[KING AND THE CLOWN SPECIAL] Lee Joon-Ik's (Cine)World

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[TIFF information page here.]

"우리 철학은 명확하다. 영화로 돈을 만들지, 돈으로 영화를 만들지 않는다는 거다 (Our philosophy is clear: we make money with movies, we don't make movies with money)"
이준익 - Lee Joon-Ik

Money, Argent, Dinero, 돈. It makes Cinema one of the world's most tempting businesses, a potential cash cow for investors in Korea just like in any other mature film industry. But despite being sustained by hardcore film aficionados who often work inhumane hours for very little pay; by serious and talented actors who have respect for the profession, and by many producers with good taste and an open mind, there still are plenty of rotten apples in the industry. Many film companies populate Chungmuro, the last survey pointing at something like 1,500 (a far cry from the 5,000-something in the mid 80s, but still quite a figure), and even though many survive by doing something other than movies, the majority jump into the scene with a big money project or two, get to taste reality, and go back to where they started. They try to make movies with money alone, not with a combination of talent, dedication, professionalism and passion. And when what they expected in return (money) doesn't come, they close the door. Bye bye, cold-hearted Chungmuro.

It's like a continuous (vicious?) circle. New company forms, rises, hits the top, falls, disappears... rewind. You could list literally hundreds of film companies that completely fell off the radar in a matter of years. What's worse, only a handful of companies which started operating in the early 90s were able to get through the rocky formative period, enjoyed the benefits of the boom, and survived when the bubble burst. One of them is certainly Cineworld, led by its 'Three Musketeers:' Jung Seung-Hye (also President of Morning Films), Jo Cheol-Hyeon (also head of Tiger Pictures), and of course its founder and president, Lee Joon-Ik. For a long time, the company's long lasting motto has been that of seeing movies as a product of people, not as something created by, and moved by the pursuit of money.

It's probably that philosophy which helped them survive in this business for all those years, going through failures, risking collapse more than once, and constantly having to deal with debts, influencing their every move in this business. Cineworld is special also because it's one of the few remnants of that 'studio system' mentality which pretty much disappeared: they never outsource their works to famous directors, doing things in house. They do that by cultivating directors, using more or less the same stable of actors, and when push comes to shove, even going on the field themselves as directors.

When he lived in Gyeongju during his childhood, Lee Joon-Ik shared a bedroom with his grandfather, a scholar of Chinese classics, for close to 10 years. He'd often have to get up at four in the morning to help him with the ink, and it was then that young Lee Joon-Ik started learning to paint, and gained interest in East Asian Culture. But despite being quite proficient in that area, he wasn't exactly a model student. In Middle School, one of his classmates was Lee Kwang-Mo, director of 아름다운 시절 (Spring in My Hometown), a top student unlike Director Lee, who always found himself near the bottom of the list when it came to grades. With college exams approaching, he finally started thinking about his future, deciding to focus on Arts, thanks to the talent he acquired helping his Grandfather.

Lee first went to Seoul National University, the country's most prestigious symbol of higher education, but got turned down. After being turned down at Hongik as well, he was introduced to a professor at an Art Studio, who brought him in, let him sleep and eat there in exchange for cleaning the place every morning, and eventually led him to Sejong University's East Asian painting faculty. Except... except Lee's wife had a kid, and money quickly started running out. Lee had to quit Sejong and tried everything to make ends meet, from knocking at the door of major dailies (Donga Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo, Hanguk Ilbo) to theaters (Myungbo), but everyone said the same thing, that he had no experience and those places wouldn't just 'hire anybody.' With a bit of luck, he started doing illustrations for a Monthly magazine, and that's when things started to turn for the better.

