How South Korea's Oscar Submission 'The Throne' Became an Unexpected Blockbuster (Q&A)

Lee Joon-ik AFM S 2015
Noh Ju Han

Lee Joon-ik AFM S 2015

Veteran auteur Lee Joon-ik discusses his bleak AFM title's surprise-hit status: "It’s not a commercial film."

The true story of Crown Prince Sado, who was sentenced to death by his own father, is the bleak stuff of Shakespearean tragedies. That such a faithful screen adaptation, The Throne, became one of South Korea’s top films of 2015 — and the country’s official foreign language Oscar submission — is baffling even to its director, Lee Joon-ik.

"[My stars], Song Kang-ho and Yoo Ah-in, surely have star power, but The Throne is like King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet in one. It’s not a commercial film," Lee says of the drama, which unflinchingly depicts the prince’s descent into madness, and ultimate death, after being locked in a rice chest for eight days.

Song attributes the film’s box-office success ($43 million and counting) to the "unique, non-mainstream taste of Koreans." The director himself became a star after his 2005 sleeper hit, King and the Clown, went on to represent Korea at the Oscars. The 56-year-old filmmaker talked to THR about his insistence on telling age-old Korean stories — all the while encouraging young filmmakers to experiment with smart phones.

While you’ve directed films in diverse genres, you’re best known as a veteran of traditional Korean costume dramas.
I used to import a lot of foreign films [in the early 2000s]. I realized Koreans were very familiar with Western culture, but it wasn’t the case the other way around — I wanted? to change that. I also insist on doing local period dramas because there is a certain jest and spirit in Korean art traditions. Similar to how jazz and hip-hop are rooted in angst, there is something very lively in Korean art forms that stem from pain. Pathos can yield a certain cathartic release.

Critics have praised The Throne for raising universal questions about the human condition in spite of the fact it’s based on local history.
The Throne is set during the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1910]. I wanted to focus on how terribly two-sided human relationships can be. King Yeongjo had to kill his own son to preserve the throne and pass it onto his grandson. He faithfully observed the rules but at the cost of inflicting extreme violence. Confucian theories can be paradoxical when applied in real-life situations. But at this point in time, as we question the limits of capitalism and other existing models, I think we can find meaning and relevance in older Asian schools of thought.

The theme song, featuring rap-like shamanistic chants and the "saenghwang" reed pipe set to?a rock rhythm, has become popular among younger Korean fans. You also worked with the traditional band Noreum Machi again.
The theme song is a ritual piece that male shamans have actually performed for more than a millennium, for appeasing vengeful spirits during memorial services. It’s my fifth collaboration with music director Bang Jun-seok, and it was meaningful to feature the saenghwang because it is a rare East Asian instrument that can create harmonies. It also was exciting to work with Noreum Machi again. Their folk music is heavily percussive, so they get invited to rock festivals and the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Throne

You majored in Asian art and have emphasized that you’re not a classically-trained filmmaker.
I never received formal education in filmmaking. While it’s important to learn from the past and set disciplines, I always try not to be trapped within a certain frame of learned experiences. You are bound to become detached from new mechanisms if you don’t make an effort to be exposed to, and familiarize yourself with, new technologies.

Speaking of new technologies, you are the director of the Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival. Spike Lee once predicted that people would be making films with their phones, and you seem to be encouraging this bottom-up approach.
The smartphone is like a new weapon. You can shoot, edit and distribute films in one go. I also believe it can restore the experimental spirit in filmmaking, much of which has been sacrificed in the name of commercialization. Hollywood, for example, often resorts to tried-and-true adaptations of comic books that have a solid fan base.

Because smart phones are compact and mobile, you can readily shoot anything, anywhere, and one of our most interesting submissions this year was a documentary shot by a Syrian refugee. For this reason we have partnered with the International Organization for Migration to help migrants tell their stories. The traditional method of filmmaking — scriptwriting, preproduction, production and post-production — is becoming much too passive. Smart phones, however, could allow miracles to happen — just like how Spielberg went on to create blockbusters after playing with a video camera as a child.

So smartphones can democratize filmmaking? This seems relevant particularly since Korea has one of the world's highest smart phone penetration rates.
Precisely. The consumer can become the producer of audio-visual content and reach viewers by releasing [content] online, thereby skipping the traditional method of filmmaking and established model of distribution. Even a six-second Vine piece can turn into something meaningful if it portrays an individual’s unique perspective. The method of production and consumption has truly changed.

How has experimenting with smart phones affected your own filmmaking?
I am a traditional feature filmmaker, but I? am trying my very best to constantly evolve and learn about new things. I don’t stick to one genre when it comes to storytelling, so for me filmmaking is really a tool for capturing my world views. The smart phone has forever changed modern-day life, and this certainly transforms the way I can depict my ideas.

Please tell us about your upcoming film Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet.
It’s a beautiful story about the late poet and independence fighter Yun Dong-ju, who died in a prison in Fukuoka, Japan, in February 1945, right before [the liberation of Korea in August that year]. Unlike my other period films, there is no jestful spirit that pervades the storyline, but there is a cathartic pathos inherent to Japanese colonial-era [1910-1945] tales. Yun was only 27 when he died, but his poetry was powerful and full of conviction. I suppose his work could be compared to that of Pablo Neruda, for international audiences. The hot, boiling blood of a revolutionary ran through his veins, but there also was a boyishness that endured inside him that I found very endearing.