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.

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Directors Film News Interviews/Q&As

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

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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

Q & A: Director Lee Sang-ho discusses ‘The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol’ – (다이빙벨)

Directors Lee Sang-ho (left) and Ahn Hye-ryong (right) field questions from the audience at the BIFF premiere - picture AFP

Directors Lee Sang-ho (left) and Ahn Hye-ryong (right) field questions from the audience at the BIFF premiere – AFP

N.B. The following Q&A took place at the premiere of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) at the 19th Busan Film Festival (BIFF), on October 6th, 2014.

For the review of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, please click here

Please note – the opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the people articulating them. What follows has been transcribed from the translation given by the BIFF translator at the event.

Translator: “the festival people are tense because the mayor threatened to cut off funding if the festival shows this film, and of course the people who made this documentary are also tense because there might be ultra-conservative people who would come and try to mess up this conference.”

The directors come on to the stage to applause.

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Moderator: “How do you feel about your film being screened here at the Busan Film Festival?”

Director Lee: “There was a lot of controversy over this case, so I will answer frankly and honestly to any questions you might have. Because of the time constraints, I was not able to make the film as ‘complete’ as I had wanted. It’s only God who can take us back to April 16th, the day of the tragedy, but the least we can do is to go back and investigate and find the facts surrounding the incident. I hope that as many people as possible can get to see this film, and I hope that this interest in this film will translate to continued interest in the Sewol tragedy.”

Question: “I’d like to ask, when did you start planning this film? There are some cuts of news footage, so when you were covering this incident, was that when you started planning this film? Or maybe after the uproar had died down? Is that when you started planning this film?”

Director Lee: “Simply put, just like all of you, I was there at Paengmok Harbor and it was there that I realised that the truth was sinking with the ferry and with the children. Most of the mainstream media, whatever they were reporting, was not true, they were lies. And behind the scenes were the power, those in power who wanted to cover up their mistakes, cover their ass. So for three or four days it was a very critical time when the truth was in danger of being covered up forever, so that’s why we kept as much footage as possible, and we tried to film everything. We concentrated back then on the diving bell because we thought the diving bell would be critical in revealing the lies that the government was telling through the coast guard. And there was this sense of urgency because it seemed that people were starting to forget, trying to put the tragedy behind them already, when nothing had been found and discovered. So that’s why we wanted to make this film, in order to keep the memory alive. And we wanted to get it screened at the Busan International Film Festival where there would be a lot of global attention as well, so we were pressed for time, so we were running up against a very tight deadline in making this film.”

Lee Jong-in (left) is at the center of the diving bell controversy

Lee Jong-in (left) is at the center of the diving bell controversy

Question: “You’re here not as a journalist, but as a director. If you have anything that you were not able to say through this film, would you like to share that with us? And Mr Lee Jong-in, the owner of the diving bell, was there a message that he wants to convey? As a member of the audience and as a Korean citizen, I would like to send my encouragement and support for all the people who made this film possible.”

Director Lee: “I’d like to answer both questions. Mr Lee Jong-in, CEO of the diving technology, he did not have a lot of deep thoughts, he was of the same heart and mind as the rest of the citizens. He didn’t make any calculations, he just rushed to the scene because he thought that he could help, because he did have the technology, and he had technology and equipment that the coast guard and the navy did not have and so he offered his help. But during the time when the film was being made, he realised that he was up against something that he could not overcome. And he knew that once the film was made he would be at the center of another controversy yet again, so there were people who asked him to lie low, but he cooperated with the film making because he wanted the truth to be uncovered. I’m a little nervous, so I forgot the other question. Oh yes, as a journalist. I’ve been working as a journalist for 20 years. I was there on the scene as a journalist but as a filmmaker, what disheartened me the most, what broke my heart the most, was leaving out footage that I thought was appropriate for the film. For example, Lee Jong-in was kicked out after the first attempt, and then the journalists found out that the coast guard and the rescue team from the government had attempted to put in a diving bell, their own diving bell, which was a fake diving bell. And that was not in the film. And as you know, there was a lot of online manipulation of public opinion during the presidential elections, and that kind of public opinion manipulation went on during and surrounding the Sewol tragedy, and I was unable to touch on that during the film. So I found that quite regretful. And what really broke my heart was that this diving bell, that was cutting edge technology, there was huge potential for it to save lives, and it had been in operation for 2 hours, compared to the few minutes of the other divers, but then we were threatened, there was even a murder attempt on us, and they were cubing the press. And so I found [not including] that most regretful. We even have legal charges being pressed against us right now.”

There were chaotic scenes at the BIFF premiere

There were chaotic scenes at the BIFF premiere

Question: “There’s controversy over whether this film will eventually be shown or not, so I’m quite taken aback by this press attention. I think it’s this press attention and media attention that gathered so many people here today. And personally I think there are a lot of people in Korea who are starting to forget, they’re trying to erase this whole tragedy from their memories, and so I’m worried about that because we’ve not achieved anything and there’s 10 people who are still missing, and the families of these missing people as well as those who have passed away, they’re all still grieving and in great suffering. Do you have a message for the Korean public?”

Director Lee: “I believed in fair journalism, and that’s why I was working as a reporter for a television station, but I got kicked out, I was dismissed, but I want to continue to try to pursue the truth now this time through film, and I’d like to thank all of you for coming. As you know there was a New York Times article today that after the Sewol tragedy, right afterwards the public was one, they were united in praying for the safe rescue, but then they’ve become divided these days. The bereaved families, they’re getting stoned in public on the streets. I hope that we can go back to, at least mentally and emotionally, to right after the incident and become one again in pursuing the truth. And I hope that through this film [I] will contribute in whatever way to protecting this film as well as protecting the bereaved families.”

Question: “As a college student I really wanted to check out this film and one of the messages is that there was some force, some hidden forces, that were interfering with the diving bell rescue operation. Who do you think would be the people behind it?”

Director Lee claims unanswered questions still remain regarding the rescue efforts

Director Lee claims unanswered questions still remain regarding the rescue efforts

Director Lee: “I will give it to you simply. Since April 16th, what I wanted to know was, why did the children have to die? Why weren’t they rescued? Why didn’t the state protect these children? And as you saw through this diving bell fiasco, survivors who were 30-40 meters underwater, if you just drag them up out of the water, they will die anyway. As you saw in the film, if you go down 75 meters and you dive for a few minutes you still have to decompress for about 30 minutes. So these kids, they were in the ship, and they were trapped inside for a few days, so they have to come up above the water very very slowly, or else they’ll die anyway. But not having such measures at hand, and not coming up with a concrete plan for rescuing them is murder. It’s just murder. The coast guard, not even once, they have never been trained for underwater rescue at all. All they did was float around and circle around the capsized [ship]. And then there was the navy, who were trained. They attempted to go into the scene and start rescue work twice, but they were refused. So it would be the coast guard, the navy and everyone else. Who controls the coast guard as well as the navy? Who has the power? It’s just the president. The president is the only one who can control everyone, or give commands to everyone who was involved in the rescue.”

A young man protests in regard to the special Sewol law outside of the screening

A young man protests in regard to the special Sewol law outside of the screening

Question: “It was very difficult for me to get a ticket to come to see this film and I was shocked. I was not there at the scene, and the only thing I got was the media reports about the diving bell, so I myself thought that it was a failure. And now that I’ve seen this film, I’m truly shocked. And [there’s] so much unfairness. Lee Jong-in is also a victim and I think that everyone in Korea should see this film and I was in tears most of the time. [Audience member begins crying] There’s a limit to how many people can see this film here at the festival, we only have journalists and film festival goers, so I’m lucky that I was able to be one of the few to see this film, and I hope this film will be shown to the wider public in the future. There are people here, and also a lot of journalists so I hope that we will all work together to get this film shown to many people. So my question is, do you think that would be a possibility? Will you be making that effort to get this film shown to more people? And if you have the citizen’s support, the public’s support, I’m sure that this will be released in theaters so that more people can get to see it, more people from the ordinary public. Are you making that effort? Do you have such plans?”

