The 12th London Korean Film Festival: In Conversation with Kim Dae-hwan, Director of ‘The First Lap’

Kim Dae-hwan is an up-and-coming South Korean film director; while still in college, he directed two short films, Picnic (2010) and Interview (2011); he introduced his debut feature, End of Winter, to the audience in 2014, while studying post-grad at Dankook University’s Graduate School of Cinematic Content. Two years later, Jeonju Cinema Projects helped fund his second feature, The First Lap, which, in the spring of 2017, had its world premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival. The film went on to tour the international film festival circuit and in August 2017, Kim Dae-hwan won the Best Emerging Director prize at the 2017 Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. The film closed the London leg of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, and just before the screening, we managed to catch the director for a group interview.

HanCinema: Why did you choose to shoot a large part of the movie in a car, and how did you achieve that in terms of cinematography?

One of the most important ideas about this film is the idea of going between the two cities that are located on the eastern end and on the western end of Korean peninsula, the eastern end being Incheon and the western end being Samcheok. Also, in Korea, there’s a big mountain range that runs through the middle of the peninsula. It is very difficult for a small car to actually go over the mountains, and I thought a lot about how I was going to portray how the car was to go over the mountains. First of all, I didn’t have that much budget, so we couldn’t hire a special car that would be equipped with cameras that would follow the actors around, and I couldn’t really think of any other ways to show it, because I saw a lot of films that had cars scenes, but not a lot of them left an impression on me. However, there were such scenes, for example, in Children of Men, that were magnificently done, but we didn’t have budget or enough equipment to actually make that happen in our film. In such situation, we went hunting for locations, and we were riding in my own car, which is also in the film, and when we were going up the mountains, it started making a loud noise, almost a groaning noise, which meant that the car was having a very difficult time going up the mountains. And I thought that the noise very accurately reflected what Ji-yeong and Soo-hyeon were going through.

That was when I thought that even without dialogue, even without conversation, just with the noise that the car was making, I could show the relationship between them and its dynamics, and that’s when I decided that I was going to shoot the film from inside of the car, riding with them. A lot of people asked me why I didn’t show their facial expressions; although facial expressions are important, I thought that even without showing their faces, just by conversations or by the atmosphere in the car, it was enough to give a good idea of what the situation was like. Also, by showing the backgrounds, by showing the landscapes of these two cities and the journey between them, could also very well depict these two different families, living in different situations, and living also in two very different cities.


Mini Mini Movies: The film ends with the candlelight protests, regarding Sewol, and, well, Park Geun-hye, and I wondered, with the filming process – did you begin with that, and then did the other filming happen afterwards, or was it filmed in a chronological order?

The scene itself was a big surprise to me as well. Of course, for casting and for funding, you need a screenplay, but when I was writing the screenplay, this scene was not planned at all, it wasn’t included. But, at the end of November, which was when I started filming – a month before that – the whole incident exploded all over the media. While in the process of preparing for this film, for the first time in my life, I actually went to such a rally with my girlfriend. It gave me a really strange feeling and I thought… if it was Soo-hyeon and Ji-yeong, they might go to such a rally as well. So, everything was filmed chronologically, but the starting point was when Soo-hyeon is walking on the street, on the road. I filmed it, thinking that this was going to be the starting point, but, in the process of editing, it just happened to end up that way.

View of the Arts: My question is actually a bit connected to the previous one. That last scene felt ad-libbed, and generally speaking, in the entire production, silence and dialogues, and long shots were used very well, in a way that made the entire film feel very natural – how much ad-libbing was there, actually, and how much of the dialogues etc. was pre-planned?

The only thing that is identical in this film and in the screenplay of this film is the premise that Soo-hyeon and Ji-yeong go to the two cities, Incheon and Samcheok, and everything else was made up at the site and on the spot.

The important question about this film was what is the meaning of marriage; and in terms of screenplay, I thought that it wouldn’t be the right choice to make if I’d already come up with the answer beforehand. And I started  questioning myself if that was the way I should do it. So, I shot it chronologically; the actors are also the same generation as I am, and we made the process to be… asking a question at the start of every scene, and every shot at the start of filming, and trying to find the answer by the end of it. It was almost like a journey, just like Soo-hyeon and Ji-yeong were trying to find their answers. So for each scene, the only things that I assigned and decided on were the location and the subject of the conversation, basically. And I left the rest to the actors, for them to talk about whatever they wanted – while in their characters – talking about whatever they thought their characters would talk about, and I didn’t put any limits on it, to block their process, so I would say that this is a movie that is made up of ad-libs.

Naturally, I didn’t have a storyboard, and in terms of the actors’ movements, the camera followed them around, so sometimes it would turn out to be a long-shot, and sometimes something else; it was decided naturally. And in the terms of the use of silence, I think it came at the times when it was needed for both of the characters, sometimes at my request, and sometimes the actors would decide it was necessary. But what was really surprising to me was that last scene, at the protest, because at that time in Korea, every week, the media would go there to film, and there were cameras everywhere, always filming. And the many people that were there, none of them minded the cameras, so everything was very natural; the music, the sounds, the noises, I was able to get it all very organically on the film.


MyM: Obviously, you had a very strong collaboration process with the actors of the film – what, in your opinion, made Kim Sae-byeok and Cho Hyun-chul so good for their roles; what do you think they brought to their characters that you could trust them to ad-lib in that way?

