Q&A with director Kim Jong-Kwan – “There is something appealing in writing from the female point of view”

kimjongkwan

Director Kim Jong-kwan

Director Kim Jong-Kwan is well-known to fans of independent Korean cinema. A graduate of the Seoul Institute of the Arts, his short film How to Operate a Polaroid Camera is considered a classic Korean short film. Last year he had not one but two features premiere at the two biggest film festivals in Korea, respectively – Worst Woman at the Jeonju International Film Festival in the competition section, while The Table was part of the Busan International Film Festival’s panorama of contemporary Korean cinema. One of the rising stars of Korean film – actress Han Ye-ri (Haemoo, Kundo: Age of the Rampant) – is in both, while beside her in The Table appears another popular actress – Jung Yu-Mi (Train to Busan, The Himalayas).

Since both movies were among my favorites in 2016, I was more than happy when director Kim found some time in his busy schedule to answer my questions. And since most of his movies are told through the eyes of women, it was only logical for my first question to be about his choice of main characters.

 Why the main characters in your movies are usually women?

I find it easier to write about a main female character. Maybe there is some feminine side in me – or so I have been told by people. My writing also reflects my literary taste: I seem to have read mainly novels either with women as protagonists or written by female authors. So I think that’s one of the reasons why creating female protagonists has become easier to me. Apart from that I think that the way I see the world and how I write about the relationships between people or the things that upset me in our society can be relayed better through the eyes of a woman.

The Table 2

After working together on a short film and the feature Worst Woman, actress Han Ye-Ri appears also in the director’s last film The Table.

So would you say that you know the heart of a woman?

I am not sure about that… Definitely there are things I don’t know about women. After all I am a man. But I think there is something appealing in writing from the female point of view. Women have both weak and strong sides in themselves. And I find that it is interesting to write about the situations when those two sides collide. Besides, in our society women are in a weaker position than men. So I seem to be more interested in writing about their struggles.

Ever since your first movie you have been making films about the relationships between men and women. What is the reason for that?

I like melodrama as a genre. Besides, I remember when I first had to shoot short films back in film school, I had to come up with stories that could be done on a really low budget. So writing scripts with 2 or 3 characters and concentrating on what is going on inside the relationship between a man and a woman was more comfortable.

Do you want to continue making melodramas?

Not necessarily. I would like to continue talking about the irony in relationships between people and about love. But I also want to explore in general what makes people sad, afraid, lonely… and that can be done through different genres. I’m interested, for example, in making a criminal drama.

WW

In Worst Woman, relationship strife is the source of both comedy and drama.

When you go to the cinema to watch a movie, what kind of film do you usually watch?

Depends on my mood. Sometimes when I want to get rid of stress, I would watch something that is easy to take in, that doesn’t make me think too much. But when I am about to start a new project, I look for movies that can inspire and motivate me.

There are film people who completely reject the idea of watching blockbuster movies. They don’t regard them as “art” or as “cinema.”

Movies are both art and industry. Blockbuster movies are the ones that most people enjoy and have stronger commercial value. So it is only natural to make them. It’s impossible not to have them. But! If there were to be only such movies, it would be kind of “too lonely.” There must be movies that explore other themes. But also, it is not possible only to have independent art films. It is hard to make them profitable.

Is there communication or cooperation between Korean independent and commercial filmmakers?

There are people who start by making independent movies and then go into big, commercial projects as well as the other way around.

We have big budget movies with high artistic values such as The Handmaiden by director Park Chan-Wook, and we have low budget independent movies like Dongju: Portrait of a Poet by director Lee Joon-Ik (who also made blockbuster The Throne) that became a commercial success.

Of course there are people who identify themselves as only independent film directors. But most filmmakers, including me, don’t carry with themselves the identity of “an indie film director.” When starting a new project, we write about a subject that is important to us. That “thing” can turn into both a blockbuster or an art-house film.

The Table 1

Actress Jung Yoo-Mi in a scene from the movie The Table.

You have worked on several occasions with the same actresses – Han Ye-Ri and Jung Yoo-Mi. Why is that?

I also like working with new actors and crew. On one hand if I work with the same people, I could go deeper in terms of film, but on the other hand my colors could blend into only one. Working with different people allows me to broaden up my spectrum, but working with the same ones allows us to get used to each other and there is some feeling of security in that.