Director Lee: “Well thank you for being moved to tears, first of all. I think getting this shown in public, public screenings for this film will be very very difficult, it will be tough. Facing the uncomfortable truth, in a theater like this, in a public setting like this, this may be the last chance. But we are making that attempt to get this released in theaters and we are working with a deadline of the end of October, so we are making such efforts. I hope that you will all work together to protect this film.”

Question by Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer (Act of Killing, The Look of Silence): “We see in your film this incredibly incompetent…or [rather] a rescue effort that’s undertaken in bad faith. And I guess I have two questions. First of all, is it merely incompetence or do you believe that there’s something more going on? And secondly, can you talk a little bit about why the media in Korea, and I don’t think Korea’s alone in this, but why do the feel the media and the mainstream media is so…appears to be so uncritical, so they are placed [into a] terrible stenographers function?”

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

Director Lee: “There was the Indonesian version of The Killing Fields recently where there were ordinary and innocent citizens killed [referring to director Oppenheimer’s work] and I’d like to thank you [director Oppenheimer] for deliberately coming to watch this film. Ineptitude or incompetence is the government’s excuse, it’s their main excuse. And yes the government right now is so incompetent that they want to get rid of their incompetent officials, but then they don’t have substitutes, because everyone else is also incompetent. When such a huge tragedy happened, the government did not have in place a system to deal with this tragedy. It means that the state was absent in this case. If the coast guard was incompetent, then they should be taken away and should be replaced by someone more competent, but such decisions, such common sense decisions were not made. It shows how lacking the government is right now in communication skills, and this lack of communication skills has led to this tragedy, led to expanding this tragedy, and I hope that this film will contribute to revealing the incompetence of the government. And the media, the Korean media in this case, they were not just serving the state, but the current government. The media has a say in the government, they are part of the government, and have a stake in the current government. That is why the media are the people who are the most afraid of the president being criticized, because this will reflect on them as well, because they are on the same side. That is why they sent out garbage instead of the truth and this is proof that they are stake holders in this current government. They are not just stenographers, they are stake holders in this government.”

Question: “On the internet I heard yesterday that some members of the grieving families were opposed to this film being shown and of course the Busan city government is saying that they don’t want this film to be screened. So have any of the bereaved families watched this film? And if so, what was their response? And what are your values as a journalist? You must have some value system that you adhere to as a journalist, but in the process of reporting [the incident] the journalists in action went overboard in interviewing students who had just come up, just been rescued.”

Scenes outside of cinema also drew attention

Scenes outside of cinema also drew attention

Director Lee: “I think I’m the journalist who was most critised after the tragedy, because on the scene I was an actor in this whole incident, not just a journalist [with an] objective point of view. Didn’t the president say, before she was president, she critised the then president Roh Moo-hyun saying that if you can’t rescue just one person from Iraq, then you don’t deserve to be called a government. But now that she is in office, there were more than three hundred passengers, young passengers, on board the ship and they were left there, trapped there, for days, and not a single one of them was rescued. And in this kind of situation, objectivity is not the value that I should be pursuing, in this kind of case. For example, I clung to the diving bell in trying to attach it to the weight, so yes I was intervening, I was in the scene, but I would continue to do that even if I were to do it again. And the bereaved families, unfortunately they are not diving experts. What I’m saying when I say that the state was absent on the scene, is that there was no control tower. There were many demands made by the grieving families, of course, and it’s only natural. But then the rescue work, and the pursuit of truth right now, it’s all being led by the bereaved families despite their lack of expertise, and the state is not helping them out at all. And the few who were rescued, were rescued by civilian fishermen who just happened to be passing by. And of course it’s only natural that the families don’t have any knowledge about rescue work. And as you saw they hated the journalists, they hated the press, they had to lean on the press and whatever pieces of information that the press gave them, they would cling onto that. In that kind of situation, where was the state in marshaling this confusion?”

