Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) has been quite a prolific figure on the film festival circuit over the past few years. Working hard to foster Korean filmmaking talent in conjunction with international co-productions, the documentary producer has been responsible for a string of acclaimed films that capture human endeavours in fascinating and thought-provoking ways.
His most successful film is the powerfully moving Planet of Snail (달팽이의 별) directed by Yi Seung-Jun (이승준), which featured in festivals worldwide as well as winning several notable accolades.
Producer Kim very kindly agreed to be interviewed about his history as a filmmaker, his perspective on international co-productions, and his thoughts on the future of Korean documentaries.
Q) Planet of Snail has been one of the most successful Korean documentaries in recent memory, achieving international acclaim in several continents. Can you describe how you achieved such success?
A) Planet of Snail has been screened at over 80 festivals so far since its national premiere at EIDF in 2010 winning a dozen of prizes including Joris Ivens award at IDFA and Best documentary feature at Silverdocs. It was theatrically released in Korea, Japan, USA, UK, Netherlands and Belgium and broadcasted over 20 countries. It certainly has become one of the most internationally acclaimed Korean documentaries and the film is still traveling around festivals even at this moment.
However, Planet of Snail began as a small project with a small local crew and minor indie subject of a disabled protagonist. As far as the subject or the production scale are concerned it was not meant to be this successful or popular. It was not easy at all to convince the people we need to have on board both locally and internationally. At local pitch forums, professionals didn’t understand why we need 2 years to finish a “human interest documentary” and advised us to lower down the budget that was already cut half to please the local standard. At international markets, no one questioned about the budget (the realistic one) or the production timeline but it was still not considered as a project to be this successful in the following year. A well-acclaimed professional even told us that this film is not sellable which was a real heartbreak for emerging filmmakers like us without much international experience. In the end we managed to get multiple national and international funds and broadcasters on board after all including EIDF (EBS Int’l Documentary Festival), BCPF (Broadcast Content Promotion Foundation), Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach Grant, Finnish Film Foundation, YLE and NHK.
Perhaps one of the keys to the success of this film is the development we’ve been through in an international documentary environment. I brought this project to Eurodoc, which is one of the European initiatives for educating international documentary professionals. I was lucky enough to be the first Asian producer among over a couple of dozen producers from all over Europe. The courses were divided into 3 sessions a week for each session over the period of a year. In different stages of production I was able to get feedback from various professionals including fellow producers, sales agents and commissioning editors and we also realized the potential of the film as a love story. While we pitched the project at several national and international pitch forums, we got to know the strengths and weaknesses of the project and evaluate the market potential of it. We also learned that a lot of people see the story as a love story which had never been our focus of the original dramaturgy. I must not forget to mention the benefit of having a colorful team of international crew. There were over a dozen members in the international crew involved in and out of the production with more than 10 different nationalities including a Lebanese editor, a Finnish sound designer, a Japanese commissioning editor, a Dutch poster designer, a US funder and a French sales agent etc. I am also almost proud to say that we formed the team not for the sake of international co-production budget spending regulations, but based on true artistic connections and the positive chemistry we had with each other.
Q) Why do you think this film resonates deeply with audiences?
A) What makes the film outstanding is not the subject itself but the film(maker)’s attitude toward the subject. There is almost no distance between the people in front of camera and those behind it in the film. The protagonists are vulnerable minorities who are usually protective against media but they act natural as if no one is seeing them. One could imagine that it’s impossible for a filmmaker to make such scenes without earning their trust with their whole heart. I have a huge respect for Seung-Jun for his sincerity and I believe that audiences felt it on the screen.
Director’s vision is another thing. The world’s most talented film crews would be useless without a visionary director. Filmmaking is teamwork and even the smallest documentary production involves a team. It wouldn’t have been possible to make such a unique film without a director like Seung-Jun who had been there almost invisibly for such a long time and captured the precious moments of everyday life and the special world of the deaf and blind and put them into screen as he saw and understood it.
We put a lot of effort in post-production in order to depict the sensitive, fragile and beautifully innocent world of the deaf and blind. Did I mention that Planet of Snail is edited by Lebanese filmmaker Simon El Habre who made One Man Village, the 2009 Hotdocs winner? Tom Fleischman, a five times Oscar nominated sound designer whose filmography includes The Silence of the Lambs supervised our sound post team in Finland.
Planet of Snail is one of the examples that show how a filmmaker’s vision is reflected in a documentary film. Among hundreds of different definitions of documentary, my favorite one is “creative interpretation of reality with personal view”.
Q) You have re-teamed with Planet of Snail director Yi Seung-jun for your latest documentary production. Can you tell us about the film?
A) Wind on the Moon is the story about a born deaf blind girl who can only express herself by crying, screaming, laughing and smiling and her devoted mother who struggles to understand her language like a secret code inscribed on the moon. We again took a poetic approach with the title. The moon is a lonely place where deaf blind girl Yeji may feel she lives in. There is no wind on the moon and no one else but the mother can feel the wind. Yeji in real life also loves to feel wind.
So we have another deaf blind protagonist but the subject is not the same nor is it Planet of Snail II. As far as the level of disability is concerned, Young-Chan (Planet of Snail) has at least a language but Yeji (Wind on the Moon) doesn’t and this could bring us to a different level of philosophical question; what makes a human a human? Young-Chan was able to learn braille language because he gradually lost his vision and hearing in his teenage whereas Yeji was born deaf and blind.
However, the biggest difference is the perspective of the narrative. Whereas in Planet of Snail the deaf blind protagonist leads the narrative (or tells the story) from his own perspective, in Wind on the Moon not the deaf blind girl but her mother’s perspective leads the narrative. Whereas Planet of Snail focuses on the inner world of deaf blind poet and his love story with his wife, Wind on the Moon focuses on the mother’s devotion and her struggle to communicate with her daughter. The story is told from the perspective of a mother of a disabled child and I believe there will be more audiences who could sympathize with characters this way compared to that of Planet of Snail.
In Wind on the Moon, the camera is almost invisible but still very intimate and close (I call it ‘A fly on the shoulder’ approach compared to ‘A fly on the wall’ approach). Last week, Seung-Jun showed me some scenes selected from the footage he shot over the last couple of months and I said anyone could tell it’s his film. It’s so intimate and lovely yet deliberately captures precious moments of the everyday life of the mother and the daughter. I look very much forward to see the movie as an audience myself.
Q) Why did you decide to work with director Lee again?
A) Since the triumph of Planet of Snail at IDFA 2011, both Seung-Jun and I became busier than ever. While I was busy traveling and sharing my experiences of producing Planet of Snail at master classes here and there, I was force to finish up my next feature Captain Kang (강선장) with post-production crews in Belgrade. Seung-Jun has been traveling festivals and representing the film almost constantly for over a half of a year so we didn’t really have a chance to digest all the impressions and talk about what’s next until we met in Sheffield (How global we are!). When Seung-Jun pitched Wind on the Moon to me, I said, “You seem to have found the right project.” Seung-Jun seemed very happy to hear that because most feedback he had so far have been rather negative as they were not interested in another story with the same subject. I knew he saw something very special and worthy to make a film of in the protagonists. He is a man who doesn’t say anything before he is sure of. I trust Seung-Jun’s deliberate personality. Seung-Jun wanted to be safe with the production side of it especially because now the world documentary community is watching him for his next film.
Please see below for the trailer for Captain Kang: