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Friday, November 23, 2012

BIFF 2012 Interview: Stepping Behind the Lens - Yu Ji-tae Discusses His New Career Path

Part of MKC's coverage of the 17th Busan International Film Festival.

One of Korea's most recognizable faces, actor Yu Ji-tae has been at the forefront of the Korean film industry since its renaissance in the late 1990s. He first made a splash in Kim Sang-jin's anarchic Attack the Gas Station (1999). Following his romantic roles in Ditto (2000) and Hur Jin-ho's One Fine Spring Day, Yu switched gears to play the villain in Park Chan-wook's seminal Oldboy (2003), elevating his visibility to a global level along the way.

Though still an active actor, over the last few years Yu has also forged a path for himself as a short filmmaker. At this year's Busan International Film Festival he finally unveiled his acclaimed debut feature Mai Ratima. He kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with MKC about his new role behind the camera and the state of independent filmmaking in Korea.

And yes, he is quite tall...

Congratulations on your wonderful debut Mai Ratima. The film has earned many positive notices at this year’s Busan Film Festival, how does that make you feel?

Busan is very important to me. I first visited in 1996 as a student and that is where my dream to become involved in the film industry began. I first came here with Ditto in 2000 for Ditto and then Traces of Love was selected as the opening film in 2006. I also came with one of my short films called How Do the Blind Dream? in 2005. Now I’ve returned with my first feature. I believe that the Busan Film Festival has helped me to realize my dream of becoming a filmmaker.

You were also part of the ‘Wide Angle’ section jury here in 2009 and you are one of the organizers of the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival. As an actor, filmmaker, and active festival delegate, you have many roles in the industry. How do you juggle all of these responsibilities?

My final destination in the film world, I hope, will be to become someone who can assist the Korean film industry. I don’t think that any of my individual roles matter within: I just hope that I can use them to help out the industry in the long run.

You’ve been a respected actor for nearly 15 years, what did you take from your screen experience in making your first feature film?

I think that being an actor before helped me with certain aspects of the filmmaking process. Having worked on commercial as well as art films, I’ve seen and learnt a lot and know some of the things you shouldn’t do on a set. This production was very low budget, yet I believe it has similarities with other commercial films. Despite our meager finances everything worked very efficiently on set.

As a filmmaker, a sense of personal achievement is important but what I really want is to create independent films. If you look at the Korean film industry it is slowly becoming controlled by capital mechanisms. In order promote low-budget independent filmmaking we should support an incentive system. Many people are involved in the filmmaking process, however most of the profits only go to the investors and producers. Considering the current state of film infrastructure in Korea, I hope that in future everybody can share the benefits.

I was surprised to see the Lotte Entertainment logo as your film unspooled. Traditionally they have not shown much interest in low-budget films.

CJ Entertainment has a number of programs to support low-budget films, such as ‘Movie Collage.’ On the contrary, up until now, Lotte Entertainment has only paid attention to commercial features. It was about time for them to consider their social responsibility as a major studio and what they could contribute to the Korean film industry. They decided to start subsidizing short films’ production and distribution. I recommended that they create a program for independent feature films. This turned into the Red Fever project and Mai Ratima is the initiative’s first production. I suppose that the success of my film will be seen as a barometer of the program’s success. The plan is that they will support five feature films a year. It could be burden on me as the success of my film will not just be for my own personal achievement but for other aspiring filmmakers as well.

Is there a release date set for Mai Ratima?

It is scheduled for July 24th next year.

What was the film’s budget?

Actually the budget was 355 million won ($325,000) but Lotte funded 200 million ($185,000) of that, the rest of that I had to raise myself. 200 million ($185,000) is the budget for some student-sized films so I had a bit of an argument with them as I thought they should be putting up around 400-500 million won ($370-460,000).

With Mai Ratima you’ve succeeded in showing a dark part of Korean society that is not well known. What drew you to the subject?

The film was originally supposed to be about children in a fishing village. I wanted to show my empathy for the underprivileged. For example I was really touched by Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the children in that tried to overcome their circumstances with courage. On the other, in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004), though it was based on a true story, the attitude was very passive, which elicited a lot of sympathy. I wanted to make a coming of age film reflecting both of these styles.

I see that Korean society is changing, step-by-step, and I believe that we have to respond to this changing environment. Korean don’t always have very visible concerns with the past so I wanted to deal with the beginning of the Korean dream regarding those who immigrate here in search of it.

Originally, the male character was a high school boy but when Bae Soo-bin read the script, he expressed his desire to be in the film and he shared his opinions with me. That’s how the character became what it is now.

How did you prepare with your actors Bae Soo-bin and Park Ji-soo for their roles?

As an actor I try not to have any preconceptions. The most important thing to me is how I create these images. Screen acting requires technique: a variety of performance methods. Bae Soo-bin and Park Ji-soo are very smart actors who know how to express themselves, not only with their voices but also with their bodies. When I first worked with them, they had some questions and as they shared their opinions we all created the film together. It’s very important to share ideas in order to improve. Not just with the main stars but also the assistant directors, extras and everyone involved on set.

There are many familiar faces in small roles in Mai Ratima, are these friends you’ve accrued over the years working in the Korean film industry?

I worked with a mixture of people on the film: some of them are actors I’ve developed close relationships with; others are people who have been part of my projects since my first short films; and of course I used some of my human networking power! As you see in the film there are some computer graphics so I was careful to apply some incentives to bring in these specialists, as well as those involved with the film’s music. When it comes to low-budget filmmaking, I believe that rather than lowering the quality of the film, applying the incentive system to certain parts of the film’s production enhances the project.

You’ve previously mentioned that you were influenced a lot by French cinema regarding the style of your film. I could also feel the presence of Wong Kar Wai but especially of Park Chan-wook who you worked with on Oldboy (2003), was he a big influence for you?

I absolutely love films and I watch them all the time. Personally I really love the Dardennes Brothers and Michael Haneke, I really appreciate thier dry, documentary style approach to drama. Technically, I’m inspired by the work of Park Chan-wook, John Cassavetes and Sam Peckinpah. I was also marked by the work of Hur Jin-ho who I worked with on One Fine Spring Day (2001).

Do you currently have any plans for a second feature?

Actually yes, I’m planning a second feature, which is currently in the scenario stage but as I try to be very thorough in my research and preparation, the process tends to take time.

Finally, what are your favorite Korean films?

I love Lee Chang-dong’s films, and of course those of Park Chan-wook and Hur Jin-ho. 

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