At Indieplus in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district, a special screening of revenge thriller Azooma (공정사회) was held, followed by a Q&A with director Lee Ji-seung (이지승) on May the 21st.
As always, producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림) kicked off the discussion by introducing director Lee and providing some context for the film.
Producer Hwang: Director Lee has been working in the film industry for years, for more than a decade. And he was actually more specialized in production and production management on big budget films including Haeundae, so blockbusters, too. This film (Azooma) was a relatively low budget film within his career, but it’s his directorial debut and he also wrote the script so the original idea is from him too. You have to say that it’s kind of interesting to see that in recent years we had revenge movies coming out in the Korean film scene, not just revenge but also involving sex crimes. So we could start by asking how he came to his idea for this film, to give a brief idea before we start the questions.
Director Lee: This film is actually based on a real incident that happened in 2003. (Spoilers) Of course it wasn’t like a dentist killer or anything like that (end spoilers), but there was a mother who had a daughter who was sexually molested and raped, and in real life she searched for the offender for about 40 days throughout Seoul and Gyeonggi Province. So she tried very hard to find this sex offender, and she caught him, and led him to the police. That was the real incident, and it became the inspiration for this film. It happened in 2003 but it wasn’t until about a year or two ago that I read about this in a news article, so after reading that article I thought it would be good to make a film about this issue, because as you can see in the film the sentences for sex crimes are really really light and it’s happening over and over again in Korea. And it’s a really heinous kind of crime but it’s really frustrating to think that even in 2013 we could live with these sex offenders. For example even if he had done it 10 years ago he wouldn’t be in jail for long and he would live with us in this society, and that was a really frustrating reality for me. I thought that even though it’s a low budget film it would be worthy to make it and to remind everyone, including those writing the law system, that we need to work more on this issue to make a fair society. So that’s how I started this film.
Question: My question is about the title. The English title is ‘Azooma’, but actually the Korean title means, if you translate it literally, ‘fair society.’ So why did you use the title ‘Azooma’ instead?
Director Lee: Before answering the question, I’d like to suggest if you can think of female characters in Korean films. How have you seen them? How have you received them? Back in the 1990s when I was studying films in the U.S., at the time I thought – and I heard this a lot from my friends – “why are Korean women so weak?” “They are always getting beaten, why are they so passive?” I heard those kinds of questions a lot. Also, I’m not sure if it’s an unfortunate coincidence or not, but famous Korean directors who are famous abroad like Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo or Kim Ki-duk, if you think of their films their female characters can also get those kinds of questions. Not all of them, but their famous films are like that. So I thought, ‘yes it’s quite easy to misunderstand the characteristics of Korean women after watching these films.’ So it’s not because of that that I choose the title as Azooma, but the word exists only in Korea so I’d like to choose that title to show the power of women in Korea. The word ‘azooma’ also has a kind of image of a very strong middle aged woman who would run in the subway when she spots an empty seat, that’s a kind of joke that explains the character, in a negative way. But it wasn’t my point to depict that kind of azooma because I see many women around me who are called azooma even if they are married or not. They are just women, sometimes mothers, sometimes naïve, just around me and in our society. I’d like to show the reality, that they have a lot of disadvantages because they are treated as an azooma. They are often mistreated, but people kind of ignore them. I’m not an azooma, but I’ve seen it too much.
Question: You said that it (sexual assault and rape) is happening over and over again but it’s not just Korea, it’s happening all over the world. If they (the victims) need help from the government, from the police, who have to catch them (the criminals), do they have to do it by themselves? Is it really happening in Korea?
Director Lee: Actually it’s a really tricky question. I don’t know about the law very well, but when I made this film I thought of the differences between here in Korea and other parts of the world, because from what I hear through the news – in the U.S. at least – it seems like the sentence for this crime is much heaver than here in Korea. These offenders can get 200 years, or 2000 years, for their crime. So it seemed to me at least that there is a system that prevents them from doing it again by giving them heavy sentences. But here in Korea we don’t really have that kind of regulation or law system. I think if you have a heavier punishment, then maybe it will help a little bit to reduce that kind of crime. So that’s why I made this film. I wanted to show that we have a society where there is no, or very light, regulation and punishment on these kinds of crimes, that was the point. It’s happening over and over again, but I don’t think I can tell you that it’s ok to kill them. I just hope that if we care a bit more about each other, if society is a bit more caring, I just hope things will get better.
Question: As we’ve mentioned this has been an ongoing problem for centuries but in the past two years in Korean cinema there’s been an explosion in this kind of subject matter with The Crucible, Don’t Cry Mommy, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry and Azooma. Why do you think it’s now, the past two years there’s suddenly been such interest in sexual crimes and punishment?
Director Lee: I think Korea is quite unique in terms of film sociology, but before answering your question I should explain a little bit about my premise first. I don’t think it’s a trend in making these films, about sex crimes, but I think maybe a lot of films that featured social issues were not so well known abroad (previously). There have been films about these issues but maybe they were not big or well known enough. Films that were made about these issues like the ones you mentioned have become successful during recent years. Although to answer your question, there is a certain kind of trend where people are more interested in social issues kinds of movies these days. I think because film has a certain kind of power to change the world and to society, especially in Korea, there are a lot of people and artists who would like to try to make a better world through films. Or to solve certain problems or issues that are not solved by the law system that we have now. There are more efforts by film artists about these issues.
Producer Hwang: Just to give you a little background, in recent years sex crimes became more open to the public, so now women have become braver in talking about it openly. It has a lot to do with having a patriarchal society, such as being a virgin before marriage, but now it has changed.
