Winner of two Japanese Academy Awards and director of several critically acclaimed films, Sang-il Lee has taken on his biggest challenge to date by remaking the Clint Eastwood classic, Unforgiven. We caught up with one of the leading lights in Asian Cinema at the Café Royal Hotel in Piccadilly for a chat on Ken Watanabe, Jersey Boys and the future.
One Room With A View (ORWAV): So to start with the obvious question, why remake Unforgiven?
Sang-il Lee (SIL): The reason why I chose this movie is because I personally like what was depicted in the original. There are certain movies that need to depicted and shown to the audience for many years to come -10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years time – the same theme needs to be depicted.
ORWAV: The main difference I felt between your movie and the 1992 version was yours had a softer, more emotional tone to it. Was that the key difference you wanted to make?
SIL: Not many people have commented this movie to be soft! That’s a surprise to me!
ORWAV Well, it is dark! I’ve seen the end scene! I mean to say you have a greater balance of dark introspection combined with the more everyday emotional narrative of two ‘normal’ people…
SIL: I agree. I would say the original is more cool and dry in a sense that there’s a distance from us to the character. In this version – and I’m not sure whether it was to do with the fact that I was aiming towards a Japanese audience initially – it’s more to do with that sense of feeling is more emphasised. Therefore, compared to the original version, the pain of taking somebody’s life away is felt more vividly and rawer. That’s something I was aiming to go for. That’s what I suppose would be the biggest difference between the original and mine.
ORWAV: As well as this change, there is a seamless transition from the Old West to 1880s Hokkaido. Did you know much about the history of the area previously?
SIL: Prior to this project, I was already toying with the idea of depicting this era because we have the frontier in Japan as well. In Hokkaido, there’s a story about it. It’s not very often that we get to see this work in terms of TV or films. Therefore I wanted to show that era in Hokkaido. I already started the research and going in to Hokkaido myself to study what’s going on at the time. So that actually happened to match with the themes of Unforgiven.
ORWAV: How was the process of getting Ken Watanabe on board?
SIL: Prior to this, I had already met with Ken Watanabe several times at the award ceremonies in Japan. My two previous movies had won awards and he was there with another team, who won awards as well, so we met each other through the awards seasons. At the time, he approached me to say “Maybe one time, we could work together”. I took him seriously! When we tried to look for an actor who could rival Clint Eastwood, I could only think of him because he’s probably the only person who could put up with the pressure.
ORWAV: Was Ken the first person to join? And the rest formed around him?
SIL: Of course!
ORWAV: Speaking of ‘the rest’, you’ve got a strong supporting cast but what it was like having a Hollywood star play amongst ‘lesser known’ talent?
SIL: Ken Watanabe deliberately behaved in a very un-Hollywood like to follow the more traditional Japanese filmmaking ways. He doesn’t let you feel that he’s a Hollywood actor but of course, the other actors surrounding him are fully aware of his success. So towards him, all the other actors didn’t feel a rivalry but with the levels being so high, they were trying to match him. *laughs* I would’ve like you to have seen the behind the scenes footage. As you know, there’s a lot of snow in the middle of movie with (Akira) Emoto left in amongst it. It was freezing cold and as soon somebody said cut, the first person jumping to him to carry him into the warmth was Ken Watanabe. He physically lifted him and carried him.
ORWAV: My last question is having seen all your previous successes, especially Hula Girls – which is primed for a Western remake itself…
SIL: They should do the remake in Hawaii!
ORWAV: I’ll get Clint on the phone and maybe you can switch projects.
SIL: He shouldn’t be doing Jersey Boys, he should be doing this one instead! *laughs*
ORWAV: So what is next for you? Any more Western projects take your fancy?
SIL: I’ve already started writing a script for my latest movie. It’s not a period piece though; it’s set in modern Japan as we witness a murder and the aftermath around this character.
ORWAV: Sounds great. Best of luck!