The volunteers at the 20th Udine Far East Film festival looked in wonder as the doors of the main Teatro Udine theatre opened on Friday night – and half of the visitors came out either red-eyed, wiping their eyes or still quietly sobbing. That was the effect of Be With You, the Korean adaptation of the Japanese novel of the same title by Takuji Ichikawa, and the debut work of Lee Jang-hoon, which tells the story of a father and son that are dealing with the loss of the mother, who promised to return for the rain season.
True to the tradition of Korean melodrama films, Be With You made us all laugh and fall in love – then broke our collective hearts, while simultaneously also providing a bit of comfort. That is why we were especially excited to sit down with Lee Jang-hoon to talk about his film – and it turned out that the deep-voiced Lee, with his calm(ing) presence, is as charming as his debut work.
Be with You is based on a Japanese novel, and it was made into a film in 2004. How did you come across this project, and what was it about the story that appealed to you?
I worked for a long time on this film, this is my first one and I wanted to focus on a story that was very important for me, because this novel helped me during a difficult time in my life — this novel gave me strength. Above all, the most important thing in this novel is the message that you don’t need to feel pity for your family, and that, instead, you should stay near them and help them. This is very important to me, because I was in a similar situation.
This is your directorial debut, so what was the experience of making the film like for you?
I have been dreaming of the moment when I would be working on a film set, and shooting with actors, for such a long time. It took one year to finish the film after I had cast the actors, and the whole time it felt like a dream. Every moment on set was incredible, and I didn’t even want it to end. I never yelled at anyone, or cursed at them, because I was always happy on set. Even my crew was surprised about that, because there is no director like that in Korea. I enjoyed every second I was there on the set.
Since this is your first film, how did you come to cast actors like Son Ye-jin and So Ji-sub? Even Park Seo-joon and Gong Hyo-jin made cameos in the film. How did they get involved?
I didn’t expect that these big-name actors would be in my film. I asked Son Ye-jin to be in the film first, because I wanted her to be the lead actress, and she really liked the script that I had written so she got involved. After that, I tried to think of who would be the best partner for her, and So Ji-sub came up so I asked him, but he said no at first. I thought about giving up on casting him, but I decided to keep trying and then, he finally said yes. Son Ye-jin asked Gong Hyo-jin to be in the film, and Park Seo-joon worked on Midnight Runners with my producer, so they knew each other, and he asked him to be in the film. I was so lucky to have these actors in my film, I’m so happy I had them.
Son Ye-jin and So Ji-sub had such great chemistry on screen, what was it like to work with them? And what made them work so well together?
They wanted the other actors to look better than themselves. They always tried to help their other cast members to act more comfortably, and – even though he didn’t have to – when Son Ye-jin was being filmed on her own, So Ji-sub would be there, reading the lines with her. They helped each other so much, and I really appreciated that they were like that. Most of all, they wanted the film to be good and they did their best to help each other, so I think that’s what made them work so well together.
Kim Ji-hwan also did a great job acting as their son, what was your experience like working with him?
I don’t know if you know, but he is a first-time actor. We auditioned almost every kid of that age in Korea, and he was one of them. What I really liked about him was that he was very child-like, he didn’t mind if he didn’t look good on camera. He would read the lines, but he didn’t care about how he looked, and that’s what I liked about him. Even when he was crying, he didn’t force himself to, he would just feel it and the tears would come. A lot of people were worried about him because he had never filmed such a long project before, so I wasn’t sure about him at first. I asked Son Ye-jin and So Ji-sub about what they thought of the other candidates, and I sent them the video files of all the child actors so that they could tell me who they liked best. They picked the same actor as I did, so we went with him and he did a great job.
At the screening you said that this was a way to see goodbye to this film, so what was it like for you to see the film at Udine? And did the audience react the way you wanted them to?
This film was so special to me, because it took me 14 years to become a director and finally make this film. I fell in love with this film, and it was so hard to say goodbye to it. Even when the screenings were finished in Korea, and it seemed like it was time to move on, it was so hard for me to do that. I’ve never cried watching my film, honestly, because I have always watched it as a director and not as an audience member. But last night, I cried for the first time while watching it; it was a really nice experience and I was so amazed that everyone was clapping for my film for such a long time. I didn’t know what to do in that moment! I think it was the perfect way to say goodbye to my special first film, now I think I can move on to the next project. I think this festival will motivate me to make my next film, and do my best to come back here again.
Looking back, what was the most challenging thing about making Be With You?
I think the most difficult part of making Be With You was writing the screenplay, it took almost two and a half years, and I wrote more than 15 drafts. I thought that it would be easier if I had the original story and film to base it on, but it was even harder because there was something to compare with. So, the audience would always compare my film with the other one, and it felt like a bit of a burden for me. So, I tried to think about making a film that I wanted to watch, to make something that was my own style, so I didn’t watch the original film and I tried to forget about it. I changed all the episodes in the story, and I made some new characters and situations. I tried to make a movie that I wanted to watch instead, that’s what I decided to do.
Would you say that you just took the original idea from the book and then made it your own, then?
I tried to follow the whole narrative in the novel, but I wanted to change the episodes. I didn’t want to use the same situations in my film, so that’s what I did. I was happy, because the audience liked the new ideas and the different tone that I had in the film. I was fascinated last night, because I was worried about whether the audience would cry, but I didn’t realise that they would laugh as much as they did. Since we are from different cultures, and things get lost during the translation process, I didn’t expect that people would laugh that much while watching my film. I was shocked, but I was happy about it!
You’ve mentioned you’re going to move on to your next project, could you tell us a little more about that?
I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on yet. I have had some offers from many distributors and production companies, but the one thing I have in mind is that I want to make a good story into a film. The story is the most important thing for me, I don’t care about the genre – I just want to make a good story. I’m still looking, and I will try to work on that, until I find the kind of story that I really want to make into a film.
We would like to thank Jang Hang-jun for kindly taking the time to answer our questions, and the Udine Far East Film Festival team for arranging the interview.
Written and edited by Sanja Struna (View of Korean Cinema)
Interview transcription by Maggie Gogler (View of Korean Cinema) and Roxy Simons (MyM Buzz)
Interviewed by Sanja Struna (View of Korean Cinema) and Roxy Simons (MyM Buzz)
‘Be With You’ photos © Lotte Entertainment
Cover photo © Sanja Struna