“It wasn’t very easy to cast this character because actors, especially those working in commercial films, can see it as being damaging to their public image,” director Kim Yang-hee admits, as she discusses her drama The Poet and the Boy and finding someone to play the titular character. Featuring LGBT themes, with its lead Hyun Taek-ki having a spiritual, and sexual, awakening when he meets a young man who he becomes inexplicably drawn to. Even if some actors might have thought twice about the role, Yang Ik-june, who plays the character and is also here to talk about his brutal gangster drama Breathless, simply quips: “I don’t care about my image.”
Both actor and director are in a very talkative mood, keen to give us informative and in-depth answers for every question we pose to them. Yang is cheerful as soon as we start the interview, getting tea for himself and asking us, in English, if we’d like some as well because the Korean Cultural Centre is his ‘home’. He listens attentively to our questions, and even goes so far as to take out a pen and notepad to write down the names of films he’s asked about from his vast filmography, to make sure he doesn’t forget anything (and gives possibly the longest answer in the history of interviews, you’ll see). They are both fascinating guests to talk with, and it was a pleasure to learn so much from them in such a short time-frame.
Hangul Celluloid: If we look back at the new Korean cinema wave of the late 90s and early 2000s, same-sex relationships in films like Yellow Hair and Lies were often and almost routinely banned. Considering the fact that the relationship in The Poet and the Boy is much more spiritual than physical, would you say that if we step back 10 or 15 years, you’d have been able to make this film? Or do you feel that, even though it is spiritual, it would have been banned the way those films were? And how do you feel society has moved on to allow these films to be made?
Kim Yang-hee: “When Yellow Hair and Lies came out dealing with homosexual relationships, and this is purely my opinion, homosexuals were oppressed in society and the films were trying to show the desires of this minority that had been heavily suppressed and oppressed in society. Whereas, for me making this film, I think nowadays there’s a sense that you can’t simply just deny the existence of homosexuality, you can’t just say that it doesn’t happen anymore.”
“Gradually there’s an increasing sort of atmosphere where it is impossible to take this stance. So, very slowly I think there’s an emerging and changing gaze that homosexuals are just ordinary human beings that are living on this Earth, and in comparison to previous films that shows them in this very radicalised way, nowadays they’re depicted as ordinary people living life, and the stories around that. When my film was released there were two responses, one being ‘thanks for making me in a much more gentle and softer way understand homosexuality’ and the other response was ‘I still very much dislike homosexuality’, so you can see that these two different attitudes still co-exist.”
MyMBuzz: Given there’s an increased representation of LGBT characters in Korean cinema, do you feel that films like this, including yours, are able to help change and evolve LGBT rights in the country?
Kim Yang-hee: “So, previously calling a person a ‘homo’ was a swearword used to degrade [LGBT people], however, nowadays, while people might carry homophobic attitudes internally, they understand that it’s wrong for them to say this to people. There’s also a societal awareness that this isn’t appropriate anymore, so although people might still carry homophobic attitudes inside, they understand that it’s not acceptable to voice those attitudes out loud. In that sense, I think it’s promising for improving human rights, however from [LGBT people’s] point of view, I’m sure that it’s very insufficient and nowhere near enough.”
View of the Arts: My question goes to [Yang Ik-june] as an actor taking on a homosexual role. Did you face any challenges taking on this role, and what was the response to you as an actor doing it? Was this the kind of role that can damage or further one’s career in Korea?
Yang Ik-june: “For me, I don’t think I played a homosexual, I just simply played a man. He was a fat man who loves poetry. I also told the director once that there’s this famous Korean actor who at one time said something very insulting to me, and he was incredibly rude. It stressed me out, the way he treated me, and I thought wow this actor must be under a lot of stress and mental duress for him to have treated me in this way.
“Once I changed my thinking in this way I started to really like him, he’s a very famous star, he’s very tall and good-looking, and I thought that we just have these sorts of moments in our lives. The director was previously paying a compliment to the translator and it’s simply being able to kind of acknowledge someone else’s beauty. I think for the poet, as well, with his struggle to seek beauty in his life he just happens to discover this young man who is the same gender as him, this boy, so I don’t think it’s that necessary to label this poet as an LGBT person, he’s just someone who finds the beauty in things.”