Question: I have 2 questions. When the mother gets to know about the place where the sex offender lives, it was different from the usual thriller, such as the process in which she found the place. It seemed more metaphoric. So I’d like to know why you chose this way to show it. The second question is, the mother reads the daughter the Little Red Riding Hood story at the park. I’d like to know why you put that scene in the film.
Director Lee: I’d like to answer the second question first about Little Red Riding Hood. This is a really famous fairytale that almost everybody knows, so it kind of came to me while I was preparing this film and the story. Little Red Riding Hood was told to go home early, (N.B. there appears to be a misunderstanding about the story on Little Red Riding in what follows) not to stay out late but she was caught by the wolf, and eaten by the wolf and the hunter had to save her, so the process was good for this film to show the story metaphorically. The sex offender is the wolf and of course the daughter is little red riding hood. Also there’s another reason. This book is the kid’s favorite (story) too. I don’t know if you saw it, but in the hospital scene when the mother was taking a book it was the little red riding hood. I also had to put little things that the child can actually recognize and remember, so when you see in the film when she was questioned by the detective over and over again I needed to put little things that a child could remember. For example the crown, or the lamp of the hairdresser shop, or the little red riding hood picture in the offenders house. I thought it would be a good metaphor for the whole story of the film. And also good for making hints for the child. I think to a certain extent that the scene that you mentioned is a certain kind of fantasy of mine too, so it’s not really realistic but from my point of view it’s kind of a fantasy too. Personally I don’t really like realistic films so I think movies should be more expressionistic. I’m a Hollywood kid too, so I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood films. Personally I like films that absorb you into a new world. When I felt, ‘if I make a film of this issue in a very realistic way what would the mother do?’ maybe she could do a demonstration in front of a government building having a picket saying, ‘please help me to catch the offender’.
But otherwise there’s nothing much else she can do in real life. I didn’t want to make a movie like that, that’s why I chose this way. It was probably possible because the production was relatively low scale and low budget. Also I felt that if someone who had a similar kind of experience saw this film I would really love to give them a little bit of comfort. That’s why I chose this way to show the whole process of finding the place of the sex offender. Actually there are a lot of fantasies throughout the film, in my point of view. That scene that you mentioned was one that I put a lot of effort into, and I’m happy that you picked it out. There are other choices to make this in a more conventional way like a crime-thriller, but I wanted to combine the mindscape of the mother – her emotions and mind – and to give information in a different way. I didn’t want to have it all in the kid’s words, such as, “It was room 303,” or something like that. I just chose to show information bit by bit through the eyes of the kid and through the imagination of the mother. It was a combination of two points of view.
Question: Do you think nowadays Korean society is still strongly male orientated? For example, in the film the azooma she took power into her own hands. Is this a kind of female empowerment these days?
Director Lee: I think things are a little bit better than before, women are stronger. But still there is a long way to go in Korea, in terms of social status, and the perception of women and men, there is still a lot of discrimination and difference. It’s traditionally a patriarchal society for a long time and it still is, so it’s not a society that women would want. There are still things that need to be improved. In the film with the police department scenes, when the mother goes there and tells them about her kid, I think if it was me – an older man – if I was there, would they do the same thing to me? Probably not. If I say that I lost my kid, he couldn’t do that to me. It was probably because she’s an azooma, because she’s a woman. I think we need a lot of improvement. Sorry I’m not a woman so I don’t know exactly, but that’s what I think.
Question: Because of the subject matter, how difficult was it to get funding for this film? In the structure of the film we go forwards and backwards. Did you think about a different structure before deciding upon this one?
Director Lee: In terms of funding, no I had no difficulties at all because this film is only 50,000,000 won/$50,000. It was quite low budget, and one of the producers behind this project came to me to make a contract with me as the producer of the film. And that money was to hire me. He prepared that as a guarantee. But when I got to know this film I said we should make the film with this budget. Let’s just make it. I didn’t need any guarantees as a director. We could do everything in a very minimalist way in terms of staff and actors and actresses, and that’s how it all started. We only shot nine times, that was all. The whole structure was like this even from the script. This was the way I wanted to do it, but I do have an alternate version, which I made in the editing process, which is in chronological order. I could see that in this way it gives more possibility to understand the mother’s feelings more, it’s more emotional, but this was the way that I wanted to do it. If you can remember, this whole process was to give you a puzzle, and to have the whole picture later. That was the basic method for me. If you remember the first scene, the azooma was more like the popular misconception of an azooma. Through this kind of structure you can see the misconception of a strong and powerful azooma change into the azooma I wanted to show you, a mother who is vulnerable sometimes but who tries very hard. That kind of transition happens within this structure.
Question: I know the title is ‘Azooma’, but if you go on wikipedia and look at the correct Romanization it’s ajumma. Is there a reason why you changed the spelling?
Director Lee: When I was thinking of an English title, and I was thinking about using ‘ajumma’, of course I knew that people have different spellings of the word. But I kind of wanted to make my own word of ajumma. There are many different spellings on wikipedia, but the rules are not set yet, so I wanted to make my own version of the word. I also thought a ‘z’ would be easier to pronounce for a foreign audience. After finishing the film and having the final spellings, I found out there was someone else before me who had thought of it and used it. My ambition was bigger, but someone did it already.
Thank you to Indieplus, producer Hwang Hye-rim and director Lee Ji-seung for taking the time for the Q&A.