Dialogue: Richard Pena


Richard Pena instantly engages on film, from anywhere -- Iran, China, Korea, Cuba -- as if you were one of his graduate students at Columbia University. A New Yorker who's been going to the movies obsessively since he was a child, he directs the Film Society of Lincoln Center and drives the New York Film Festival each September. In 2004, he organized the New Tiger series of Korean films, which brought the cinematic spoils of the Korean Wave to the U.S. The Hollywood Reporter Asia editor Jonathan Landreth caught up with Pena just after the 13th Pusan International Film Festival said it would honor him with the Korean Cinema Award.

The Hollywood Reporter: What does America still have to learn about Korean cinema?
Richard Pena: That's a big question. I think that the problem of Korea, if one can call it that, is that it's coming to America after two -- well, several, actually -- very large Asian cinemas have reached a certain kind of popular consciousness, at least among American cinephiles. Obviously, Japan has been with us for a very long time, and then the cinema of China, whether it be the Hong Kong variation, the PRC variations or the cinema of Taiwanese filmmakers. So people come to Korean cinema wondering if it's going to be a Hong Kong-like film, or is this going to be a Hou Hsiao-hsien kind of film. There is that sense that Korean cinema is still trying to find what it is. I find those discussions a little bit useless because the qualities that we like in Hou Hsiao-hsien are his qualities, but they're not necessarily the qualities of Taiwanese cinema, and some filmmakers would be wise to choose them and imitate them or use them for their own ends. The other thing about Korean cinema is that its success certainly took everybody by surprise in Korea. Koreans, about which I know not much in terms of their culture, project a sense of being a pretty isolated and not terribly well-understood culture, and when people embraced them -- and Korean pop music, and Korean soap operas and Korean movies were suddenly all the rage -- I don't think they really knew how to deal with it. I think it's something they wanted but never expected, in a way. I think it was a little bit strange for them to know how to handle all this adulation and then, when it started to disappear, as waves do, they instantly started looking for a reason, as if there was a plot or a reason.

THR: Your New Tiger series was staged right as the Korean Wave was peaking. Has it finally crashed?
Pena: It hasn't in that I and others every year see a number of good Korean films. Perhaps we're no longer surprised to see good Korean films. That happens sometimes. There are four or five major contemporary auteurs.

THR: Who would those be?
Pena: Well, certainly Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Im Song-soo. Then you have the older masters who are still working, like Im Kwon-taek.

THR: Do you keep in touch with all of these guys in hopes that they'll bring something to the New York Film Festival?
Pena: Yeah. In the case of Park Chan-wook, I'm really fond of him and think he's a really lovely guy. I try not to bother him because he's busy, but I occasionally pass little e-mails to see how things are going. Lee Chang-dong is an artist whose work I admire tremendously, and I got the chance to go a few places with him to introduce his most recent film, "Secret Sunshine" -- places such as the Asia Society, where they were showing the film and wanted somebody to introduce him and maybe do a Q&A with him. Bong Joon-ho's work I like very much. I certainly was a really big fan of "The Host."

THR: What will you do in Pusan for just three days?
Pena: I'll have only one day for screening, but I haven't looked at the schedule yet. I've never left the New York Film Festival during the festival, but partly because of Mr. Kim and my tremendous respect for him and being so flattered (about the award), I asked that my colleagues cover for me, and they said they could.

Nationality: American
Date of birth: Aug. 17, 1953
Job title: Program director, Film Society of Lincoln Center
In Pusan: Recipient of Korean Cinema Award
Notable awards: Certificate of Recognition, Romanian Ministry of Culture (2008); Life in I Style Award (Arts), awarded by the Italian Trade Commission (2003); Officier de l'ordre des artes et des lettres, awarded by France (2001); Chevalier de l'ordre des artes et des lettres, awarded by France (1988); Amicus Polonia Award, given by the Kosciuszko Foundation (1996)