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

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: 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
Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Q&A with Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일) – Part 2

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

To celebrate renowned queer director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 film trilogy, Indieplus cinema in Gangnam held a special screening and Q&A event on the 12th of March. In February, feature length film White Night (백야) was screened – the Q&A of which you can read here – while the March event featured a double-bill of short films Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). All three films are connected thematically as each story depicts two gay characters and the events that transpire between them during the course of several hours.

Suddenly, Last Summer is concerned with a relationship between a thirty-something teacher and a high school student. The film is an intelligent and subtle exploration of psychology and morality, as both protagonist have desires yet are constrained by societal position. The performances are wonderfully restrained and poetic, making the film arguably the best of the trilogy.

Going South, meanwhile, explores homosexuality within the military. The short film employs nature and vibrant colours in conveying conflict between the two central characters, one who wishes to continue their relationship and the other who views homosexuality as merely a phase of military service.

Both short films have been well received – and notably invited to the 2013 BFI London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – and following the screenings director Leesong fielded questions from the audience, kindly translated by independent producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림).

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Question: Thank you, I really enjoyed both of the films. They are really touching and moving. With Going South, your sense of colour was really strong – the greens and the browns especially. Can you tell us what feelings you were trying to evoke? Why did you choose those two colours in particular?

Director Leesong: When I was thinking of these three films, colour was one of the things that I was really interested in. So I put a lot of focus on that and I tried to make certain differences between the three films in terms of colour. For example, White Night happens at night so I already had limitations, so I tried to put focus on the colour of the protagonists clothes in that film. And I used a 5D Mark II camera to try and make the lighting match and give focus. I tried to give the film a certain kind of colour and tone. And for Suddenly, Last Summer, water is one of the main images so I tried to show the clothes of the main protagonists like the teacher’s shirt or the white shirt of the school uniform which shows more clearly the differences between them. For Going South, the green colour is the most important colour in the film so I tried to find a location where I can show real green images like a lotus field and forest. I visited several forests to find the perfect green [for the film]. There wasn’t exactly a specific reason I chose green, but what I wanted was to go out of Seoul, out of the city and have distance from the city, to show the least [characteristics] of the city such as buildings. Therefore green became important. I shot this film in Yangsuri which is near Seoul, and is well-known by Seoulites, but I tried to shoot it as if it wasn’t Yangsuri, as if it was some other place. So I went deeper into Yangsuri, and tried to find different spots in the area so that it can look different from what people know. I tried quite hard to find these kind of locations and I really wanted to follow the psychological mindscape of the two protagonists, so that’s why I tried to focus more on their journey and their psychology, and to avoid a cityscape. I needed more [natural] landscape. Even the road when one protagonist kidnaps the other, that road is about 300 meters long and other than that it is surrounded by buildings. That specific spot was something I’ve had in my mind for 5 or 6 years and I was always going to use it in a movie one day, and I finally used it. I tried to remove other kinds of colour as I didn’t want to give you too many colourful images but to just focus on the two people, just the colour green and their emotional journey. If you can remember the character of Jun-young from the film, the man from the city who was discharged from military service, he’s wearing a white shirt so I didn’t want to mix too many more different colours. In the end, I only wanted their emotional development to be shown more than other features.

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

(The following question is quite offensive to the gay community, and is purely the opinion of the audience member. It in no way reflects the liberal attitude within Hanguk Yeonghwa).

Question: I think I can understand more about gay people through these films. I think gay issues are well received in American societies, for example, and economically and politically, and in the film market. But in Korean society, I think there is still, not taboo exactly, but more negative responses to gay issues than other societies. So I’d like to know what you are trying to say through your film to [Korean] society where more negative opinions exist. My second question is I’d say that it’s a personal choice, or sexual preference, if you are gay or not. But also there are worries that after two generations that if more and more people choose to be gay, although it’s personal preferences and choices, it’s probably possible that no-one would exist anymore. So some people consider being gay as a bad influence sometimes, so I’d like to know the director’s opinion on that.

Director Leesong: To answer your first question, there wasn’t a big or high intention. It’s just like if you are asking any non-gay filmmakers, or films with non-gay themes, you never ask them what their intentions were, what did they want to say to non-gay society. You don’t ask that, right? So I say, let’s be fair. But when you are facing a filmmaker who is making a film about sexual minorities then you always ask this kind of question, like what was your message to society. There wasn’t a big intention, just to make a film about love, where the main protagonists are sexual minorities. Let’s be fair, you wouldn’t ask that question to heterosexual filmmakers, so you shouldn’t ask me either. As for the second question, I don’t think it just applies to Korean society, it applies to most societies. Most gay people are raised by non-gay parents but they grew up as a gay person. Even if the parents are a gay couple, and they say to their children, “You should be gay”, they wouldn’t all be gay. If they want to love the other sex, then they will. I don’t think it’s a bad influence. As many of you know, the Mayor of Berlin is gay, and at the city hall there are rainbow flags but that doesn’t mean that Berlin is necessarily the only gay-friendly city. It’s embracing gay culture more, but that doesn’t mean everyone in Berlin is gay. I think that by having more sexual minorities speak out helps to develop a more democratic society, so therefore we need to hear more voices, minority groups should have more voices to make a real democracy possible, and make people embrace other people’s differences and opinions. In those terms I think that Korean society still has that kind of tedious democracy, we are still getting there, to have a more developed democracy.

Suddenly, Last Summer explores the relationship between a teacher and student

Suddenly, Last Summer explores the relationship between a teacher and student

Can we lighten up the atmosphere a little bit? Do you have any lighter questions? I think I will sink into a grave, the atmosphere feels like that.

Question: I’m really curious whether the actors in your films are really gay or not.

Director Leesong: What answer would you like?

Question: Just say it [the truth]!

Director Leesong: They are all not gay in real life. But I have to say I can’t really be happy to answer like that. It’s really hard to find anyone, actor or actress, who has freely come out of the closet and said that they are gay or lesbian. There are almost none who have been open about their sexual identities. So it’s not that I searched hard for non-gay actors, it’s the other way. It’s hard to think of anyone who is as beautiful as the actors who are in the films who are gay, that’s why we were laughing. But I should add that there are differences compared to ten years ago, there are younger generations who have more courage to come for an audition for my films, so that’s a big change.

Question: In Going South it was separated into ‘acts’ with the letters. I was wondering if that is more a stylistic or tonal choice, or did you choose that style for a structural choice in telling the story? Or to separate the different moods of each act?

Going South explores homosexual issues within the military

Going South explores homosexual issues within the military

Director Leesong: Well for Going South we shot for six days, so the whole production was like a short film. It was really difficult to show their past with images, it would have taken me a lot of time to show what they have been through together. So I wanted to show their past history together, not through images, but through their letters. I wanted to reveal their past history as the movie moved on and on, but I didn’t want them to talk about it, so the letters revealed their relationship. I don’t think it was necessarily to make an ‘act’. In Korea, serving in the army is compulsory, it’s an obligation. So if you are old enough, an a man, you must go to the army and serve for two years. It’s been like that for a long time. The things that were depicted in the film are happening quite often in the army, and that’s the basic idea. Nowadays I heard that they are doing several kinds of things such as planning sections differently to ‘prevent’ certain kinds of things – the exact expression is ‘anti-gay’ kinds of things. For example, before all the men used to sleep in one big room, but now they have sections so they are separated from each other. Because before they were all sleeping in the same section, and, well, a lot of things happened there. In those terms, this film Going South is quite a cliche. Whether they are gay or not, the army is a huge group of same sex people, and things happen. I just wanted to show the cliche that people know about, and make a story about it. I should tell a funny story because the atmosphere is so serious. I’m actually quite a funny guy! Having this kind of situation in Korea, and having gay men going to the army, creates two different responses. One is like a man sent to a place full of women, so a lot of gay men have a hard time because of the showers and life is difficult for them. But on the other hand there are gay men who are very happy to go to the army, they use the expression, “I’ll be among the flowers,” “I’m in a flower field.” After their army service they brag about things from the army like sex and lovers, stories they tell to their friends.

(Director Leesong then began to discuss about his next project).

Director Leesong: Night Flight‘ is inspired by a real story that happened about two years ago in a high school. There was a student who confessed his sexual identity to his teacher, which should be discrete. It was during a session with the teacher, and he was having a hard time telling him about what was going on in his mind. But the very next day the teacher broadcasted [the student’s sexuality] throughout the school during a broadcasting program. He just said the boy in class ‘B’, for example, is gay and you shouldn’t choose to be gay. It was a really violent response by a teacher, it shows the reality in Korean education, I think. I was thinking whether I should make a film about it or not, and then we had a person who was the education director for Seoul. Before his election we had an act about student rights which prohibited discrimination against students because of their sexuality and gender. But as soon as this new person got elected as the director of education, he said he was going to exclude and eliminate the article about prohibiting discrimination against gay people. That really pissed me off. It really shows the violent reality in Korean schools these days, Korean schools are showing the violence within Korean society. So I decided to make a film about it, dealing with school violence and also living as a gay [student].

