Q&A: 'Come Rain Come Shine' Director Lee Yoon-ki (Berlin)

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

With his taste for describing the banality of everyday life in voluptuous detail, films of Lee Yoon-ki capture the essence of troubled characters on screen. In his debut film This Charming Girl (2004) the director poignantly depicted a dreary life of a female post officer with a traumatic past whose comfort in life was to play with an abandoned cat and fill her room with goods ordered from a home shopping channel. In his latest feature film Come Rain Come Shine, the only Asian runner in Berlin’s competition, Lee focuses on a troubled couple played by a duo of charismatic actors -- Hyun Bin (Full Autumn) and Lim Soo-jung (I’m a Cyborg. But that’s O.K.) — in their final hours together. But Lee notably shies away when it comes to media attention of his work. When the conversation naturally reaches the festival, he says: “I wish I don’t win an award. I don’t want the attention.” Lee recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter’s Korea correspondent Park Soo-mee about his actors, muses and arthouse filmmaking in Korean cinema.  

THR: How did the film Come Rain, Come Shine come about?
Lee Yoon-ki: I read a short story — A Cat That Cannot Return by Inoue Areno — way back. It was a story that no one else would make a film.

THR: What was so compelling about the story? 
It was how the story was set up. The narrative was very simple and even bland and I’m drawn to those stories. I feel they have more to bring out than a complicated one. The more simple and plain the story the more I have things to say. 

THR: And what did you want to say? 
Lee: I never make a film with a message in mind. I’m more interested in the characters; how they are related to each other and the situation they’re in. The way people respond to struggles or express their feelings in difficult situations are very different. I like imagining how characters would react in certain situations. 

THR: The script says the story happens in the couple’s final three hours together roughly from 4 to 7 p.m. and the film is almost simultaneous to the real time. It must have been tricky to control the film’s sense of time and not bore the audiences.
Lee: The audiences will be bored no matter how hard I try (laughs). I wanted every scene in the film to feel like it was simultaneous to the real time. If the story took place over several days I would not have been able to portray every moment and the characters’ emotions with such depth. The constraint of time forced me to think about the continuity of scenes, given the film’s hour and 40 minutes.

THR: That must have been extremely difficult for the actors — to maintain the consistent tone of the story throughout the entire film.
Lee: It was because the shooting didn’t always take place from 4 to 7. It was difficult for everyone and it was painful. I constantly focused not to lose connection from a previous scene to another and distractions were everywhere. 

THR: In a sense your work has always been “a festival film.” And I wonder if the advent of new media technologies and the rapidly changing filmmaking environment in Korea could mean fewer platforms for auteurist films like yours. 
Lee: Filming in Korea has never been easy, but I think it’s been particularly difficult recently due to the shifting industry structure. The notion of diversity in film simply doesn’t exist anymore. Diversity did exist here for a brief period, but we lost it. The idea of “a festival film” is really nonsense. We show in festivals because that’s the only platform available to us.  

THR: Do you ever think of making a film for broader audiences? 
Of course I do. There’s no such thing as “an auteurist filmmaker.” Every film directors is an auteur. We only make films that we do because we cannot put on clothes that don’t fit us. 

THR: Your first film This Charming Girl came out in 2004. What led you to become a filmmaker?
Lee: To make the long story short I made my hobby into a career. I majored in economics in college and didn’t know anyone in the film industry. But I grew up watching a lot of films, and quite naturally I joined a film collective, which got me more engaged in the field. But even after I got involved I wasn’t fully into filmmaking for a while. I was an assistant to the director Lee Myung-se (“Nowhere to Hide”) but I was let go. Then my script got picked up in a screenplay contest and one day I found myself making a film. 

THR: Who are your influences? 
Lee: I grew up watching many American independent films from 70s and 80s. I was in complete culture shock after watching the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple in 1985. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I also liked Robert Altman’s earlier works, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. My film mentor, however, in is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. His composed perspective on life is always startling to me. Many people find it unusual that I didn’t watch many European films.

THR: Despite your short career you worked with some of the top Korean actors including Jeon Do-yeon (Cannes’ 2007 winner for best actress). Why do you think so many actors are attracted to your films?
Lee: I think it’s an adventure for them because money is certainly out of the point. The quality of Korean actors is actually quite high. Their passion is overwhelming but not many platforms are available to cater to their creative needs. They’re thirsty for something new and I think that’s where I connect with them. They have vision. In certain sense many Korean actors have better vision than directors. 

THR: When you’re shooting a story, what do you care about the most?
Lee: Whether it’s an experience from reading a story or writing a script I try so that my emotions from particular moments are delivered fully in the film. I try to be straight when I communicate with my audiences through a film. I’m not sure whether I have been successful. I don’t watch my film once they’re in theaters. 

THR: Are you embarrassed? 
That, yes, and I only see things that I shouldn’t have done when I watch my film again. I just want to put them behind me. 

THR: What is it that you want to deliver through Come Rain, Come Shine?
Lee: That there’s no such thing as being cool. People who pretend to be cool have more emotional layers, like this couple who chooses a very unique way to separate from each other. 

THR: What are you working on next? 
Lee: My ideas are more abstract at the moment. I have a love story, a horror and action. They’ve always been with me and we will see where they go.