Lee Wan-min is a young South Korean film director; after directing several shorts, including Chima (2006), Mensrea (2008), Sang (2009) and Mock or Die (2010), she presented her first feature, Jamsil (2016), for the first time to the audience at the 21st Busan International Film Festival last year; the film was also screened in the Women’s Voices strand of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
Kim Sae-byuk is an actress who is becoming increasingly popular – just at this year’s London Korean Film Festival, 3 different film productions that she starred are being screened, including the opening film The Day After (2017), and the closing film The First Lap (2017). A few years ago, the audience at London Korean Film Festival was able to watch her in A Midsummer’s Fantasia (2015), and she also appeared in a few mainstream film productions, such as Tazza-The Hidden Card (2014). She also appeared in Jamsil, and both her and director Lee Wan-min sat down with us for a group interview and they kindly answered a few of our questions.
Mini Mini Movies (to director Lee Wan-min): I saw ‘Jamsil’ twice last year and I was really struck by the film’s colours, the political elements used and also the friendship of the two girls. I’d like to talk about the colours: You chose to make flashback scenes vibrant with colour while present day scenes are almost black and white. What was the reason for that choice?
Lee Wan-min: The reason the present day scenes are almost black and white with low colour saturation is because that’s how I remembered them, and the reason the past is so vibrant is because the colours speak of nostalgia. During the film-making process, I realised the past era is like a dream or rather somewhat of a fantasy and that’s why I wanted this production to have elements that actually seem artificial in a way, in the way the main character remembers. I ultimately wanted to say that our dreams are our fantasies.
Hangul Celluloid (to director Lee Wan-min): Considering the continuing and increasing hold that large corporations and film studios have on the Korean cinema industry – which is still very much male dominated – I’d like to ask: As a female director of a small, independent film, what were the main difficulties you faced in making ‘Jamsil’, securing funding and ultimately getting the film screened?
Lee Wan-min: The thing about independent films is that a lot of the filming and editing is managed by the director and you’re not regulated in how you are going to express core aspects. That’s why in the future I’ll continue to shoot and make independent films. In terms of funding, well, because of that it’s really important that there is a public structure to fund these types of films but as you may know there are a lot of problems within that structure presently. There has been a blacklist of certain artists in Korea for the past few years and while I’m not specifically saying that I have been disadvantaged by it personally, it has been there and affecting everyone in the industry, nonetheless. Also the funding structure means there is the problem of how independent film-makers can continue to earn a living when they’re not in production and that is a problem that continually affects both me and my colleagues as well as my fellow artists. This film I undertook without any outside funding, and I raised the minimum amount required to go into production myself beforehand. As such, there were aspects of the production that had to be adapted to keep in line with the film’s minimal budget. However, the most difficult part of the whole issue is trying to ensure the minimum wage can be paid to the staff and indeed the actors. There were yet more things we had to cut down and cut back on to be able to do that. Because independent films tend to strive for a certain goal or go in a certain direction, the difficulty in funding almost creates a self-paradox. That I have to say was insanely difficult, as was trying to make sure that neither I nor the film fell into, or suffered because of, that self-paradox.
Hangul Celluloid (to actress Kim Sae-byuk): With independent films facing such problems in being made and screened, how important is it for you as an actress to be involved in, to push and promote independent cinema? You star in three films that are screening at the 2017 London Korean Film Festival and all of them are independent productions, so independent Korean cinema is obviously important to you, but what are your personal thoughts on the subject?
Kim Sae-byuk: So, I chose to take roles in the three films that are screening as part of the LKFF not specifically because there were independent but rather because they created stories in a way that I liked, they had people in them whom I wanted to work with, they were stories that I wanted to tell, and that’s the way I tend to choose my films in general. However, they are indeed independent and it’s true that as you continue to make such choices you do start in some way to distance yourself from so called popular cinema and the commercial film industry and because there are such budget limits to independent films it can ultimately be difficult to make a living out of being an independent film actress. I would say that right now I’m in the process of finding a balance between the two and personally it would be nice to see more good stories coming out of popular, commercial cinema – that’s my personal hope – but moreover for independent films because I’ve seen so many directors who have had to put in so much time because they didn’t have enough budget or enough money. It would be such a step forward if those issues lessened so that people like me can choose what they want to film with a lighter heart.
