Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) – ★★★★☆

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) is a wonderfully moving and understated short film, and certainly the best of director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 trilogy comprised of White Night (백야) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). In each segment of the trilogy the theme of two men spending a prolonged period of time together in a day is explored, with Suddenly, Last Summer exploring this dynamic between thirty-something high school teacher Kyeong-hoon (경훈, Kim Yeong-jae (김영재) and student Sang-woo (상우, Han Joo-wan (한주완). Typically films that delve into such age and society-related relationships attempt to portray a morality tale of some sort, yet director Leesong eschews melodramatic cliches in order to convey a psychologically complex connection between the protagonists, emerging as a mature and thought-provoking examination on the subject.

Key to the potency of Suddenly, Last Summer is the manner in which director Leesong presents information about the relationship between Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo, and how such revelations develop their connection. Initially Sang-woo, an attractive young gay student, appears to be infatuated with the teacher, stalking him and making unfair demands. Yet as they engage in various conversations throughout the day, moments from the past are subtly referenced adding layers upon layers of complexity to their relationship, discussing and debating prior actions that may or may not have contained deeper meanings and the inferences generated from them. Director Leesong refuses to either condone or condemn the protagonists, instead opting to examine their internal struggles between desires as gay men and societal responsibilities.

The psychological complexities of he relationship are subtly explored

The psychological complexities of the relationship are subtly explored

Director Leesong’s films always display a keen artistic sensibility, and with Suddenly, Last Summer this most notably appears through the repetition of water imagery. In taking a river cruise in the popular Yeouido area, Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo open themselves to the tranquil beauty of the water, ebbing and flowing against a romantic-charged soundtrack. The blue tones of the Han River also work well in conjunction with the protagonists’ shirts. The pure white that envelops Sang-woo conveys his purity and innocence, his single-minded approach to life, yet Kyeong-hoon’s blue shirt connotes an older, more mature persona. The actors wonderfully articulate such sensibilities through their performances, with Kim Yeong-jae providing a highly effective and restrained performance as the morally-conflicted teacher, palpably displaying his discontent facially. Meanwhile Han Joo-wan connotes his youthful frustrations well, flitting between moments of maturity and adolescence in expressing his desires.

Despite their differing styles, both men clearly harbour a similar emotional discord which unites them, even though society states it is inappropriate. Their confusion is wonderfully articulated through the labyrinthine landscape of the apartment buildings, with the many twists and turns articulating their own psychological dilemmas. It is this moral and psychological complexity that makes Suddenly, Last Summer such a compelling film, and a welcome entry into Korean queer cinema.

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Verdict:

Suddenly, Last Summer is a subtle and moving exploration of the relationship between a high school teacher and student. Director Leesong Hee-il delicately inserts information throughout that continually evolves the connection between them, challenging preconceptions while never adopting a moral position, and as such is the best film in the director’s 2012 trilogy.

★★★★☆

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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