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