View of the Arts (to director Lee Wan-min): On the subject of feminism within ‘Jamsil’. What were the main feminist ideas that you felt you wanted to convey with this film and do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Lee Wan-min: I’m going to put my answer in two different ways – first of all simply and then in more depth: Simply, I wanted to show that friendship between women is possible [Lee Wan-min laughs], because although such relationships exist they are not often portrayed or represented in film. Many films show male machismo with female characters just being shown to be jealous of each other. My film is I guess my way of fighting against that in the depiction of these two women influencing each other. To go on to the ‘principles’ terrain of the film, I didn’t want to have a specific objective because I wanted to be honest and I felt an objective could derail that honesty. Nevertheless, the film shows a lot of the female gaze and female relationships and combined with the fact that the film’s producer is female and most of the cast was female I feel that even without a specific objective such ideas naturally manifested because that was what was in my mind’s map from the outset. In answer to your second question: Yes, I am a feminist… I am a feminist director, but in the way I make films that’s not the primary objective I go for.
MyM (to Lee Wan-min): The film’s strength really is in the relationship between the two female characters and it is true you don’t see many such portrayals in film. So, how did you feel about making a film like this, how do you feel about the industry as a whole and how do you feel it should be changed to include more female stories?
Lee Wan-min: That’s a difficult question. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have a specific objective in mind and as a woman in her 30s I think I’ve been able to touch on and cover the issues that I feel and to talk about the oppression that I face in my relationship with my parents, as well as in relation to society and feel that it’s all encompassed in the film. In terms of my feelings, I would say I feel relieved and in terms of your question about the industry I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is direct discrimination against female directors but it does have to be said that the panels that decide on funding mostly consist of men. As such, I feel there are indirect forms of discrimination going on. We are really trying and in fact demanding that the male/female ratios of these panels’ members is made more balanced. The environment of the shooting and the site is also very male-oriented with a huge hierarchy and that too needs to be more balanced.
MyM (to Kim Sae-byuk): Similarly, how did you feel being involved and being a part of ‘Jamsil’?
Kim Sae-byuk: The film touches on a lot of topics but when I was reading the scenario the part that really stood out to me was the relationship between people because it is a constant problem in our lives and I feel it’s almost a personal homework that I have to do. I really like the way in which this film addresses the issue through line, through dialogue and through situation. When I met the director I felt that she was very like her scenario an I soon felt that we had reached a point not only where we could connect but also where we were very similar. It really is difficult to find people to relate to so closely and I believe I’ve found a very precious relationship and as such the film is very precious to me, too. Making this film allowed that precious relationship to develop and in fact the director and I were walking in London this morning discussing how we might work together in the future and what we might want to work on.
The 405 (to Lee Wan-min): Earlier, you mentioned that there were some compromises made as a result of budgeting and that things had to change because of the circumstances of making the film. Looking back, with those changes do you feel you made the same film you originally planned to make and were there perhaps any elements that changed that you wish you’d kept in or things you wish you’d had the budget for?
Lee Wan-min: I wouldn’t say there is anything I’d change ultimately because we all put in a tremendous effort every step of the way. That all fed into the film, the final product, so I’m happy to see it stay as it is.
The 405 (to Kim Sae-byuk): What is your happiest memory of making the film and starring in it?
Kim Sae-byuk: At any point during the making of the film if I thought it was too difficult or I didn’t understand, the director always, always showed sincerity and tried to explain, showing me what the situation was. All of the production was really good but if I was to pick one moment there was a scene in which my father berates me, the room was very dark and the director was monitoring in a different room. In that room discussing the scene we talked about our pasts and how we’re quite similar – things that we had talked about before since we first met. I wouldn’t say it was a joyful moment because we were filming a very dark, heavy scene but it was definitely a very thankful and memorable moment.
HanCinema (to director Lee Wan-min): The film’s narrative feels quite complex at times with fragmented space and time. Why did you take that approach?
Lee Wan-min: Again, it didn’t come from a particular objective but more from having a map in my mind. I tried to work with a sense of comfortable discomfort in the process of trying to depict and portray these images that have solidified in my mind. Rather than present a series of statements, I almost chose to present questions. I feel I must look at things from a different perspective and films that are to my mind over-explanatory – that tell you everything up front – are I think too prevalent.
View of the Arts would like to thank KCCUK for organising the interview and Lee Wan-min and Kim Sae-byuk for taking the time to answer our questions, and Paul Quinn for transcribing the interview.
Written by Sanja Struna
Interview transcribed by Paul Quinn
Interview photo © Paul Quinn
Jamsil photos © Keystone Films