Lee Se-Ryong, who worked on other magazines as editor-in-chief and respected his work, brought Lee with him at Seoul Cinema when he became marketing director in 1985, giving him a job inside his team. In an era when mentioning the word 'Internet' would probably remind of Park Sang-Myun's reaction in 넘버 3 (No. 3), the key in marketing films were posters and newspaper ads. Lee didn't know much about films back then, as he wasn't one of those 'Hollywood Kids,' in love with films straight from their youth. He was essentially there for the money -- 300,000 Won a month to be precise, not too shabby a figure in the mid 80s. But that never influenced his work, as under Director Lee Hwang-Rim -- who helmed Park Joong-Hoon's debut 깜보 (Kam-Bo), erotica 'classic' 애란 (Aeran) and a couple other films in the 90s -- he started learning the tricks of the trade. Word of mouth about his talent started spreading, so much that other theaters like Myungbo and Daehan Cinema offered him work. Between his Seoul Cinema days and the beginning of his career as a director, Lee designed posters and pamphlets for over 1,500 between Korean and foreign films.

It was back then that Lee met some of the people, colleagues and 'rivals on good terms' who would walk the same road with him for two decades. One of them was Shim Jae-Myung (who later would go on to found Myung Films), working for Seoul Cinema with him around the same time. Other people in this little 'clique' of film advertisers eventually entering film production were Seok Myung-Hong who worked at Danseongsa Theater (now president of Cineline II, producers of films like 친구 (Friend) and 말아톤 (Marathon)), Shin Cheol of Myungbo Theater (founder of Shin Cine) and a young man called Kang Woo-Suk, who would go on to become one of the most influential figures in 90s Korean Cinema. Kang, Shin, Lee, Seok, all those people became and still are friends, despite being 'rivals' on paper, sharing some the pie together as the pioneers of today's Chungmuro, if you will.

Kang in particular would prove to be an important factor in Lee's career, as so many of his failures and successes are tied to Cinema Service and the help he gave him. In 1987 Lee founded his first advertising company with Seok Myung-Hong, Cinecity, bringing in some of the people he worked with at Seoul Cinema, including Shim Jae-Myung and Yoo In-Taek (another big time producer now). They would make film posters and pamphlets, newspaper ads and more. The company was doing incredibly well, so much that one year Cinecity was responsible for marketing 6 of the 7 releases during the Chuseok Holidays. Lee was now making good money (even up to a Million Won a month, and we're talking early 90s here), the company was doing great, and he was known all over the industry. But he felt something was missing, something which could take him one step further. That something was his first film, 키드 캅 (Kid Cop).

The idea was a little too radical for Lee's partner Seok Myung-Hong: it was 1992, and the company split. Seok would continue his advertising/marketing work and founded Cineline, while Lee established Cineworld. Of course the company would continue with its marketing work, but it became one of the few in Korea to also handle production and distribution of foreign and domestic films at the same time. The other two 'Musketeers' who joined Lee since the beginning were Jung Seung-Hye and Jo Cheol-Hyeon, who Lee knew since his Cinecity days. Jo's career was quite unique: after majoring in English Literature, he failed the exam for broadcast PD nine consecutive times, and worked in a few other film-related companies for a couple of years before joining Cineworld.

In 1987, when he was working as subtitler/translator for a distribution company, his first job was preparing subtitles for the 1986 comedy Crocodile Dundee, starring Australian actor Paul Hogan. Everything seemed to go smoothly, except for a little detail: Hogan's accent. Although the comedy in the film was more of the 'fish out of water' type, the language played a big part, and even Koreans who spoke a little English would find Hogan's Australian inflection a little too hard to digest. So what did Jo do? Since he was from Jeolla Province, he turned Hogan's Australian English into... Jeolla Province dialect. That was his calling card into the business, and he continued translating and writing subtitles even after joining Cineworld.

Lee's reason for finally starting production on Kid Cop, Cineworld's launching project, was very simple: he would go to the theater with his kids at least twice a year, always a big event for the family. But all he could find when it came to films for 'all the family' were Hollywood flicks, like The Goonies and Home Alone, so he wanted to reverse the trend. Now the problem wasn't so much the genre itself, but the perception it had at the time with Korean audiences. If you mentioned the word 'kids flick' in the 90s, many Koreans would bring up Shim Hyung-Rae, currently engulfed in a battle against time to release 디워 (D-War) before the end of the Century. Shim was a popular comedian before joining the acting world, and he would often reprise his most famous character, dumb and naive Young-Gu, in many of his films.

