Q&A with ‘Typhoon’ director Kwak Kyung Taek

A low key affair compared to the LA premiere, only 140 tickets were available for this first showing of Typhoon in the UK, which was followed by a Q&A session with the director/writer Kwak Kyung Taek (Chingu).

In spite of the poor sound system, Kwak showed himself to be a polite and witty guest and the following is the transcript of the Q&A session based on my hand-written notes taken at the time.  I omitted questions that were, frustratingly, too indistinct or mumbled. The initial questions were asked by the host who was from ‘The Independent’ newspaper.

Q: What drew you to the subject matter and themes of this film?
My father and relatives were originally born in North Korea and defected and it is their experiences that led me to the film. I wanted to deal with the issues raised as they are currently in Korea at the moment.

Q: One of the most expensive Korean films made to date and filmed extensively abroad, what was it like to film in Thailand and Russia?
Thailand has many places that have been used in film and have a past history of film. In Vladivostock, the place in Russia where we filmed, the crew were very helpful.

Q: Filming in Thailand stopped one day before the tsunami occurred, is that right?
Yes, that’s right. I suppose I should have thought it was some kind of miracle, that we were saved by God, but I didn’t think so at the time. Originally the filming of Typhoon was meant to finish on that day, but it ended the day before. It wasn’t until we saw the images on TV of the wrecked restaurant where we had all been that it sank in what we had escaped. Today when I think about it, it still makes my back sweat!

Q: Was it total luck not to film that morning?
Yes, I think I was so incredibly lucky.

Q: Did it put you off filming outside Korea?
There are always hazards with filming, maybe more outside of Korea, but not really.

Q: Was it difficult filming in Vladivostock and the ‘tricky’ people who operated there?
There was a lot of influence from the politics and politicians in Russia, but the people working on the film were not so hard to deal with.

Q: It has been reported in various papers that North Korean refugees have responded well to the film. Why do you think that is so?
I have read these reports too. I think they are very thankful for this film and the papers have said they were grateful and identified well with many aspects.
[in English] They had the same kind of experience!

The last comment made the audience laugh, as up until this point, the questions had been relayed via an interpreter in Korean, as were his answers. The audience was then allowed to ask questions, although the original interview interjected with a few more to keep the discussion on track.

Q: Does the film have a message about the relationship between South Korea and the US? Specifically the joint military force?
Only that politicians in Korea should have an open mind towards the problems both North and South Korea have. North Korean poverty and starvation aren’t soley their fault, we should take some of the responsibility too.

Q: Is the film representative of the South Korean view of the US?
No, not really. There are international and domestic problems between North and South Korea that can’t be solved so easily and these need more time. There are a lot of issues that have not been put into the film. It was not a pleasant thing to admit that Korea doesn’t have full power to override what the US might want.

Q: [reporter from CBS news] I thought the Russian pronunciation was awful in the film, but how does the portrayal of Russia differ between Hollywood and domestic films?
In Vladivostock, the accent is actually like that, and the people said that whatever Jang Dong Gun said was fine. The techniques I used, I tried to imitate James Bond films at their best. UK film techniques are at their highest here, but have now been taken over by the US market. Films in Korea are still at their early stages. We would need a bigger budget if we were to compare to US films.

Q: Would you like to direct a James Bond movie?
If I had the chance – yes!

Q: Why was the film not as commercially successful as you anticipated?
For regular audiences who didn’t care about the issues raised or were unaware of them, the film was too heavy to understand.

Q: Did it not come out in the same week as King Kong?
Yes, King Kong was also released at the same time. Made a little more money, I assume.

Q: Is there another meaning to Typhoon’s title?
My wife said to me that a typhoon is a national disaster that masks a curse in the world right now. Of course it’s a disaster we have to face, but we have to be prepared and ready for these disasters.

Q: Will you be showing the films at any human rights festivals at all? I don’t think you need a big budget as you have already done an excellent job.
I don’t think it’s a film that relates to human rights much, it’s more of an Americanised film. I care very much about my characters and I hope a budget doesn’t affect how I can portray them. Good answer?

Yes – but I think you have an audience with those into human rights.

Q: Would you do a film that was low-budget?
My next film is a romantic comedy and not a big budget one. Romantic films are harder to do.

Q: You have a cast and script?
We have a script and a cast – but only by verbal agreement so far, not by written contract.

Q: What do you think of Kim Ki Duk’s comments on ‘The Host’?
It is not the right moment to say something about another director who does so well in Korea.

Q: Why did you decide to shoot in the wider screen format and what significant effect makes it so different?
It’s not really that much wider, but a wide screen can give more power to the film. It can contain more and is easier to shoot a big action film in.

Q: What was the hardest scene to film?
The ones with water on the boats. There was no way of stabilising cameras and light and electricity is very dangerous with water. We had to do a lot of preparation. There was an accident on set – a fire – it cost us more money, I am sure.

Q: Everything is all right now?
I’m still struggling to pay! I’m serious!

The last question, as were some others, was too indistinct and faint to understand, but from his answer it seemed that it had to do with the foreign and domestic quotas of films. His answer was:

"What I am doing as a filmmaker in Korea cannot be protected by my government. It makes me very disappointed."

A most enjoyable evening. I’d like to thank the Korean Cultural Agency for organising the event and also the staff at the Covent Garden Odeon, where the premiere was shown, who let me have the last ticket in spite of my late arrival.

*edited by Aziraphale