Written By: Mut Asheru
Simon McEnteggart, publisher of Korean film review site Hangukyeonghwa.com has a keen talent for cinematic conversation. With interviews and film reviews that are well-rounded yet accessible to the everyday film lover he has turned his passion for Korean cinema into a very respectable online portal for Korean film enthusiasts. While we here at Knowshi.com also love and champion Korean cinema we have to bow down when we find others whose analytical voice and interpretative, communicative skills are just as good as ours if not better. Simon’s knowledgeable yet accessible writing voice lends a fresh air to his reviews / interviews that serve to open up the world of Korean film to readers who want to give it more than just a passing glance but who do not want their brains dipped and fried in smarter-than-thee-over-the-top-analytical-gobbledy-gook.
We’re jealous. We want to write like him, to be able to break down a movie like him…we want to be him. But since we can’t we’ve decided to feature him so that you too can discover and cozy up to the Korean film review / interview goodness that is Simon McEnteggart and his Hangukyeonghwa.com.
Knowshi: Hi Simon, thanks for taking time out to speak with us. Where are you from?
Simon McEnteggart (Simon): Originally I’m from London, England.
Knowshi: Can you tell us where you are based and what led you to start your site Hangukyeonghwa.com?
Simon: After studying and teaching film at a university in England, I became very disillusioned with the British film industry, and the UK generally. Even before the government slashed funding and closed the UK Film Council, the industry was very limited often selling the notion of ‘Britishness’ to foreign territories through directors such as Richard Curtis. I had studied Korean films as well as enjoyed them at Asian film festivals, so I decided to move to Ilsan (a suburb just north-east of Seoul) where I could have access to even more. I quickly noticed that the Korean film industry was much more vibrant than I had ever imagined, yet often most films didn’t make it to other territories unless it featured something ‘extreme’ – typically sex and/or violence – in order to be marketable, which is quite unfair. So I decided that in order to generate greater awareness of the Korean film industry, I’d create a site where people could read about some of the great productions and talents that are emerging from the country. Over time the site became bigger and bigger, and then doors started opening allowing me to meet and interview directors and producers, which has been truly incredible.
Knowshi: Can you paint us a broad picture of the independent movie scene in Korea? Are indie films embraced theatrically? Are there any indie or specialty film houses there for independent movie buffs?
Simon: These days the independent film scene in Korea is very exciting, arguably more exciting than mainstream cinema. As the film industry has become increasingly more prominent, companies are now very concerned with commercial success resulting in boundary-pushing talent often working in the indie sector. Typically, new independent films appear through the staggering amount of film festivals in Korea – notably Jeonju, Bucheon and Busan Film Festivals – before being picked up by distribution companies that grant nationwide releases. There are quite a lot of independent cinemas in Seoul that often screen the best indie films from these festivals, occasionally featuring a Q & A with the director which is fantastic. Mainstream cinemas are also now starting to dedicate one screen a week to indie films, which is wonderful news. It’s possibly due to Kim Ki-duk, who publicly stated his annoyance that indie films are not supported enough when he was promoting Pieta, although I could be wrong.
Knowshi: Of course we must ask you about your favorite film directors (any nationality)?
Simon: I think Lee Chang-dong is a genius, and it’s so shocking to me that it’s difficult for him to get funding. His films are all incredible but often don’t get the international exposure they deserve as they are politically sensitive. Shin Su-won is also an exciting upcoming director. She has a wonderfully modest and sensitive style in her films. I’m also a fan of Im Sang-soo, Hong Sang-soo, and Kim Ki-duk’s films are always fascinating. Of course I have to mention the big three – Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho – as they are all exceptional directors and it’s largely due to them Korean cinema has achieved mainstream international attention.
Outside of Korea, I really admire Ridley Scott, Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan, while classic director I revere include Carol Reed, John Huston, Alred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and far too many more to mention.
Knowshi: I see you have studied film intensively. Do you have any plans to become a filmmaker or perhaps involved in film in any other arena?
Simon: That’s a great question and the answer is an emphatic, “yes!” I would love to become involved in film production in the future, and I’m taking steps to achieve it now by studying Korean, forging contacts, and general writing. The Korean film industry is so open and accessible, and filmmakers are very kind and willing to have conversations. It will take several years, but hopefully I’ll achieve my goal.
Knowshi: What would you like people to think of when Hangukyeonghwa.com comes to mind?
Simon: Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think the site occupies a nice middle ground between established sources/critics and bloggers. I try to infuse the articles with enthusiasm but also employ a critical perspective, so I hope when people think of Hanguk Yeonghwa they regard it as professional yet accessible.
Knowshi: Is there any particular genre of Korean film that fascinates you more than any other?
Simon: A few years ago my answer would probably be thriller, but these days I’m fascinated by political dramas. Lots of filmmakers are displeased with the both historical and contemporary politics and the associated scandals, and that charged energy is making it’s way into cinemas. Films including The Attorney, Jiseul, National Security, 26 Years, Unbowed, Project Cheonan Ship, Non-Fiction Diary and so on all challenge dominant ideology which is a striking feature considering Korean culture is largely based on Confucianism. I’m excited to see if filmmakers become even bolder and begin to challenge President Park Geun-hye, and the atmosphere appears to indicate it will happen sooner rather than later.
Knowshi: Who would you say is an up-and-coming director movie lovers should keep their eyes upon or open for?
Simon: Shin Su-won is a great up-and-coming director, as Pluto was easily one of the most critically acclaimed films at the Busan Film Festival last year while her short film Circle Line won the Canal+ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Jung Young-heon was a big success this year with Lebanon Emotion, which is now on the festival circuit. In terms of comedy and wackiness, Lee Won-seok is a man to watch as his film How To Use Guys With Secret Tips is one of the more original offerings in the romantic-comedy genre.
Knowshi: As far as screenwriters, who would you say are your top 5 and who can we count on to always turn in an engaging script?
Simon: It’s a tough question as a lot of great screenwriters also work as directors. Lee Chang-dong is always someone to count on as every film he has written is simply awe-inspiring, with his character-driven narratives always providing enlightenment in some respect. Park Chan-wook is also a genius as his unique ideas have generated some incredible films, from the Vengeance trilogy through to more quirky offerings like I’m A Cyborg But That’s Ok or redefining the vampire in Thirst. Lee Yoon-ki is a wonderfully sensitive writer and director, as Come Rain Come Shine attests. Park Hoon-jeong is an exciting upcoming talent as he wrote The Unjust and I Saw The Devil, as well as directing gangster film New World. Finally, love him or loathe him, Kim Ki-duk is continually a fascinating writer/director. He constantly pushes boundaries while interrogating contemporary society/masculinity, and is not simply creating ‘shock’ for the sake of it.
Knowshi: Any future plans for Hanguk Yeonghwa?
Simon: 2013 was a big year for Hanguk Yeonghwa and I will continue to build and expand it in new directions. Every film festival brings not only new and exciting films to discuss but also new connections and the possibility of interviews, which will feature more in the future. As my language skills improve, reviews of new films will begin to appear faster so that readers can have up-to-date information on the latest offerings from the Korean film industry.