IFFR 2009: Interview with "Breathless" writer / actor / director / producer YANG IK-JUNE
"Breathless" was one of the many international premieres this year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. And a strong one, walking away with one of the three Tiger Awards for best film by a newcomer.
That "newcomer" was Yang Ik-June who not only directed this movie, but also produced it, wrote it, and cast himself in the main role. Having been an actor in South-Korea for the past ten years in films as "No Manners" and "Maundy Thursday", "Breathless" is indeed his first feature-length effort. Nothing in "Breathless" points towards it being the work of a debuting director though, but you can spot his roots as an actor. Because (as I've said in my review) this is very much an actor's film: character-driven rather than story- or spectacle-driven.
After making some waves in Pusan and getting good word of mouth in Rotterdam, Yang Ik-June was very much in demand so I counted myself lucky I had secured some time with him for an interview.
"Breathless" is also a relentless and brutal look at domestic abuse, with especially Yang's character cursing and punching everyone who happens to eh... exist.
Thankfully I was spared the violence during our talk, but the profanity... less so!
I was introduced to Yang Ik-June by manager Sonya KIM, who does international distribution, marketing and festivals for Showbox' films. Thanks to her we were allowed to spend quite some time on the interview, so a special thanks to Sonya!
She also got us a room of our own while the festival was at its busiest (no mean feat), and so Yang Ik-June and I sat down in someone's office, three days after the premiere of "Breathless" and three days before Yang Ik-June won his Tiger.
AV: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Having seen your movie, my first question is: are you going to beat me senseless if I ask the wrong questions?
Actually, I'm a very nice guy. (smacks his fist in his other hand, hard)
AV: Phew! (we both laugh)
I must say I was very impressed by "Breathless", I do not think it shows it is your first movie. Were you excited to have it premiere here in Rotterdam?
It was not really my first movie...
AV: Well, first long movie...
...but during the premiere here I was quite afraid.
In Korea, when the crowd comes in and asks questions, the lighting is very dim, and they use yellow-ish kind of lights.
But here in The Netherlands, in the Pathé venue they used bright white lights so I could see each and everyone of the people who were asking me questions (laughs).
It wasn't just me either: cameraman Yun Jong-Ho and actress Kim Kkobbi were standing next to me and we were all very scared!
AV: It didn't show (see picture below), you all looked quite cool.
AV: Speaking of that boom, a few years ago Korean cinema became very popular in the West with for example the movies of Park Chan-Wook. But afterwards it looked like the Korean cinema went into a, a dip, so to speak.
I find it interesting that at this moment, after having been an actor for a long time, you choose NOW to create your first feature-length movie. Was it difficult to get it made with the current state of the Korean film industry?
The more famous directors at the moment like Kim ki-Duk and Park Chan-Wook are all in their forties and fifties. I think the Korean film industry is indeed in a "low" right now, but I feel confident that the new directors who are now in their thirties will create a new boom, a new rise in Korean cinema.
The reason why I shot this movie NOW even though it is a difficult time for producers and directors, is that this is a very personal movie for me. I got my inspiration for the story from my family and my surroundings, and felt a lot of hatred and anger in me. If I had waited until 2009 to start with the script I might no longer have had that. To be able to use those feelings I felt I needed to produce this movie in 2007 and 2008, for from 2009 onward I might no longer have felt that way.
AV: Does that mean that part of the story is autobiographical?
There are some childhood memories of mine which are in there, but the story itself is fictional. I tried to create the main character and the storyline with as much honesty and truth as possible, but overall the movie itself is fiction. The fact that there are gangsters in it is all creation, actually.
AV: Because there are two things that I thought were really surprising. First was the large amount of domestic violence, the second was the criminal activity and how that was all out in the open, happening in broad daylight, no involvement from the police, shops being wrecked... Does that reflect reality in Korea at the moment?