Most of his works were hilariously bad rip-offs of Japanese Tokusatsu classics, like his 우뢰매 (Wuroemae) series -- recently released on DVD! -- or super low budget suitmation 괴수영화 (monster films). Mostly targeted at elementary school kids -- or the slacker crowd with peculiar taste -- those marvels (?) of technology ended up killing the market for good, not only in terms of audience reception (who saw kids/monster flicks as cheap and badly made after that) but also with directors (aspiring or not) themselves, who saw involvement with films of that kind as career suicide. Lee tried to convince a few people to direct the film, but nobody wanted that kind of burden, so he eventually decided to do it himself. Almost a decade after entering the business by coincidence, Lee became the most unlikely of film directors.

His reason for making the film seemed very simple, almost innocent, but Lee also made Kid Cop because of hostility. To be precise, hostility against the advent of Hollywood's aggressive distribution techniques hurting local product, which started en masse in 1988 but found its apex in the early 90s, when Chungmuro's market share was at one of its lowest points ever. The decision to allow Hollywood companies to directly distribute their films in Korea sent many film people on the streets, protesting what they perceived was the potential end of the industry. Even more so because of his background in East Asian Painting, he couldn't get over this cultural flunkeyism, so in that sense Kid Cop was made to fight off the onslaught of Hollywood films of the same kind.

But Lee was living a sort of contradiction: he was both on the street protesting Hollywood's cultural imperialism and making a living off of it, often marketing films which came exactly from the source of his complaints. That sort of reckless energy was born out of the situation the industry was facing in the early 90s, when Chaebol were throwing countless cheap projects on the table as filler for their VHS blanks. The syndrome almost turned the entire industry into a giant producer of third rate, straight to video (with the token 3 days theater release) commercial flicks directed by people with often very little experience, save for a few brave directors doing their own thing. Lee simply saw directing films as the answer to all his problems. Or so he thought.

As he admitted before on several interviews, Lee simply didn't have respect for the business back then: he entered production without any knowledge, and he didn't have any experience as an assistant director or even just as a cinephile. It was just the allure of making it big, becoming an important director, and hitting the jackpot. Problem was that back then, directors didn't exactly have it easy, something he learned pretty quickly. If you told people you were a film director in the 90s, they would almost certainly give you a strange look mixing contempt with compassion. There's a great scene in the Drama 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts), in which Son Chang-Min finds himself at a police station, and after being asked his profession and replying 'film director,' we see the detective type '무직 (unemployed)' on his PC with hilarious nonchalance. That's the idea.

1993 might have brought Chungmuro the legendary theater run of Im Kwon-Taek's 서편제 (Sopyonje), but Korean films were responsible for less than 16% of the total nationwide admissions that year, and that's just out of less than 50 Million tickets sold all year round (it'd take just under 4 months to do that now). Along with Stallone's Cliffhanger, the last film to hit it big that year ended up being Kid Cop's main competition, none other than Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Lee's debut quietly died down at the box office that Summer, selling a mere 21,500 tickets, about 1/50 of the T-Rex flick. It wasn't exactly the kind of jackpot the young director was expecting.

In theory, it was a decent idea, a sort of Die Hard with a bunch of Elementary School kids playing the part of Bruce Willis, sans the murders and International terrorists. Other than starring seasoned veterans like Dokko Young-Jae, the film featured a lineup of child actors, many of whom would slowly get out of the business after a few years. The highlight was certainly Kim Min-Jung, who would go on to become one of the most talented young actresses in Korea -- her latest performance being in Kim Dae-Woo's Sageuk 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest). The real problem was the execution though: despite being fairly entertaining -- if anything because of Kim's charm -- direction was quite bad, in line with some of the worst 'tape filler' commercial films of the early 90s, and obviously Lee's lack of experience made its appearance on many occasions. The film's huge flop led the team to reconsider their plans, and Cineworld left the production of films for six long years, focusing more on importing foreign films -- usually Japanese, European and American arthouse/independent films. He learned a lesson, that he couldn't just focus on money alone, and spent those six years making up for his early mistakes.

Those years were helpful in regaining the strength and passion Lee, Jo and Jung lost over Kid Cop's failure, and with the money they made distributing foreign films, Cineworld slowly developed a project for what would be their rebirth into the production system. The project actually started in the mid 90s, when Park Chan-Wook, Lee and Jo Cheol-Hyeon started writing the script, and even flew to Shanghai to iron out some details for a future co-production with China. This wasn't exactly a good period for Park, who was supposed to direct the film: his debut in the early 90s was a catastrophic flop at the box office, and he was facing the darkest hours of his career.