Sincere thanks to director Leesong Hee-il for taking the time to answer the questions, to Producer Hwang for translating and to Manger Kwon Mi-hui and Indieplus Cinema for hosting the event.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
Courier Tae-jun sports an iconic orange jacket, revealing much about his character

White Night (백야) screening and Q&A with director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

At the Indieplus Q&A special event on February 19th, director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) latest film White Night (백야) was screened followed by the director graciously fielding questions posed by the audience. White Night has been a mainstay on the festival circuit since its premiere at the 2012 Jeonju International Film Festival, appearing in Vancouver and more recently featuring as part of the ‘Panorama’ programme at the prestigious 2013 Berlinale Film Festival.

The film, which was originally intended to be screened as part of a trilogy of short films, is based on the real-life event of a homophobic assault in Jongno, Seoul. White Night follows the victim of the attack, air steward Won-gyu who is visiting Korea for the first time in two years since the terrible ordeal. As he spends the night retracing the steps of the assault, he is joined by handsome courier Tae-jun who, for a reason he can’t explain, is reluctant to leave Won-gyu’s side. As the two men accompany each other throughout the night, they discover alternate experiences of being a gay man in contemporary Seoul.

Following the screening, film producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림) translated the queries posed by the audience. Before beginning, producer Hwang gave an insight into director Leesong’s history as a film maker.

Producer Hwang: Since his (director Leesong’s) first short film, which was made in 1998, up to his third feature White Night, his main concern was social prejudice in society. It’s a special opportunity to chat with him, as we (Korea) don’t really have a gay cinema, or films about sexual minorities or these kinds of issues. It’s not just about their struggles, but also about the melodramatic setting and that’s one  of the interesting things about his films too. How did the project start?

White Night (백야)

White Night (백야)

Director Leesong: As I said about 50 times in Q&A sessions, but just to give you a brief idea about the film, this film started as a shorter film. Actually there were 3 films released last year in 2012 in November, which were White Night, Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기), and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). Before that I made No Regret (후회하지 않아) which was shown in Berlin which was also a queer movie, and Breakaway (탈주). I was preparing a feature film but while waiting to make that, because that film wasn’t in winter season, I had some time and some funding form a cultural organization to make a short film, which became Suddenly, Last Summer. It was like a part-time job for me in the beginning, it was short-term work. So I finished it in one month. And I decided to make another 2 films which became White Night and Going South. The original plan was to release the 3 films together as 1 feature, but they all became longer than I had expected so altogether it’s around 2 hours and 40 minutes which was almost not acceptable in cinemas. So it was changed into 2 films. Because I started with Suddenly, Last Summer which is about 2 men who take a walk through different kinds of ‘space’ during 6 hours. That was the basic concept that runs through all the films. So they are about the relationship between 2 men during a 6 hour period. [The film is based on a homophobic assault in Jongno, Seoul]. The incident took place in 2011 and the film was released in 2012, so it was a recent incident. I was preparing a scenario when it happened and the basic idea was based on a short story of Dostoevsky the Russian writer which is also in the title White Night. But while I was trying to write the script I didn’t really like the draft I had at the time. Then I hear the news of the assault and it was really surprising even to me. I’ve been a activist for gay rights, and I thought I’d seen everything, but even for me it was very shocking that it happened in 2011, when I thought that Korean society had become much better. It wasn’t what I expected. These kinds of incidents are like what happened in the late ’60s and ’70s in western and European society, but it happened here, now, and it was really alarming. Recently I had been focusing more on my film work, but the event changed that. I wanted to give the main character Won-gyu a feeling of a refugee, or of being in exile, so I took the incident as part of the inspiration for the film.

Question: Who is watching this film? By that I mean is it Korean women, men, foreigners, who is his audience? And how are Korean people reacting to this film and what kind of feedback is he getting? When he’s making these movies, what kind of audience does he usually get? Who is responding, and how is he expecting people to respond? Is tonight’s audience representative of people who generally watching his movies?

No Regret (후회하지 않아)

No Regret (후회하지 않아)

Producer Hwang: Maybe I should mention that his previous film which was made in 2006 called No Regret was the biggest hit of the independent film scene at the time, with an audience of 60,000 people. But he has been making films for over a decade, so let’s ask him.

Director Leesong: I’m not that old, it’s not that long! I think it’s quite a complicated, but very important question. I think there has been a remarkable change since I made my previous queer film No Regret. At the time it was a huge issue because it was the first feature film made by a gay director who had come out of the closet, and that in itself was quite an issue at the time. The film was quite popular and drew a lot of 20-something female audiences, they were like 90% of the audience, and they formed the fandom of this film. But it’s been 6 years since No Regret and remarkable changes have been seen in queer cinema and the market for queer cinema. Before it was mostly 20-something female audiences who were interested, and I think it’s an Asian phenomenon so it was quite popular among young women in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. In Europe and America there is a big gay audience, but in Asia 90% of the audience, at least in the case of No Regret, were young females. Also some women in their 30s, and mothers in the 40s and 50s who came with their daughters were there, but it was mostly women in their 20s rather than men. But when I released this film, I realized the audiences numbers were more reduced than before. I think the reason is that these kinds of issues are not rare anymore, you can see much more of them in TV dramas and other kinds of media which deal with gay issues, or using them as a subject. So queer film is not a rare item anymore. The second reason is that 6 years ago, not many gay people would come to the cinema because they were afraid that by watching the film, they may reveal their sexual identity. So many gay people were afraid of that. But I think probably from last year, because there were many gay films like Miracle on Jongno Street (종로의 기적) and Two Weddings and a Funeral (두 번의 결혼식과 한 번의 장례식). You could see more gay audiences coming to the cinema, which indicates there has been changes in the Korean cinema and queer market. Personally I don’t want to focus on films for gay audiences only, like camp films in America. I don’t want to focus on films that are only consumed by gay audiences, or be confined to that specific area or issue. I want to focus more on universal stories and feelings that appeal to other audiences as well. That’s why I tried to make a story like White Night, that focuses more on their emotional sides that can appeal to a broader audience. I think I’d like to continue like that. I’m thankful if gay audiences like my films, but I’d also like to have a non-gay audience as well.

Courier Tae-jun wears an iconic orange jacket

Courier Tae-jun wears an iconic orange jacket

Question: Can you tell us about the character of Tae-jun? With his orange jacket he’s similar to James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, so I just wondered if that was what you were going for, like a rebellious gay character who is out and proud?

Director Leesong: That’s a question I’ve never had during my Q&A sessions with the audience, and it’s a very accurate question. Personally I really like Nicholas Ray’s films. I saw Rebel Without A Cause a lot too, and I think it’s not just me but it’s also noted that certain bi-sexual elements are shown in Nicholas Ray’s films. I really like the colour and the tone of the movie. I saw this film shortly before I made White Night, and because the film is quite a low budget film we had to shot almost all of the film at night and we couldn’t spend much on lighting. So I had to figure out how I should show the difference between these two characters, light and darkness. Not just for the atmosphere and environment, but in their personalities. That’s why I thought that I should use the orange jacket, to show his character a little bit. My team tried hard to find an orange jacket that I would like, for almost a month, but the jacket you can see in the film is not the one that I like 100% but I had to compromise, it’s the restrictive environment of film making. The jacket was sold in an auction. It was really refreshing question, thank you.

Question: I saw the character of Won-gyu is chewing gum all the time. I was wondering if there was any specific meaning to that action?

Director Leesong: This is a popular question during the past 50 Q&A sessions. I really liked Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris and I wanted to shoot the scene where the character takes the gum out of his mouth and puts it on the wall of the toilet. When I saw that film a long time ago, I decided I wanted to have that in my film as well, and I finally did it. And then I thought, why the gum? Basically the character of Won-gyu came back to Korea and is recalling his memories of the incident, and is going back to the past, and as I have shown through other techniques such as when the character gets the zippo lighter, and when he smokes twice, it indicates that Won-gyu might have been a heavy smoker when he was younger. And he might feel the urge to smoke when he comes back to Korea, so he chews gum to stop himself smoking. Also in my other film Going South one of the main characters eats medicine for headaches habitually, which indicates that he is depressed.

