Singapore Q&A: Director Im Kwon-taek Refuses to Slow Down

Im Kwon-taek H

The 78-year-old South Korean filmmaker is to receive the Singapore fest's Honorary Award for lifelong contribution to cinema

After directing 100 films, it's as if South Korean helmer Im Kwon-taek decided to reset his prolific career back to zero. The 78-year-old's 101st film, Hanji, marked his digital film debut while his 102nd, Revivre, saw him take on the challenge of adapting a novel for the first time.

Based on the book Hwajang by Kim Hoon, Revivre is about an older man who becomes increasingly attracted to his younger co-worker while caring for his dying, cancer-stricken wife. Though Im voiced concern over doing justice to the original text, Revivre premiered at Venice and was invited to Toronto, Busan and Hawaii.

It is now showing at the Singapore International Film Festival, where the director is receiving the Honorary Award for his lifelong contribution to cinema. The Cannes Palme d'Or winner spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about stepping out of his comfort zone for the project.

You have always said numbers don't matter, but how does it feel to have completed your 102nd film?

Having made over 100 films doesn't necessarily make you a better filmmaker. In fact, because you've done so many, you're faced with the dilemma, "What do I do next?" Every time I finish a project, I always feel as if I've barely made the cut, like I've barely done a pull-up on the monkey bar. I feel breathless.

This is your first time adapting a novel. It must have been a new challenge.

It certainly was. I've always been a fan of Kim Hoon and have kept up with almost all of his novels. I was very concerned whether I would be able to do justice to the original work, whether the power of the text would translate onscreen. But as an old director it was a very refreshing opportunity to break out of my shell.

Your films have been known for capturing the beauty of nature, but this one is set mostly in the hospital.

I've always pursued natural scenery, but this time shooting was limited to a hospital, funeral home and office space. It was also my first time working with cinematographer Kim Hyung-gu. I tried my best to focus on the character. I wanted portray the type of emotions and experiences that anyone can feel on a daily basis, including somewhat embarrassing and shameful sexual desires.

You have worked veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki numerous times. How was the teamwork this time?

He is an actor with enormous depth, and we didn't really need to discuss his character because he just knew it so well. Prolonged conversations are only necessary when actors don't understand the script. I am truly indebted to Ahn because he threw himself into the role and really surprised me, even though we've made six or seven films before.

This is your second digital piece. Are you getting used to it?

It's incredible. Before, we had to take the cost of the film into consideration, so there was a lot of pressure during shoots. In a way, it seems there is less focus on-set. But I have to embrace digital because there are no analog film projectors in Korea anymore.

What remains most important to you?

Honesty. You can't lie. A film directly mirrors the filmmaker's life experience, and you can't express more than what you've amassed over the years. You also can't fake sincerity. Artists need to have the confidence to face the creative process; sometimes you want to just run away. In the end, however, I stuck with filmmaking — not that I would have been talented enough to try anything else — because I simply love movies.