Kim Yang-hee: “It wasn’t very easy to cast this character because actors, especially those working in commercial films, can see it as being damaging to their public image so they considered it very carefully.”
Yang Ik-june: “I don’t really care about my image.”
Kim Yang-hee: “Because he could think about the character in this way I think it was possible for him to play this role and join this film.”
Hangul Celluloid: As an actor is preparing for such a role, because the Poet is such a complex character with a lot of issues even aside from the gay aspect, would you say it’s harder to prepare for than, for example, a role completely different to your personality, such as the character in Breathless? Or the voice acting you’ve done like King of Pigs or The Fake for Yeon Sang-ho? The reason I ask is because director Yeon has said he often gives his actors a lot of leeway away from the script. Does that make your job as an actor easier or do you, more often than not, have to adhere to a script? What are the difficulties in terms of these characters you played, and which was easier?
Yang Ik-june: “Starting with Breathless, I’ll just do this per film, I wrote the script and I played the lead for that film, but I couldn’t learn all the dialogue because I didn’t have enough time as an actor to prepare because I was so busy preparing to direct the film. So, the motive of the story came from my own experiences, which became fictionalised and came into their own in the film, so I understood that in a very broad sense, but I couldn’t remember every single line in the dialogue. But, since I knew the overall story and the arch of it I had that in my mind and I could improvise when I couldn’t remember, and thankfully that didn’t cause too much disruption when performing with the other actors because I had a deep level of understanding of the story.”
“In terms of working with director Yeon Sang-ho, we were friends for over a decade – from around 2004 or 2005 – when we were doing King of Pigs, and even before that I did a voiceover for his previous short film, and he really does trust the actors entirely. There’s a certain character that I was playing, who is a particular type of character, and I thought that another actor in the cast, Oh Jung-se, would do a much better job at this character, but director Yeon gave this role to me. I asked him why he was giving it to me when the other actor would do a much better job, but in the director’s mind the way he understands an actor and the role, and the way he thinks about the film, he has a very firm conviction that it is this actor that must do the voice, who can also convey the personality of this role, and it’s right that only I do it, and it’s only right that with the other character that actor Oh Jung-se does that. He has a very clear sense of who is going to play which role and do it right in his mind.”
“In King of Pigs, the character I was playing was in his 50s nearing his 60s, and I literally couldn’t do the voice of somebody that age because I was in my 30s and I don’t have a particularly thick or low voice, and director Yeon said that it really must be me that did it. I heard that he considered other actors, like Choi Min-sik, but seeing his conviction that it had to be me really soothed a lot of the anxieties I had about playing this role. When director Yeon is making these animation films he directs from outside the glass booth while we’re doing the voice-over, and we’re watching this animation, and he really does an excellent job. We did another short animation together called Sayip which is roughly translated as a ‘fake Christian’, I did a voice for it as well and when we were working together I thought he would be a really excellent director to make feature films as well. So, when he made Train to Busan and his other films that really became acknowledged widely, he proved his skill as a director who can do feature films.”
“Lastly, speaking about The Poet and the Boy, like I said earlier, the script was really good and I really don’t think actors choose projects based on characters they’re going to play. I really liked the feeling of the story, and the emotionality of the story, so when I read it I enjoyed it. It wasn’t just based on the character that I was making these decisions, but also as an actor it’s not always best to play the same roles that you’ve done before but to be challenged, in order to portray new feelings, different feelings, so that you can grow and really challenge yourself. In real life I may not feel able to confess to a beautiful woman who I feel is superior to me and whom I want to meet, that’d be unrealistic, but in a film setting I can attempt that, and I find that to be a real privilege as an actor. So, for this role I had to gain a lot of weight physically but also prep emotionally for this character.”