The biggest reason influencing the film's problems was the lack of 'names you could trust' behind the camera, but also the theme of the film. Sure, Shiri might have hit the jackpot, reviving interest in the 분단 (North/South Divide) even within Chungmuro circles, but 아나키스트 (Anarchists) was something entirely different. Set in the 1920s, the film dealt with the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai during Japanese occupation, involving a group of anarchists betrayed by forces on both sides of the fence. With casting at a standstill and budget for the expensive location shoots in Shanghai up in the air, Park Chan-Wook decided to work on something else, which turned out to be his second feature film 3인조 (Trio).

With Anarchists in the back burner, Cineworld decided to focus on something else. Although Choi Min-Shik's character in 쉬리 (Shiri) was one of the first to deal with North Koreans without filtering them through the good old Yushin propaganda, 간첩 리철진 (The Spy) took a step further. Unlike Kang Je-Gyu's film, this wasn't a blockbuster filled with special effects and big stars, but a little black comedy with a strong theatrical feel and no box office draws. The film was centered around a very simple, but in a Korean context revolutionary, concept: portraying a North Korean spy as a person before all the things that came after that. Jo and Lee were so intrigued by this item that they wrote the script in just four days. That was probably the biggest problem: they focused only on the big picture and forgot about the little details that often make films like this entertaining, and the reaction around them wasn't too good. They needed to rewrite it all.

Two other people took care of the new script, 박리다매 (literally 'large turnover with small profits', but of course Park and Lee's names are part of the double entendre), the nickname of the strangest duo of writers in the country, back then nearly unknowns Park Chan-Wook and Lee Mu-Young. After the two changed the details completely, emphasizing black comedy tropes and giving a strange charm to the Human Drama, a promising theater director who debuted in Chungmuro a year earlier joined the project, and after completing the script with the help of Jung Jin-Wan later became the director. His first film was 기막힌 사내들 (The Happenings), his name? Jang Jin.

Jang's first film had a few problems, mostly because he had a hard time leaving his theater roots and taking advantage of the new medium. But it was definitely interesting, with tremendous creativity and a wild imagination when it came to dialogue -- sometimes just playing around silly things like a name's pronunciation, as in the 서팔호/소 팔어 (Seo Pal-Ho - So Pareo/I sell cows) gag. Mixed with Jang's great dialogue, the black comedy roots of the Park/Lee duo, and an excellent cast combining film regulars (Yoo Oh-Sung, Park In-Hwan, Park Jin-Hee) and theater veterans (Jung Jae-Young, Jung Gyu-Soo, Son Hyun-Joo, Im Won-Hee), The Spy was one of the best Korean comedies of the decade. What was the key here? Well, you see, our North Korean spy wasn't there to steal US/Korea strategical plans, plan a terrorist attack on the South, or kidnap Jung Yoon-Hee since the Dear Leader was having an attack of nostalgia.

No, our young hero Ri Cheol-Jin was there to steal a formula for a superpig, which would improve the living conditions of his fellow countrymen up North. So the North Koreans in the film weren't evil, child-eating commies with a dislike for everything associated with capitalism. They were simply poor and desperate enough to do something that crazy because... what a concept, they were hungry! The problem, once again, was competition. Just like what happened with Kid Cop, Lee met once again with a Hollywood blockbuster, and ended up suffering because of it. Despite fixing all the problems which plagued their 1993 effort, The Spy faced off with The Matrix in late Spring that year, and ended up with the shorter end of the stick, or less than 180,000 tickets in Seoul, if you prefer. Back to the drawing board for Cineworld and Lee Joon-Ik.

By the end of 90s, they were ready to begin production on Anarchists once again, with Park Chan-Wook at the helm. But something Park never expected happened: he was offered the directing chair for an incredibly promising project, which later became known as 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area). How could he refuse the chance of a lifetime, especially after everything he went through in the 90s? After discussing things out with the company, Park joined what would become his career making film, and Cineworld was left without a director for their most ambitious project to date. Anarchists was probably one of the 'lost projects' of Chungmuro's last 10 years. Lost both because of its untimely flop, but also for the opportunity to make a seriously good film on the matter, which was eventually wasted because of several different issues.

First, going from Park Chan-Wook (who still had a lot to prove back then, but the talent and creativity were clearly there) to first time director Yoo Young-Shik meant a huge difference, going from a potentially great political noir to an uneven clash of styles with a few sparks here and there. The script was certainly there, and you could feel the passion Cineworld had in this project, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Sure, the sets and costumes looked great, but what could have become Korea's Miller's Crossing (in mood) ended up closer to an exaggerated ode to John Woo's worst shortcomings as a filmmaker. Yoo, whose hilarious short 스무켤레 (Fucked Up Shoes) represents his only work in the last 3 years, couldn't breathe life into characters which had the potential to become really interesting.

Just the subject was fascinating, and 'smelled' a lot like the kind of political noir Park Chan-Wook would love to get involved with. Even though the film was dealing with the Provisional Government, the key figures here weren't Kim Goo, Lee Seung-Man or Park Eun-Shik. It was a group of friends, trying to do something for their country, eventually being left out by both sides, like sailors without a captain. Abundant in style, with a big cast -- Jang Dong-Gun, Jung Joon-Ho, Kim Sang-Joong, Lee Beom-Soo, Ye Ji-Won and more -- and the kind of tragic story that was always part of Korean's favourite hits, Anarchists only needed focused direction and good performances to work like a charm. Another thing in the film's favour was the fact they focused on the lives of those 'anarchists,' while the struggle of the Provisional Government, the political intrigue, Japan's influence in the matter, that was all very convincing salad dressing to a film that already had very strong characters, at least on paper.

But then Jang Dong-Gun goes all Chow Yun-Fat and cool Machismo on us, which was a betrayal of the layers the character had hidden under the stylish trench coat. The comedy and little bits of romance were almost embarrassing, and only the elements of historical relevance, and the anarchist theme itself, saved the film from oblivion. They certainly worked hard, but the combination of a first time director dealing with a project that was way too ambitious, a cast which didn't live up to their big names, and other little production-related problems relegated Anarchists from potential cult hit to a passable divertissement for a rainy day. The public thought the same, abandoning theaters after a couple of weeks, and leaving the film with a low 6 figure result in Seoul. The beginning of Cineworld's problems was right around the corner. Hell, just a taxi away.

The three Musketeers of Cineworld were sitting with other company workers for lunch, thinking about a few new ideas for the future. This was the time when foreign imports, like Taxi and The Whole Nine Yards were doing well for the company, so they had enough capital to start production for another film. Looking at the growing influence of horror films in the country, coupled with past genre-blending experiments like Kim Jee-woon's 조용한 가족 (The Quiet Family), Lee wanted to try something similar, a horror comedy. A sort of Roger Corman meets Summer horror flick. Mixing B-Movie sensibilities, horror genre tropes and a touch of black comedy, 공포 택시 (Ghost Taxi) was born.

The film looked fairly interesting on paper, but execution was so bad -- not only showing its B-Movie roots, but also betraying even that level -- that even talented actors like Jung Jae-Young couldn't save this mess from the deepest pits of hell. Selling a mere 15,000 tickets in Seoul in 2000, Cineworld was only able to recoup less than 10% of the 1.3 Billion Won they spent on Ghost Taxi. When a package of imports worth 6 Million dollars failed at the box office as well, the company risked collapse. It was several Billion Won in the red, and the future looked quite gloomy.

고마해라, 마이먹었다 아이가 (Stop, you've hit me enough) was one of 2001's most popular catchphrases, repeated all the time on TV stand-up comedy shows, parodied in sitcoms and later even films. It was one of the most memorable lines from Kwak Kyung-Taek's 친구 (Friend), flagbearer of the biggest trend of 2001, 조폭영화 (gangster films). Among them we had the trashy but entertaining 조폭 마누라 (My Wife is a Gangster) with Shin Eun-Kyung and Park Sang-Myun, Kim Sang-Jin's 신라의 달밤 (Kick The Moon) with Cha Seung-Won and Lee Sung-Jae; and Jung Joon-Ho's call to stardom in 두사부일체 (My Boss, My Hero).

