“Only strong as the challenges you face” – Interview with John H. Lee

With 71: Into The Fire recently released on DVD and Blu-ray I had the opportunity to ask director John H. Lee a few questions about the film…

[Martin Cleary] 71: Into The Fire is based on real events. Was it ever difficult to walk a line between historical fact and delivering an entertaining action film? You like to draw our attention to camera moves and mood; in this sense the film’s visual style is incredibly polished. Were you therefore intending a film that could rival not just the biggest combat films to come out of Hollywood, but some of the glossiest blockbusters?

[John H. Lee] Right from the start, I wanted to convey the emotional truth of the War. It is impossible to tell everything as it happened in a two-hour film. So you have to compress a lot of things. You have to make up certain lines, characters, actions, etc… to tell a complete story. It was not difficult for me to walk that line between fact and fiction. Actually, I freely jumped back and forth. After all, I am making a movie, not a history book. It was marketed as a blockbuster war film at the time of its initial release. I didn’t feel comfortable with the term “blockbuster” marketers used, because all along the production, I didn’t have the means to achieve the scope I wanted for this story. I made a lot of compromises under budget and time constraints.

[MC] Cha Seung-won was an interesting casting choice for Park Mu-Rang, and I was surprised at just how strong a presence he added to the role. How did Cha Seun-won’s involvement come about and what was it that you saw in him to play that character?

[John H. Lee] Cha Seung-won’s charisma and ambivalence were two key things that had me cast him as Park Mu-rang. We’ve been good acquaintances for a long time and he was my first choice for that character. It was quite an easy and simple casting process. By the way, he is an incredibly funny guy in real life. His dry sense of humor kind of assured me that he had the intellect to convey a complex character, who by destiny is an antagonist in this war.

[MC] Was there a risk of stereotyping the common North Korean soldier as monster? It’s difficult to believe Choi Seung-hyun (T.O.P.) had only a handful of acting roles before 71, he gives such a convincing performance – particularly as he has barely any dialogue in the first section of the film and therefore relies upon his physical performance. How did he come to be cast in the role and were you ever worried that the role was too large for a relative newcomer?

[John H. Lee] I never in my life believed that North Korean soldiers were monsters, nor did I believe German soldiers in WWII were monsters. They are all human beings, same as we are. They are victims of circumstances. They were born in the wrong time, in the wrong places… Believe it or not, casting choice for the main lead wasn’t very difficult for me, artistically. The younger audiences all over the world nowadays are bored by history. The story of bunch of teenagers of their age who fought in the war some sixty years ago will put them to sleep. I wanted an iconic face of Asia to bring their attention and lead them into this two-hour heartbreaking journey. I wanted someone teen audiences can relate to. When I first met with Choi Seung-hyun, I was surprised by the fact that he was sincerely shy and sensitive, very fragile at heart. Under the surface of the charismatic idol/rapper, there was this shy boy with lots of daydreams… I identified with that and decided to cast him. Nobody believed he can do it, even himself. It was a leap of faith. I gave a very special attention to his performance, day in and day out. I am so proud of him…

[MC] Your stylistic influence on the film is obviously clear to western audiences. But what kind of partnership did you have with producer Chung Tae-won and what influence did he have on your approach to the storytelling?

[John H. Lee] Mr. Chung is an amazing, incredible producer, in that, he was able to pull off a production in nine months for me. From screenwriting to premiere of the film, it took nine months! However, Mr. Chung did lots of comedies and I was shocked to find, during the shooting, that his sense of drama differed so much from mine. I struggled a lot trying to tell my vision, especially in the editing room.

[MC] Given the release on the film on the 60th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War, has the film had any political impact that you’ve been able to estimate and do you know what has the reaction has been like from war veterans?

[John H. Lee] I knew all along that there will be lots of controversy and there were a lot of them. There were a lot of opinions from those who saw this film from political angle. There were some biased media that refused to promote the film or interview me. In the film itself, I intended to see the events the way they happened; I wanted to see beyond politics and ideology and pierce through the hearts of the people. As far as I know, all the war veterans who viewed the film with me loved it, and thanked me for making it. In the end, it was reaffirmed to me that not only the war did not end, but it still was burning in the hearts of so many people. Quite heartbreaking…

[MC] You’ve recently signed up to direct the remake of The Killer, a combination of action and melodrama – two things which you’ve effectively managed within your work before, particularly the melodrama in A Moment of Remember. What is it that interested you about The Killer and are you daunted by remaking such an iconic and highly regarded film?

[John H. Lee] Believe it or not, there’s an intellect and philosophy deeply rooted in the story of The Killer. No matter what the movie is, making a movie is a daunting task. There’s no such thing as an “easy” film. I welcome challenges. You are only strong as the challenges you face. My condolences to all those who lost lives and still suffering from the natural and man-made disasters…

I would like to thank John H. Lee for his time, Louise Rivers and Cine Asia for making this interview possible, and Ian London for input towards the questions.