Female and male filmmakers from Korea and their films in the #MeToo era

I had the privilege to meet and interview three South Korean filmmakers - female director Hyun-Young CHOI ("Memories of a Dead End"), female producer Lee Eun-kyung ("Memories of a Dead End") and male director Deok-jae JEONGHUH ("The Pension"). Their films were shown in Chicago as part of the Asian Pop Up Cinema. This was my first time talking to Korean filmmakers and I learned a lot from my conversation with them and also seeing their films. I learned about their culture, love, patience and what it is like to be a filmmaker in Korea during the #MeToo movement.

The first film I saw was based of a Japanese novel "Memories of a Dead End" by Banana Yoshimoto. It was a beautiful and elegant co-production between Korea and Japan and it featured a female director, a female producer and a female lead actress - all South Korean. The film was about a South Korean woman whose fiance falls in love with a Japanese woman and how the break up leads her journey to self-love, discovery and healing as she meets a great Japanese friend in Nagoya.

What shook me about the story is that the painful betrayal portrayed didn't feature any violence, alcohol or drug use, or even confrontation - it was like nothing I have ever seen before - a painful journey of the main character in her own healing process without the extra stuff we usually see on TV characters resort to. It taught me that pain and break up can be a beautiful and elegant experience that leads to self-transformation rather than self-distraction and that you can move on from the people that hurt you without resorting to violence but simply walking away and starting over. As I was stunned by this story and how beautifully it was done I spoke with the female director and producer about it.

From left to right: female director Hyun-Young CHOI and female producer Lee Eun-kyung
Photo credit: APUC Festival photographer Dan Hannula

Tell me about your personal break up experience that you used in the film?
Director CHOI- Male or female everyone has experienced some sort of a break up. When I went through a break up I got a lot of help and love from a lot of people. When I was making this film I purposely did not use alcohol and smoking as a way of dealing with break up because that was my experience. I didn't have to resort to it. I wanted to make a movie where people resort to other things and without these things. 

Why such an elegant break up with no violence or confrontation? Is this part of the Asian culture? 
Director CHOI - We had a lot of discussion with directors and staff members how you deal with a break up. Personally, I would not have been so civil. I would have screamed. I don't believe it is the culture. It is a personal feeling. This couple has been together for four years. The main character had to deal with the pain without resorting to strong action. After discussing with the actress we decided to use this kind of reaction over some other. 

Producer Lee - In the original novel there is no violence or strong behavior. In the original novel the main character is a Japanese woman and we switched the main character to a Korean woman. We wanted to keep a reserved woman who expresses her real feelings in a reserved way as we wanted to preserve the tone of the original novel. 

Korean actress Sooyoung CHOI in the role of Yumi 

Why did you decide to make her Korean? It is an interesting relationship between Japan and Korea - what is the message with that relationship? 
Director CHOI -  This movie has been planned as a Japanese and Korean collaboration from the beginning. We decided to hire Korean actors and a Korean director and producer. The relationship between Korea and Japan is common. A lot of Koreans go to Japan to study the language and a lot of Japanese go to Korea to study Korean. This type of films are not very common and this story is not easy to find and we think it is very meaningful. 

Producer Lee - The original novelist is very popular in Spain. Her novels are shared all over the world. We intended to make a Korean movie out of it and we naturally picked a Korean actress. At the end it became a Japanese and Korean collaboration. I wanted to interpret the novel from a Korean perspective. 

Tell me about the cast? How difficult was to find a Korean actress who speaks Japanese? 
Producer Lee- We had a deadline to complete the film. If the actress didn't speak Japanese it would have been hard to communicate with the actor. I was thinking who can speak Japanese and be in their late 20s and is good at acting. The director thought of the same actress and dreamed of her. She can speak Japanese and is well-known in Japan. The male lead also has a lot of fan base in Nagoya. He used to be a boy band member. He is the type that Korean women like. There are two types of Japanese actors - one type Japanese like but not popular in Korea and vice versa. Tanaka is a type that Korean women like. When the Japanese team recommended him I approved him.  A lot of Japanese pop artists wear colorful outfits and could be viewed as cheap to Koreans but are popular in Japan. Korean  prefer natural looking actors. In Japan women like skinny men but Tanaka is the opposite of that. Also the Miso sandwich is not in the original novel but we thought about what product to sell and Nagoya is famous for miso so we created the miso sandwich. 

From left to right: Sooyoung CHOI and Shunsuke TANAKA

Tell me about what is it like being female filmmakers in Korea? 
Director CHOI - There are a lot of challenges for female filmmakers in Korea. For this project I was chosen because I was a female. I wonder would I have had this type of opportunity again... As a female director this was very important for me. As a female director in Korea the environment is challenging and not a lot of opportunities are given. These days female directors started making variety of genres. In the midst of the #MeToo movement I feel proud to be a female director. 