In Korea, this has reduced a lot in the modern age. But if you look at drama series or movies of twenty, thirty years ago, you can see that they involved a lot of these kinds of violence. And that is for a reason: those things really happened back then. And nowadays even though it has reduced a lot, especially the gangster activities during the daytime, you know such events are still happening. You saw the scene where the demonstrators were attacked? Those attackers aren't really gangsters. Those are ehm, "workers", people who "get things done" for others. We still have those people around, doing "jobs".
AV: Yes, we have them in The Netherlands too, clearing out buildings.
Aha, and are they also evil people?
AV: Eh, they often are. But generally it happens like this: someone owns a building, and suddenly people have started to live in there, illegally. Those "squatters" still get some protection under Dutch law, we're very unique in that way. But if you want to sell that building and you want to get those squatters cleared out, you can sometimes hire people, often with ties to Dutch organized crime, who will do the job for you. This happened a lot ten to twenty five years ago as the squatters were a bigger problem then for these owners.
AV: Wow. Ehm, OK, but still... damn!
Coming back to financing: an average Korean movie costs between three and five million dollars to produce. But "Breathless" is very small compared to that, only about ten percent. It cost about 300.000, no, nearly 400.000 American dollars to make.
As for earning it back, I'll be screening the movie in general distribution in Korea from mid-April onward. But while big blockbuster movies get about 500 screens, I'll probably only get 10 to 15 screens to show it. Therefore I'm also looking at other ways to earn back this money. I'm thinking about selling it on cable-TV, but because of all the violence in the movie that's a lot more difficult to do.
AV: And because of the swearing, of course!
Yes, that too! But an Australian TV-broadcaster wants to show the movie, and there are a lot of small sources of income I can use.
AV: Well, if you win a Tiger Award...
When I first showed "Breathless" to people older than my parents, I was very nervous especially with the men, who had been the ones inflicting the violence. But they had already for themselves accepted their violence, acknowledged their mistakes, and the movie was much welcomed by these people.
AV: Because you show the characters of the inflicters of this domestic violence to be victims themselves as well?
Exactly. And the story is actually about those people, so that was why I got a favorable response from them. So I am sure that overall the movie will be appreciated in the end.
AV: You mentioned the movie cost "only" nearly 400.000 dollars to make. Now I wouldn't know where to begin setting up a movie of that scale, as that is still quite an amount of money. This was the first time for you that you made something this big, with such a large budget. How do you start with that? How did you find the cast, for instance? For what really stands out in this movie is that the acting is so... so VERY well done, I think. Really exceptional. So how do you get the whole crew together when you start from scratch?
I've been working for ten years as an actor in both short and long movies, and every time I worked somewhere I caught one or two people who I really liked, who worked hard. I remembered all those people, so when I started on my first long movie I called them and asked them: "What are you doing right now? I'm about to produce a movie, do you want to join in?".
What I found important while looking for people was that they enjoyed making movies, that they didn't just work on a movie to finish it. I wanted a crew that was like a group of friends.
In fact gathering this "crew of friends" took about twice as long as it would take for a normal movie, carefully thinking about who I wanted... But in the end because I had gathered such friends around me, when we started making the movie it went very well. I was energized by everybody, and also during the making, about 90 percent of the staff was not paid.
For seven to eight months, people contributed to my movie either by acting or by doing other stuff, without being paid. These were people who joined because they liked me as a friend. But it is actually wrong to make a movie like that, by not paying them. Very wrong. But they are still my good friends.
That is one of the reasons why I want this movie to succeed, even though I didn't really make "Breathless" to make money. I still want to pay back what I feel I owe them, for all they did for me for such a long time.
AV: I can imagine. In real life you indeed seem to be like a nice guy, very much unlike the role you play in the movie. The day you started shooting and you entered a scene behaving like a total gangster, radiating anger, were people shocked? Like they went: "Hey dude, relax"?
(acts shocked, we all laugh) When you play a character you make sure you don't always fully turn INTO that character, you always have a sense of sanity remaining. Also, the staff were all friends, who really knew what my real personality was, cheerful and playful. So whenever I concentrated on changing into a gangster they started to concentrate on the movie, which actually helped me a lot.