Won-gyu expresses himself through gestures and mannerisms, rather than dialogue

Won-gyu expresses himself through gestures and mannerisms, rather than dialogue

Question: You were talking about your films, and I was curious to known if the queer scene in Korea and Asia was primarily based in gay cinema, or if there was any lesbian cinema?

Director Leesong: It’s kind of a complicated question to answer, but I have to say that in Korea not many lesbian films are made – or almost no films made, up to now. Because there are no lesbian directors who have come out. I know there are many lesbian directors, but they have never said, ok, I’m a lesbian. It’s part of the reason why lesbian cinema isn’t prolific in Korea. I sometimes get requests that I should make films about lesbians too, but it’s quite tricky for me because even if I make films about lesbians it will probably make it more difficult for female directors to make films about lesbians. The second reason is that I’m kind of a loner, so I don’t really know about gay communities in Korea – I do know well, but I don’t know very well. As for lesbian communities, I don’t have any idea about them. They are the two reasons why I haven’t made any lesbian films so far. I think it is also based on the structure of Asian society, which is based on patriarchy, so I guess it’s an Asian phenomenon that lesbian films are difficult to make. It’s much more difficult for a woman to come out of the closet and say that she is gay than a man, because if you are a man and if you are economically independent then you have less social disadvantages than a woman. It’s kind of trickier for Asian women to come out and say openly that she is lesbian. So it’s difficult for them to make films about lesbians. There are not many lesbian film makers in Asia, maybe some in China and Taiwan I know, but almost none in Japan or Korea who act openly as lesbian film makers. Another reason is that gay films can be consumed by female audiences, so women come to the cinema to see gay films but men don’t go to the cinema to watch lesbian films, I think, in general. Of course, pornographic films that feature two women can be consumed by male audiences as well, but it’s totally different when a lesbian film is made by a lesbian director who is the main force behind the film, it’s about her identity, then I think male audiences become less interested, or not interested at all. That’s the basic reality we have here in Asia.

Question: Why does Won-gyu always hesitate before he speaks? He’s always playing with things in his hands, like opening and closing the lighter, before he speaks.

Director Leesong: I didn’t want to give lines to the character of Won-gyu. Actually the actor who played Won-gyu, Won Tae-hee, he is quite a talkative and lively character. So I thought that if I didn’t give him any lines, that situation would already create a conflict within himself. We can see in a lot of dramas that the main character who has been hurt is saying they are in pain, asking people to recognize their pain, so we are kind of used to that, characters that speak about their situation loudly. That’s not the style I like, I don’t want to show it so obviously. I think in the films it’s much more appealing if you show these kinds of feelings in silence, sometimes. That’s why I choose to give him less lines. Tae-jun, the other character, is kind of the opposite, he speaks out at the moment about what he feels, that’s the contrast between the two characters. I also wanted to show Won-gyu’s little habits, like everyone has, for example I rip paper into little pieces when I meet people, and for Won-gyu he opens and closes things. This is how he shows his feelings, that’s how I chose to express his feelings.

Sincere thanks to director Leesong Hee-il for taking the time to answer the questions, and to Producer Hwang and Indieplus Cinema for translating and hosting the event.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
The tributes for Lee So-seon following her death are moving

Mother (어머니) screening and Q&A with director Tae Jun-seek (태준식)

Mother (어머니)

Mother (어머니)

A special screening of independent documentary feature Mother (어머니) was held at Indieplus in Gangnam, on the 29th of January. Director Tae Jun-seek (태준식) was also in attendance, and very kindly answered the questions posed by the audience following the screening.

Mother (어머니) is a documentary that follows the final two years in the life of activist Lee So-seon (이소선), a powerful figure in the battle for human rights for workers. Her late-son, Jeon Tae-il (전태일), is a legendary figure throughout Korea and other Asian nations for his dedication to improving rights for laborers. His protests against the abuses and of the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (박정희) during the ’70s actually had the opposite effect as the government brought further exploitation, and as a result the then 22 year old set himself on fire. Jeon Tae-il’s death galvanized the workers’ rights movement, and since then Lee So-seon has tirelessly campaigned in his memory. Rather than focus on her efforts however, director Tae Jun-seek explores Lee So-seon’s final moments on Earth and her indomitable will in the face of ailing health.

Following the screening, the Q&A was translated by independent film producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림). Producer Hwang began by asking about the background of the film, and how director Tae began the project.

Director Tae Jun-seek: Well first, as producer Hwang explained, Jeon Tae-il is really one of the most important figures in modern South Korean history to the extent that he’s almost like a myth. And he’s a very important figure not just in Korean history, but also he was an inspiration to other countries in north-east Asia. He’s like a figure that symbolizes struggles for democracy in these areas. That’s one of the reasons you can see the director of the play (within Mother) is from Taiwan. That’s part of the reason why he was willing to do a play about him. I think the reason it was possible, the whole journey that Jeon Tae-il had, was because of his mother and even after his death Lee So-seon was very faithful to what her son believed and she tried very hard to keep those principles throughout her life. And that made me curious about her. What could make her strong like that? What could make a person like her? That was the start of the journey of this film. In this film you can see just a part of her life, but I thought it would be meaningful to show that part of her life, to understand Jeon Tae-il and also to understand Korean democracy. So I met her in 2009. I visited her, and told her I wanted to make a film of her. That was the start of the film.

Lee So-seon's everyday life is revealed during her final years

Lee So-seon’s everyday life is revealed during her final years

Producer Hwang Hye-rim: I should also give you a little bit of information about director Tae. He started his film making as an activist and a documentary film maker in Labor News Production, which was one of two of the earliest film documentary companies in Korea. The other was Documentary Pureun Audio/Video Collective. These are the two companies that started making productions back in the ’80s, on the scene of the struggle. So he started as one of the members of Labor News Production and produced a lot of documentaries and newsreels, and feature documentaries as well, which included mostly the scenes of struggles, and depictions of real life.

Question: Because Jeon Tae-il is already very iconic figure, and his mother is also a big figure, it must have been quite a challenge to start a story and make a story out of it. What kind of concerns do you have when you started?

Director Tae: Well it’s been a while since this film was released, it was released last year (2012) in Spring. I kind of thought afterwards, “Gosh I really chose a really really big figure for my film.” It was probably almost impossible to tell her story in a feature documentary. And also I had pressure from time as she was dying at the time and she passed away during filming. So I was running out of time, and I had this pressure of having to finish as soon as possible. So that was the limit I had, from nature. But the idea arose from the first meeting I had with her. I knew about this person from documents, I read a lot about her, I thought I knew about her, but from the first meeting she kind of gave me this inspiration on how I should tell her story. Because she was even back then, in her last days, still very funny, very interesting, and a very strong person. And I thought maybe it would be ok to tell her story from the present, to start the story from now, and not giving too much information ahead, but telling the story from her present and make a story out of it. I thought she was a beautiful person and strong enough to be in the film as she was. That was part of the intention, to make the story like this. Also I thought that I definitely need a long time to film her, and after a while I thought it would be effective to have a structure to go back to the past [and show her history] from the present.

Question: Were you able to distinguish any of the main influences on her life? Her parents were no doubt dead already, but what did you think were the really important factors that made her the strong personality type that she was?

Director Tae: I think that there were a lot of influences that made her who she was. She spent her childhood in Korea when it was a Japanese colony, and it was a really hard time. She couldn’t live with her parents when she was young, and she also had the experience that she was almost dragged away to be one of the ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese army. But luckily she escaped and she had to live in the mountains for about a month by herself. It was a time of hardship for all Koreans, so she had to live all the tragedy of modern Korean history by herself. So I think that’s part of the reason that made her as strong as she was. There was also the big influence from religion. She was a Christian and she always believed from a very young age about love for humanity, and to love and take care of your neighbours, and she also taught that to her son Jeon Tae-il. There were part of her principles from a very young age even after she lost her son in that tragic event. That was part of the influence that made her strong, I think. It’s not just about religion, but also her basic nature, to take care of her neighbours, people who share the world with her, people who suffer more than her, and she wanted to take care of these people. And she taught her son like that too. Also you can see in the film, when she was telling the story of her childhood she was saying [to bullies] “Beat me if you can.” She was that brave, and always against unreasonable power, and she always stood for justice. She did resist as much as she could, and they all influenced her into being strong.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your history? You said you worked for one of the first documentary companies. How was your work used? Was it used to help the democracy movement, or did the government try and use it to strengthen their position? How did your history influence this documentary?

