After his attention-pulling debut A Fish (2011), South Korean film director Park Hong-min returned in 2015 with his second feature Alone that wowed audiences both in Korea and abroad, winning several awards and making rounds on several global film festivals – it is no wonder that the director got invited as a guest to this year’s London Korean Film Festival, where they also screened both of his films. So on a cold mid-November day, we (along with Hangul Celluloid and MyM) sat down with director Park Hong-min and talked about arthouse cinem, his artistic process and the difficulties of the independent filmmaking in South Korea.
Hangul Celluloid: In your first feature, A Fish, the character of the older fisherman is played by Park No-sik who most Korean film fans will instantly recognise from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, where he played a timid, slow-witted young man. How did he come to be involved in your film?
Park Hong-min: When I completed the script for A Fish, I sent it to Park No-sik and shortly after he said he wanted to meet me. After starring in Memories of Murder he was repeatedly asked to play foolish characters and he told me that no-one could see the fire within him. I offered him the role in A Fish and I think that because it wasn’t a foolish role and it would take a relatively short time to film, he accepted the part.
View of the Arts: I have a question about ‘Alone’. Where did the idea for the film come from?
Park Hong-min: The space in Alone is where I live and work and the areas and neighbourhood you see are where I spend a lot of time. After I made A Fish, I spent a lot of time alone there and for the two years prior to Alone I had very little money and that brought a lot of negative thoughts to me. So, I wanted to face that issue by making a film and I wanted to take a familiar space and turn it into something unfamiliar.
MyM: In Alone, Lee Ju-won gives an incredible performance, particularly when he’s talking to the camera. What was it like to work with him and why did you choose him for the role?
Park Hong-min: If I put this in chronological order, I’m close to director Lee Kwang-kuk. He helped me a lot. You’ve probably seen his second feature, A Matter of Interpretation in which Lee Ju-won played two characters. Lee Kwang-kuk knows a lot of theatre actors and I had a good feeling about Lee Ju-won when I watched him perform and so I asked to be introduced to him which led to me offering him the role in Alone.
Hangul Celluloid: If you look at the huge hold that large corporations and conglomerates have on the Korean film industry, can you tell us a little about the problems you faced making small, independent films and indeed getting funding for your projects?
Park Hong-min: That’s a big question. The Korean film industry is currently not very positive. Since 2000, I think a lot of diverse films have been created but now it’s very difficult for even commercial films to be made. If I could briefly summarise how a film in made in Korea:
A director finds a production team and they write a script together. They then approach – often well-known – actors, usually about ten to 15 actors presently, and further work on the script takes place. At that point, the director and the main actor will become almost a team and make approaches for funding. This whole process usually takes between three and five years. So, in effect, if you fail to get funding for two or three projects, ten years can pass before you know it. I know a lot of people from the Directors’ Association who haven’t made a film for ten years.
In terms of independent films, a lot of indie filmmakers spend long periods of time home alone, writing, and often cannot get those films made. However, I feel it’s extremely important to tell stories of these sorts of experiences. For one of my films, I guess I spent £30,000 to £40,000, which is such a small, minimal budget, but it’s a lot of money for me personally. As such, if I were to make a mistake in the process, it would double up and put me in a very difficult position. CJ Entertainment now has arthouse theatres to support arthouse films, but actually what they do is support far bigger budget productions, and for the independent filmmakers who are not part of this game, it is now even harder to showcase our work, because non-CJ arthouse theatres are closing, so there is virtually no platform for small-budget, independent films in Korea at present.
Even within the independent film industry, though you see seemingly independent works backed and created by KOFA and KAFA etc., they are not truly self-organised projects. So there is a struggle for independent directors and if they do showcase their first films through KOFA or universities, it is actually really hard for them to film truly independently again, afterwards.
The issue with film academy education, for example, is that a lot of the professors who teach are actually commercial filmmakers, so they tend to teach the successful, commercial film “formula” and as such, all the creativity gets filtered rather than being encouraged. I think for me personally, the difference between commercial films and auteur or diversity films is that commercial films try to fit within an already determined formula or goal, while auteur films encourage far newer and innovative ideas and personal interest can be more easily included. The problem with the KOFA education system is that those directors are taught to ask what the audience will like rather than asking questions for themselves. So, there is a kind of confusion in independent filmmaking. For me, the audience is a ghost. I feel I can never really know my own mind so how could I possibly know the minds of the masses? I far prefer to go into my own inner self.
View of the Arts: Continuing on that subject, do you see yourself staying with the arthouse or could you ever be tempted into the mainstream?
Park Hong-min: For me to make a film, I really need to find something that interests me and of course I have a responsibility when I receive funding to make a film. If I was to just pursue money-making or fame, I wouldn’t be interested in making films so it’s not really whether I want to make independent or commercial films, it’s rather than there has to be an issue I want to explore.