AV: That's another question I have. Like I said, I'm really impressed by the level of acting in this film, from everyone involved. But you yourself are playing one of the main characters! So... how do you direct the other actors once you're actually in the scene yourself? And how do you know when / if you need to redo a take?
First of all, almost 95 percent of all the characters in the movie are played by staff people, of the crew. And normally when they do that it shows that they're actually not professional actors, but because we had such tight relationships in the crew we trusted each other. In Korea we have all sorts of formality. Even a small age difference introduces a form of formality, but we all acted like friends during the producing of the movie, because we were already good friends behind the camera as well. And they all knew what I wanted when they were acting, and that made it possible for them to act in such a natural way.
Every person, me or you, can act. Even when people are not professional actors, I look at them when I hang around with them as friends. And I see them while we're having a beer together or something, I see their facial expressions when they are natural and I think: maybe I can use this guy in my next play or my next movie. And until now this approach has always worked out very well for me.
Another thing is, we have no rehearsals. I just send them in front of the camera, we set up everything and I say: "OK, go!", and then... whatever. I'll just do the best I can do. Instead of losing all of their energy during rehearsals, we try to use all of it in one time during the actual shooting.
AV: Aha! Does that also mean most of the movie is shot using first takes?
No, it just means that we didn't rehearse scenes days before we shot it.
AV: And there is a LOT of cursing in the movie, which made me wonder... did you really have that all, word by word, line by line, written down in the script? Or would it say: "And now these two people start cursing"? I don't speak Korean but it sounded so natural, as if improvised.
When I am in a confined space where everything is ordered all I do is just drink beer, because it all doesn't seem natural, I don't feel comfortable in such an environment. I much more like being outside where there is maybe a stream, some wind blowing, and where you actually meet people.
Which reminds me: this has nothing to do with the movie whatsoever, but I was walking around here in Rotterdam with actress Kim Kkobbi and cameraman Yun Jong-Ho, and we thought hey, nobody can speak Korean around here...
AV: Ho, be VERY careful with that!
(laughs) ... so we suddenly started yelling things like "Penis!", "Cunt!" and other 18-plus material! (We all laugh, the more so when the translator obviously gets a bit embarrassed)
AV: Do you know how many Koreans are living in Rotterdam? Because I heard there were a lot!
(laughs) A lot?
AV: I thought I heard something like 10.000? So you were running quite a risk!
Translator Yong Yul Lee:
No, I can actually help out here: there are about 4.000 Koreans in all of the Netherlands.
AV: Oops, sorry. I thought there were more. Ehm...I got a bit derailed here!
(We all laugh)
AV: Ehm...the title. Is the Korean title also "Breathless" (but in Korean)?
There is a friend of mine who does all my English titles for me, as my English is very bad.
(in English:) A,B,C,D... (we all laugh)
So when my friend told me the title I said "good!", not knowing the meaning of it but liking the sound. When the movie got shown at the Film Festival of Pusan, foreign directors and other people liked the English title a lot, so that made me and the friend who made it up feel very good about ourselves.
Also we mentioned the dip Korean cinema is currently in. This friend is also a director and in his thirties, and part of a group that has been preparing for two years to create their own movies. When they succeed in producing those, and they WILL, a new Korean boom will be created.
AV: That's cool. I've heard a lot of people have approached you this festival and you've been kinda busy. Do you have big plans for the future?
(laughs) I cannot even remember them all, I've spoken with so many people and my English is so bad!
Well, I didn't used to have any dream or hope. When I first started to shoot my first short movie I thought: "Shall I just try it?" and it turned out to win an audience price at a festival. After that when I tried to shoot a long movie I had the same attitude. I used to feel sorry for other directors because they had studied for five, ten years and I didn't, I was just saying "Shall I try it?" and did it...
So at the moment I don't have any big plans for the future, except trying to earn some money back from "Breathless" to pay back my friends.
And maybe buy a small house for myself, so I can invite them over for a good time...
AV: Thank you for the interview, and good luck with your movie!
And that was the end of the interview.