Reel Asian Interview: Lee Wonsuk

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Before the screening of THE ROYAL TAILOR (상의원) last Friday at The Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival (Reel Asian), I was lucky enough to chat with director Lee Wonsuk (이원석) about his film. It’s a tale about fashion, jealousy and competition set in the Joseon period in Korea. Keep reading to hear what the director had to say.

Editor’s note: the director often speaks of the actors, rather than the characters they play in the interview. For clarity sake, I’ve listed them here. Han Suk-kyu (한석규) plays the royal tailor, Dol-seok; Go Soo (고수) plays the younger tailor, Gong-jin; Park Shin-hye (박신혜) plays the Queen; and Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) plays the King. There are also a couple of times that he uses Korean words in his interview and I’ve included a translation/explanation at the end for those instances.

Interview with Lee Wonsuk



Can you please introduce yourself and your film, THE ROYAL TAILOR?

My name is Wonsuk and I directed 남자사용설명서, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, that was my debut film and this is my second film, The Royal Tailor. I don’t know how to explain about this film, it’s about a guy who makes the king’s clothes and the jealousy between the traditional tailor and the new, upcoming tailor. It’s about the conflict between those two.

What made you decide to become a filmmaker because you didn’t start out as one?

Yeah, I started in advertising but I wanted to make longer stories. Commercials and advertising are short and I wanted to make a longer story, that’s why I went back to film school. It took me seven years to make my first film but it was worth it.

I actually watched your first film, it was hilarious.

Thank you.

THE ROYAL TAILOR is quite different from your first film, HOW TO USE GUYS WITH SECRET TIPS, what attracted you to the story?

When I first got the script it wasn’t the story between the two tailors that interested me, it was a story about these people that wanted to keep their places. I was totally familiar with this and I think that’s what I’m going through right now because as I get older, I get very conservative and I’m trying to keep my place. I used to talk shit about – I can say that right? Shit? – say bad things about conservative people but I’m becoming like an ajusshi* and very afraid of young people coming up, I feel threatened kind of. Those kind of feelings were very familiar in this script and I could recognize the feeling. It was the main reason I wanted to do this film.

That’s why one of my favourite scenes is the one when Han Suk-kyu is sitting down and waiting for the King. We work so hard to keep our place.

In the script, the King and Queen and Han Suk-kyu, they all want to keep their places as the King, the Queen and the Tailor, only the younger tailor doesn’t care. All the credit for his clothes goes to Han Suk-kyu. At the end, in the end shot, all the people believe that the clothes were made by Han Suk-kyu and they weren’t. What makes people become conservative? False hope and false dreams.

You actually answer my next question, which was what is your favourite part of the film?

My favourite scene was that one, there were actually a lot as a director, like the bunny scene which people hated so much. I had to fight for it. We finished that scene two days before the VIP screening which never took place. We never had a VIP screening which really killed us. Because Lotte, the new Lotte theatre they were building, there was a problem so the city shut it down so we had a 5,000 person screening that was cancelled. But anyway, that scene, the investor wanted us to take it out so I had to take out other scenes to keep it. So it’s one of my favourite scenes.

Another favourite scene is when the Queen walks in, that was the actual palace. They only gave us three days to shoot and it was crazy. We all worked like rabbits. We only had nighttime, only eight hours of night and the sun comes up really early so we all worked like crazy. That was another favourite scene.

So you talked about the rabbit scene…

Oh, they hated it. I don’t know why.

What did you want to portray with it?

See I wanted to show, see the hardest part for THE ROYAL TAILOR was the hanbok*. I didn’t want to show it as one makes good clothes and one makes bad clothes. I didn’t want to show it as black and white. People were telling me, ‘you should make it white and colour.’ See Korea is known for whiteness, not as a racist term but you know what it is, we wore white clothes, everything was white. White versus colour, that was what everyone was asking me to do but I didn’t think so, it was too easy.

But we had to come up with a difference. Like Han Suk-kyu’s clothes were good but Go Soo’s clothes were better, that was the hardest part and Jo Sang-gyeong came up with the idea. She went through like 500 years of Korean hanbok and she started mixing it up. So that part was fictional, it’s not historical, we just mixed the history. So what we did was use early Joseon* period with Han Suk-kyu’s clothes and we gave later, not later but mid-Joseon era – there’s an era where they had really tight clothes and fitted ones, hoping that people could tell the difference.

What was your question again? I think I went too far.

No worries, you talked about the clothes. The question was what were you trying to portray with the bunnies on the moon.

Yeah, in order to make Go Soo a genius, like in Amadeus, the movie. We all know that Wolfgang Amadeus was a genius because we know his music but in our film, we didn’t have time to build it up. So I wanted to show how this guy thinks, how this genius thinks so I wanted to show things through his eyes, his imagination. So that’s why the scene on the moon, he sees all this in his imagination.

