Interview with Im Sang-soo

The following interview was conducted at the Pusan International Film Festival in October 2006. It originally appeared in The Japan Times.

The interview with Im Sang-soo takes place in a karaoke room in the basement of the Paradise Hotel. Though it wasn’t the press coordinator’s intention, the tacky ambience reminds me of the dining room where the assassination of Korean President Park Chung-hee takes place in Im’s movie, The President’s Last Bang, the subject of the interview.

The 44-year-old director sits at the head of the table, smoking languidly and taking questions from a woman reporter for a Korean publication. My interpreter whispers the woman’s questions to me but not Im’s answers, which sound curt. The woman giggles uncomfortably.

Im turns to me and I ask him about the lawsuit brought by Park Ji-man, the son of the late president, to prevent the film’s release, and about the judge’s subsequent order to cut the news footage that opens and closes the movie. “What she said is totally bullshit,” Im says in emphatic English, referring not to Park’s son but to his daughter, Park Geun-hye, who is planning to run for president herself. “The stated reason for the suit,” he continues in Korean, “is that in the news footage, in particular the final scene of President Park’s funeral, Ms. Park appears, and she didn’t want to appear. But it was clearly a political lawsuit instigated by the Park family and her party.”

On August 10, the Seoul Central District Court reversed the ruling on appeal, thus allowing MK Pictures to re-release the movie in its original form. Im believes that his appeal succeeded because “the political pressure had lessened.” The President’s Last Bang (Original Version) had its premiere at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival. The documentary portion, which in addition to the funeral contains footage of violent protests against Park, who led the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979, adds context to Im’s version of the assassination. This is important since he feels that young Koreans don’t know how repressive Park was.

The first judge ordered the cuts because he thought the documentary portion would confuse people into thinking that the whole movie was based on fact. He was, in effect, being a movie critic, not a judge. Im’s film is a comically lurid take on the assassination, portraying the Park regime as an extended mafia family and the presidential Blue House as the Korean equivalent of the Playboy Mansion. The director stands on his version.

“All the people are real,” he says. “And everything that happens in the film really happened. What they do in the film, we know they did it, and what happens to them in the film is all true. Only the dialogue is made up.”

Some of that dialogue is in Japanese, another source of contention. Park and his cohorts, including the director of the Korean CIA, Kim Jae-kyu, who carried out the assassination, grew up during the colonial period and were shaped by their military experience under the Japanese. Among themselves, and especially when they become emotional, these men speak in the guttural Japanese often associated with samurai and yakuza. They revere bushido and get all teary-eyed when they hear enka.

“That was exactly the way they were,” Im insists. “During the colonial era there were Korean insurgents who fought against the Japanese, but there were also Koreans who hunted down these insurgents on behalf of the Japanese. President Park belonged to this latter group. He killed Koreans who fought for independence, and he actually became the president of the country and ruled it for 18 years. That’s the biggest tragedy.”

Im admits he took liberties with the record, but that’s because he doesn’t agree with the record. When he was killed, Park was being entertained by a famous Korean singer. Officially, she sang Korean folk songs, but Im has her sing Japanese pop songs. “She was considered at the time one of the best enka singers anywhere, even in Japan, so I believe she sang enka that night. I don’t believe the official reports, and no one has ever challenged that scene, so I think my version is right.”

A more significant mystery is Kim’s motive for killing his boss. In the movie, he seems to make the decision spontaneously, after Park gives a lecture in which he advocates more brutal measures to stop student protests. “Each person who sees the film will have to decide for himself why he did it,” says Im. “Some think he was standing up for Korean democracy. Some think he was mad. The reason is not important to me.”

What is important to Im is that the audience sees Kim as being no different than Park or any of the other members of the regime in terms of macho pride. The assassination sets off a bloodbath in which the presidential guard, the KCIA, and the army all battle one another. It’s like a gang war, except that some wear military uniforms and others dark suits and sunglasses. There’s a slapstick quality to the violence that plays up the absurdity of the situation. Though the assassination was viewed as being political, the movie conveys the idea that it was sparked by personal resentments and vendettas. As a result, it looks like a classic yakuza thriller.

Im smiles. “To me, they’re all yakuza. All the people in the film, all the people in that government. Pure yakuza.” The director, however, points out that he doesn’t like gangster movies and, in fact, insists he’s never even seen a yakuza film. “But I know the style.”

Given this style and the themes it supports, the movie’s reception in Japan should be interesting, but no release date has been announced yet. “Actually, I know exactly when it’s going to be released in Japan,” he says conspiratorially. “Next year. Right before the Korean presidential election.”

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