Director Tae: At that time I started working at Labor News Production I didn’t really think – not just me, but all of us – we didn’t really think we were documentary film makers. We started it as a labor movement, that we were taking part in the movement at the time. So we thought of ourselves as activists. So that was the start. I thought of myself as an activist taking part in the movement for 6 years, and I worked there as a documentary maker for that time. That’s quite different from thinking of yourself just as a documentary film maker. It was always about the real scenes of struggle, and I learned about making a documentary and the reasons why we need this fight for certain issues. And I also go to know Lee So-seon. So all these experiences led me to this film, I think, after all these years. Also I learned several techniques to actually be able to make a film, which became sometimes a survival technique. Making films is a difficult job sometimes. All those years at the Labor News Production became the influence for this film.

The tributes for Lee So-seon following her death included marches

The tributes for Lee So-seon following her death were incredible

Question: I really enjoyed the film. What is the importance of this film, and these types of films and history, for young people in Korea? And are they aware of these things in public schools, or just in history books?

Director Tae: I don’t think we have any public education or records for students in elementary, middle and high school, or even in university that teaches about Lee So-seon. But there are several books in the public education process that tell about her son, Jeon Tae-il. He is known to a certain extent, and there are also documentaries about him, and also a fiction film about him. So I’d say her son is well-known, but the mother not as much. There have been many efforts made to let Jeon Tae-il and his work more widely known to the public, but I think it’s never enough. There are still many ongoing efforts. The reason that this is important is that there are still many struggles over human rights, especially for workers, laborers. Lee So-seon was a person who spoke throughout her life about human rights and solidarity and the struggles we have to go through to achieve it. That’s why I thought her story was inspiring. There is still not enough consideration about the human rights of workers. It’s not really reflected in the process of public education. I think we need more records and films that can tell the younger generation about the importance of human rights. That’s why more and more films are coming out of the independent film scene which deal with these kinds of issues. It’s still never enough, and we are living in a country where a dictator’s daughter is president, so as you can guess it’s more difficult and more tricky to make these kinds of films now, but there are still efforts by independent film makers.

Question: I was really touched by the film, I thought it was better than other dramas and soap operas. I thought from the poster it was a film about an old woman, but I realised it was about the ‘Mother of Workers’ and it was really interesting. You put a lot of focus on her ordinary life and behaviour. I’d like to know why you choose those kind of tactics to portray her.

Director Tae: Well I think in Korea, people think of the labor movement as too serious sometimes and too violent. A lot of people think of the labor movement with those kinds of stereotypes. I think that’s the basic background I had when I started this film. As you can see in the film, the director of the play from Taiwan, he says, “It’s always about big action, or red ribbons and violent actions and demonstrations.” So people connect the image of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at police when they think of the labor movement. They think of the images first, and it’s the big preconception about the labor movement here in Korea. Why it’s like that is another question. But Lee So-seon also thought it would be better if we can change that preconception and those images of the labor movement with this film, and I was trying to say that I don’t think these people are more violent or more organised or skillful in fighting. They are not those kinds of people. Fighting for your human rights is your basic right, that’s why they are fighting. It’s not because they are specifically violent people, that’s part of the report I wanted to make. Rights to work and for survival are your basic human rights. That should be natural. Lee So-seon was a person that symbolised that kind of idea. As long as you are human, you need to fight for your rights when they are threatened. I thought because she’s a person like that, I thought it’d be more effective to show her charm in everyday life, to show trivial things, to reveal her strong message. I tried to use those things to approach those ideas in her life, and to show you that. I also tried to depict the events backwards in the timeline, from the small to the big ideas, that’s why I didn’t want to put specific focus on the promise [to her dying son], or talk too much about it. I didn’t want too much melodrama out of it. I tried to leave Jeon Tae-il out of it as much as possible, although it’s impossible to leave him totally out of the film. I tried to show her as ordinary as possible, just as we are and her that her fight is not something too noble or too difficult, but a fight that has to be done for human beings. I wanted to show her life.

Lee So-seon continually displayed her strength of character

Lee So-seon continually displayed her strength of character

Question: You mentioned Park Geun-hye earlier. Now that she’s in power, do you think making these kinds of documentaries will become more difficult? She quite famous for being sensitive about anything bad said about her or her father, so how will you go about making future documentaries? Will you change anything?

Director Tae: Well I don’t think I will change anything under the regime of Park Geun-hye, as we already survived the Lee Myung-bak era. It will be difficult, but we already know about the difficulties so I don’t think I’ll change anything. At least, when it’s concerned about making films. I hope and believe that as we’ve achieved a democracy it wouldn’t go back as far as the old days when we had a fascistic dictatorship. Of course I can guess that there will be certain kinds of pressures on people who are making these kinds of films, and who are not afraid of getting their voices heard. So there will be that kind of suppression. But I don’t think people who are making those kinds of films are too afraid, whatever may come. The more difficult thing is everyday survival. We have achieved a democracy in terms of politics, but not as much in cultural aspects. There is still less and less support for public art, like making documentaries or independent films, so I think there is not enough support for independent artists these days. I think I’ll spend these 5 years under Park Geun-hye to try and make things better for independent artists.

Thank you to director Tae Jun-seek for generously answering the questions, and to producer Hwang Hye-rim and manager Kwon Mi-hui for translating and hosting the event.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
Stateless Things (줄탁동시)

Stateless Things (줄탁동시) screening and Q&A with director Kim Kyung-mook (김경묵)

Director Kim Kyung-mook at the Q&A

Director Kim Kyung-mook at the Q&A

A special screening of Stateless Things (줄탁동시), followed by a Q&A with director Kim Kyung-mook (김경묵), took place at Indieplus in Gangnam on the 15th of January. Stateless Things is quite a rarity within Korean cinematic culture as experimental queer art-house films are few and far between. The version shown was the two hour ‘uncut’ edition, featuring the sexual scenes that had to be edited in order for general release.

The film explores the concept of alienation within Korean – or, more specifically, Seoul – culture from the perspective of an illegal immigrant and a young gay man. While the immigrant, known as Joon, experiences alienation through exclusion, homosexual Hyun struggles against confinement. Director Kim Kyung-mook explores his protagonists employing various cinematic techniques, primarily non-linear editing and alternating cameras, for a highly unique production that prompted several questions from the audience.

Before the Q&A began, translator and independent film producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림) began with an introduction.

Producer Hwang Hye-rim: As it is quite a ‘different’ kind of film, even considering it is an independent film. It is unique, bold, shocking and too ‘obscene’ for some people. At first it was rated ‘R’, a restricted rating, which is like a XXX film in America. It means when you get this ‘R’ rating in Korea you can only screen the film in a certified cinema which is approved for screening ‘R’ rated movies. Which doesn’t exist in Korea at all. There is no cinema which is certified to show those kinds of films. It means if you get an ‘R’ rating, you can’t get it on the screen. So you have two choices. You can either delete or modify certain scenes and get an NC17 so it can be shown in cinemas, or you can have screenings only for specific kinds of events like festivals. That’s the fight that it had to go through to be in the cinema last March. It got NC17 after certain modifications. Not just because of the ratings, but you can also see it’s a very rare kind of film. So we can start with how he made the film, and how it started.

Stateless Things (줄탁동시)

Stateless Things (줄탁동시)

Director Kim Kyung-mook: My first film was called Faceless Things (얼굴 없는 것들) in 2005. This story (Stateless Things) evolved from one of the characters of my debut, which is a story of a young gay boy. From Faceless Things and from that boy character I tried to tell a story about this boy, what would happen to him when he goes out into the outside world, what kind of things would happen to him? That’s how I started to make the story. I wanted to make a coming-of-age story of this young gay boy, that’s how Stateless Things started. The English title is Stateless Things which is named in relation to Faceless Things, but the Korean title is quite different. The Korean title can be interpreted like a hen pecking inside and outside. I don’t know if you’ve read ‘Demian‘ by Hermann Hesse. It’s a story like a bird fighting its way out of an egg by pecking. ‘줄탁’ means pecking from inside and outside and ‘동시’ means at the same time. So it’s an idea of zen. Which means like if a chick is trying to come out from an egg it’s pecking from the inside, and the mother hen hears the sound of the pecking and pecks from the outside. So it’s normally used as an expression to show the relationship between a parent and child, or a teacher/mentor and student. That’s the process of giving birth to life, or realizing a truth. The Korean title has that meaning. But in this case it’s obviously the relationship between the two boys, one boy from inside, one boy from outside. So it’s like they are pecking the shell of an egg to come out to the outside world in a sense. As I mentioned about ‘Demian‘, in the film the expression was used to show the divided identity of this boy – these boys can be one boy or two boys – but he has two different kind of egos inside him. That’s why I used this title, to show that kind of idea.

