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?
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?
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.
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.
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.