In Conversation with Ryu Seong-hie

Ryu Seong-hie is a Korean Film Production Designer whose creativity and passion for film has no limits. She made a name for herself in 2001, when she gave a helping hand on Song Il-gon’s film Flower Island. The film was later presented with 7 awards, including CinemAvvenire’s award for Best First Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2001. Also, in the same year she successfully completed her work on Ryoo Seung-wan’s movie No Blood No Tears, followed by Memories of Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-ho, and Oldboy (2003) by Park Chan-wook, which expanded her horizons in becoming an even better Production Designer. Oldboy’s script contained moments where there was no precedent to draw from, and the task of designing a room where a man has to remain imprisoned for fifteen years for no apparent reason must have been daunting. A colleague of mine once said:

That horrible little room was the emotional core of the whole story. Ryu responded with a masterpiece of art direction, and she did it with some cheap motel furniture, a sickening colour scheme and, above all else, that hellish inspirational painting on the wall,” and I couldn’t have agreed more. Following her work on Oldboy, she developed an incredible partnership with directors Boon Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. A source at the KCCUK said: “These two filmmakers have produced some of the biggest, most commercially successful and critically praised films South Korea has seen. In her thirteen year career Ryu has shown herself to be an incredible force in helping to create and elevate Korean film standards to what they are today.”

We were delighted when The London Korean Cultural Centre invited us to conduct a group interview with Ryu Seong-hie. She is an interesting and very creative individual, and a great inspiration to those who work in the film industry.

Seong-hie Ryu

Ryu Seong-hie © IMdb

Hangul Celluloid: In your career as a production designer, you have worked on many films across a range of differing genres; many of which mix fantasy and reality. What are your thoughts on the balance between fantasy and reality in both fantastical and reality-based films? And if we consider your films that contain major fantasy aspects – such as I’m a Cyborg or Hansel and Gretel – are they easier to create, from a production design point of view, than those based in reality because of the opportunities provided by the fantasy elements or are they more difficult because you are creating almost a complete fantasy world from scratch?

Ryu Seong-hie: As a production designer, there is always a big question for me between reality and fantasy. Of course all films are fantasy to the audience but when I first read a script I always ask myself how I can find a balance between reality and fantasy. A film like Oldboy was, at the time it was made, very taboo subject and those sorts of stories were larger considered to not be popular with audiences and I felt that if I approached it realistically the audience might feel reluctant to accept it so, as with all my film work, I spent a lot of time considering how best to present the story to the audience. 2003 was a very important year for cinema in Korea: Oldboy, Memories of Murder and A Tale of Two Sisters all came out but before then Korean films were largely based on a very realistic look and mood – natural, if you will – so the films of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho were incredible new in many ways and I was very lucky to meet those directors and, even more so, work with them. None of us were really familiar with the new take on genre – I’m not even sure if we knew that it was a new take – and I guess that’s part of why I considered so deeply how I could underline the impressionism within the genres of films like Oldboy while I was at the same time depicting the realism needed. Actually, when I was working on Oldboy, I thought it might be may last film because the producer kept asking if I was sure of my choices – he thought it was too much – and I, and even the director, wondered more than once if what we were doing was perhaps too risky. As I mentioned, none of us were familiar with the genre but ultimately doing this work and working in these genres was the right thing for me; deciding what choices should be made and what was naturally right for the story in particular. On the second part of your question: At the time of making those early films, and even now to an extent, we didn’t have a professional concept artist working on films. It’s not a well paid occupation and so doesn’t happen regularly, it’s not like in the West, and so in a film like Hansel and Gretel we had to do the concept art ourselves. ‘The Host’ did have a concept artist but that was very much the exception rather than the rule. So, that on a general level made the fantasy elements of films really tough to achieve because we had so many things to deal with but as a designer it’s always wonderful to have the opportunity to create your own world. All in all, I’d say fantasy is easier to achieve because of being able to create your own world without the limits of reality, as long as the director likes your choices.

Korean Class Massive: How did you make your first step from art design and pottery making into film production design? Was it something you always intended to do or did your film career come about almost by accident?

Ryu Seong-hie: I always wanted to do something related to the arts – fine arts or ceramics etc – and even as a child I had a dream of creating my own world; creating something only I could create. So, being some kind of artist was always me goal. I, of course, studied hard and after working hard for four years I finally had to chance to have an exhibition of my work at a gallery and I was, of course, incredibly nervous and very excited. The gallery was in a very rich area and collectors and wealthy individuals came to the exhibition and bought some of my work which made me feel deeply proud – it was the first chance I’d ever had to sell my work or have people wanting to buy my work – but it also made me feel a little strange because I had wanted my work to communicate with people and speak of their loneliness and the unfairness they faced but the people who bought my work were of a very different kind. I felt that perhaps I was communicating with the wrong people or that I wasn’t communicating at all; rather I was just serving the tastes of the wealthy. Ultimately, I came to decide that film-making was art that could communicate with people more so I changed my mind and my plan which resulted in me going to the United States and majoring in production design.

Ryu Seong-hie © IMdb

Diya on Korea: You’ve had quite a long career in the film industry so far and I wondered if you could talk about perhaps both the challenges you’ve faced and the successes you’ve had working as a female in a largely male-dominated industry?

Ryu Seong-hie: Working in the Korean film industry as a female was truly one of the hardest things. My actual given name is Yoo Seong-hie and I changed it to Ryu Seong-hie because in Korea it sounds more male and has stronger characteristics. The phonetics of the two surnames in Korean are the same and they have the same Chinese characters but we can dictate it in a different way. Parents can also choose whether to use Yoo or Ryu for their children’s surnames. After I changed my name to Ryu for at least the first three films I worked on people wouldn’t have known if I was male or female and in fact with hard-hitting, masculine films like Oldboy, Memories of Murder and A Bittersweet Life many talking about them would refer to the production designer (me) as male. Most of the films I have worked on have had strong sexual inspiration and content – I’m not sure what happened to the directors for that to be the case [Ryu Seong-hie laughs] – and have a very masculine feeling overall, but as a production designer I think I benefit in those situations from being female and I’m always aware of trying to express what masculinity means, understanding what the director really wants and what he, as a male director, means when he says, to a female production designer, that he wants to give a scene a sexual feeling. I am a very strong person myself and in my work so I feel I can almost see both sides of such an issue or question and I always try to look at things from both a female perspective and what I believe would be a male point of view, especially in such masculine films. As far as challenges or successes are concerned, I think luck played a big part because after graduating in the States I originally planned to stay there and work in Hollywood. After two years working there on independent movies, I was working on a small budget Western film with a director and one day after building a set, there was almost a ‘Pop’ in my mind and I suddenly thought “What am I doing? Why am I making Western films sets in the desert?” I mean, I was raised with Western movies and I’m very familiar with Western culture and I was doing what I always wanted to do but it still felt very strange. At that time, Korean cinema was less than promising but what I was being asked to do in the West had an emphasis on almost erotic stories – all in all terrible, from my point of view – and even though I was capable of making erotic movies I preferred to go back to Korea and try something challenging. Of course, I returned at the time when a few directors were ready and trying to do something truly new – Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kin Jee-woon, for example – and I met them at just the right time. So, all in all I guess it really was luck.

View of the Arts: Could you tell us about the differences in working with the same director on a number of projects, such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, as opposed to working with a new director for the first time?

Ryu Seong-hie: That’s a difficult question. It never gets easier. You could think that once you’ve worked with someone it’ll be easier to work on a subsequent project and collaborate again but it’s never easy. They are not easy people by any means and they are very ambitious and even though they may have become my friends there’s always a nervousness on my part and it’s always very challenging.

EasternKicks: I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the process of working with directors such as Park Chan-wook and taking the ideas they have and making them real?

Ryu Seong-hie: They are certainly not ‘chatty’ people, by any means. Some directors really like to talk and I sometimes feel I’m being employed as a listener; specifically hired to listen to them [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]. However, I think production designers have to have so much inspiration, film work is often less than logical, but I always try to be the person who helps to finish the map, as it were; connecting all the inspiration of all involved in what I feel is the best way. As a person who loves film-making, and who is also a passionate viewer of movies, I always wanted the director to find the way and solution that I would understand and agree with. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not always logical, I think I’m in a role that allows me to keep order and keep the director and film going.

Anton Bitel: Unless you’re working entirely within a closed studio set, which I assume doesn’t happen all that often, you have to face the realities of a location shoot, and I just wondered what has been your most disastrous production and did you thrive on the challenges that presented or were they just a nightmare?

Ryu Seong-hie: Strangely, the current movie that I’m working on is always the most disastrous; I’m not sure why that is. There are always so many problems, sometimes I feel like I’m not a designer or an artist but rather a person to solve the almost endless problems. There are always artistic issues internally and technical difficulties from the outside but the problems always relate to the budget. However, the limitation of the budget can sometimes give you the chance, the spark, to create something new. If you asked every designer they would say they always have budget problems. If you take the example of Oldboy, we didn’t have a decent budget because we were too new at the time. So, in the script it says there is a rich evil person who is ‘one of the richest people in Korea’ and who lives in highest penthouse. How could I show that [Ryu Seong-hie laughs] because I don’t even know rich people and I don’t know how they live. I can hardly even imagine it. If I’d had a big enough budget, perhaps I could have gone to a high-brow furniture store and find items to perhaps rent and use – it’s always easier if you can afford to go to a suitable place and buy or rent items – but with Oldboy that wasn’t an option. Like me, most Koreans wouldn’t know those types of people or what their home were like and that led me to begin thinking of how I could succeed by making that set seem very unfamiliar. Therefore, I built a penthouse with stone elements, very minimal furniture and a long, narrow water feature, and I used green light to further increase the strangeness. So, the budget limitations forced me to approach things in a different way – if I’d have had the money I wouldn’t have needed to think like that. It’s been like repeatedly in my films, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ was the same – we didn’t have a decent budget so we had to make everything ourselves.

Mini Mini Movie: You talked earlier about working with directors, their personalities and conversations and I wondered what you relationship is like with cinematographers, who you have to deal with in relation to the colours used in films? For example, earlier this year we met Chung Chung-hoon and he was very funny and witty. What was it like working with him and other cinematographers and how much do you have to work with them to get your colours right?

Ryu Seong-hie: Chung Chung-hoon is a really great cinematographer. He doesn’t ever want to have an argument and he doesn’t want you to put him in a really serious situation so whenever I would bring my serious questions to him he would always try to run away [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]. Everybody has their own way of communicating so it’s always important to find a way of communicating that makes both people feel at ease. Similarly, I think every designer has their own way of designing but, for me, at the beginning I tried to imagine the space in the script with the lights; what kind of windows would be used, where would the light sources come from – top, bottom – would it be hot or cold light, because the temperature and brightness of the room always gives you inspiration. Normally in Korea, we’d have two people – a cameraman and a lighting director – so it wasn’t like the Western idea of a DP and though Chung Chung-hoon is now working as a DP, back then I spoke to the lighting person more than the cameraman because the lighting is so hugely important to my job. I spoke more to the cameraman about composition and what the movie means. At the end of the day, any film is a collaboration and discussions of many subjects are vital.

Hangul Celluloid: A lot of the films you worked on – the work of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho etc – essentially changed the face of Korean cinema and became hugely successful, as a result. Considering the fact that your production design played a huge part in both the look of those films and even what those films were as cinematic works, what are your thoughts on the current trend for large conglomerate companies favouring high budget, high visual blockbusters, some would say at the expense of smaller independent story-led dramas? And as you’ve already said that a lot of your films contain sexual content what are your thoughts on the increasing use of sexuality in Korean cinema and the tendency for Korean films to be labelled as ‘erotic’, with nudity appearing largely for the gratuitous sake of nudity alone?

Ryu Seong-hie: Sexual content to my mind should always be used n a symbolic manner. In my earlier films there was indeed quite a lot of sexual content but it came with a legitimate reason, a sexual inspiration if you like. Nowadays, sexual inspiration is cared about far less and that itself could be considered a problem and, yes, it’s is a current and ongoing trend. With ‘The Host’ having been such a huge success, the budgets of Korean films have got bigger and bigger and in recent years scripts coming to me have been of far bigger budget movies. However, most of the time the directors of those films are focused on commercial success rather than any serious psychological context underlining the film and that sadly means that story depth often suffers. They think “That’s enough, as long as it’s successful”. Of course for the film to achieve that success, it has to be visually striking and while that’s good for me because it means my work is getting bigger audiences I’m slightly worried that the stories may be too simple or even, perhaps, a little boring. Films today are, in my opinion, far less interesting than those of earlier years and times.


Ryu Seong-hie © IMdb 

Korean Class Massive: Looking back at your career, is there a specific film or design concept that you are particularly proud of? And in the future, is there perhaps a genre or type of film you would like to work on that you haven’t had the opportunity to as yet?

Ryu Seong-hie: I’m always trying to find something unfamiliar or even strange; a step away from reality, though I have to say I’m not a fan of sci-fi films. That’s my focus now. Regardless of genre, if I could continue my interest and can keep working on worthwhile films, that is my wish. It’s always difficult to say what I’m proudest of in my films; it always tends to be my previous production.

Diya on Korea: When you’re not working, what do you do to get away from it all and relax, or are you always working in your mind?

Ryu Seong-hie: No, I do nothing and I think about nothing film related [Ryu Seonghie laughs]. When I’m working, I tend to put all my energy into my efforts, perhaps too much energy, so when I’m free I really need the time to do nothing and empty my brain. Travel and family become my priority. I like to watch films in my time away from work too but as a viewer rather than a professional.

View of the Arts: Would you agree that women are under-represented in films in Korea? Do you feel that is because even though Korean is a modern country it is still very traditional with women expected to marry by a certain age rather than pursuing personal or career paths?

Ryu Seong-hie: In most cases, it’s not very representative. It’s always the man who makes the decision in films and compared to reality women are, I feel, portrayed rather conservatively. Few films manage to capture the reality of women in Korea. I’m not complaining particularly about films like Memories of Murder or Oldboy but even in Oldboy the daughter was ‘selected’ and largely used as a tool in the film, rather than anything more. Since then, I worked on The Host and Mother and with them the portraying of women gradually began to change somewhat. That said, Oldboy and Memories of Murder were released way back in 2003 and even their portrayals of women appear different when you watch them all these years later, but still Korean films do tend to show women in an over-conservative manner. I don’t know why that is or if the directors have a problem [Ryu Seong-hie laughs].

EasternKicks: If we could stick to Oldboy, the design of the film quickly became very recognisable and it has inspired and been referenced in no end of DVD packaging, posters, album covers and even through to the Spike Lee remake of the film. I wondered how you feel about your work being reinterpreted in all these various ways?

Ryu Seong-hie: Now, when I watch Oldboy I feel almost a little ashamed of myself because it’s rough but I am ultimately proud because it’s rough. If I was working on that film now, maybe I could make more sophisticated wallpapers, patterns and the like but at the time I was so full of energy I felt that energy itself could be the most important thing to support the movie. So, I didn’t mind that it perhaps looked rough because the more important thing for me was making the film logical in a sense and creating the frankest film I could. When I see those covers etc I do on one hand feel that I could do better but on the other I realise I could never do that again because I was young at the time and stupid enough to succeed [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]. The fear that audiences could perhaps walk out of cinemas during the film forced me, in a good way, to work even harder and, as I’ve already mentioned, that fear often made me think it might be my last film. I was very sure of the excellent story that Park Chan-wook wrote but unsure of the production design I was creating and I thought that if I was doing it wrong I could be the one who destroyed everything.

Anton Bitel: The work you did in Three Extremes and also Behind the Camera feature dressed sets and the production design that you did was actually part of those films; a part of the films’ textures and they are exposed. What particular challenges did that present you with as a production designer?

Ryu Seong-hie: Back in the old days, I was too nervous and I had too much energy and I always waited for inspiration to arrive. Sometimes it came and sometimes it came too late. However, now I don’t wait for inspiration because even that waiting makes me anxious. Of course, at the time I might have been full of inspiration but that’s not the most important thing when making a film. I read a quote that said waiting for inspiration is amateurish while professionals just do their work, and now I like to take the time to research and understand – through books and photography etc – rather than struggling to find inspiration. The hardest thing is that I feel I always have to produce something good and I always struggled with that concept for personal reasons. I think I have gradually managed to get free of that judgement. At the end of the day, the biggest problems always come from yourself.

Mini Mini Movie: You’ve mentioned research, and I wondered with films like The Front Line was there a lot of research involved to ensure the film was historically and technically accurate? Was ‘The Front Line’ the film that required the most research?

Ryu Seong-hie: Documentary films provided enough information. The reality and imagery of those and real life photography was so strong and in fact I decided t do this movie because of one picture in particular though I wasn’t keen on doing a war film overall. I was very reluctant because I don’t agree with some of the process with which Korean films are made and I honestly never thought of myself doing a war film. There is a mountain in The Front Line that North and South Korea fight over many, many times and while there were so many caves inside the mountain, the US and Russia wanted to be the one force to utterly control every one and the entire situation. That picture was so sad to me that I ultimately felt that it could depict the topic very well. That is the imagery that made me decide to do the film; with imagery that powerful you don’t need anything more. It provides all the inspiration and you do not need to create if there is a true life picture of a situation. Even with Memories of Murder, based on a true story, we got a lot of information from documentary photography.

Hangul Celluloid: Out of all your films, if you were asked to name one or maybe two that encompass your style of production design and that you are most proud of, what would you say?

