Every year, Korea’s most read film magazine(Cine 21) publishes the “Must List 30″ for the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) featuring their top picks for Korea’s most prestigious film event. This year only two documentaries were selected and one of those was (Splendid But Sad Days) from Korean documentary filmmaker Lee Hong-ki. I recently sat down with the director to talk about his latest film, family and how he finds beauty in the simple things.
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Between bites of raw fish and sips of soju and beer, Lee smiles and shares personal stories, at times contemplative and poetic, at other moments teasing and jovial. It’s easy to see how his subjects feel comfortable enough to share their lives with him on film. Born and raised in Seoul, Lee left Korea to study Sociology in Japan. He never gained any formal qualifications in filmmaking, but instead learned about news programs and documentaries on the job at a broadcasting company. Lee met his wife in Japan and returned to Korea where they had two children. He worked as a producer for Arirang TV, but eventually his heart led him back to the camera, although he occasionally films documentary series for the company.
He has tried other forms of filmmaking but the personal stories draw him back. “I’ve always had a heart for documentaries”.
When I asked him what his kids think of his job, he smiled wryly, When I asked them to accompany me to BIFF for the screening they said: We’ll come, but only if we get to meet some celebrities.
I guess their dad doesn’t count. To his kids the coolest directors around are the ones making Korean dramas’ or soap operas. Lee laughs about this and says without pretension, My best friend is a very successful TV drama director who often tells me that he envies my career and wishes he could make films like mine.
International interest in Korean documentary filmmaking was amplified in 2008 when (Old Partner) by director Lee Chung-ryol became the first South Korean Film to compete at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, about an old man and his beloved cow, created a big stir in Europe, and opened the door for Lee and other filmmakers to find success abroad.
This film was really important, it has helped me,” said Lee â”Now there’s an expectation for my film. People are waiting for it”.
When Splendid but Sad Days had its world premiere at Cannes earlier this year, the film received a very warm reception, including a standing ovation. The film also reduced the entire audience to tears.
When he asked a fellow director why he was crying, he told Lee, You made me think about my mother and her life. And that’s the ultimate goal of this film; I want to influence the audience, to make them think about the women in their lives and their role in society.’
“How do regular people live normal lives in a place that is so full of natural beauty? How do they survive surrounded by so much beauty?”
Splendid but Sad Days is the story of 70-year old Yun Woo-sook, a woman who has spent her entire adult life catching and selling fish to support her alcoholic husband and raise their five children. Her husband never worked a day in their married life, simply depending on his wife to provide for him in every way until his inevitable early death from alcohol-related causes,
Suncheon (??) the area in Jeolla province where their village is located, is one of the few protected wetland areas in Korea and is stunningly beautiful part of the peninsula. In Korean the film title is ??, named after the area, because Lee wanted to evoke the feeling of this special place amongst his Korean audience.
The name also has significance in Chinese. Sun (pronounced âsoon': following/accepting, cheon: sky, so Soon Cheon could be translated as following nature. One of the questions that drew Lee to this area is, How do regular people live normal lives in a place that is so full of natural beauty? How do they survive surrounded by so much beauty?
For the first time in his career Lee was inspired by a place rather than a story, an indication of the power this ecological paradise has on this seasoned filmmaker, I had no choice, I had to make a film here.
He describes the natural beauty of Sooncheon, how at different times of the day the scenery changes like the tides. Usually, he finds a story first, either by research or word of mouth, and then films it. However, on his first trip to Sooncheon he knew he wanted to find a story here.
I spent six months, walking the 60km around the area meeting locals and listening to their stories. It was during this research that he found Yun Woo-sook. He believes he was truly fortunate to find this story in such an unorthodox manner, saying that Luck came down from above.
The film took three years to complete, during which Lee established a strong bond with Yun. Lee seems surprised when I ask if they still keep in touch, I saw her soul- I can’t just forget that and cut her off.
Another thing that surprised him was Yun’s reaction to the death of her husband.
I thought she would be happy, relieved, (and feel) a sense of freedom from this burden, but her grief was deep and complex, highlighting the Korean concept of ??? (miyeon jeong) âhate is also love’.
No soap opera screenwriter could craft a character as stoic and dedicated as Yun Woo-sook, or a storyline with such genuine tragedy paired with enduring love. The English title of the film expresses these conflicting ideas of beauty, grief, love and hate.
Documenting this story made him reconsider his relationship with his own mother, her marriage to his father and her life choices, My parents, still fight. I hate it, he says.
Lee hopes every man who sees this film will be able to view women with new eyes, to truly appreciate the women in their own live, and to think about how women are treated in their own societal and cultural context.
He asked me if I’m in a relationship and then added: When your boyfriend watches this movie, he will look at you with new eyes and love you even more.
So what does the future hold for Lee Hong-ki? Splendid but Sad Days will travel the European Film Festival circuit, including Amsterdam, Berlin and others. His next release is 0.23?Sv â The Future of Fukushima, a documentary exploring the nuclear disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl. In his desire to investigate the multiple facets of these places and tell their stories from his unique perspective, he stepped inside the reactors at Fukushima and walked the abandoned streets of Chernobyl. Lee describes his approach to telling stories with an analogy to tree.
Most people cut a tree straight across and look at the rings to find the story, I slice it like this (motions diagonally with his hand), so I can see all the hidden layers and valuables hidden where others might not find them.’
“Splendid but Sad Days” premieres at BIFF on October 6th at 8pm, with an additional showing on October 8th at 1pm. Both showings feature English subtitles.
You can see the BIFF listing page for the movie here.
Translation by Jeonghwa Kang.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article intro errantly reported that Lee Hong-ki made the film Old Partner. This was actually done by director Lee Chung-ryol as stated in the article text. Apologies to both directors for this editorial error.