Question: There’s a very strong feeling of alienation in the movie. And it seemed like a conflation between personal and social or national. Can you tell us anything about the influences that brought those two senses of alienation together?

Director Kim: Like most other directors this story also comes from my personal experience. So that was one of my influences. And it’s kind of related to my experience from when I came from Busan to Seoul. I moved to Seoul when I was about that age. And that’s why there’s a feeling of alienation, one of the main atmospheres you felt when watching this movie. I’ve heard a lot that the depiction of Seoul, or the scenes that have the landscape of Seoul, looks very different and strange. I’ve heard that a lot from Korean audiences. It’s probably because I felt like that when I first came to Seoul, like an alien or total stranger. So that’s how I looked at Seoul when I first came. Of course it has changed now as I have been living here for more than 10 years. So it’s not exactly the same, I don’t feel the same way I did before. But still it has a certain kind of strange look, Seoul has that kind of face when I look at it and that’s why it’s in the film. The feeling of space and moving, that’s how alienation becomes one of the main feelings in the film. That’s exactly the feeling I felt the most at that age when I came to Seoul. The alienation is about social alienation but it’s also the kind of feeling about being alienated from yourself, because you feel the chaos at that age. And you are often confused about who you really are, thinking about your identity and who you are and searching for yourself. So it was that kind of time for me. And that’s why they are feeling lonely as well, it’s not because they have no girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s because they have no answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ They are still searching for it. That was my experience around that age, and that’s how the story evolved from that experience.

Some of the gay sex scenes were deemed controversial

Some of the gay sex scenes were deemed controversial

Question: In the end credits, there were actors that played two characters. Was it because of lack of money or budget, or was it intentional?

Director Kim: Well it’s kind of intentional, it wasn’t because of lack of money. I wanted to give you the feeling of when you are seeing the same faces but in a different kind of feeling or story. So the first part of the film, and the second part, you see these people but they are not main characters. But you see the same faces in very different situations. For example you saw the women from the labour office, she was spanked in part 2 by the gay boy so it’s completely different kind of character played by one actor. That was my intention, to give this different kind of feeling from the same faces. There is other male character as well who played two roles, but it was cut out during the editing process. The film was already quite long enough so I had to remove it in editing.

Question: You showed a lot of different perspectives of having a gay lifestyle in Korea. A man with a double life who has a wife and a boyfriend, a young gay man who is trapped, another who is forced into homosexuality through poverty. But Korean movies are quite popular, the ones that have gay themes, like The King and The Clown and Bungee Jumping of Their Own. Why are movies with gay themes very popular, but it doesn’t translate into society? Why do you think that is?

Director Kim: I think one of the biggest reasons is the generation gap. I think the younger generation are much more open to gay culture and gay themes, or having gay friends. And the films you have mentioned are quite young at heart, in a sense, and there are a lot of dramas and soap operas and comic books which deals with gay issues very openly. A lot of young people are ready to embrace it, they don’t have any problems with that. But I think the older generation, maybe over 40s or 50s, they have lived a totally different life in a different era. So for them it’s still quite difficult to recognize this kind of culture or embrace it. That’s probably why. But they are the ones who still have the power, social status, and authority, to change things legally or politically. That’s why you cannot see as much difference in terms of law or social changes. But I think we have seen very big changes in recent years with young people and culture.

Joon and Soon-hee traverse the unwelcoming Seoul landscape

Joon and Soon-hee traverse the unwelcoming Seoul landscape

Question: I have two questions. The first is, how did you do the casting of the actors? How much was scripted, and how much did the actors do themselves? What was their feedback and input into the characters? And the second question is, I’m sure it’s probably often asked but why is the title so far into the film?

Director Kim: To answer the first question, except for some adult actors, most of the actors who played the main roles were first time actors. I found them through an audition. For most of them it was their first feature film experience. I was trying to find appropriate actors for the characters. Most of the scenes, especially the scenes with exposure, were written in the script already. So most of the actors who came to the audition said no to those scenes, it was too much for most of the actors who auditioned. So I had to find actors amongst those who wouldn’t say no to the script. I also tried to talk a lot with the actors, that’s how I work usually. I also tried to research a lot about North Korean defectors and gay people. I visited the gay clubs in Itaewon a lot. I also talked a lot to Korean-Chinese people with my actors. That’s how it happened. And the second question, about why the title came so late, I thought putting the title at the beginning of the film doesn’t really fit with this film. That’s what I thought. I didn’t want to start the film with a title. The question was then, where should I put it? I thought the scene when the two boys are meeting each other is kind of a beginning of the story for me, so I chose to put the title in front of that scene. But right before that scene, you remember the long sequence where Joon is walking down the street, it feels like an ending scene so I wanted to put a little bit of atmosphere of an opening scene as well. It looks like an ending, but it’s also a beginning at the same time. That’s the feeling I wanted to create. It’s like the end is the beginning is the end, in a sense. I thought that’s a better fit considering the whole rhythm of the film.

Question: When you started telling the story of the boy in the apartment, why did you decide to play with time? What was the symbolic reason for that?

Director Kim: Actually I tried to play with time throughout the film at first, but I thought maybe it would be easier if I reduced that a little to make it easier to understand the whole story, if I made it more chronological. So I reduced, or focused it more, on the apartment scenes. But as you can see in the opening scene when they are on the bike and running by the street, I also played with time a little bit there as well. The reason is that I was trying to show the story as if it is remembering something. It’s like telling a s tory about your past. The story is like the past of these two boys. And if you remember they are burning a diary at the end of the film, and I was trying to give this feeling, of getting rid of your past, and it’s time to move on to another future, in a sense. So that’s why the story is going backwards. Whenever you feel hard or difficult times in your life you go back to past memories. That’s why the movie has the structure of playing with time. It’s like telling a story by looking at the past and their memories. The structure, or frame, of memory was the main structure I was thinking of when I was making this film.

Hyun lives a life of containment and isolation

Hyun lives a life of containment and isolation

Question: I have noticed, in the past year especially, quite a lot of Korean films have dealt with issues that are usually very taboo to talk about in society. What I have noticed, which is quite exceptional, is that they have been dealt with full-on without any hidden facets, and very truthfully and realistically but at the same time very sensitively. What special attributes do Korean directors have that enables them to make films that are so frank and honest and extremely good? It’s very much appreciated.

Director Kim: Thank you! I’m not sure if I have the right answer but I’m going to try it anyway. I think maybe it’s because we had a history that changed very very quickly. Our society has gone through fast changes in the last few decades. So in the process a lot of things were suppressed and there was a lot of pressure in every aspect of society. Culturally, socially, politically. We went through this in a very short time compared to other societies in other continents. That’s probably why we end up having this power or strength against it, from that experience. I also feel the same way when I see some of the films from South-East Asian countries, and China. And I would like to say the same comment that you said about Korean films. In those countries, they are going through a change as well from a not very democratic society to a hopefully better society, so I think that kind of status of being more suppressed means you have more will and more energy to express. Resistance. You’re more willing to resist.

Question: It’s slightly related to structure. There were two scenes before Hyun and Joon meet that quite surprised me because they were unexpected scenes from each others lives. And they were both scenes of prostitution. The way that I picture it in my head is like kind of a yin and yang. It’s one persons story, but then there’s this punctuation of sex as a commodity in each of them. I think as far as I remember, those are the only two scenes in each others stories that appear. I was wondering about those scenes.

Director Kim: To me, as you said it can be like Yin and Yang, or like two different egos in one character. But for me these two boys were connected as one. Its like they’re behaving the same way, but have two different faces, for example. They are having paid sex, doing the same thing, but have different faces. For me those two scenes were related in that way. I wanted to create a feeling that they might be one person and not two. Also the scenes with the diary, some parts were shown in different parts of the movie. That was to give the feeling that they are from one diary, and that these boys are the same person. So the diary and the sex scene were devices for me to show that they are one. I also used several bridge sequences, like the video camera and hidden camera images, to show their mindscape being connected. It’s not consistent, but that’s how I wanted to show their minds were connected.

Director Kim addressed the audience in English, thanking them for attending

Director Kim addressed the audience in English, thanking them for attending

(Director Kim then spoke in English to address the audience) It’s a really rare chance to have a Q&A in English here. I haven’t actually had a chance to talk in English in a theater in Korea, so it was kind of surprising. I actually didn’t know that before coming here. I feel like I should of asked where you guys came from, but I missed it. Maybe after the Q&A I can maybe ask you, if you guys come to me.