The most important reason why I cast these two actors was because they didn’t give off the feeling that they were acting. Their acting was very natural and they were very natural at expressing their characters as well, and I think their strongest point – for both of them – is that they are both very honest. Because I direct in that way, and they act in such a way, I thought that there were many points in which they were expressing themselves not only as Ji-yeong and Soo-hyeon, but also as Sae-byeok and Hyun-chul, as the actors themselves. Because they themselves are young people who are thinking and going over the same issues that both the characters of Ji-yeong and Soo-hyeon are going through.

EasternKicks: Although it’s a very naturalistic-looking film, but there are some strange, or artificial, surreal touches to it, like they see something strange on the road or there’s a scene where they are disturbed by a child crying. What was the idea behind some of those scenes? Were they dreams, flash-forwards?

My idea was that they would be dreams, but I didn’t want to portray them in the cliched way of a dream. In that scene, before the child cries, it feels very real, I tried to make it seem very, very real, and I put in elements to make it seem like it; for example, in Korea, you have to make the real estate contract every two years, and because in the area, the neighbourhood they are living in, the prices of the housing keep on rising, so they are forced to keep on moving, more and more outwards, further and further away from the city centre. I wanted to show the real estate circumstances that the two of them are in, and also their fear that they might actually never be able to come back to the area they were currently living in. And I wanted to show their emotions as well, as if they were in real life. I thought that this was the kind of situation that might have happened a few years ago, and it might also happen a few years later; basically, a situation that could be both the past and the future, and I thought of it as a dream that is a dream, not specifically Ji-yeong’ or Soo-hyeon’s dream, but perhaps the dream that both of them have. In terms of the place that the scene had in the film, I thought that it might be a bit surprising or a bit startling to the audience, that it might stand out, but that it would be a nice place to freshen the audience in terms of attention.


Mini Mini Movies: About the music that was used at the end of the film, was that something that was recorded perhaps in that environment, on the stage? It seems like it’s very raw – you’ve got some voices, when the credits roll, but there’s also some music.

It’s not a score that I personally recorded or made, but it’s music that was recorded at the site of the rally. And it just came out with the perfect timing. I had a different ending set up in mind beforehand, but in the process of editing, when I heard the music come out at that scene, I felt like this is where the film should end, and that’s how the final cut came out. I’m also very very curious as to what that song actually is, I still don’t know the name of the song or what it is.

Mini Mini Movies: You didn’t need permission for that?

(Makes a gesture and smiles) I’m sorry, I’ve tried to find out.

View of the Arts: Since everything about this movie came about so naturally, it had to be very challenging to make it in that way. What were the main challenges that you faced during filmmaking?

I think all filmmakers probably share this thought, but choosing and deciding are the most difficult parts. But what made these two processes more difficult in this case was that I didn’t have a screenplay, so even I didn’t know how this movie was going to end, it was a very undecided, but also a very exciting and interesting process. And it was also the hardest thing about making this film. Now, I talk about it very comfortably, but back then, me and the staff were always very anxious about what the next scene was going to be like.


MyM: Both this film and the previous film, End of Winter, are family dramas. What draws you to these types of films? 

I shot two short films while I was still at the university, and I think this is also the case for many film students when they are trying to shoot their first films; they get their ideas from the experiences or the images that left the biggest impression in their lives. But me, I didn’t have that. I led a very normal life and no big, impressive events happened. So, as I thought about what I should use in the film, what would I make the film about, and I thought about how the relationship between me and my father is slightly uncomfortable. It’s not that we had a massive fight or that we have a very bad relationship, it’s just… slightly uncomfortable. Thinking about why that is, and trying to answer that question, I shot two family-related short films, which both spectacularly failed (laughs).

I thought about why I’d failed with my two short films, and I came to the answer that they only had little premises, but no actual thought or actual consideration of the relationships; so in my first feature film, End of Winter, I stripped it all down and focused a lot more on the relationships, and that was the cinematic objective that I’ve had and that was how I made the film. And because my first film was shot in this way, I think my second film naturally progressed in a similar way; and I think that the third film will be quite similar and that’s how I’m planning it, I’m playing at the moment with the ideas of cities, seasons, and families. Maybe marriage-related problems, like getting married, and ideas like that.


EasternKicks: This was your second film, but you still managed to get funding from Jeonju cinema project, so I was just wondering – how important are such sources of funding for filmmakers like yourself; and in Korea, are there a lot of sources like that available?

I also received this question yesterday, which is interesting and surprising at the same time. In Korea, I would say that there are two different, main kinds of funding.  One that comes from the government, from KOFIC, and the other from city-funded projects. There are fundings from film festivals, the biggest being Jeonju International Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival, and the amount of funding and the number of films that get funded are different for each of them; they both operate under a programme structure.

Also, it’s incredibly difficult to get selected for these funding programmes; and the only other way to make a film is to self-fund it, really. And now, it’s becoming more and more difficult to say… the boundaries are breaking down. For example, what is independent cinema – the criteria is about where the funding comes from. But nowadays, there are many production companies that give very low budget to these projects and then they call them independent films, but is that an independent film or is it just a really low-budget film? At the moment, it’s becoming very difficult to differentiate.

View of the Arts would like to thank KCCUK for organising the interview and Kim Dae-hwan for kindly taking the time to answer our questions.

Written, transcribed and edited by Sanja Struna

Featured photo © Sanja Struna

The First Lap photos © M-Line Distribution


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