You will never get this opportunity again...what do you mean by that? 
I shouldn't’ say never but this will be a difficult chance as a female director because this Korean project was not a usual contract. This was a very special event in the film industry. We will see... 

Producer LEE- The situation is even worse in Japan. There has been a lot of Korean filmmakers - female directors and especially female producers in Korea. But the people who are at the top are mostly male and the people who make the decisions are mostly male. We have to focus on what female directors can be good at. We shouldn't care what the male filmmakers require such as be good at drinking. We need to focus on what we are strong at. 

Do you want to crossover and make a film in America or stay and work in Korea? 
Director CHOI- One of the reasons why I kept studying English is because you are catering to Korean public but nowadays the film media has to cater to the whole world. You shouldn't focus on one country as an audience. I want to make a film that expresses a personal emotion, especially with this film. I experienced the American audience and I enjoyed it. I want to take the film to other countries. I want to keep work on cultural exchanges through other countries with film. 

What would you like to say to Korean immigrants in America? 
Director CHOI-  Through history I think Korean culture and society are more and more exposed to America and it is an important bridge - easy to communicate with Americans. 

Producer Lee - As a filmmaker I believe that it will be hard to understand the story if you don't have the cultural knowledge and background and can be very superficial and the film can be pointless. The film naturally connected two cultures and I really enjoyed and believe the audiences did too. I came to Chicago and met with Korean-American people. I can see that their perspective and thinking is different and if I made a Korean-American character who lives in Chicago as a main character I can express it but since I don't live here I can make a misunderstanding. It is very important to experience various culture and exchanges. 

I also spoke with "The Pension"s male director Deok-jae JEONGHUH as I wanted to hear his side of the story as a male filmmaker in Korea. He has a long history of making films in Korea and he directed the fourth film in "The Pension," which features four stories: parents coping with their daughter's death, a husband a wife hoping to rekindle their marriage, a woman who insists on staying in a particular room and the substitute manager of the Pension inviting his girlfriend over for the evening. 

Director Deok-jae JEONGHUH

What is it like being a male filmmaker in Korea? 
Director DEOK- Simple answer: I never had to think about what is it like to work as a male director in Korea. I have all the benefits of being a male director because I never have to think about it. I always approach it and see it as work. I never think about it because I am a male director.

Is it easier to find opportunities because you don't have to think about it? 
Generally, I don't have to think about it but if there is an opportunity to make a film like "Memories of a Dead End" I will be excluded. Generally, I don't think about it. 

Tell me about "The Pension" and the four different themes in it? 
Each of the four parts are written by four different directors. "The Pension" is my film and is the last film. 


Tell me about the casting process? 
Each of us brought the story together and it has criminal elements. I started with the space when I wrote it. I was imagining a story that is not mundane but unique and I was thinking about a stranger who came to the Pension and the story developed into a criminal act. I wanted it to be lighthearted. It is short 30 min movie. I wanted to write a lighthearted touch even though the story is serious. Among the list of actors I was able to find the right fit and that's how we started. 

A scene from "The Pension"

What are some of the influences that you have had from American or Korean filmmakers? 
Long time ago I looked up to people but as I have been working as a film director for a long time I don't look up to or follow certain filmmaker and directors. I try to be independent but I am influenced just a little bit. When I finished the screenplay, I realized there are similar elements from "The Usual Suspects" and I borrowed the lead from "The Usual Suspects." 

Do you want to cross over to America or stay in Korea? 
In the film industry Hollywood is the biggest market in the world. Every filmmaker's dream is to work in Hollywood. As of now this is not my immediate goal. If I have to make a collaboration between Korea and Japan it has to be different. At this point I want to build my base in Korea first. In the future opportunities might come more naturally. 

How does "The Pension" show a side of Korea? 
If you go to a Korean pension you usually visit with friends and family. A lot of people drink and play card games. In the four stories "The Pension" excluded the drinking part and I put some criminal elements. In the movie we try to exclude what you would see in a Korean pension. That's why we use criminal elements, something new and unique. In the fourth movie there is a couple who came back to look for a wedding ring. When I worked in a pension before this happened to me and a couple came back looking for their wedding ring. I used the real experiences in that sense. 

A scene from "The Pension"

What have you learned as a filmmaker? What does the Korean audience enjoy the most? 
There has been some changes in the trend. Recently comedy has been a big hit. Before that it was fantasy. If I look back before fantasies and comedies never made it big. There has been a change in the Korean audience. What is fortunate for me is that I like to write different genres and I don't stick to one type. 

Would you create something the Korean audience wants or what you want to show? 
There was one director who directed "The Pension" and he used to say he agonized over the story he wants to tell and the difference between that story and the story the audience wants to hear. For me the story I want to tell hasn't been too different from what they want to hear. 

What other movies are you working on? 
There are several screenplays I have been working on. My goal is to finish those screenplays and make them into movies.

For more on Asian Pop Up Cinema, visit: https://www.asianpopupcinema.org