24th Udine Far East Film Festival: In Conversation with Yoon Young-bin, Director of “Tomb of the River”

For the past 30 years or so, Asian cinema has become a part of life for European filmgoers. Although the Western continent itself has a lot to offer, the films from the Far East are the ones that grab viewers by their throats.

It is important to remember that Far East cinema does not only include popular martial arts and scary horror movies. It also portrays culture and war, a characteristic cinema of revenge, and the developing trend of socially engaged cinema. In addition to the world-famous and easy-to-present macabre themes and spectacles of violence, the productions of this region examine a range of important social issues, thus breaking still well-established taboos. Corruption, the fight against social inequality and injustice, or challenging the cultural perception of the role of women, are topics that have gained importance in recent years. Also, Far East cinema is designed to expose stereotypes about Asians; they are often presented as fearful, obedient, or shy in Western cinema. The filmmakers willingly use elements of surprise and thrill for this purpose as well as the use of fear and brutality. 

Image © 2022 Alice BL Durigatto [Far East Film Festival]

The Udine Far East Film Festival has been at the forefront of Asian cinema for years, and it is one of the best Asian film festivals in Europe. Filled with interesting works from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, and China, just to name a few, the festival truly promotes the art of filmmaking at its best. 

During the fourth day of the festival, and after watching some great South Korean films, Roxy and I finally got to interview Yoon Young-bin, the director of Tomb of the River, a noir action film that takes place in Gangneung.

The city on the east coast of South Korea, awaits the opening of one of the biggest resorts and casinos in the area. The project is run by Chairman Oh and his right hand, Gil-seok (Yoo Oh-sung: The Great Battle, Friend), who are a part of a local yet powerful gang. Gil-seok is a strict but honourable gangster, which has also earned him the respect of his peers. Things drastically change when Min-seok (Jang Hyuk: The Killer, The Swordsman) comes to the city with an overwhelming desire to take over Chairman’s Oh business. And while tension grows, a great betrayal occurs. Meanwhile, Bang-hyun (Park Seong-geun: The Man Standing Next), a detective – who also turns out to be Gil-seok’s long-time friend – tries to deescalate the situation, simply to save the gangster’s life. Will justice prevail or will it fail? 

Image © 2022 Alice BL Durigatto [Far East Film Festival]

On the day of the interview, we sat in a large press room and waited for director Yoon to end his chat with an Italian TV station. When it was our turn, the filmmaker smiled and, in fluent English, introduced himself.

“So nice to meet you, I am Yoon Young-bin. Oh, do you want water?” director Yoon asks with a chuckle while pouring some water for himself and offering us a beverage too before making himself comfortable on the sofa. 

Tomb of the River is Yoon’s directorial debut, which he also wrote the script for. As it is his first feature film, we began our conversation by asking him about his choice of genre.

“Well, I don’t want to call it an action film. I know it is advertised as one, particularly in Korea, but it is a noir film”, laughs Yoon while answering the question. “Actually, you can read stories like that in papers, but what I wanted to focus on was how a person can find their place within the era, and what drives them to that acceptance”, he continues.

Before the interview, the film director gave a talk on South Korean action cinema, during which he mentioned that Italian and American films, The Godfather in particular, inspired him to make Tomb of the River. And without a doubt, one could see that the film has a similar tone to Coppola’s work – it’s a slow-burner that helps to draw out drama to create a tense viewing experience for the audience. 

“When you look at how to make or write a script, you start slowly, and then you make sure the narrative moves faster”, Yoon says. “As a filmmaker, there is a lot of pressure to start the film slowly, but I also believe that it can create an explosive ending. So, my goal was to try to make a less boring start, although it is still slow”, admits the filmmaker. 

Image © 2022 View of the Arts 

It is a film director’s job to bring their vision to life with a script, and if it is written by them then it might be easier to do so. As Yoon wrote and directed Tomb of the River, he had the green light to adjust the script to the budget he was given, and sometimes he was forced to make changes according to financial constraints. However, Yoon brought his unique sensibilities and style to a written work and translated his script into a visual medium.

