Réalisateur de Untold Scandal, mais aussi de An Affair et Asako in Ruby Shoes, E J-Yong est un jeune réalisateur étonnant, bavard et réfléchi. Notre rencontre à l’occasion de la projection d’Untold Scandal (film de cloture du festival de Deauville 2004) est sans doute celle qui, aux côtés de l’interview de Im Sang-Soo, s’est déroulée le plus naturellement, comme une véritable discussion.
Sancho : How did the idea come to you to adapt Les liaisons dangereuses into a Korean movie ?
E J-Yong : I’ve wanted to make a costume drama for a long time - a well made film, because we don’t make many period films in Korea. I thought about it for many years and one day while listening to European classical music - Bach -, I wondered whether such music would fit with traditional Korean costumes, what emotions could come from mixing these two different elements. As I was looking for a story, I remembered Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons.
I first saw the film back in 1988, in Australia I think. I didn’t speak much English at that time so I just remembered some images. What I remembered most was its acting. So I sought out the original book by Choderlos de Laclos, translated into Korean, and I read this great novel and really enjoyed its story of love, hate, jealousy and betrayal. It’s not just a French story : it’s universal. Normally when Koreans make a costume drama, they focus on the King and his concubines or ordinary people. But we seldom linger on noble people. Since I found it to be a good, universal story, focusing on noble people, I went on with it.
How did you proceed in adapting the novel ?
I read the novel again, and worked with two other writers. I could have adapted it to the 19th century, the 20th century or even modern times, but I thought that, in the 18th century, the people living in France and in Korea must be the same, so I kept to the same period. 18th century France and 18th century Korea are actually quite different - Korea being really stricter -, so I first found it very difficult to adapt this story to such a different society. Along the way however, these differences gave birth to more images and inspiration, so even though it was difficult I still enjoyed the process.
What are the main differences you see between Untold Scandal and Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons ?
Stephen Frears’ version is very well adapted from the original novel - better then Valmont [Milos Forman / 1989] or other versions. As I said I love the novel, so I also wanted to stick to it. The characters portrayed in Frears’ film however, are very wicked, ruthless people - people without mercy. To me, humans are not completely bad ; they have reasons why they are so, and have some sympathy about them. That’s why my characters are a bit more romantic ; they play and do bad things, but still have some feelings.
It shows in the actor playing the Valmont character in Untold Scandal ; he’s both more comic and less aggressive than John Malkovich’s incarnation.
Yes, that’s one of the differences. As there are cultural differences between France and Korea, I also wanted to make my characters more Korean.
Which is why you added a religious dimension to the story, with your version of Madame de Tourvel, through Catholicism...
All the episodes and stories in Untold Scandal are really part of Korean History. In the late 18th century, Catholics had just come from the west. As religion tends to bring people to be morally more strict, I adopted that religious trait.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to focus on your previous movie as well, since I had the opportunity to see Asako in Ruby Shoes.
Oh, you saw it ?
Yes ! It’s a beautiful film, completely different from Untold Scandal. It plays on other themes and its direction is very different. Both are modern films - even though Untold Scandal is a period piece -, but Asako in Ruby Shoes is a much more contemporary work. It focuses on the internet, where the main character is allowed to become the director of the movie through your work on point of views and camera angles. Which of the two forms of film are you more sensitive to ?
My first film - An Affair - and Untold Scandal were quite successful, commercially. Asako in Ruby Shoes was critically well received but didn’t perform well at the box-office. I think it’s a more private film than the other two. Many people who know me prefer and even love it.
Actually I make films because I want to communicate with the audience. I have many interests : I want to make melodramas, comedies and so on, but Asako in Ruby Shoes is really more the film I used to think of when I was in film school. My first short film, called Home Videocus  is about a boy who is always watching TV, and is influenced to the point where he confuses real life with what he sees on the screen. Asako in Ruby Shoes is about the internet, so it’s a form of continuity with my short films.
Asako in Ruby Shoes develops an optimistic and rarely adopted point of view, that a virtual relation can turn into a true, physical relation. It’s a quite unique point of view. How did you come to believe this could happen ?
Long before the internet, way back to the 19th or 18th century, even neighbors couldn’t meet each other. But today through some form of karma or coincidence, this happens on a global scale - not only between neighbors. Asako in Ruby Shoes’ story doesn’t have to take place between Korea and Japan. It could be between London and Paris, or Seoul and New York. Nowadays, country and nation are not that important anymore. Everybody can meet anybody through the internet.
