Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Most Infuriating 'How I Became a Film Director' Story in History

I, like most other people, fell in love with movies as a child by watching movies simply as a consumer enjoying entertainment. I cherished the whole popcorn and soda experience and watched anything and everything. It wasn't until I was about 19 or 20 that I was exposed to truly great movies and became more serious about this magnificent medium.

Since then, I've been fascinated with how people get their foot in the door and the circumstances under which they got to make their first feature film. I made a terrible first feature film when I was 24 called FREE COUNTRY that was lackluster on all fronts. I wrote the screenplay myself and financed it by scrounging money from my student loans. Maybe not a great move if you're a sensible person with more practical concerns, but that's a different can of beans...

Whatever the case, I must have read hundreds of books over the years about different filmmakers from the most revered to the most crass to glean how they got their first films made.

In most cases, filmmakers have had to use their own money. This was the case for Godard, who used an inheritance to make his first film. In a few cases, they are able to supplement their own money with other people's money, which was the case for the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi.

Of course, in those places where there is less emphasis on entrepreneurship and where the state controls the film industry, a small number of filmmakers catch a break while at the national film school and the state finances their first film. This was the case for Roman Polanski, Zhang Yi Mou, and Andrei Tarkovsky...

The point it, no matter who paid for the first film, most aspiring filmmakers find it incredibly difficult to get a break and it is through extreme struggle and luck that they get a chance to helm their first picture after having desperately wanted to make a feature film for a long long time.

Given this state of affairs, I learned something so very infuriating this week in a book on IM Kwon-taek. For those of you who may not know 'IM (sorry, couldn't resist), he is an old-school film director who has also come to be regarded in some circles as the elder statesman and face of Korean cinema. His most well-known films outside South Korea are SOPYONJAE, a period film about a family of itinerant beggar singers; THE GENERAL'S SON series, about a patriotic Korean gangster who fights Japanese gangsters during the 1930s when Korea was colonized by Japan; and CHIHWASEON, a period film about an extremely talented painter who was also a maverick, a drunk, and a womanizer.

Through these films he has won critical acclaim both in South Korea and in Europe. And it is through these films, which are quite impressive, that I first learned about this director, who is in his 70s now and still working in South Korea. But it turns out this is just the tip of the iceburg. The guy has directed 100 feature films since making his feature debut in 1962. During the first half of his career, he was considered something of a hack, who robotically and rather haphazardly cranked out genre pictures as was the industry practice then. He only gained his current reputation in the past 20 years.

Be that as it may, the guy's place as the representative figure of a national cinema--whether such a thing even exists or whether the reputation is deserved is a separate issue-- is similar to AKIRA KUROSAWA's in Japan.

Here is a link to the wikipedia entry on IM Kwon-taek:

Now, here is the zinger. It turns out that the guy's becoming a film director was a complete accident. The guy didn't love movies. He didn't even watch many movies. He didn't try for years to become a film director.

So how did it happen?

During the Korean War (1950-53), he found himself an 18-year-old refugee separated from his family in the southern port city of Busan. To survive, he worked for a time as a day laborer, but quickly found out the work was just too strenuous. So, he got a job working at a shoe store, which some enterprising person had set up to sell U.S. Army issued boots in the blackmarket.

Near the end of the war, the owners of the shoe store went to Seoul, the capital, and left him in charge of the Busan store. He managed that business for another 6 months on his own. At that point, the owners told him to close up shop and come to Seoul. They wanted him to help out in their new business venture, a fledgling movie production company.

Thus began his entry into the film industry. He started out in the props department and began doing all sorts of tasks to help the fledgling movie production company, until he eventually became a film director with his first feature FAREWELL TO TUMAN RIVER (1962 B&W), whose print has since been lost.

To put it simply, IM Kwon-taek became a film director because he worked at a shoe store.

The closest to this story that I can think of is AKIRA KUROSAWA's, who as a floundering high-school graduate who had failed to get into a Japanese university, became an assistant director by answering a newspaper ad and then somehow passing the Japanese film studio's (I think it was TOHO) lengthy interview and examination process.

But even in that case, Kurosawa had already been enamored with films from having seen numerous Russian and European classics under the influence of his older brother and had harbored an ambition to make films.

With IM Kwon-taek, there was no such exposure or ambition. Initially, his working in films was akin to his working on an assembly line at some factory.

Maybe his example is what some people might call FATE or DESTINY?

Whatever the case, it must be so strange for him to see the current brouhaha about filmmaking and just how competitive and popular the film industry has become and that there are even film schools where people pay large sums of money to go to study the craft.


No comments: