Baek Yoon-sik is a South Korean actor who first made a name for himself in the 1970’s as a film and TV actor, but then focused solely on his TV career – until 2003 when he decided to take a role in the now cult film Save the Green Planet – his film career got a complete revival and is still going strong. At this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Baek Yoon-sik was the Actor in Focus; 6 of his films were screened at this year’s festival, including the freshly released Last Princess and the record-breaking hit of 2015 – Inside Men. Alongside Hangul Celluloid and MyM, View of the Arts had the honour to interview this talkative and charismatic actor.
Hangul Celluloid: You began your acting career by working in television series in the 70’s, and after a few years of doing television dramas, you started doing movies. You did four films and then for a long number of years, you seemed to step away from cinema and concentrated wholly on television. And you didn’t come back to cinema, the new Korean cinema, until the late 90’s. Could you tell us a bit about your decision to focus on TV for so long? What specifically led you to come back to cinema in the 90’s?
So I think what you’ve just said in your question is connected to the different trends and flows in Korean film and TV, but as an actor, I try not to be limited or restricted by genre in any sense, whether that’s working on TV projects or in films, or even in the theatre, on stage, or when sometimes only an actor’s voice is needed, so you do animation dubbing as well. So I try really hard not to be limited by the genre of the work itself; in terms of my mindset, I’m actually quite greedy and I want to do it all, and I try to participate in as many projects as possible. But I also tried to choose and select pieces of work incredibly wisely, and I work hard to have a good outcome, to see good work done and to be fortunate to obtain good opportunities and to meet good work as well. And I was very surprised at how accurately you observed the trends and the flow of information in your question. Yes, I did start my work in theatre and on stage, moving on to TV and then I did a little bit of films in the early stages, and then returned later on, after I spent some time focusing on my TV work; when I was focusing on my TV work, there were some calls to work in film, but due to circumstances and not the right conditions I could not participate. And I think that there was this flow and the trend in the film industry that it received good capital again and there was new, emerging talent, and very good human resources emerging in Korean cinema, so that when they called again, saying that I was needed as an actor, then I just returned. Anyway, as an actor, I’m just simply being carried by the flow, in Korean TV and in cinema, but also within that, being carried through the flow, my own choices and selections also play an important role as well. So, just looking at how trends develop, that there is time, you know, when TV might be more active, how then it can become more subdued, and same for the cinema, and then there is the wave of very rich resources and new talents and human resources become much more active to foster that working environment. I think that is what you’ve very accurately perceived in your question, how these changes have occurred over time. And as an actor, this is simply how I carry myself through. Perhaps it might be a bit too grandiose to say that this is also, in a way, the flow of history.
MyM: In your answer there you just said that you would want to pick interesting and unique projects for films. And the film that really brought you back was Save the Green Planet. It’s a very unique role and a very unique film; why did you want to work on that project?
So, Save the Green Planet is the film by director Jang Joon-hwan, and at the time he was a new and emerging director. And for me, I was approached by the CEO of the production company and also by the producer called Kim Sun-ah who sent me the script; we were having a telephone call and they were saying that there was such a work being prepared and would you be interested in joining and said that the title was Save the Green Planet. But because this was such an odd and unusual and bizarre title in Korean, I was quite taken aback and – the production company at the time was called Sidus – and because the title was so bizarre and I was a bit, sort of, shocked, I asked them to repeat it. It reminded me of a children’s animation title like the one where there are five brothers. It is a very good and meaningful title, but the first time I heard it, it’s what it reminded me of. So that when the producer on the telephone enunciated the title clearly again and repeated it, and … Normally what would happen is the production company would send the script to the actor for them to read and then provide the answer, but there was something unusual about that process for this film, when the CEO of the production company wanted to meet me personally to hand over the script. But I didn’t know whether I was going to do the film at the time or not and I felt that this was going to add weight and burden on me, to go through that process, and so at the time, the CEO was called Cha Seung-Jae, and actually he wrote a column for a known Korean newspaper so I have heard of his name, and I asked people around me and they said that he writes a column but that he also has a production company. So we set up this initial meeting where the director Jang Joon-hwan, producer Kim Sun-ah and the CEO Cha Seung-jae were all present, and the CEO told me that the director Jang was a real genius, and I could see that when I looked at the director, and he said that he’d gone to this film academy where all the brilliant Korean film directors have gone, and after he’d finished his training, he’d done some work, amazing, and at the time he used tape, so he took the tape and the script and he brought it with him to the meeting. And the CEO was telling me that he is the Korean version of the American film director Tim Burton, you know, who’s a very unique film director, and the subject matter was also foreign beings, so like in the film Edward Scissorhands, for an example, and that he had that kind of sensitivity. So it was a very good first meeting and I had a very good first impression and then I later read the script and it was very impressive, and I thought, this is going to be really hard work as an actor, but even without thinking about it from an actor’s point of view, just as a human being approaching this work, that was going to be hard work itself. But I could see that it was going to be a high quality work, and that the genre itself wasn’t something that could be seen around that time as well, and there was this alien Andromeda prince and there was this human boss Kang within the same character, and at the very end, there is also a twist in the story as well, and it depicts the very crass aspects of humanity, the wars, and how aliens look at these earthlings and human beings, and I could interpret that, and there were some kinds of religious elements within the story as well. When looking at the earthlings from the aliens’ perspectives, in religion, god is the creator, but here, the aliens are creators, and they were trying to create this happy planet, and had produced these creatures in their own, same form, but the experiment failed and you see the first world war, the second world war … so there were numerous discourses contained within this film, showing the flow of history, the problems in Korean society and something quite desperate and joyous about human existence, as well as a showing of social inequalities. There were references to the Nazi Hitler etc. So it was a really impressive story I thought that this director had made, and although it was going to be really hard as an actor, it would be worthwhile, and the media quite often use this phrase: the role of their life, when you do a particularly good piece of work, and at that time, I had some experience and time as an actor, and could really draw upon this, to culminate, for this performance, for this role. But then I was really unsure as well, so I was really conflicted whether to do this project or not, and then producer Kim very quickly went through the process so I couldn’t actually change my mind. And it was a very unique genre that hadn’t been seen in Korean cinema before. And after the film was made, and it won lots of awards internationally, I’d go abroad and a lot of foreigners would tell me, and post reviews about this film. I’m not sure if I’ve given you a very long and precise answer to your question.
View of the Arts: Your characters are always so distinct, so I was wondering how much of your own input do you put into the characters, and do you ever ad-lib?
When a film script comes to me, I think it means a script needs me. So when the director and the writer want me, I should play the role in the film perfectly. When I read the script, I personally find reasons why they gave the script to me and I think that the director who gives the script to me acknowledges my potential. So I should give them an answer, and I have to create a good result by portraying the character in the film. When I read the script and when I feel I want to take the role, I like to think of how to play the role in the film. Though I say it myself, I think I have got potential as an actor, so directors need me and want to work with me. So I really appreciate it and I’m happy as an actor because they need me.
In terms of ad-lib, I think the lines that are written by a director or a writer are of great importance. It all has a meaning so I respect each word. I stick to the script basically, and when I act at the film shooting, I sometimes ad-lib. After doing the ad-lib I discuss it with the director, whether or not the director likes it, because the director is the captain and I’m a crewman. I do my best to reach the paradise, and not an uninhabited island, with the captain, director, so when I try to do my best, ad-lib is like a something extra.
Hangul Celluloid: I would like to as you about the two Im Sang-soo films you’ve starred in, The President’s Last Bang and The Taste of Money. Both, subject-wise, are quite controversial and both have a certain amount of adult content in them. And I just want to know, what drew you to such controversial roles and what are your thoughts on increasing amounts of adult content that have been seen in Korean cinema over the last few years?
The President’s Last Bang is based on a true story and I was a youth at the time. Those were not the good days for the young; South Korea had no democracy and was under the jackboot of a dictatorial regime. It was a black period.
I had been through that period and that period was turned into an artwork. I read the script and thought director Im Sang-soo is a special director as well as a writer. It is a socially controversial issue which is very sensitive in South Korea. But he did not make up a story out of nothing and it was expressed as a cultural genre through creative activity, so I think it is absolutely acceptable in a democratic country.
At that time, I got many scripts and wanted to make a good choice. I asked for advice and Cha Seung-jae, the producer of Save the Green Planet, helped me a lot in terms of choosing script. Eventually this film went through various hardships. Many things happened that could not be understood from a common sense point of view. It was socially controversial and the legal circles and the press argued about this film and the film got sued. Press wrote leading articles about the suit, arguing how law standards could judge creative activity. It is nonsense, but it happened in South Korea because this film was about controversial issues. I hope this kind of situation will not happen again.
But the film has worth and for me as an actor, it was a good character to play. As an actor in terms of performing a creative activity; it was a good film in terms of creative activity – excluding the social controversy.
MyM: Inside Men is one of many films recently about politics and corruption and I was wondering why in particular did you want to work on this film?
First of all, the director really wanted me to play that character. And it is a based on a webtoon which was issued in South Korea. When I had the first meeting with director Woo Min-ho, he gave me the book of this webtoon. He wrote a letter on the cover page of the book, listing the reasons why he really wanted me to play the role. And I read the book and it was really interesting. There is no ending in webtoon yet, so direct Woo completed the story. The director said that character is made for me and only if I play that character his philosophy of directing could be presented in the film.
The script was interesting. The film should be interesting and reach the audience. I thought that the film will be very good if I portray the character fully with fellow actors Lee Byung-hun, Cho Seung-woo and so on. I think that an actor is a person doing creative activity and materials for creative activity are diverse, including social or historical features that talk about life, so I decided to participate in the film.
View of the Arts: Has there ever been a project you decided not to work on, but – if you could go back in time – would decide to work on, and what project do you wish to work on next?
Fortunately, there are no such regrets.
I’ve portrayed characters with various occupations such as a king, a soldier, a minister, and so on. I would like to continue to act, if I get a good script.
Interviewed by View of the Arts (Sanja Struna), MyM, Hangul Celluloid.
Transcription by Sanja Struna and KCCUK
Edited by Sanja Struna
Photos of Baek Yoon-sik © Sanja Struna
Photos of Save the Green planet © CJ Entertainment
Photos of Inside Men © Showbox