Question: Are you making any new projects these days?

Director Kim: I’ve been working on a documentary for 2 years but I think I’m screwed! I’m not sure if I can go on. I’m just kidding. I’m still editing and I think I’ll be finishing the editing process by the end of this year. It’s about prostitution, women prostitutes. This time it’s about women, not men.

Sincere thanks to Director Kim yung-mook for graciously answering questions, and to Producer Hwang Hye-rim and Manager Kwon Mi-hui for translating and hosting the event.

Directors Interviews/Q&As
Director Paik Yeon-ah (right) shares her thoughts with the Indieplus translator

Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마) screening and Q&A with Director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) and star Hyung-sook (형숙)

Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마)

Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마)

At the Indieplus theater (인디플러스) in Gangnam, on the 18th of December, was a special screening of documentary film Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마). Following the screening was a Q&A session with director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) and one of the stars of the documentary, Hyung-sook (형숙), who both graciously answered the queries from the audience.

Bittersweet Joke is a documentary concerned with portraying the lives of single mothers in Korea. Mainstream media tends to portray such women in an extremely negative fashion, with their faces blurred and voices altered, similar to criminals. Additionally, they often ignore the mother’s wishes regarding what is contained within the features, highlighting instead the extreme hardships of their existence. With Bittersweet Joke, director Paik Yeon-ah attempts to convey a more fully formed perspective of single mothers in Korea, conveying that they are capable, intelligent women simply trying to live their lives and raise their children to the best of their ability. The director also emphasizes the social prejudice that single mothers are forced to endure within Korean culture, as well as the innate lack of responsibility displayed by the fathers.

Bittersweet Joke – also known as Miss Mama – is an incredibly well-crafted and heart-warming documentary. The directing and editing are excellent, while the single mothers themselves are wonderful subjects through which to explore such an important social issue, conveying their joy and determination as well as their vulnerabilities and hopes for the future. The film was very well received by the audience, and following the end credits the Q&A session began.

The Indieplus translator kindly facilitated the discussion with director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) and star Hyung-sook (형숙)

The Indieplus translator kindly facilitated the discussion with director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) and star Hyung-sook (형숙)

The translator thanked everyone for braving the cold weather to come to the screening, and introduced both Director Paik Yeon-ah and Hyung-sook. Before questions were received, some information about the guests were provided. Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마) is the second feature from director Paik following Lineage Of The Voice (소리 아이) (2008) about two talented boys who perform traditional Korean music and opera.

Translator question: How did you (Director Paik and Hyung-sook) meet?

Director Paik: Thank you for coming to see the film on such a cold day. It was a great opportunity to meet Hyung-sook. That was really the start of the documentary. Although she sometimes she thinks she’s not sure if it’s good luck that we met, maybe it was bad luck in a sense because our relationship lasted so long and it was made into a documentary. But whether it is good or bad, making a documentary is like making a family in a sense, so I think we have become a certain kind of family during the process of making the documentary. And just like families our relationship is a tough and lasting one, I appreciate that. During the process of filming, I really enjoyed every minute of it. And the start of the documentary came to me quite naturally when I was finishing my first documentary Lineage Of The Voice (소리 아이). It was about two children, and after finishing this documentary I myself experienced pregnancy and had a child. And then I was more interested in making a documentary about children and I wanted to look into children’s upbringing and the relationship of family, focusing on children. So that was my interest, and I of course I was more and more interested about bring up a child being a mum myself. And then I found out about Hyung-sook, who is actually a rare person who is ready to speak about these issues, single mum issues, which is not really an open issue in Korea in 2010 when we first met. As my interest was focused on children, I wanted to look at different children in various conditions and environments so in that process we met. During that time not many people were willing to talk about single mum issues, not in mainstream media or any type of media, so she was the only one I found although I had to persuade her to make the film but she was willing to do it. Even after I got her agreement, here’s an association of single mom’s and they had to go through several meetings whether she should be in the movie or not, whether the film should be made or not. Because they have a history of people portraying single mum’s in a really negative way, so they had concerns. But she had decided to be in the film with me, and after these meetings we could finally start the film. And I think maybe she believed that this media, this documentary, would have a different kind of approach to this issue. That trust was between us, and that was probably the reason why she choose to do the film with me, I think. And that was the start of this documentary. That different approach was to portray them a little bit more like a comedy, and a bit more in a funny and enjoyable way. Not like a victim.

Hyung-sook: I made a very  brave decision to be in the film. I was the only one who didn’t want to use mosaic (which covers the identity). And I had seen many cases in the media in which single mums are depicted in a negative way here in Korea, and when I heard about this project from Yeon-ah I suspected the different approach and liked the approach of comic touches and the very enjoyable way of presenting. But also at the time I was running a little shop, but people got to know I am a single mum and because of that I had to close the shop. I couldn’t run it anymore because people were treating me as if I was a sick person, or as if I’m a bad person, and people that I knew such as family members, as soon as they found out that I am a single mum they assumed I would call them more (for help). It was a really stressful situation and I wasn’t ready to receive it. Having a child and raising it, why is it a problem to them? What’s wrong with that? I thought that by making this film maybe something could change. I expected a big change from making this film, but not yet. That’s how I started this project. And also another reason why I wanted to be in this project was because it was a rare project as the director told me it would have no altering, and I would be there with my own voice and my own face, which is not how the mainstream media usually depicts single mums. Most of them are not willing to speak out. But  this was different.

Director Paik: I think it’s a rare opportunity, and special too, to have a screening with an audience with different backgrounds because in some of your countries the situation is much better, and this is quite a Korean situation. Why is the single mum issue such a difficult issue? This is the reality we have. So I’m interested to listen to your responses as well. Please feel free to ask or share your comments.

Jun-seo and Hyung-sook within Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마)

Jun-seo and Hyung-sook within Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마)

Question: I was wondering if Hyung-sook has ever confronted any of her friends for treating her that way when they found out she was an unmarried single mum?

Hyung-sook: There are many cases where I had to confront other people about the fact that I am a single mother, and raising a child by myself. But there were cases where people would directly confront me about this issue. But this whole life is like fighting against the world, I think. Living as a single mum feels like that most of the time. At first, when I had Jun-seo (her son), I think until he was four years old I was really occupied with making my life, working and raising him, so I didn’t realise it that much. But after he got a little older and when I had to meet mothers in kindergarten, (I realised) it’s not just about me but it’s also about him. I’m a grown-up, so I can cry or forget about it or say something like “damn!” to make myself feel better. But for him it’s much more difficult, so that’s why he’s getting therapy and psychiatric help these days. So we are living through the situation together. It’s not just about one person, the whole life of a single mother is like that.

Question: Congratulations on such a great documentary. Really well made, wonderful subjects.  I’m the son of a single mum too and I could really feel (the message), and I really admire what you’re doing as a single mum as it must be incredibly hard. My former school was in the countryside area and a lot of my students had been abandoned by one or both of their parents and they had then gone on to make a new family so a lot of my kids were a bit troubled. But then I moved into the inner cities and that didn’t exist, it was all the ‘perfect’ family unit. The single parent children had been pushed to the fringes of society. With your documentary are you hoping to change attitudes? What would you like to see change in Korean society now?

Director Paik: Thank you first for your comments. First, maybe I should explain a little bit about the difference between English and Korean about (the term) ‘single mum’. In English we usually say ‘single mum’, but as you can see in the film it is actually translated as ‘unwed mother’. Which sort of reveals the prejudice against single mums already. I think there is this kind of tendency in our society to specify people like that so we’re not saying ‘single mum’ which can include several cases such as maybe the father died ahead of the mother, or divorced, or not married. ‘Single mum’ can be all these kinds of cases. But in Korean we usually call them ‘unwed mother’. So by specifying people in this manner, it seems to me like dividing people into ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ in a sense. So by using the words ‘unwed mother’ it kind of reveals the idea that it’s not normal to be a mother when you’re not married. And that is based on the tendency that people are not accepting difference. We don’t have this tolerance, in a sense, and I think people are intolerant about this difference. So that’s why I think we should be able to accept and embrace these kinds of differences. That’s part of the reason why I made this film. And it’s also the goal of single mums. I think everyone of us can have a case where I myself can become an object of these kinds of prejudices. So I think it’s really important to be free of these kinds of prejudice for all people in society. And do to that, I think the idea that a family should consist of a father, mother and son and daughter makes a ‘normal’ family, that kind of idea should be avoided now I think, because we live in a much more complicated society. And I think through making this film I want to depict that kind of controversy in Korea that we have. The reality that we have.