Ryu Seong-hie: A lot of people ask that type of question because I work with many important directors and they want to know who is the best and who I like more. That’s a very heavy question for me [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]]. Always, the current movie that I’m working on is the one I’m proudest of and the one that I feel encompasses my style; because it is my style at the present time. That said, I always loved Park Chan-wook’s ‘Thirst’ and as far as Bong Joon-ho is concerned, Memories of Murder. Yes, those two… maybe [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]. ‘Thirst’ was very stylised and I’m so proud of the work that I did but Memories of Murder from a production design point of view had a lot of historical significance. In fact, many Korean film-makers like Memories of Murder very much. Yes, a very difficult question.

Korean Class Massive: You mentioned how you thought Oldboy might end your career. How do you know and decide which projects to take on?

Ryu Seong-hie: Memories of Murder and Oldboy had incredibly well written scripts; they were both outstanding and different. That ‘difference’ is by far the most important value for me because it’s always so challenging to try something different, even if it’s only slightly different. I care about the writer and director’s point of view and even though a film may have an interesting story, the perspective of the director and writer can change it drastically, for better or worse. For me, I’m also more attracted by the supporting characters and their stories, rather than the leads.

Diya on Korea: You mentioned how you started off working in Western films. Having now had the experience you’ve had in Korea, would you ever consider going back to working in Western cinema again?

Ryu Seong-hie: People keep asking me about working in Western films again as a result of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho becoming famous worldwide and making international films, and Chung Chung-hoon having gone to work in Hollywood. I honestly don’t know… I mean, I was there for study and a little work but as such Hollywood held no mystery for me. I’m not that keen to go back to working on Western films but I still think American movies are doing a really good job. Maybe it’s easier for a cinematographer to go back and forth and produce great work but for a production designer I feel that understanding the system fully is vital. I did a film called ‘Late Autumn’ which was filmed in Seattle and that was okay because it was a small movie and as such I was able to focus on the real design aspects rather than struggling with the system; where to buy, where to get the people etc.. I’m still trying to understand Korea as a space, a country and a land.

View of the Arts: What advice would you give to film-makers trying to achieve the best production design on a low budget? I know it all depends on producers because they control the budget but in terms of production design what would you suggest? Do you have to deal with a producer yourself if you really want to expand your designs and how do you approach them?

Ryu Seong-hie: At the beginning of my career, I always fought with producers because in terms of my designs I always felt “This is right, I really need to create this”. Of course, the producers have to do their jobs, too. When I did Oldboy, there was some stuff that wasn’t shown on screen and they asked me to pay for those things [Ryu Seonghie laughs]. While they were making film, we all knew it would be an amazing movie but no-one was sure how it would perform commercially and absolutely everyone was really worried. However, I knew I had to finish the work and the producer constantly thought I was doing too much with crazy wallpapers, props and the like, and the deal became “If we don’t show the props in the film then you have to pay for them”. In the end, the truth is I had to pay a lot of money, and even the director doesn’t know that. When I was doing Oldboy and Memories and Murder I never lost trust in the projects and while I’m, of course, proud of my production design, the fact that I never lost my trust is the proudest thing for me.

EasternKicks: One film we haven’t really mentioned is ‘I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK’ which is a hugely stylised film. I wonder if you could tell us about the inspiration behind the look of that film; the cardboard masks, the opening titles and things like that?

Ryu Seong-hie: In I’m a Cyborg, the main male character feels he’s getting smaller and smaller and is afraid that he may disappear completely. That was my inspiration. I used very timid, almost transparent, pastel colours compared to other films – pale pink, pale green etc – and I got the inspiration for that from the worries of the characters in the hospital; people who themselves are almost transparent and afraid they might disappear. All their dialogue gave me inspiration too and at the end of the day the script is always my greatest inspiration.

Anton Bitel: Can you watch your own films subsequently or do you find it rather painful?

Ryu Seong-hie: I will watch my films at a premiere but normally after that I won’t watch them again after that. When I make a film I put so much energy into my work that afterwards I just want to get away from it. I actually wanted to rewatch The Host this evening, because it has been so many years, but the KCC has asked me to go for a light dinner instead.

Mini Mini Movie: As a final, quick question regarding your old skills of pottery and your artistry. Have you even done a film where you could put your own pottery or artwork inside?

Ryu Seong-hie: No [Ryu Seong-hie laughs]. As with my production design, I always put too much energy into my art and pottery and I really don’t want to see it in my films. It’s like an old lover, after you’ve expended too much energy you don’t want to see them anymore [Ryu Seong-hie laughs].

We would like to thank Paul of Hangul Celluloid for the group interview transcription.

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Roxy Simons

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