But even if I cast actors I have worked with before I say to them not to act in the same way as before. For my part, I also try to cast them in films in which they can show a different side of themselves.

For example the first time I worked with Jung Yoo-Mi was in the 2004 short film How to Operate a Polaroid Camera. The next time we worked together was in the 2010 film Come. Closer. The character I entrusted her the 2nd time was so different from her 20 something personality – much more melancholic. Then in my last film The Table I showed her as quite a strong woman who faces her first love. I really like trying out things like that.

The first time I worked with Han Ye-Ri was also for a short film. Then we made Worst Woman together where she plays a woman who carries a kind of self-irony in herself but is also quite cool. In The Table the feeling is a bit different. There is irony in her part there too, but her character is more of a person who doesn’t feel guilt when lying.

When you are working with your actors, is it easier to give directions and communicate with female or male actors?

When working together, both sides – actors and directors – have to kind of match their style. But it’s not a matter of gender whether and how this will work out. It just depends on the person’s specificities, character. For me the most important thing is to have real conversations, to exchange views and ideas with my actors.

최악의 여자 스틸#1

Worst Woman ironically tells the story of a woman that is not ‘the worst’.

Finally, ever since I watched Worst Woman, I wanted to ask you why you chose that title since the Korean one is Worst Day?

When we presented Worst Woman at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year, I thought such a title, both in English and Korean, had some charm in itself. To the male characters in the film she might seem as the worst woman, but ironically I wanted to tell the story of a woman that is not ‘the worst.’ So while watching the movie, people would have the title in their mind and would constantly ask themselves “Why is she ‘the worst woman’?” But our marketing team thought that the audience might feel uncomfortable with that title since it carries some prejudice in itself. So in Korean we changed it to Worst Day. As for the English one, on one hand there were films with such title and also most of the people working on the film thought it just sounds better, so we left it like that.

 

Our sincere thanks to director Kim Jong-kwan for taking the time to answer our questions.

Huge thanks also to our good friend Song Tae-Eun for helping with the transcription of the interview in Korean.

Advertisements
Festival News Interviews/Q&As

Q&A with actor turned director Nam Yeon-woo: “I Feel Alive When I’m Directing”

Actor/director Nam Yeon-woo

Actor/director Nam Yeon-woo

As the feature directorial debut of actor Nam Yeon-woo, Lost to Shame premiered at last year’s Busan International Film Festival and I honestly can say it was among my favorites in 2016 along with Our Love Story (dir. LEE Hyun-ju), The World of Us (dir. Yoon Ga-eun) and Worst Woman (dir. Kim Jong-kwan). It proved ones again (just as the rest of the above mentioned movies) that even without a gigantic budget a good film can be made – as long as you have a well written story, a good ensemble cast and a director with vision. It was a breath of fresh air among the numerous Korean blockbusters lately, which despite the millions invested in them and the starry cast, failed to engage and move me.

The strongest point of Lost to Shame is its very human story. I believe many people might identify themselves with the main character – a heterosexual young man who gets confronted with the world of the LGBT community and finds out that overcoming his prejudice is easier said than done.

Fans of Korean independent cinema know best Nam Yeon-woo from his acclaimed performance in the 2013’s movie Fatal (dir. by Lee Don-ku). This time he not only directed and produced Lost too Shame, but also wrote the script and was in the leading role. The movie already has 2 awards under its belt: the audience prize at the Seoul Pride Film Festival and the New Choice Award at the Seoul Independent Film Festival.

The story: Song-jun is an unknown actor who often has to borrow money from his brother to get by. One day Song-jun is cast as the lead in a famous play about homosexuality and has to portray a transgender. While trying to improve his acting, he enters the LGBT community. But just when he thinks he’s come to understand homosexual love, a shocking revelation shakes him.

In Lost to Shame you are not only in front of the camera as an actor but also behind it – as director. Why?

– The main reason for me also to direct is the type of roles and stories I want to experiment with. Since for now I don’t have that many scripts sent to me as an actor, I just decided to write the part I wanted to play and about a subject that’s important to me.

Entering the LGBT community unveils a new world for Song-jun

Entering the LGBT community unveils a new world for Song-jun

Did it feel different from being purely an actor in a film?

– When I am only acting, I concentrate on my role, I get ready only for that. But here there were so many things to think of, to prepare, to take care of, that sometimes I felt lost. Honestly, it was hard, very hard. Since the budget was really small, sometimes we had to shoot up to 10 scenes a day! So now when I look back, there are things that I as an actor regret for not having done better.

But in the end did you like directing a feature film?

– Yes. This feeling of seeing what you have imagined coming to reality… it’s amazing. When I direct I kind of feel alive!

How did you come up with the idea about this film?

– One night I was out with friends. The people sitting at the table next to us started discussing homosexuality. Everybody was like, “It is OK to be gay”, “I have no problem with it”, “I understand those people”… and then one person said that according to him being gay is just not right. All of a sudden the atmosphere changed.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to this conversation but then on my way home I started thinking about it. It got stuck into my head: Do people who say they understand really understand?

Since you yourself are a heterosexual man, did you research LGBT issues while getting ready for the film?

– For sure. I was worried to portray the LGBT characters in an over-the-top way or as caricatures. I wanted their portrayal to be as realistic as possible so when I finished the script I gave it to gay and transgender friends to give me feedback. They would also come while I was doing the casting and then rehearsing and shooting – they would watch for the actors not to exaggerate, to be authentic in terms of way of talking and gestures.

The actor who plays the role of a transgender even lived for one month with a transgender person.

In portraying a transgendered protagonist, Song-jun experiences revelations

None of the actors are part of the LGBT community in real life

Why didn’t you cast a transgender actor?

– For me as an actor changing myself, transitioning to somebody I am not means acting. So since I really wanted to see this kind of complete change I chose an actor who is as far from the image of a transgender person as you can think. Besides if I would have casted real LGBT people I wouldn’t have known what kind of directions to give to them as a director.

What was the reaction from the LGBT community after they saw the film?

– Even before completing the movie, when people from the LGBT community read the script, they said that it is a good story, with something new in it. Usually LGBT-themed movies talk about the love that is not meant to be, the Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love. But Lost to Shame is different from them. Do you know the director Kim Jho Gwang-soo?

Yes – he is one of the few openly gay Korean film directors and a renowned LGBT rights activist.

– Exactly. We showed the film to him and he said that as many people as possible should see it. So he even recommended it to the Seoul Pride Film Festival where we received the audience prize.

Song-jun reflects on his life-changing role

Song-jun just before taking to the stage

When you think of the film’s main character, do you share his opinion? He gets confronted with the LGBT community in unexpected ways.

– He is definitely not the same as me, that’s for sure. But honestly, before writing the script me too I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the LGBT issues – whether I understand the queer community or not. But when I started writing, I watched a lot of documentaries, met many gay and transgender people and I think I started to understand them. Or actually rather than understanding them, I got to know them.

What was the most difficult thing while shooting the movie?

– The lack of money. (He laughs but then becomes serious again:) No, really – since we didn’t have enough money we had to shoot so many scenes per day!

And one more thing bothered me: lots of friends came to help me. And while trying to help me, they would try and talk to me, give me their opinion or advice about stuff. But since I had to do like million things simultaneously, there were times when I didn’t give them the attention they deserved – I kind of ignored them while I should have answered to them regardless of whether I agreed with what they said or not. So in the evening on my way home, after wrapping up for the day, I would think “Why did I treat them like that? Why did I hurt those people who just wanted to help me?” That was the most difficult thing to me.

There is a scene in the movie where we see a theater full of people! How did you organize this?

– It was a miracle. A pure miracle. Paying extras was way over our budget so some 10 days before shooting the scene me and the crew members started calling all the people we know. We would explain to them about the movie and ask if they could come, if they could bring friends along…

The day we had to shoot the scene happened to be the coldest day in January last year. Not only this but it was also snowing AND it was a Monday. The thing is the only day we could book the theater was on Monday when it’s closed. So basically till the last minute we didn’t know how many people would come… if anybody would come at all!!!

And then I stepped out on the stage and saw the theater full with people! I cried… And all my friends who helped this to happen cried too! I am so grateful to all of them.

Song-jun takes to stage

Bringing a real audience for this scene was a pure miracle for director Nam

So what’s next for you?

– Well, I am working on another feature-length script. But in the meantime I am wondering whether or not to shoot a short film…and of course I am looking at different scripts as an actor.

At last year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival I saw a film you were in a supporting role: The Cabinet of Francis. Although it was a feature it was a film made by university students. Was it hard during the shoot?

