKL’s coverage of the 2011 London Korean Film Festival can be found here.