My point is that, before this, the Japanese girl and the Korean boy probably never would have met. But today it happens quite naturally. You know, we might have seen each other somewhere once before, at the airport or on a train, but we don’t know it. We don’t, but somebody knows we have. The world is full of coincidences and karma.
And Untold Scandal in a way, is also about the karma of its main male character - which brings us back to the film. It’s much more erotic than the other adaptations. Its opens with a very erotic sequence and then tones back a bit ; you start very harshly and then pull back until further away into the story. Why did you choose to make Untold Scandal that much more erotic ?
Well it works, commercially [laughs]. But this is not the only reason. It also helps to define the characters.
The actress playing Madame de Merteuil / Jo, is the same as in my first film. In An Affair she falls in love with her sister’s fiancé, and during a traditional family ritual, she comes to his house and makes love to him. I’m quite interested in this mix. At the beginning of Untold Scandal, my characters are also having sex while some people nearby are playing out a ritual. We have two different levels : on one side the holy, and on the other the profane. I like to mingle tradition and modernity.
How did you manage to produce a soundtrack that so well combines traditional Korean sound along with European music ?
Did you find that it works ?
Yes, it works very well !
As I told you, I got the inspiration from European classical music to adapt this story. Europeans have a strong tradition of making period films, so listening to such music inspired me some images. I didn’t originally mean to really use European music, but I ended up deciding to. Directors often use traditional Korean music for the soundtrack of traditional Korean costume dramas. When they first started doing so, it worked. But many films started to imitate this without using Korean music creatively, and developed a cliché of Korean music along the way. I’m not denying it or saying I don’t like it - I like traditional Korean music -, but I really wanted to use music in a different way Korean dramas use to do. It doesn’t even relate to which I prefer. That’s why I used European music.
It makes the movie seem less serious at first, but as the story builds on it turns out to play very well.
I believe audiences in Korea received the movie quite well.
Yes, and it surprised me. European and Korean cultures are actually quite different, but I think the audience liked it as a new kind of film. They are used to the many costumes dramas they see on TV, but this is something different.
Weren’t you afraid that people were going to try and compare your vision to Stephen Frears’ version ?
Just a little bit, because I knew I could make it different. So I really enjoyed making the film, feeling more interest than anxiety.
Would you like to make your own version of Chunyang ?
Yes ! Chunyang is kind of a Korean Romeo and Juliet, so perhaps I can move the story to Italy. I like to combine different elements and cultures - like Europe and Asia. I like to compare and clash them. I’m writing a story about a Korean Buddhist Nun. It’s not as religious as Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, it’s more contemporary. Monks or nuns are traditional figures, so to place them in a modern setting brings out clashing differences. I like those things.
Will it be closer to Asako in Ruby Shoes or Untold Scandal ?
Definitely to Asako in Ruby Shoes, because it’s a personal and experimental film rather than a commercial film. Some part might be musical, another documentary... I’ll combine many different things.
Was Untold Scandal shown in many festivals, and has reception by its audiences been good so far ?
Yes, more than I expected actually. It was very well received in Berlin, where people haven’t seen many Korean films. What’s funny is many people focused on Kim Ki-Duk’s films in Berlin, which can be very radical and controversial, and Untold Scandal shows a totally different aspect of Korea.
It’s both cultural and very light, easy to watch.
Yes, so European audiences liked it - and especially Koreans living in Europe. When they see Kim Ki-Duk’s films they actually feel a little ashamed, but with Untold Story they are proud of how beautiful Korea is [laughs] !
Did you put something personal into Untold Scandal ?
I don’t only make a film somebody else writes. When I make a film, I have to chew down every scene with my stomach and churn it back out. Without this it doesn’t seem like my film. I have to adopt everything and recreate it myself. So even though a writer’s ideas can be good, if it doesn’t feel like mine I don’t accept it. I have to find a reason why I use this or that, I have to agree with everything so that I can explain it. But Untold Scandal doesn’t really reflect my own experience. I’ve seen many films, read many stories and known other people’s lives, and it all comes together.
Interview réalisée à Deauville le 14 mars 2004 par l’équipe de SdA en association avec Elan-Films.