And in the middle of the movie, there’s a scene where he wears these really weird glasses and sees all the girls in the jars, cleaning the jars. Yeah, using those kinds of things to show that this guy is different. But I guess I didn’t do a good job, nobody got it.

That was the reason I wanted to keep the scene. You see, everyone expects, Korean audience expects something very serious. They take it very seriously because it’s history. So that was a hard part that I had to fight for.

So in the first part of that answer, you talked a little bit about the clothes, the beautiful hanbok that were in the film. Were they are made for the film?

Yeah, we made them all. Jo Sang-gyeong, I told Jo Sang-gyeong let’s get them made cheaply in a factory in China, no one’s going to tell. But Jo Sang-gyeong is a very proud wardrobe designer so she ended up spending her own money, seriously.

Wow, were they all traditionally made?

Everything. That’s why it took so long. Me and my cinematographer were bitching all the time because we have to see the clothes before we shoot but it came like two days or the day before because everything was all handmade. Come on man, just send it out and get it machine done. No one’s going to tell. But she did it with all these craftsmen, like famous Korean craftsmen. She got all these people together and she drove all the way down to the countryside to meet these people. And the shoes cost like $500 and one of them was like $10,000. It’s priceless stuff.

And one that Yoo Yeon-seok wore, in the beginning he wore some green clothes, it’s been so long I forgot the name of it but those clothes cost like $100,000.

Oh my goodness

Yeah, because everything’s all hand-printed.

That’s actually kind of cool. So what were some of the challenges you faced making a period film where you were using authentic, handmade clothes?

The challenges were what I said before. The biggest challenge was making Go Soo and Han Suk-kyu different. I didn’t want it to be black and white, and he wears colourful clothes. I wanted it to be different, both of the clothes had to be pretty and great hanbok. I didn’t want to make crappy hanbok and pretty hanbok, I didn’t want people to say ‘oh, he makes better hanbok’, it had to all be well-made but with an easy way for the audience to tell they’re different. That was the hardest part. We had so many meetings in pre-production and in production, that was the hardest part.

And getting four people into one story in the film. It started as a two-person story. You know how it is, they wanted to make a bigger movie so they threw in Park Shin-hye and Yoo Yeon-seok. We were going to cast someone unknown because it wasn’t that big of a role but the investors wanted the King and Queen to have bigger roles because they thought Go Soo and Han Suk-kyu weren’t enough of a draw for the young people. That was one of the reasons the roles got bigger. And it was hard, fitting four people into one story.

To be honest, the movie still has that flaw of trying to go with four people. It should be a smaller story. But it’s my fault, who to blame, the director. I said okay and I thought it would be better but it’s something that I regret. It should have been Go Soo and Han Suk-kyu’s story. I wanted to have a brother love, a bromance but it was really hard. It was really a challenge for me. Four people fitting into one film.

Everything was hard. I hated period pieces. I never watched period pieces before I shot this. I mean, I’ve watched some movies but I didn’t study them because I didn’t want to be influenced. But I realized that everything was so slow, building a set and everything, even the flow of the film because in period pieces people just sit around and deliver their lines. There’s no movement, people walk slow and there are rules we have to follow. Those kinds of things are hard. I wanted to break out, that was a challenge for me, should I try to cross the line or not. But I should have, but I was being very conservative.

Which kind of ties into your first answer about how you’re becoming more conservative.

I think that’s the problem with all the Korean films right now. You watch a lot of Korean movies, right? But nowadays, Korean movies are from the factories, they don’t have identity. It’s changed. It used to be like Park Chan Wook, Bong Joon Ho and all these five, we call them “F-Five”, the flower boys. But there won’t be directors like them anymore.

The system changed, the industry changed. Those five directors will still do whatever but the rest of us, it’s a really different game now.

But your first film was different from other rom-coms.

I was lucky, I was really thankful to them. They aren’t a major company but their new film* is going to kick ass, you should watch it. They just had a screening and people, yesterday people were texting me ‘it’s a great film’ with Lee Byun Hun in it.

I’ll have to check it out. Final question, what are you working on now?

Yeah, I’m doing a Chinese movie. Full Chinese cast, I don’t know how I’m going to do it because I don’t speak Chinese and I don’t understand Chinese. It’s going to really fun and challenging.

Thanks so much for your time!

Thank you.

Korean words in interview

  • Ajusshi (아저씨) – older/middle-aged Korean guy
  • Hanbok (한복) – traditional Korean clothes
  • Joseon (조선) – a Korean dynasty that lasted from 1392 to 1897.

Editor’s note: I believe that the film recommended by Director Lee Wonsuk was Naeboojadeul (내부자들), Inside Men (in English) but he only mentioned the Korean title and I might have misunderstood. My apologies if I am in error. 

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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