The controversial diving bell technology still divides public opinion

The controversial diving bell technology still divides public opinion

Question: “I see this film as kind of a defense for Mr. Lee Jong-in. So in this whole tragedy, what position does this diving bell have? And do you really think that the rescue attempt using diving bell technology was not a failure?”

Director Lee: “Thank you for those short questions. We are all sinners because we were not able to rescue a single person. I came here dressed in black. And the completeness of the film, I don’t have any pride in the quality of the film itself, but it’s the only film that has come out now that deals head on with the Sewol tragedy, and I hope that there will be many more films to follow that can shed more light and maintain interest in this incident.”

Moderator: “Unfortunately we don’t have enough time [for more questions]. Actually I spent a sleepless night, last night. I’ve been with the festival for about 10 years now, working as a moderator whenever the festival has come, and I’ve never stepped on to the red carpet myself. Whenever I moderate for these GVs in the Wide Angle [category] I get to meet so many faces, dark faces and gloomy faces of Korean society from hospices, from women workers in the labour movement, and environment[al] issues. Documentaries are a means of holding on to things we should not forget in order for society to progress. So I hope that these kinds of documentaries will continue to be made in the future, for the benefit of Korean society.”

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Directors Festival News Interviews/Q&As Korean Festivals 2014
Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Azooma (공정사회) screening and Q&A with director Lee Ji-seung (이지승)

Director Lee Ji-seung fields questions at the Q&A

Director Lee Ji-seung fields questions at the Q&A

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.

(For the review of Azooma, please click on this link.)

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.

Azooma (공정사회)

Azooma (공정사회)

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.

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

Yeon-joo is abducted by a stranger after school

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.

Director Lee and producer Hwang explore the concepts in Azooma

Director Lee and producer Hwang explore the concepts in Azooma

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’.

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

Due to ineffective police work, the ajumma tracks the criminal herself

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?

Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

Vulnerability, as well as strength, are portaryed through the ajumma

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.

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

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.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
Minch & Films (민치 앤 필름)

Interview With Documentary Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) – Part 2

Producer Kim Min-chul

Producer Kim Min-chul

For Part 1 of the interview with documentary producer Kim Min-chul (김민철), please click on the link. In this second part, producer Kim discusses his company Minch & Films, the current environment for Korean documentaries, and his acclaimed and powerfully moving filmography.

Q) Throughout your filmography you seem to be attracted to stories about vulnerable people who find strength despite adversity. Iron Crows (아이언 크로우즈), My Barefoot Friend (오래된 인력거), Planet of Snail and Captain Kang all display this. What is it about these kinds of stories that attracts your interest? Why do you want to make documentaries about these subjects?

A) To be cynically honest with you, I don’t believe that documentaries can change the world. I am also not interested in a “Let’s change the world” type of documentary let alone making documentaries about vulnerable people in unfair world. I also try to avoid the word ‘despite’ in any synopsis or treatment I write. As a producer, what counts for me the most in selecting a project is the ‘chemistry’ I have with the director. The same rule is applied for scouting production crews. I trust my gut feeling or intuition over a profile or CV. As every other producer does, I also make mistakes in selecting projects or scouting crews and it’s usually because I ignored my gut feeling and made decisions based on conditions and situations.

Having recalled how I got involved in those films, I can only say that it’s really a series of coincidences that my filmography looks like this. I want to work with only good people because I don’t separate my professional life from private life. I am not selective about a subject but about filmmakers. I don’t care much about the subject but how a director deals with the subject. To my understanding, documentary is a form of cinema after all so it must be cinematically entertaining.

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

Maybe I can put it this way; it’s not me who found the subjects but the directors who share certain values in life, and their tendency of filmmaking, and found me.

When Seung-Jun first pitched Planet of Snail – originally it was titled Hazy Journey of the Illuminating Tree – in April 2009, I showed my clear disinterest by saying, “Good luck,” because I was already depressed to hear how miserable life is for the deaf blind man and his crippled wife. I am not interested in making films I don’t want to watch. I didn’t see any charm in the character description or the subject of disability in the two-page proposal written by Seung-Jun in the very beginning of the project. What convinced me to board the project was the director’s vision I saw in the 10 minutes short film he made of the same protagonists he presented a couple of months after his first pitch. Seung-Jun somehow managed to depict the world of a deaf and blind poet without showing any pitifulness towards the characters. I watched his first feature The Children of God in the very evening of the same day at a film festival and I could almost visualize the film Seung-Jun was going to make.

