NYAFF 2011: An Interview With THE UNJUST Director Ryoo Seung-wan

[A week after wrapping up their 10th anniversary madness, we still have a few NYAFF pieces for you, including another interview from Diva Velez, this time with Korean action man Ryoo Seung-wan and his latest, the more mature, pressure-cooker The Unjust. This is being cross published at The Diva Review.]

The Lady Miz Diva:  How does it feel to be screening your latest film, The Unjust, as well as some of your previous titles in front of the New York Asian Film Festival audience?
 
Ryoo Seung-wan:  Not just me, but I think for all filmmakers, to screen your movie in New York City is something special.  It's really an exciting feeling to be able to show your movie in a city like New York, which is a symbol of culture, a beacon of cutting edge culture.  The epicenter of cultural film and arts.  Especially the New York Asian Film Festival is known for its very passionate and maniacal audiences, so it's even more exciting to show my movies here.
 
LMD:  Maniacal might be the perfect description.  They are all crazy about Asian films.  Does the reception you've had here surprise you, considering your movies haven't been widely released here?
 
RS-w:  I think it's quite a special thing to meet someone that comes from a completely different world, that speaks a different language, that grew up in a totally different culture to be able enjoy the same movie that I've made.  I count that as one of the blessings of being a filmmaker; to be able to meet such people.
 
LMD:  How did The Unjust come to you?
 
RS-w:  The Unjust was the first screenplay that came to me already written, the first draft.  Then I got involved and worked on it, it went through many revisions under me. It came at an opportune time when I wasn't ready to do a movie that had a complicated plot structure with a kind of predator/ prey relations within the society.
 
LMD:  How did you see The Unjust when you first read it?  I wondered if it's not an indictment of authority bowing to public pressure?  You have a good detective who has to do things he normally wouldn't do because there's pressure on him.  Was the film a statement about people who should stand up  and be strong, but don't?
 
RS-w:  Because of the nature of this film and this story, I understand that people would see it as my having something very political to say, or being a very politically-charged movie, but what was more important to me for this movie rests at a more conventional point.  I think in the world that we live in where capitalism dominates; not just Korea, but the United States, or the emerging economies like China, for their survival, it's a very common sight to see people kind of dirty their hands to get what is prized in the capitalist society.  In old movies that were made in the 1940's, film noir from Hollywood deal with the same kind of themes.  I saw my role with this movie as sort of an observer or to uncover a society where an individual has to live within this system, rather than sending a specific message or making my own political stance about it.
 
LMD:  I'm glad you mentioned film noir because The Unjust reminded me very much of classic film noir movies.  With films like City of Violence and Dachimawa Lee, your love of films is evident onscreen and I wondered if that wasn't the case with The Unjust?
 
RS-w:  First of all, I really like James Cagney, but regarding the pattern of performances, I saw Hwang Jung-min's main protagonist character as a Lee Marvin character.  I wanted him to do that kind of acting, which is not to externalize your emotions, and in that sense I would say that it's similar to 1960's and 70's crime movies.
 
LMD:  In your previous films you have a very kinetic, energetic style of camerawork and action, and The Unjust is much more solid and steady, with long shots and more intensity.  Is that a big change of pace for you as a director?
 
RS-w:  I think my taste has changed a little bit, the way of making films.  It's hard to explain in words.  With Dachimawa Lee, I made an homage to a lot of movies that I loved, and as a child learning to speak that's what I did, but from the standpoint of a cinephile.  But after that, I think that way of making movies kind of bores me now, that kind of thought.  It was the first time that I felt that with this movie; that I wanted to kind of free myself and my movies from other influences and set my movie as the original print example of something else to follow.
 
LMD:  In The Unjust, the prosecutor and the gangster are hilarious, but the film is still very intense.  How do you find the balance between the drama and the humour?
 
RS-w:  Of course, even in the screenplay stage, when I'm planning and developing, I'm doing the balancing act between the humour and the seriousness of the tone, but I think ultimately, it's decided by the casting.  Which actors are cast to play which roles decides the tone of the movie.  For this movie, it was done extremely well.  After that, it's my job to calibrate among their performances.
 
LMD:  Of the three main characters, the detective is the most vague person in the film, compared to the dynamic prosecutor and gangster.  Was it your intention to make him a middle ground between the two by making his character so nebulous?
 
RS-w:  It kind of stokes my curiosity when I meet people who make me wonder what that person is thinking.  Where I'm not sure of his intentions, or what he's thinking inside.  Hwang Jung-min's character can be found among many fathers in Korea: They are very patriarchal.  Let's say when there's a problem, instead of talking about it, instead of finding a solution with other people, they kind of repress it and then they try to take responsibility for everything, which is a very paternalistic aspect of fathers in Korea.  And then because they do that, the problem often gets bigger.
 
LMD:  I didn't realise the young man who played the prosecutor, Ryoo Seung-bum, was your brother.  His performance in The Unjust is outstanding.  What's it like to work with your sibling?  Does he listen to your direction or do you just let him interpret?
 
RS-w:  Well, as an actor, he has an incredible ability to interpret the screenplay and analyse it, and at the same time he can really make the character his own.  I can always count on him and trust him.  But because he's my brother, it's actually very difficult to work with him, also. {Laughs}  You know, it's difficult to get anything done with your family members.  It's the same with me.
 
LMD:  Talking a bit more about the humor in the script.  I understand the original story was written by Park Hoon-jung, who we're coming to know in this country for I Saw the Devil, which is a very dark, twisted film.  When you did the rewrite to The Unjust, was the script also very dark and did you inject more humour into it?
 
RS-w:  The script on the part of Park Hoon-jung started off as a black comedy, and it was inspired by the real-life event that took place in Korea in a city called Ilsan, which is outside of Seoul.  There had been a series of child molestations, but one week after the president of Korea visited the police station, they found the culprit.  So it's very absurd and it started off as a black comedy.
Even I Saw the Devil; I read the screenplay before it went to Kim Jee-woon and there were a lot of humourous elements in the script I saw.
 
LMD:  What would you like for viewers to take away from The Unjust?
 
RS-w:  As I make more movies, I think less and less about what the audience should take away from my movie, but foremost I think I'd like them to enjoy it.  If 200 people going to the theatre to watch one movie, at the end of the movie, I don't think they watched one movie; they watched 200 different movies, because the movie is complete when the audience watches and interprets it in their own way.  It doesn't matter what the intentions of the director were, or what kind of message that he wanted to project to the audience, because the audience will watch it on its own accord.
 
LMD: What is coming up next for you?
 
RS-w:  It's called In Berlin and the backdrop is Berlin and it's a story about North and South Korean spies.
 
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 17th, 2011
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