“I don’t think I did as well as I could have. It’s not that I didn’t try hard enough but rather it was because there was so little time in between the previous film I was making and the shooting of this film, there was just a brief period in between. I tried my best, but I don’t think that it was enough, or what the director needed or what the film production team needed, and, of course, it wasn’t enough of what I wanted. I was the one who was under the most amount of stress, and whilst we were filming, I commented on not being as well prepared as I thought as I should have been. But thankfully this is not something that you do on your own, as an actor you have a whole team around you so listening to the director’s advice, the staff, or individuals involved in parts to make this character, and watching the final film and seeing the positive reaction from the audience I feel like it wasn’t such a terrible character or job that I did, that people enjoyed it and as such I could enjoy coming here and talking to the audience as well.”
Kim Yang-hee: “Yesterday I saw a clip from director Yang’s film Breathless after a very long time since seeing the film. There you have a young man in his 30s exploding with rage and a sort of social rage, and then ten years later you see him in The Poet and the Boy where he gives way for this younger man to live his life. For me personally, I felt that we are seeing a very different phase of Yang Ik-june that could only come through time passing by, and that was my personal impression yesterday.”
MyMBuzz: This is a little off-topic, but [Yang Ik-june] starred in a Japanese film called Wilderness which was one of my favourite films that I’ve seen this year, and you gave such a powerful performance in it. What is it like for you to work in both the Japanese and Korean film industry?
Yang Ik-june: “When working in Korea as an actor there are times that you feel limitations as an actor trying to make films, whereas in Japan there is a little more space and leniency so I’m very happy to be working in Japan. I’ve been working there since 2011, 2012, as an actor I’ve been in Judge!and Our Homeland so whilst I was working there I met people in the film industry there, and being able to participate in the film industry, and I do consider at which points Korean and Japanese cinema can connect, when I said that I was going to act in Japan I decided that I wasn’t going to play a Japanese character because I wasn’t going to be able to portray the nuances of a Japanese character, so I play Koreans, North Koreans, and mixed race characters, but if you’re very pleased with this and if a director has a character that they think I’m needed for then I will choose it.”
“It’s also easier to choose foreign projects in comparison to Korean films, because foreign films don’t get shown in Korea as much, so it’s kind of like having your dessert. Whereas for the main dish in a Korean film you have to be very cautious and consider very carefully, because if I choose to be in a Korean project and it shows [in cinemas] but doesn’t do well then there’s a sense that I would get annihilated, so I take much caution and consider it more seriously. The production system is very different in Japan, the system in Korea hasn’t been going very long, it’s not very long or continuous, whereas Japan has 120 years of history, so the system is in a way very well organised and there’s no major stressors as an actor, and it really helps with your sense of self confidence or self-worth, so I do have a sense of making Japanese films as an actor or director once every year or two if possible.”
View of the Arts: The poetry in the film is very beautiful, and since you wrote and directed the film were any of the poems yours? And how did you decide which poems to use?
Kim Yang-hee: “I had a general sense of which direction and how I wanted to use the poems throughout the film, at the beginning there was more about the beauty of nature or the beauty of people you’re praising around you. But, as the film progresses, there’s more poems that have these desperately sad, loving feelings which is more about the rough side of human nature that you see more of, so there are more of those types of poems that I chose for the latter half of the film, including ones that I chose for myself. So, before the climax of the film there’s a montage where the poet is longing for this boy and there’s a poem that I had in mind always while writing the script that I wanted to use in that scene. Also, for the child’s day poem that was one that I had written myself because I couldn’t find one.”
“In the very last scene there’s a poem by the poet Ki Hyong-do, his poem called Hope, it’s an unpublished poem but just to explain something briefly about him, he met a very sudden death and he was a genius poet. He also was a homosexual and met a very tragic ending in his 30s, as a homosexual there was a meeting place in this part of Seoul called Jongno, and in this very old theatre there was a group of homosexuals who would meet and touch each other, and in this place, he was found dead, so it was very tragic. His poems convey something that was desperately sad and painful, so at the end of the film, despite the Poet not intending to, after going through all this love and experiences, I thought that what he would write would actually be something quite simple.”