But the most unique of them all, and perhaps the best, was a little film about gangsters finding themselves stranded in a Buddhist temple, on the run from a coup d'etat within their ranks. Looking at the list of popular films that year, you might think 달마야 놀자 (Hi, Dharma) was born out of the craze for gangster films, but Cineworld's inspiration came from somewhere else. Lee read an interview with an historian on the New York Times, where the man was asked what the biggest issue of the 20th Century was in his book. And he replied the West's discovery of Asia's Buddhism, as it would almost surely dominate the 21st Century. What Lee wanted to do was strip Buddhism of the preconceptions associated with it by the masses, that stoic aura often portrayed in Im Kwon-Taek's Buddhist films. And of course having fun with the whole fish out of water thing. A lot of fun, actually.

This preconception the viewers had about Buddhism -- either as too alien to modern society, or in certain cases approaching the exotic -- was always an obstacle when making films about monks. Hi, Dharma's project started in a different way than what we see in the final film, with a Korean monk going to the US, experiencing all these new and unfamiliar cultural elements and eventually basking in the fun of it all. A sort of 아제 아제 바라아제 (Come, Come, Come Upward) meets Crocodile Dundee, if you will. But the outline eventually changed for various reasons, one of which coming literally out of nowhere. Lee saw a parody column on Cine 21, depicting gangsters going to a temple to play soccer, and that's when something started clicking inside his head. Gangsters. A temple. Connect the dots. It wasn't just the fresh concept of gangsters mixing with monks, learning a bit of Buddhist philosophy in the process, oozing 사람냄새 (smell of people) despite the tired (initial) characterization.

The film, directed by newcomer Park Cheol-Gwan who worked as assistant director on The Spy, was filled with great little moments. From the games between the two factions (to decide whether the gangsters could stay or had to leave), to the little 'life lessons' from the Senior Monk (a wonderful Kim In-Moon), a far cry from the usual image of old monks Korean Cinema had created. And again, the chemistry between the actors helped as well: top dogs Jung Jin-Young and Park Shin-Yang had worked before on 약속 (A Promise), which was actually the reason Jung was cast in the film, and looked great bitching at each other like old friends. As the film starts, the two show a clear distinction, total black and white, but then things start to blend, and by the final third of the film even something preposterous like monks and gangsters working together to fight the 'real bad guys' was effective.

The memorable supporting work of talented actors like Kim Soo-Ro, Lee Moon-Shik, Lee Won-Jong and Park Sang-Myun made Hi, Dharma one of the best comedies of 2001. Released right after the College Entrance Exams, the film was a huge success, selling almost 4 Million tickets, and later even selling remake rights to MGM for US$ 300,000 (plus 5% of future box office intake -- if the film gets made, that is.) The success of the original even brought the birth of a sequel, 달마야 서울 가자 (Hi, Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul), which certainly wasn't as good as the first, but was still an entertaining little film -- especially Lee Moon-Shik's memorable turn as the monk having to deal with his oath of silence, some of the best physical ad-libs of his career.

After 10 years of struggling, the first positive signs finally started appearing for Cineworld. They were still in the red by quite a few Billion Won, but the success of the 'Dharma' franchise meant investors were a lot more willing to work with them, and the company itself started looking at the future with a little more hope and confidence. Those were 10 incredible years, moments when Lee and company could have easily quit, but they kept going. In a way, the years between 1993 and 2001 were a sort of purgatory for the Director-cum-Producer. He was able to understand what was really important in this business, fix the complex he had at the beginning, and surround himself with people who knew what he was trying to do with this magic thing we call films. In a 10 years span, Cineworld went from a quick fix enterprise to make movies with money in mind, to a group of dedicated people putting their philosophy at work.

They finally started making 'money with movies, not movies with money'. And, unlike many other little and big companies which hoped big, lost, and then disappeared, Cineworld is still there. In an office, the same three leaders of many battles, fighting over their next project while sharing the same idea of what this medium is. It was, and still is their way of working, their unique (cine)world.

CONTINUES ON PART 2

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