While he had creative freedom, the director explained that he had some budgetary issues: “Our budget was very small, so we couldn’t film many other scenes that I wanted to shoot.” Yoon mentions how he had planned to include one scene in the middle of the film that saw Gil-seok hide in Thailand after an unexpected betrayal, but unfortunately, he was forced to cut it from the script.

When it came to the editing process, Yoon confesses that no matter what edit he did all the actors delivered exceptionally well. Despite Tomb of the River being Yoon’s first feature, he has managed to draw on incredible acting talent, including Yoo Oh-sung, Jang Hyuk, and Park Seong-geun. That said, it is the character of Gil-seok, played by Yoo, that impressed most. Gil-seok is an honourable gangster in a world of betrayal. One can only wonder how the director worked with the actor on building the character and making him the person we see on screen.

“I didn’t cast Yoo Oh-sung, he came to me after reading the script”, the director says and adds that “without explaining the script, Yoo Oh-sung knew everything”.

“Yoo Oh-sung has done so many films already, including noir films. He wanted my film to be his last noir project, so obviously he was ready to do his best. But then I asked him ‘is this really your last noir film?’, he said ‘yes’, so I responded ‘I will make another one then’”, the director said with a chuckle, adding that the actor then changed his mind about Tomb of the River being his final project in the genre. 

Image © 2022 Alice BL Durigatto [Far East Film Festival]

The film itself is filled with countless meaningful metaphors, including the one representing the relationship between the gangster and his friend in the force, detective Chan Bang-hyun. 

“The detective symbolises the system, and when Cho Bang-hyun tells Gil-seok to trust the system, the gangster does trust him, however, when all of Gil-seok’s friends die, the system becomes broken. So, now Gil-soek must survive on his own”, says Yoon. 

Gil-seok symbolises the acceptance of time, and while watching the film, one will also notice that the gangster only fights with his fists until a turning point in the narrative when he picks up a knife and decides to change his fate. As the director says, the knife is the symbol of the era. Director Yoon also wanted to make sure that there was a contrast between the two characters, the gangster and the detective. 

Fifteen minutes passed and we truly enjoyed chatting to director Yoon – he is not only very funny and articulated, but his enthusiasm while talking to us was a breath of fresh air. 

While working with high-calibre actors, artistic freedom or improvisation is something that filmmakers welcome on board. 

“There are two kinds of things I would like to say, if the actor understands the character completely, I’ll give artistic freedom. However, there was some very important dialogue in the film, so every single word in the dialogue had to be on the dot, [that said] there were also lines where I allowed the actors to say whatever they wanted, but as long as they understood the character”, admits the filmmaker. 

Image © 2022 Alice BL Durigatto [Far East Film Festival]

Director Yoon set the film’s narrative in his home city of Gangneung. Would he ever make another project in the city? 

“No, I will never go back there”, jokes Yoon and adds: “when I was preparing my first feature and working on my story, I was pondering about what investors and the audience would like. I also thought about what is my essence, where my roots come from, and where I grew up. That’s why I thought I should go to Gangneung [for this film], because of that reason.”

After a few giggles here and there, it was time for us to wrap up the interview. However, before doing so, I asked the director what is the best thing to keep in mind while making such an action-packed film. Without hesitation, Yoon quickly responds: “The most important thing is the face”.

“I do not care about the motion/action, I do care about the facial expressions a lot. The actor has to express [feelings] through his face [not necessary through the action]. Because, in the end, action is about emotion”, explains the director.

Looking at the filmmaker’s impressive directorial debut, one will wonder if he would make another noir film in the future. “It would be a kind of a gangster film, and it might also be a noir film”, admits Yoon. And with that, we concluded our interview with him. There is no denying that his next project might turn out to be as exciting as his directorial debut: full of action, intelligent narrative, and superb acting. 

Written and transcribed by Maggie Gogler

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler & Roxy Simons [View of the Arts]

Translated by June Kim [Programming Associate – Far East Film Festival]

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