As for Iron Crows, I was fascinated by the dignity of the characters deliberately depicted as heroes, then I realized that the director Bong-Nam Park’s own experience of living as a gas cutter for 3 years really made him see them as colleagues and working class heroes more than pitiful documentary subjects.

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Captain Kang is a film that I put most efforts and am most proud of even though it’s probably not the most successful film. What impressed me the most besides his distinctive cinematography when the director Ho-Yeon pitched his story was his attitude toward the subject. I admire his dignity and humbleness as a filmmaker very much. When I decided to produce it, I was joking to the director that soon the industry would brand me as a disability specialized producer.

Q) There are an incredible amount of Korean documentaries being produced in the industry today, mostly by independent companies. These documentaries are often successful at film festivals, yet fail to reach mainstream audiences. What do you think about the role of Korean documentaries in contemporary cinema? Why do they struggle to become ‘mainstream’?

A) I am not sure what you mean by an incredible amount of Korean documentaries. In my opinion, there are far too little documentaries produced in Korea for the size of the population or the industry and compared to the number of fiction films. I am also not sure if you can say that these documentaries are “successful” in film festival circuit. Can you name 10 successful Korean documentaries in the entire history of Korean cinema without looking up your database? Despite the significant rise of current documentaries, I don’t think there are enough documentaries produced to make any meaningful market analysis in my opinion. And the documentaries are not diverse enough compared to the documentaries that are introduced at international documentary markets and festivals. It seems that most Korean documentaries come from either activism-oriented filmmaker groups or human-interest documentary groups who are often associated with TV documentary production.

Jeju Prayer (비념) mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Jeju Prayer (비념), by Indiestory, mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Activism-oriented documentaries often try to convey political agendas directly whereas most human-interest documentaries search for touching, often tear-jerking, human stories of vulnerable, and often pitiful, characters. Knowing how documentary has developed in Korea it’s more than understandable. Knowing how badly freedom of speech is practiced in Korea, I very much appreciate the role of activism-oriented documentaries that fill a niche in the mainstream media. However, I am missing ‘diversity’ here. Why are all the documentaries dealing with serious subjects almost always in a monotonously serious and direct fashion? Why is it hard to see cinematic documentaries? At film festivals and cinemas in Europe and North America I am seeing many diverse styles of documentaries screened and they are often successful these days. Many of them are highly entertaining yet still dealing with serious subjects such as social justice, war or human rights. Personally I would love to see comedy, musical, action noir genre of documentaries made in Korea by Korean filmmakers.

Poor production quality is another thing that makes Korean documentaries invisible in mainstream cinema. Audiences don’t seem to care much whether it’s documentary or fiction when making decisions to watch films in cinema. You can’t force or beg audiences to watch a documentary despite poor production quality while the ticket prices are more or less the same, and it’s their decision which film they choose to spend their leisure time on. We filmmakers need to work on diversity and production quality of the film we make but I also think there is a serious need for more subsidies from the public sector, not only because of its value for the public good but also because documentary is too weak to freely compete in the market. The government needs to have a long-term investment plan on documentaries in order to make it sustainable. Korean cinema is one of the strongest in the international film market and Korean filmmakers really make good films, but they take time and effort. I don’t believe documentary should be an exception.

Q) You have stated in prior interviews that you have co-producers in Europe, America, and Asia. What are the benefits of having international co-productions? Why are they important/significant?

