- 25 July 2005
by Tom Mes
With Blue Chong (Ao Chong, 2000), his graduation piece from the Japan Academy of Moving Images, Lee Sang-il won the Grand Prize at the venerable PIA Film Festival, the place where many of today's leading filmmakers first got their start since the late 1970s. With the festival scholarship in the pocket, Lee followed it up with Borderline in 2002. Though different in tone, both films were musings on the unravelling of the social fabric of Japan and in particular on the identity of the zainichi, Japan's ethnic Korean community. Lee's third film Sixty Nine is a major change of pace, however. His first studio commission, through Toei, it is the adaptation of Ryu Murakami's autobiographical novel of layabout highschoolers to whom the social struggles of late 1960s are nothing more than a convenient opportunity to impress the girls.
This film is set in 1969, but you were born in 1974. It seems an odd choice to have such a young director make this film.
That was the intention of the producers. They are of the generation that was young around 1968/69, but they wanted to have a kind of fresh perspective. Kankuro Kudo, the scriptwriter, is the same age as me.
Since nostalgia wasn't a part of it, what was it about Sixty Nine that appealed to you?
The film is a period piece, a jidai geki if you will. Murakami described it with a lot of emotional in his novel, which appealed to me. The main reason I was attracted to the story, though, is that it's essentially timeless. Young guys running around and behaving stupidly was the same then as it is now.
How familiar were you with Murakami's work?
Not at all. I'd never read any of his books and I only got to know about him through this film.
Why do you think Toei wanted you for this film?
Actually, the producer told me they were thinking of getting a more experienced director at first, but then they watched my film Borderline and they realised I could create and handle drama. After that they went back to Blue Chong and they found out I could handle humour as well. I guess that did it.
This is your first film as a director-for-hire. How do you compare it with your independent filmmaking in the past?
Once the project starts it's not all that different, actually. Both before and now my main concern was how the audience could enjoy themselves while watching the finished film. The difference was that this time there was already a story, characters, and the input of the writer, all of which allowed me to sort of let go a bit more, to be more relaxed about the whole thing.
Is it your goal as a filmmaker to make the audience enjoy themselves?
I think a lot about the balance between what the audience wants to see and what I want to show. It's all about that balance and I think in the case of Sixty Nine it's tipped over more toward the audience side. In general my favourite filmmakers are those that can balance art and entertainment, like Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze. I'd like to do the same thing.
Sixty Nine comes across as being fairly high-budget. You can clearly tell that there's been an effort to stay true to period detail, which is rarely the case in recent Japanese films.
The film had only an average budget for a major release, but it's true that we tried hard to get the details right. What helped was that we shot in the countryside, where things haven't changed nearly as much as in and around the cities. But we still had to use CGI to erase the odd modern building here and there. I only have second-hand knowledge about the sixties, so when someone who experienced the period says I really got the details right, it makes me very happy. We had two targets for this film: the kids of 1969, for whom we had to get things right as much as we could, and those who were born later, for whom we needed to create a world that was how things could have been back then. I tried to work quite closely with Yohei Taneda, the set designer, in finding a good balance.
The sixties are still surrounded with a lot of mystique, it's still treated like a kind of mythical time. Your film pokes a hole into that. It has a sense of nostalgia, but not for the clichés of the period.
Murakami's novel is more nostalgic than the film, especially toward the end, where it's kind of like Stand By Me: you find out what became of the characters later in life. I did that in the film too, but I poked a bit of fun at it. I knew that if I tried to make a nostalgic film it would clearly be a lie and that anyone who lived through the 60s would get mad at me. So with those jokes at the end I tried to make it clear that I wasn't pretending. But some people still got mad (laughs).
The film comes across as a kind of follow-up to Go, it has a similar vibe and energy and the subject is quite close as well. Toei produced both films. Do you think they intended it this way?
I don't think there is a connection, but I don't know what the people at Toei were thinking. I do think that the success of Go made this film possible, so thank you Yukisada-san (laughs).
As a zainichi, what did you think of Go and the success and praise it received?
More than anything I was surprised that it took such a long time for it to happen. I believed that it should or could have happened ten years earlier. Yoichi Sai was already making films about the Korean community back then, but it took a decade for the rest of the country to catch up. I don't think Sai was ahead of his time, but that the Japanese people are lagging behind.
Now of course Japan is in the midst of the 'Hanryu Boom', the huge surge of popularity of Korean pop culture. What are your thoughts on this whole phenomenon?
Anything that is a boom is stupid. It's just a silly word, 'boom'. I'm certainly not a part of it and I don't feel the whole thing concerns me.
Do you think something good will come of it?
It would be nice if it does. If a Yon-sama soap opera helps to get Korean films shown in Japan on a permanent basis then that's at least some sort of positive effect.
You studied film at the Japan Academy of Moving Images or Nihon Eiga Gakko, Shohei Imamura's film school. How do you look back on your time there?
I learned filmmaking from analysing my favourite directors. I don't feel I learned all that much at film school. Watching Imamura's films certainly taught me a few things, like how to express human feelings.
Who would you count among your favourite directors, especially in terms of Japanese filmmakers?
Akira Kurosawa, Takeshi Kitano, and Junji Sakamoto. I don't think I share anything in particular with any of them, though. It's just that I like to watch and absorb the best aspects. I can't tell by myself how they influenced me precisely. I'll leave that up to the viewer.
How did you feel when your first film Blue Chong got so much praise and was shown quite widely overseas?
I never expected it and certainly never intended it. But I learned that there are things that all people share. I saw Japan as a foreigner, so since the point of view of the film was already that of a foreigner, maybe the step from Japan to Europe or North America wasn't that big.
Blue Chong became known through the PIA Film Festival, which also produced Borderline. What are your thoughts about PIA and their role in the Japanese film world?
You could say I owe it all to PIA. They gave me the prize and then the scholarship. They were very important for me as well for others. There are so many filmmakers who got their start through PIA. Maybe too many already. They should stop. (laughs)