– It was, but as long as a role matches my acting style, I am open to any kind of projects. Besides the actor in the leading role was my classmate from the university and he asked me to help. So after reading the script I thought it would be interesting to act together with him in such a project. And we were shooting in Jeju-do – I really, really like it there!

Lost to Shame will screen nationwide throughout Korea in September 2017.

Furthermore, Lost to Shame will screen with a Q&A at Seoul Art Cinema on February 26th.

Directors Film News Interviews/Q&As

Interview with Kevin Lambert, director of Korea International Expat Film Festival (KIXFF)

All logos-10

We are just one week away from the start of the 2nd Korea International Expat Film Festival (KIXFF).  Festival director Kevin Lambert took some time from his busy schedule to answer questions about the festival which is going to run from next Friday, September 9th till Sunday, September 11th in Seoul. All movies will feature Korean and English subtitles.

KIXFF director Kevin Lambert

KIXFF director Kevin Lambert

Kevin, what films can the audience expect from the 2nd KIXFF?

We have 39 films, representing more than 15 different languages and more than 15 countries: USA, Great Britain, Spain, Ecuador, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Korea… However I think this year thematically the festival is a bit more exact. We were able to focus more on expat issues and really high quality low-budget films.

Last year the “I” in the KIXFF was for “indie”. This year you changed it to “international”. But still the “X” in the name remains for “expat”. Can you tell us more about your understanding about the term “expat”?

“Expat” is a noun that lots of Koreans are not familiar with. It is short for “expatriate” which means pretty much anyone who is living outside of their home country. For most foreigners this term can be a bit jaded so some of them might not necessarily relate to it. I think it is because in the West there is this concept that expat only applies only to people from 1st World countries, in better situations and it doesn’t include migrant workers, victims of war or refugees, it doesn’t include people who move for work out of necessity or who move because of marriage. But I want to emphasize we want all of these issues to be relevant and present in our expat section – whether it’s issues of Islamic identity, of traveling to study languages, whether it’s about first generation children of migrant families.

Tell us more about the expats in Korea. I know that there is a quite big community of expat filmmakers here.

Yes, there are a lot of foreigners here in Korea making film. A lot of them have been here as long as 10 years sort of slowly nurturing their careers. I remember back in 2010, when I started doing films again, I discovered a small community. Our small community grew and started making amateur films. Those amateur films would continue one after the other till eventually we were producing very high quality work. And now many of those amateurs have gone on to work professionally here and abroad.

All logos-08So basically the expat filmmakers’ community in Korea is a true incubator of talent?

Absolutely!

Would you say that those people are still kind of isolated from the local film industry?

I think foreigners are making inroads into the Korean film community, but it happens a bit slowly. The biggest hurdle is obviously language. So filmmakers that can bridge that language gap and have talent could make great inroads. Because there is a lot of opportunity out there!

So do you think that coming to the festival would be a good opportunity for networking for those Korea-based expat filmmakers? In terms of being introduced to the local film community?

Yes, absolutely. While coming to KIXFF is not going to send you straight to the Korean industry, the connections you make locally, will allow you to grow as a filmmaker and will put you in the right position when you are ready to make inroads into the Korean film community.

Who do you expect to come this year to the festival considering your experience from 2015?

In some ways there’s going to be the regular cast of characters – mainly foreigners, but I am also expecting to see a lot of new faces: This year, as all the films will be subtitled, I believe there’s going to be a larger outreach to Korean moviegoers. I feel that we did also a really good job of including as many local filmmakers as we could and there are more filmmakers traveling in from abroad for this festival. Of course we are trying also to have representatives of the Korean film industry but still their number is small. But we are a young festival and there is plenty of room to.

Emu Art Space

Emu Art Space

Tell us more about the venues and dates.

I am really happy about the venues this year. On the 9th of September we are using EMU Art Cinema – a lovely small intimate cinema near Gwanghwamun, for our opening ceremony. Also the after-party will be downstairs in the same building. And then on the 10th and 11th we have two whole days of both indoor and outdoor screenings at the Deutsche Schule in Hannam-dong. It puts everybody in the same place – there’ll be food trucks and beer, and wine, and lots of fun so it should be a blast.

Screening schedule and online ticket booking on: www.kixff.com

Prices: Opening Night (Ceremony, Local expat shorts screening and after party) 15,000 won at the door / 12,000 online

Regular screenings – 10,000 won at the door / 8,000 won online

All access pass – 100 000 won (for all events).

Additionally Saturday and Sunday there will be free screenings – for more information refer to the official website of the festival.

Screening venues:

EMU Art Cinema (Opening Night on September 9th) – 종로구 경희궁1가 길 7, 110-062 서울특별시 – www.emuartspace.com

Deutsche Schule (All events on September 10th and 11th) – 서울특별시 용산구 독서당로 123-6

Festival News Interviews/Q&As Korean Film Festivals 2016

Q&A: director Jero Yun on documentary Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman

Director Jero Yun

Director Jero Yun

The 2016 Jeonju International Film Festival had a much more inclusive attitude towards indie documentary films for its 17th edition, with the festival committee going as far as creating a special Documentary Award – alongside a 10 million won prize – for the best doc screened within the Korean Competition and Korean Cinemascape categories, respectively.

One of the films that competed for the award, and also part of the Korean Competition section, was Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman by the Busan-born yet France-graduated director Jero Yun. It took him 4 years to complete this co-production between France and South Korea, which introduces audiences to a unique woman: Mrs. B., who ran away from North Korea to China with the help of illegal traffickers. While living with her new Chinese farmer husband Mrs. B. also became a drug and human trafficker in order to earn money for her North Korean family. The film begins when she decides to travel from a small Chinese village to Seoul, presenting her fight not only for survival but also for love and happiness.

The film was screened also during this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the ACID sidebar.

Escaping from North Korea to China, Mrs. B attempts to start a new life

Escaping from North Korea to China, Mrs. B attempts to start a new life

Who is Mrs. B.?

Mrs. B. is a woman I met 3 years ago in China. Back then I was doing a research for another project of mine connected with North Korean refugees. I have been working on this topic and meeting various people for more than 5 years now. Mrs. B. who back then was smuggling North Koreans into China introduced me to a lot of them so that I can make interviews. But as time went by I started thinking of making a film about her and she slowly became the protagonist of the current movie.

When one reads the synopsis of the film one may wonder how it is possible for Mrs. B. to have 2 families at the same time – one in North Korea and one in China…

It is possible. Usually the North Korean female refugees get sold to Chinese families after they escape North Korea. For around a year they must stay with the family in order to pay back the money paid by this family to the smugglers. After paying back those women look for a way to go to South Korea. But Mrs. B.’s case was different: she stayed with her new Chinese family for 9 years while her 2 sons and husband were still in North Korea.

How did she become a smuggler?

At the beginning she wasn’t a smuggler. She was just another refugee who wanted to stay just 1 year, earn money and then go back to North Korea to take care of her family. But as time passed by she decided to stay with her Chinese family because her Chinese husband was a very kind, a very gentle man. But since she also wanted to save her North Korean family, she became a smuggler to earn more money. Several years later she managed to organize everything for them to escape to South Korea.

After marrying a Chinese farmer, Mrs. B resorts to trafficking to earn money

After marrying a Chinese farmer, Mrs. B resorts to trafficking to earn money

The movie starts with her getting ready to join them in South Korea, right?

When I met her, she was about to leave for South Korea, yes. But although she wanted to go to Seoul, she didn’t want to live with her North Korean family but with her Chinese husband. Her dream back then, 3 years ago, was to get an apartment with her Chinese husband and live close to her sons and their father but not with them. Because she felt… well, not love, but something close to real friendship and partnership for the Chinese man.

In the film there is footage of you following Mrs. B. and other North Korean refugees on the long way from China to Laos as a roundabout way to South Korea. How did you get this amazing footage?

When Mrs. B. told me that she was leaving China to get to South Korea, I realized that once she leaves, she won’t be back. And I asked her whether I can go with her. She agreed.

But that might have been dangerous…

She told me: “Don’t worry. I will be with you and I will protect you.” At that moment I didn’t have a professional camera – I only had my phone and a small camera. So the whole footage you saw during the long bus ride through China down to Laos was taken with them. Everything was improvising. Because I really didn’t know it can become a movie, I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Mrs. B. has led a tumultuous life

Mrs. B’s tumultuous situation takes her through several countries in her quest for peace

Were you scared at some point?

Of course. There were times when we couldn’t eat or had to walk on foot for hours. Or we had to change different cars and buses. We were going from one smuggler’s area to another one’s. So we never knew how good they will take care of us.

Did the other North Korean refugees in the group know who you are?

Mrs. B. introduced me to them as a South Korean filmmaker. I didn’t want to lie to them so they knew I had a camera and what I was doing. At first they didn’t trust me and I also wasn’t taking any pictures nor videos. But since I was with Mrs. B. and we spent so much time together on this long trip, I gained their trust.

And where is Mrs. B. now?

She is still here, in South Korea. But now she doesn’t want to be neither with her North Korean husband, nor Chinese husband…

17th Jeonju International Film Festival (제17회 전주국제영화제) Directors Festival News Interviews/Q&As Korean Film Festivals 2016

 Q&A: Korean-American director Andrew Ahn on feature debut SPA Night

Director Andrew Ahn

Director Andrew Ahn

During the 2016 17th Jeonju International Film Festival, the young Korean-American director Andrew Ahn came to his parents home country for the 1st time in order to present his feature debut SPA NIGHT. The movie, included in the World Cinemascape section of the fest, was shot in LA but its dialogue is almost 70% in Korean.

It is the story of a young Korean-American boy named David who tries to cope with his parents’ expectations towards his future as well as his own struggles regarding his homosexuality. After his parents are forced to close the restaurant they have been running for years, and lead by his desire to help them financially, David gets a part-time job at a jjimjilbang (spa) in Korea town in LA. He soon discovers that the place is not only used as a traditional sauna but also as a place for gay men from different nationalities to meet each other and make love. After witnessing the love play David realizes his own homosexuality, but with his parent fixated on his future success he is at a dead-end.

Andrew, how much of the story in SPA Night relates to your personal story?

A lot. It is almost as having a different version of my life because a lot of the same fears and anxieties that David goes through in the film are the fears and anxieties I had while growing up. So despite the differences – like I am not an only child compared to David, I went to college, I think emotionally it is a very personal movie.

I cannot help myself asking you about the idea for the SPA as a place to hook-up…

So the SPA… (laughs) I was out to have drinks with some gay friends and one of them told me he had a hot hook-up with a guy in a steam room in a Korean SPA in LA. When I heard that such a family-oriented space is being used for hooking up in the gay community I freaked out but… it was also kind of sexy. That was why I really wanted to make a film about it: it felt like a really perfect meeting point of my gay and my Korean identity.

Traditionally a family space, David soon discovers a sub-culture within the spa

Traditionally a family space, David soon discovers a sub-culture within the spa

How did it feel to show SPA Night to a Korean audience for the 1st time during the Jeonju Film Festival?

It was really special in a lot of ways. The film is so much about the sacrifices that Korean emigrants make in order to have a family in a country different from Korea. And so to be in Korea, and to see the country that my parents sacrificed to have me in America is really emotional. But you know, while I have been here I kind of have seen also the other side of the story: it wasn’t just my parents who sacrificed something, it was also their family here, in Korea, who sacrificed losing their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters to the US. And so for me showing the film here was a little bit like me telling that family or the Korean audiences in general that we are working really hard to make their sacrifice worth it too.

SPA Night went to the Screenwriters Lab of Sundance film festival and was screened there. Was the audience’s reaction in Korea different from the one in the US?

In general there were more questions in Jeonju as opposed to festivals in the States, there were also more questions about the immigrant experience. In the US the questions were much more about the individual and the growing and trying to reconcile one’s different identities.

Also when I was in Sundance all the gay press that I talked to was so interested in the cruising and the hooking up, the sexuality elements of the film. But also here in Korea the queer Korean people who have come to watch the movie were really interested in the sexuality elements as well. So I think in general it is very true that the Korean audiences are really hooked to the family story but still I think it depends person by person.

And at Sundance SPA Night was part of the US dramatic competition, right?

Yes. It was awesome: a US festival recognized as American a movie that doesn’t have white actors and with dialogue mostly not in English. And the audiences were really receptive – people came up to me telling me about how they connected to the characters even if they weren’t queer or they weren’t Korean-American.

It’s maybe because most people have had an experience where they faced their parents and told them “I don’t want to be a doctor as you want me to be”…

Yes (laughs). I think it is a very universal story – the story about finding yourself. Obviously it develops within a very specific context but that’s the cool thing about film: we are all human beings and we can sympathize with each other.

How did you find your own way?

Actually when I went to college I studied biology because… I was gonna be a doctor (laugh). I was going to be a good Korean boy and become a doctor. But in college I realized that even though I was doing well in my biology classes, it wasn’t something I was passionate about. And I didn’t want to be a dispassionate doctor. So I started taking film classes. I didn’t major in film because it was too much work but it was enough to get me a taste. After I graduated college I went to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) for grad school. It was there that I slowly started to bind my personal development in terms of coming out as a gay man with my creative development as a filmmaker. It was fulfilling to me, I enjoyed doing that work. And so that level of satisfaction carried me all the way through today and will continue to.

The spa forces David to confront his identity

The spa forces David to confront his identity

How did your parents react when you came out?

I came out to my parents in 2011 and this is kind of the dirty little secret about my second short film (the one I did before SPA Night): I casted my own family in the film without telling them what the movie was about. And it was about a gay Korean-American man. I showed them the film to come out to them.

Seen that my filmmaking is tied to my sexuality, I think they are really happy that I found a lot of success with what I am doing so far. Personally they are very accepting of who I am but when it comes to especially Korean-American or Korean audiences, they get a little scared. But still I think they have the confidence in me that I am able to deal with any kind of resistance or criticism.

So it is a happy ending for you?

In a lot of ways – yes. In terms of my personal life and emotionally I am in a very good place. And I think it is because I am healthy with it that I am able to make these movies where I kind of look back at the darker, harder, more complicated moments. I really do hope that audiences see the movie and tell to themselves that yes, this characters are going through hard times but there’s always going be a sense of hopefulness and of looking forward to the future.

I still find it hard to believe that this is your first time in Korea after 22 years…

Yes. Now I am 30 years old and I came here for the last time when I was 8. It is totally different: the food that I remember, the landscape I remember… It is almost as if I had never been here before. And you know, I think my Korean when I was 8 years old was better than my Korean now.

So back home – in the States, you don’t speak Korean that much?

I don’t. I speak Korean with my family, with my parents but it is pretty limited like: 언제 먹어? (When are we eating) 빨리 가자 (Let’s go). A lot of my friends who are 2nd generation Korean Americans speak English to each other. They might drop a few words here and there but they are like 건배 (Cheers!). But it depends: some Korean Americans speak a lot more – we have a lot of 1.5 generation where people grew up in Korea as kids and then moved to LA when they were in their teens. And that’s what I find really fascinating about SPA Night: you see the different generations of emigrants.

How did you manage to have a completely Korean cast?

The casting was really tricky. One obstacle was just finding Korean-American actors: there are a lot of Korean people in LA and you think there would be more actors but there are not since there is not enough roles or the roles are really demeaning and kind of racist. People were giving me advice to cast a Japanese or a Chinese actor who could speak Korean with an accent. But for me that was the worst idea I had ever heard – I really wanted the movie to feel authentic and part of that authenticity is the language.

The other issue was the subject matter that we were dealing with – queer issues. I think it made some people uncomfortable. I really liked one young actor who auditioned for the role of David but he told me his mom really didn’t approve of the content of the film. She had said to him that if he’d took the part he would have to go to Korea and go into hiding.

But in the end we found the best actors for the respective part. Like Mrs Baek, the pushy church woman and the SPA manager, they are non actors – they are just friends of my parents who acted a long time ago but afterwards they’ve had families and run businesses. We were able to kind of rope them in and they were very happy to go back to acting for a little bit.

What about the actors who play David’s mother and father – they actually live in Korea, right?

Yes. Haerry Kim who plays the mother acted in a Korean American film called West 32nd. She did it when she was living in New York. I went through the cast list for that movie, saw her headshot and I thought she might be around the right age for the part. And so we tried to find her. And then Cho Youn-Ho who plays the father had acted in a short film that my producer and cinematographer had directed a few years ago. I thought he was really amazing. Fortunately he wasn’t doing a play at that time, so we were really excited to bring him over.

Would you like to make a film in Korea?

I would love to. But I think that if I make a film in Korea it would still be kind of from an outsider’s perspective. Because I am a foreigner in ways and then I am not in other ways. So it would be interesting to explore that kind of a grey area… I just need to figure out what’s the story, when can I make it and how do I find money…

For the podcast edition of this interview, head to KoreaFM here.

17th Jeonju International Film Festival (제17회 전주국제영화제) Interviews/Q&As