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren't always easy

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren’t always easy

A) I like to work with international crews with diverse backgrounds. This is one my strengths as a producer and I very much enjoy seeing how the collaboration between filmmakers with different cultural backgrounds creates chemistry and influences the end result of the film. Providing that filmmaking is teamwork, I feel like a great alchemist when intended collaborations work out. I finance part of my films by international co-production in return for working with production crews from the country of co-production. Planet of Snail is one of the successful cases of international co-production as the collaboration with Finnish sound team definitely added a lot to the production quality of the film, and my Finnish co-producer raised the whole expenses spent in Finland. However international co-production is a double-edged sword when it comes to the conditions for spending. The budget raised by international co-production needs to be spent according to the regulations set by each funder. Usually the money needs to be spent in the country of co-production and often they ask to hire local creative talent. It can be very good if there is room for the talent and your co-producer has the right creative talent for your film to work with. What if there is no more room for creative talents? What if you don’t know how to communicate or work with international film crews? Nowadays I see many producers and film professionals who tend to believe that international co-production is a cure for all and blindly jump into the trap of bad co-production. What’s the use of raising international funds if there is no creative talent who can contribute to the film, or you don’t know how to work together?

Q) You have created your own company Minch & Films. What do you hope to achieve through the company? Does having offices in Seoul and Holland benefit Minch & Films in any way?

Minch & Film was established in 2011

Minch & Film was established in 2011

A)  Since 2011, I founded and own my own company Minch & Films currently based in Seoul.

I established Minch & Films to be a true story based production. Currently Minch & Films is based only in Seoul while collaborating with post-production talents in Belgrade (Serbia) and multiple co-production partners in Europe and North America.

Currently Minch & Films (or better as producer Min-Chul Kim) is more known internationally than domestically but we are not only making documentaries for international audiences but also for Korean audiences. We are not sticking to the documentary genre or film as platform but cross over genres and media such as game and comics.

(Please follow this link for Minch & Films facebook page)

Q) Can you give any details about any future documentaries and collaborations you are involved in? Will you use Minch & Films to help promote them?

A) State of Play is a feature documentary about what it takes to be a pro-gamer featuring the e-sports champion Lee Jae-Dong. This is a minor co-production with Visualantics, a emerging documentary production in Belgium. I brought Korean Communication Committee and Seoul Film Commission on board and it’s currently in the final post- production to be released in the summer. (See below for the trailer).

MotoSeoul is a feature documentary about young people living on the edge of Seoul dependent on the speed of motorcycle such as quick service rider, Chinese deliveryman and high school bikey gang in the style of Hong Kong noir movie. It has been developed with Seoul Film Commission’s international co-production development support in 2011 although I have been developing this project since 2006. I am expecting to start production in the summer with Ho-Yeon Won as director (Captain Kang’s director).

Scream For Me Sarajevo is a music documentary about heavy metal legend Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden’s frontman) and his band’s journey to war torn Sarajevo during the siege in 1994, and what a music concert meant to the people in the least humane living condition. It’s a music film, a road movie and a documentary about war, bravery and human dignity. I am currently visiting London for the pre-production meeting with Bruce and forming the production team. It’s in the early stage of pre-production.

Q) Finally, what do you think about the current environment of Korean documentaries on the global stage? Are they well received, or are there limitations? For example, how do you promote your films internationally to achieve a high profile?

Producer Kim discusses his projects

Producer Kim discusses his projects

A) Relatively more Korean documentaries are introduced to the international market since some of the documentaries achieved some level of international success. However global documentary markets are heavily dominated by European and North American productions while documentaries not only about China as subject but also directed and produced by Chinese are growing significantly in numbers as well as in quality. To promote my films internationally, I participate in pitch forums, film markets and festivals and work with international partners such as sales agent, co-producers, and publicists. I also experiment with multimedia platform. For example, I produced an educational app for learning finger braille language to promote social engagement of Planet of Snail. You can download the app simply by opening the site www.planetofsnail.com on any tablet device such as iPad.

In order for Korean documentaries to be better received, we need more supports from Kofic and other public sector. There are always supporters behind successful documentaries.

Hanguk Yeonghwa is incredibly grateful for Producer Kim for taking the time for this interview, and be sure to look out for his future documentaries on the film festival circuit.

Interviews/Q&As Producers