MyM: You’ve said that in your films you want to explore your inner self and when working on A Fish and getting inspiration for Alone it was all related to the dark thoughts you were having. How did the roles of the girlfriend, the mother and the child in Alone come into that? What did they represent?
Park Hong-min: I had what you might call a “tiger” father, he was quite an angry man, and because of that, my mum suffered and went through difficult times. After making A Fish, I too had a hard time and I almost felt I was acting in a similar way to my dad, expressing anger towards people around me. So, I’ve thought a lot about my mum and how she would have felt at the time. When she fell ill and had to stay in bed for a month, she couldn’t cook for me and I was really angry but looking back, I realize she must have been so lonely. My dad was employed by a very good company but he didn’t actually graduate from a good school, so he must have had a hard time at work, too, perhaps even being bullied, and I feel that might have caused him to express his anger at home. I don’t think it was fair, but maybe we were all trying to express out loneliness. Maybe issues such as these shouldn’t be looked at just in terms or ourselves, but in relation to a larger social structure.
Hangul Celluloid: There is a scene towards the end of A Fish where the main male character looks in a broken mirror and sees the reflection of his wife. In trying to figure out how that visual was created, I considered angles but the mirror looked so face-on to the camera, and at the same time, it looked too real to be CGI on a small budget. How was that scene created?
Park Hong-min: Yes, it was real – I just angled it very, very carefully and took an insane amount of time making sure it was absolutely perfect. There is actually one CGI shot I did use in that scene where he puts his hand up to the mirror – its reflection has to be removed, but when the characters make eye contact, that was all real. I was really compulsive in regards to that scene, but hopefully in a good way.
View of the Arts: Continuing on the technical aspects, in Alone you used a lot of long takes, there are 37 in total I believe. Why was that?
Park Hong-min: When I was planning the film, I had so many thoughts in my head and I felt it could only work if I approached it as a stream of consciousness. So it was important for the camera to chase after that consciousness and that naturally led to the long takes.
MyM: A Fish is in 3D and it’s home-made 3D. How did you achieve that on such a small budget?
Park Hong-min: When I first started thinking about A Fish, I didn’t plan to have it in 3D. Many people claim 3D is super-realistic but I never felt that it seemed real and since A Fish deals with both fantasy and reality, 3D seemed to me to perfectly accent that contrast. 3D gives a sort of manipulated feel, so I wanted to play with it and in doing so, I gradually got into it to the point where I couldn’t get out of it. In post production, I locked myself in a room to work on it and like a child I just didn’t leave my room. It was so, so tough. Because I wasn’t familiar with the technique and I work very slowly, it took me a long time. When the film was invited to BIFF, one company really liked it and decided to help me out. So, some parts of the film were in collaboration with that company. That company also helped me on aspects of Alone.
Hangul Celluloid: There have been a fair few recent films dealing with aspects of shamanism. Some have used traditional singers in the roles while others have used actors. Were the main shamans in A Fish real shamans, singers or actors? And was visiting and watching the shamans where the whole idea for A Fish came from or did you already have a story which you fitted the idea of shamanism into?
Park Hong-min: The lady who played the main shaman is called Kim Yeong-ja and she is a professional Pansori, traditional Korean singer. She actually assisted a real shaman for a long time so she really understood the rituals and the shamans’ function. The story of A Fish came from a photograph I saw. In Korea, shamans are seen almost as exorcists and are often even portrayed as forceful, even kind of scary, as you’ll see in their portrayal in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, for example. However, the photograph I saw was of a Jindo ritual where the shaman collects a soul from the sea to clean it and send it on its way to the afterlife. The shaman performing this ritual was wearing very white clothing and using a kind of collecting device to collect the soul, and all in all it looked so peaceful. That for me was very impressive and original and it’s also very Korean. As such I felt drawn to visiting Jindo and seeing the shamans in person. Also, often shamans do not specifically chose to become shamans, they are instead called by the powers that be, if you will. So, in a way they have to go through a process of self-healing before they can help others and that idea really moved me. In A Fish, in contrast to the shamans, the fishermen stand for me, and all of my self-doubts.
View of the Arts: Are you already working on your next film?
Park Hong-min: Yes, I currently have a small project in mind that is very personal to me. Actually, in two weeks’ time Alone will be released in Korea, and I think I’m going to apply to the APM market in Busan for funding, but if that is unsuccessful, I have other ways of sorting out any problems, so I’ll hopefully be able to undertake the project.
MyM: Both your films deal with deep, psychological ideas. Why are you particularly interested in those themes?
Park Hong-min: When I start a project and start writing, I always start with an analysis of my own emotions from the beginning to the end … the cause and effect, if you like. At that point, I try to figure out how those emotions can be weaved as a story. So, for me it’s all very natural.
Interviewed by View of the Arts (Sanja Struna), MyM, Hangul Celluloid.
Questions for View of the Arts by Maggie Goggler and Sanja Struna
Transcription by Paul Quinn
Edited by Sanja Struna
Photos of Park Hong-min © Sanja Struna
Photos of Alone © Alone