By his 15th film, Kim Ki-duk, the director of South Korea's Best Foreign Picture Oscar entry "Pieta," was sick of money shaping his cinematic vision.
The director, who told an audience at the Landmark Theatre that he tries in his movies to ruthlessly dissect society with all its nuances and complexities, said he didn't want Hollywood-type producers and investors telling him how to fashion his films.
"It's very formulaic. Film dramas, action movies — the structure is very simple, in the end, good prevails over evil," Kim told TheWrap's Steve Pond at the kickoff of TheWrap's Foreign Screening Series Monday night. "I consciously have tried to get out of the major system. … Once I had money, after that I used my own money.
"I don't want to have producers or investors tell me what to do," he added. "I want to maintain the same autonomy."
"Pieta" follows a local money lender's thuggish enforcer, whose life changes when a woman arrives claiming to be his mother. Notorious in his impoverished neighborhood for crippling shop-owners who are unable to pay back their debt and interest on time, Lee Kang-do soon loses his hard exterior as he experiences maternal coddling for the first time.
Before the projector started rolling, Pond — at Kim's behest — warned the audience that the first 20 minutes would contain violence that may be difficult to stomach. Indeed, it was easy to see how Kim's producers might try to dilute the disturbing images and scenes he shoots.
The film, Kim told the audience through a translator, cost $100,000 to make. It earned $1 million in Korea alone.
"I'm going to distribute half of that to my staff members," he said. "And half will go to the next film."
Kim, who began his career as a screenwriter and studied art for three years in Paris, sees himself as an everyman director, more interested in cinema than profits.
"Pieta" reflects the changing culture of his native land and the economic woes the global recession brought on Korea's poor. In the film, high-rises sprout from one side of the city — the sort of neighborhood parodied in Psy's "Gangnam Style" music video — the other is still congested with trash and small shacks.
He explained that in Korea's capital of Seoul, Gangnam means "south of the river." North of it, where the working-class lives, is Gang-buk.
"That's where working-class, people like me, regular people, live," he said. "There are two lifestyles and classes."
Kim said his next movie will similarly critique 21st century life — with its speedy pace and rapid international trading — which he described as "cannibalistic."
"My next film is again my question about, what is modern society?" he said. "I believe that modern society is some sort of cannibalistic society. Through money, money forms this huge structure."
He said his future movies, like the past 18 he has made, will likely feature strong female characters, too.
"Korean women suffered a lot. It's a long history of suffering," Kim said. "Korean women are known for having very, very intense energy and warm motherly love. However their status and their images are not really intact. They've been harmed; they've been abused a lot."
"Pieta" certainly doesn't pull punches — the film features a rape scene, and numerous women are left weeping over their sons or husbands when Kang-do shatters their bodies.
"The images you see in my films, they make you uncomfortable, they're violent, but that's the reality," he said.
But those images, he said, will almost certainly make his movie a longshot to land an Oscar nomination, something no Korean film has ever done. "If you look at the films that win, they are the ones that make you feel good," he said. "My films are not like that."