Single mothers gather to discuss their experiences

Single mothers gather to discuss their experiences

Question: (N.B. This question could be interpreted as quite offensive towards single mothers, although it could perhaps be due to poor English language ability). I want to know more about Korean culture. I want to know why these kinds of accidents happen. Why are the father’s parents are not doing anything? Are the relatives not pushing them to avoid such bad cases? What about society? What about religion or culture? Does society show any pressure to avoid those kinds of things? Is Korean culture and society strong enough to prevent those things happening? There should be culture or ethics in society to prevent [this issue].

Director Paik: I don’t really understand what you mean by ‘accident’. Do you mean becoming a single mother is an accident?

(The question was then rephrased into a question about the father’s responsibility).

Hyung-sook: In general in Korea, I think the society is much more generous to men about being not responsible. In our culture we are much more generous to men even though they are not being responsible.  And so you can sue them, and get some money every month for the child and  try to make him responsible, but most of us already know that it’s no use. You can try, but a lot of us single mums know that it’s not really working. So I think we need stronger legal restrictions, on certain kinds of irresponsibility. We don’t have it yet. So I think like in other countries, it’s possible to have money transferred as soon as the [ex-partner] received his salary, if I can get that legally, or if we had that kind of system it would be much easier. But up until now, it’s not possible so that’s a tricky part. Also in our society, it’s more usual to have pre-marital sex. But having a child is a different issue. If you are pregnant and not married yet, young women are told they should get married with (the partner) and make a family. So having a child out of marriage is still very difficult here in Korea. Not many people welcome you. So a lot of young woman have to think that if they are pregnant they have to get married. That’s how it works. It’s a very tricky situation for them. If you have a child before or out of marriage it seems in this society that the prejudice is that it’s the woman’s fault and it’s unethical, in a sense. So that kind of atmosphere is pressure for women in Korean society. But nowadays times are changing, and a lot of women don’t really want to get married. To quote many women, marriage is not the ultimate goal at all. But [they are] responsible for their actions and when they have a child, that’s why so many women are becoming single mums in Korea. And I think there will be more and more, and I think it’ll be ok if single mums in this society can be included as a mum, as a woman, as a person who works for their livelihood. Just to be received like that would be ok. But up to now we still have to fight a lot of prejudice. If single mums can be embraced by society like that, like a person who’s working hard and having a child, having that kind of change is what we need. It’s necessary to bring up my child well, because all the pressure is going to the child as well. To conclude, the man is the problem! I’m really really curious to know the mental structure of a Korean man, and what’s wrong with them. I really think they need to be fixed. Totally. Seriously!

 – the question then continued – What about the child’s father’s parents?

Hyung-sook: Well I basically asked the father of my child he should be a father, and to do all the roles that a dad should do. Because it could really hurt my son, I think, because they have a relationship already. If he one day just disappeared, that will really hurt my son. So I asked him to keep that relationship of father and son, and do what he should do. It’s quite important I think, especially because he’s a son and he needs a dad, in a sense. I think it’s not just about money, it’s about bringing up a child together. Not living together, or getting married, but bringing up a child together. So we agreed to that. But at first the parents asked us to get married because we have a child, but because of our agreement they gave up. But they asked me a lot of things, for example please change his family name to the father’s family name. It’s usually the father’s side that you get the family name, even in Western society, and in Korea too. They asked that a lot, but I never said yes to that request. In the end, they told me that I am really something, and they are not asking that anymore. But the relationship is good now, not that bad, I think it’s quite good. The relationship between the parents [of the father] and my son is now quite ok, because he’s not just my son, he’s the son of his father as well. I totally accept that. I want him to have a father as well.

The subject of men is debated - are they needed?

The subject of men is debated – are they needed?

Question: I just wanted to say I really loved your movie. I think everyone should watch this movie. Personally, I’m from Canada and I have a very good friend that’s a single mother, so I know through being friend’s with her about her struggles. I think documentaries like this show single mothers as everyday people, and that they’re not abnormal. I also personally volunteered at an orphanage here in Korea and it’s really heart breaking that these children are abandoned by their mothers. So this movie really touched me because I think children should have at least one parent. I really think a lot has to be done about this situation. I just wanted to know, because I’m a teacher, what I can do to better this situation. How can teachers better support mothers and [their] children? It’s heart-breaking to know one of your students can be an outcast for having a single mum. As a teacher, how can we better support them?

Director Paik: As you can see in the film, when there was a campaign for adoption, and I think until about ten years ago that was the atmosphere of our society, to encourage adoption to solve the problem of orphans, to find them parents. But nowadays I think it is slowly changing, to give more support for single parents. Not for adoption, but to enlarge the support for the single parent. So that’s slightly changing. And to support the original family, because a lot of single parents give up – especially single mothers – give up their child because they don’t have the courage or because it is too difficult to live as a single mum. But now I think it is changing a little bit. Even the government policies are changing towards that kind of policy, like to support single parents financially and to have a different kind of atmosphere in society by supporting them. I hope it will change more in that direction. So if single mothers and single fathers get the support they need and get the support to bring up their child, that will change a lot of things including adoption and orphanage problems as well. I think the change is going in a quite positive direction these days. And the question you asked, because you are teacher, you feel more responsible about these children who are from single parents, and I think the situation that you mentioned is similar to what Jun-seo is going through now, so I’m sure that Hyung-sook has a lot of things to say about that.

Hyung-sook: I stopped working – I quit my job – to spend more time with Jun-seo. Before the film I wasn’t really shy to talk about these issues even in other media, but after this film was released, more and more people got to know about my situation and it was known more to the people at school. And Jun-seo got more and more questions about his mother and he told me that everybody is asking. His friends are eight years old and they don’t understand what ‘unwed mother’ even means, and what it really means to have a child outside of the marriage system. But they are asking him, almost everyday, “Is your mother an unwed mother?” They kept asking that so he got really stressed about it. That’s why he’s undergoing a very hard time these days. And I realised that he is talking less and less to me, and he doesn’t want to have a conversation with me, and he eats too much, and that’s how I found out that he’s having a very difficult time. I told Jun-seo, “Jun-seo, I am a single mum, I am an unwed mother, you know that.” And he told me that he knows, and it’s not the fact that they are asking him ‘do you have an unwed mother?’ that bothers him, it’s that they keep asking everyday. That’s what bothers him. It’s ok to ask him once, but they ask all the time and that’s really stressful. And it’s so stressful that my eight year old son told me that maybe it’s better to die than live. It’s such a huge stress to him. And I talked to Jun-seo’s teacher, and the teacher told me that [he/she] will definitely say something to the children. But that was it. So I was just thinking maybe there are not many things that a teacher can do, because I didn’t get a lot of help for that situation. So I can only hope that the world will changes a little bit faster, and to become a better world for my son to live as a single mother’s child. I really hope the changes are coming faster. One thing I can hope for is for a certain kind of education about the situation of single mums in Korea, that will probably improve the situation a little bit more. If we have these opportunities for education for the children, because they are too young usually [to understand], but also for parents and for teachers who possibly have prejudice about single mothers and their children. So I think it’s really important to have the opportunity to have that education about different types of families. There was one case where I met Jun-seo’s friend and I told him, when he asking me, “Are you an unwed mother?”, I answered, “Yes, I am.” But I told him that his mother and me are the same, that’s what I explained. But I cannot do that every time. And recently Jun-seo had a little bruise from the ice, which was thrown by one of his schoolmates because he kept asking Jun-seo, “Do you have an unwed mother?” And Jun-seo got angry and said stop that, and that’s when the boy threw the ice. I really broke my heart. That’s why I hope the world should change. And as for teachers, I think it would help to tell the single parent child that they are not different, and I know other school mates are telling [you things], but it’s no big deal. You’re just like them. And to be there for them in that kind of situation, and maybe hug him. Just let him [or her] know that they are not different. In other countries children can have quite open conversations about these kinds of issues, but here it’s still quite rare.

Director Paik Yeon-ah (right) shares her thoughts with the Indieplus translator

Director Paik Yeon-ah (right) shares her thoughts with the Indieplus translator

Director Paik’s closing comments: It was really precious time for me to have this kind of time with you. As a filmmaker who made this film, I feel more and more responsible, not only about this film but to make a better world in a sense, because that was part of the reason I made this film. So I’m not sure how much I can contribute to the change of this world, but I hope I can. To do that I’d like to try community screenings as well, after all the screenings are over in the theater, so we are trying to organise community screenings. We are also trying to do that in a co-operative program with the association for single mothers. It’s an educational program to go and meet people in person, and to educate about the situation of single mothers life and their rights. So we are going to do that with the association, and we are going to try and arrange more community screenings. And Hyung-sook mentioned about having educational programs for parents, teachers and grown-ups as well. It would be really great to have more and more opportunities to watch this film and discuss these issues about single parents. Especially to have that kind of opportunity with parents would be really great and maybe that will contribute a little bit for change. I think it’s necessary. I feel really obliged that I should do this more actively, I should do more as the person who made this film. The people who are in the film – including Hyung-sook – they [found] the courage to come out and speak in this film, so I feel more responsible, that I should make the most out of it, and to contribute more to the change.

Thank you to Indieplus for hosting the screening, and thank you to Director Paik Yeon-ah and Hyung-sook for generously giving their time and answers.

Directors Interviews/Q&As

Red Maria (레드 마리아) screening and Q&A with Director Kyung Soon (경순)

Red Maria (레드 마리아)The Women’s Global Solidarity Network hosted a special event on Saturday the 8th of December at the Columban Mission Center in Seoul – a screening of documentary Red Maria (레드 마리아), as well as a Q&A session with director Kyung Soon (경순).

Red Maria, for the uninitiated, is a documentary addressing the plight of ‘labor’ amongst a selection of women in Korea, Japan, and The Philippines. Director Kyung Soon highlights how while the women in each respective country lead quite radically different lives, they are all subject to the same restrictions imposed upon them by patriarchy. Within The Philippines, women who are involved in the sex trade, families living in the slums, and elderly women who came forward about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, are interviewed. In Japan, homeless women, care-workers, and those unjustly fired are profiled. Within Korea, female protestors, immigrant wives, and sex workers lives are conveyed. Throughout the broad selection of female lives that are documented, director Kyung Soon establishes not only the incredibly difficult situations forced upon them by patriarchal culture, but also – and perhaps more importantly – how the women find the strength and courage to fight their battles and improve their lives.

Before the film began, the director told the audience she wanted to explore the idea of women’s labor and the labels ascribed to them, and asked those in attendance to consider these areas when watching. Interestingly, she also stated that Red Maria is not a typically ‘kind’ film in reference to the themes explored within and also the critiques of patriarchal culture.

Director Kyung Soon introduces 'Red Maria' (레드 마리아)

Director Kyung Soon introduces ‘Red Maria’ (레드 마리아)

The documentary was well received by the audience, and director Kyung Soon graciously answered questions from the audience following the screening. Her answers were very kindly translated by members of the Women’s Global Solidarity Network.

Question: Thank you for making such a moving film. What is the significance of the belly (a recurring motif within Red Maria)? Why not the hand, or something?

Director Kyung Soon: When I was young, I was actually very interested in bellies. In Korea, we have the public bath house culture, so when I was young there were not many separate shower rooms. We had a special day for going to the bath house, and when I went there I could see all the ranges of women in terms of age. From grandmothers to really young women, I could see them all naked. When I saw my grandmother’s and mother’s belly and body it was really fun for me to touch them because they were so soft and funny feeling. As I grow older, whenever I go to the public bath house and see young women’s bellies,  I feel very sad. When I was young bellies to me meant a warm place, but nowadays it’s like a shameful part of the body. So now you see in modern Korea, in terms of dieting, women are trying to get rid of their bellies. Even though it’s a part of their body, they actually try hard to get rid of it. So when I see that kind of culture, I feel very angry about it. I still enjoy going to the bath house, but now when I see women’s bellies I feel angry about them. In my opinion, the reason why a woman is a woman is because of her belly, and how a man becomes a man is because of the penis. But men don’t do anything else with their bellies, relatively speaking, compared to a woman. Actually I think a woman’s labor starts with their belly as it is connected to the uterus and vagina. For example when we have a period this is something we need to do, and also it’s a special thing to do, but actually no-one cares or talks about this as labor. Then having sex, and delivery babies and having abortions, these are all connected to the belly and women’s labor. But with this kind of labor women can’t get any benefits in terms of money. So of course people labor with their hands, but I think fundamentally we need to look at our bellies and what bellies actually mean for our lives and how they define labor.

Question: What was your reason for choosing those three countries in particular? What did you see as the underlying connection between Korea, Japan and The Philippines?

Director Kyung Soon: Before I made Red Maria my previous work was Shocking Family (쇼킹 패밀리). It was about criticizing the concept of the Korean family. So through this film I showed the women’s role within the family, within the patriarchal culture in Korea. And for that film I was invited to Japan a lot. Before that I didn’t have many chances to go to Japan, but because of this movie I was invited 7 or 6 times and through these kinds of events I met a lot of Japanese women. As I met a lot of Japanese women I was quite shocked to find the reality they faced in their own country. In Korea when we talk about the low birth rate, the Korean media always describes Japan as a very successful country that got over the low birth rate. But what I found out was that these Japanese women had the same problems that Korean women face. Also in Japan, even though it is a very wealthy country there is a really strong social order in Japan and that kind of culture makes women feel very suffocated. So when Japanese women go on strike or struggle in their work places or with their family they don’t have the spaces to make or build solidarity with other people. So when you see my film you can see Sato, the Japanese woman who was working hard, struggling and on strike by herself. What I actually saw in Japan was that they need some communication channels among people – among women – who are struggling. What I felt as I met these women, whether they live in wealthy countries or poor countries their problems are very similar and they share a lot of common things in terms of their struggles. Maybe there are some differences, for example if you are living in a wealthy country you might wear more expensive clothing, or eating better food, but  still I think the fundamental problems women share are very common. And the reason I chose the three countries are that you can see the poor countries and the wealthy countries at the same time based on the women’s labors. We can see their problems within the specific country’s cultural context, so that’s why I chose these three countries. And I also think women’s lives have not been dramatically changed except for the invention of the electronic cooker and washing machine. The reason that I chose The Philippines was because although there are a lot of migrant women who came to live in Korea, I actually found many of them were Filipino. So I didn’t really know much about The Philippines. But in 2007 I went to The Philippine and lived there for a year, and to learn their culture and study. From 2008 I started filming this film. And also when you are watching you can see these three countries share a similar history, for example how Korea was colonized and The Philippines was effected by the imperialism, and you can see the female victims of the war.

Director Kyung Soon answers questions from the audience

Director Kyung Soon answers questions from the audience

Question: First I’d like to thank you for the film, I really enjoyed it. One of things I found interesting was how it is difficult to gain self-realization through work. As a female laborer, I thought you showed the difficulties well how difficult it is to gain self-realization through labor. Because the work we can do, the work we want to do, is very limited. But at the same time, it might actually be a common problem for all the people who work in this world. So in that context, what do you think about this kind of problem?

Director Kyung Soon: As capitalism grows bigger and bigger, and the internet becomes really accessible don’t we share a lot of information together? But I think it’s very much marginalizing the actual problem. You can see all the incidents, events and access all the information easily. There are so many things of interest. Is this something you need to seriously consider or think about? For example, what does ‘liberal’ mean? What does the term mean to us? We rarely think about labor. When we look for the definition of ‘labor’ in the dictionary it is defined based on payment without really considering what labor really means. So when you think about labor in this way, you can look back and think about the labor that you were doing that didn’t involve getting paid. Then in this context, or this definition, we can’t enlarge the meaning of labor. So if labor is only based on payment, or the amount of payment, then if you earn a lot of money you might think that you reached the top of self-realization earlier than other people. But if you earn five grand a month or a grand a month, people still face the same difficulties. Because the person who earns five grand tries to pay off their mortgage debt, but the person who earns a grand a month have to pay their monthly bill for their house. So I actually think everyone is getting poorer in this society. I think we can’t just divide people like this. I think we are all connected. What I want to say is that self-realization can’t be measured based on the payment you receive from work. I think the answer that I want to show through the film is that we should make the world for the people who only earn a grand but that they are still able to gain their self-realization. The way each person lives seems very challenging within society but I think it’s a very fundamental question you need to ask yourselves. One thing that I want to add here is that in Korea we have a proverb that unemployed people can die due to overworking and stress, which means that even though they are unemployed they still have a lot of things to do. Which shows that being unemployed is only based on capitalism. So you don’t get any money, but you still do a lot of things. For example, people can volunteer. They don’t get paid to do that, but actually through volunteering they can gain self-realization. Therefore if we only look at labor in relation to payment or money, you can’t enlarge the meaning of the word ‘labor’ anymore. So this capitalist society drives the people not to ask this kind of question about labor, only to think about labor in relation to payment.

Thank you to Mik young Kim and the other members of the Women’s Global Solidarity Network for hosting the event, and to the Columban Mission Center for providing the venue.

Directors Interviews/Q&As