Although there has been some visible progress over the past few years, female filmmakers still remain largely unseen either in front of the camera or behind it. While pushing through a world that is dominated by men, female filmmakers have shown that there are still countless stories to tell, stories that the opposite gender might have not made otherwise.
In recent years, I have realised that there is more to filmmaking than just Hollywood. The amount of independent female directors that are making their names known in the realm of cinema is getting bigger with each year. Whether it is a well-known director or a rising star, the stories that they bring on to the big screen are worth everyone’s attention. And one of those talents is Christine Hyejin Ko. Born in South Korea and raised in Seoul and Vancouver, Canada, Christine is known for directing scripted dramas at SLL (formerly JTBC studios), including Forecasting Love and Weather and Law School, both Netflix’s shows.
Before becoming a film director, Christine studied Psychology and graduated from Duke University in the Arts of the Moving Image. Christine’s feature film debut, The Woman in the White Car, was recently screened at the 66th BFI London Film Festival. Christine Ko’s ability to build tension in the film is impeccable. The smooth movements of the camera and the visual presentation of different perspectives showcase Ko’s talent in building a great, suspenseful narrative through technical and artistic elements. In spite of the fact that The Woman in the White Car is writer Seo Ja-yeun and director Ko’s feature debut, the two created a powerful thriller that rivals Nordic Noir films. But how did the project come to life? What was the casting process like? And how did Christine approach the topic of domestic violence? Christine answered these and other questions exclusively for View of the Arts.
The script for The Woman in the White Car was written by Seo Ja-yeun. When and how did you come across the script and what prompted you to make this film?
Christine Ko: I actually approached Ja-yeun with an idea for a psychological thriller involving two women in a lone cabin somewhere deep in the woods of a rural Korean town during a brutal winter. She and I had worked on a TV show together called Diary of a Prosecutor (in which Ryeowon Jung was also the star) and I thought perhaps that she’d be interested in helping me write a thriller – she seemed particularly adept at those when I was reading her other previous work/scripts. The reason I wanted to try making a thriller was precisely because it would be a movie that I’d want to see. I have always been partial to the thriller/mystery genre myself and as a first-time director, I thought I’d do a better job at emulating all the great movies I’ve seen (especially because I believed myself to have seen more of this genre than any other). If I was able to create something that I would be able to get excited about watching and creating, I figured there was a higher chance that an audience might feel similarly.
You are known for directing scripted Korean dramas, and your most recent work includes Forecasting Love and Weather & Law School, both on Netflix. The Woman in the White Car is your feature film debut. How was the transition from directing K-dramas to your first feature? Which of the two do you find more challenging?
Christine Ko: Honestly, I found this film to be more challenging – not because it’s a film but because we simply didn’t have as much resources as we would on a typical Korean drama. I only had 14 days for production and a very small budget to do everything that I believed we needed for this story. These kinds of physical limitations were the biggest challenge. TV dramas are also challenging in that you need to be able to keep in mind the big picture of a story. For example, how does a scene that I’m directing fit into a much larger story arc of 16 episodes? The mental calibration involved in that is quite difficult for me sometimes. So I have a lot of respect for creators in each medium and especially ones that are able to do both, which is my own ultimate goal.
You drew on an incredible ensemble of actors, including Jung Ryeowon, Lee Jung-eun and Jang Jin-hee. What was the casting process like for their respective roles?
Christine Ko: Ryeowon and I had worked together previously on a show together and we had bonded quite a bit on set, and I’m now proudly able to call her one of my closest friends in real life. That’s why she was already aware of this project even when it was just an idea that I had floating around in my head. She’d listen to my stories and give feedback, not necessarily thinking that she’d have any part to play in it at all. So when I approached her with the lead role, she was pleasantly surprised but also worried because she hadn’t played a role like this before. But I had the utmost faith in her and her ability to deliver an amazing performance, regardless of genre. Honestly, I would trust her with anything so I knew she could pull it off, which she absolutely did.
With Jung-eun, she and I had also worked together on The Light in Your Eyes and Law School so she’s also been someone whom I looked up to and relied on for both creative and spiritual guidance even during my early days of assistant directing and co-directing shows. She has always been a confidante and a mentor to me and I honestly couldn’t picture anyone else other than her playing the role of Hyun-ju. She was my first and only choice, so when I went to her with the script, she graciously said yes – not only because she wanted to help me out on my first feature but also because she had been wanting to play a police officer for a while. She’s always looking to expand her horizons and is always up for a challenge. It was great timing and good luck on my part to be able to score these two amazing actresses.
I hadn’t worked with the two other main actresses before but when I met them it was kind of a no-brainer. I could see them both playing their roles the minute we sat down to meet for the first time. I remember hearing stories about casting and how sometimes the actors who do end up playing a certain role, immediately glow when they walk in through the door. That was incredibly true for me.
Jung Ryeowon and Lee Jung-eun are sublime in their roles. Their chemistry and the way they carry the film is impressive. How much work was involved between you, Jung and Lee to help them develop their characters and the relationship between their characters?
Christine Ko: We just had a lot of conversations before we even started shooting. The three of us never talked together but I was in constant communication with them separately and because they did entrust me to direct them, I think I was able to create a kind of chemistry between them and become a good intermediary for their amazing energies. They were true to their own characters and I think it’s a testament to the script and to the actors, also partly to the trust they had for each other and for me and the script, that they all blended together so well and gave such superb performances, like you mentioned.
The film is very tense and features well-balanced action. The Woman in the White Car almost has suspense on the level of Hitchcock thanks to its multiple twists and turns, and along with Seo Ja-yeun you used an unreliable narrative technique called stage fright. How much did you work on set with Seo to bring her vision to life?
Christine Ko: Thank you so much! Those are such kind words and very honoured to be compared to such an iconic auteur. All of my discussions with Ja-yeun were actually done before production even started. We were so in-sync from the very beginning that it was quite easy to talk to one another about problems we saw in the script or what we thought we could improve upon or how we were going to try and tell the story. We were aligned in what kind of story we wanted to tell so that was never an issue for us I don’t think. We shared movies that we thought each other should watch, like Invisible Guest or Rashomon. I watched parts of Vertigo again as well. It did take us a couple of months to hash out all the twists and turns but we were able to pull it off because I think both of us are natural collaborators – we love working with other people and hearing their opinions. The script was even further polished (filling in plot holes and gaps) when we started pre-production and my crew started reading the script and giving me feedback as well. Like I keep saying, I had such good help on this project. I feel incredibly blessed.
How did you approach the subject of domestic violence without over-dramatising the depiction of it?
Christine Ko: I honestly just avoided portraying violence in ways that I, as an audience member, would not feel comfortable seeing on a big screen. I hate it when violence is gratuitous and excessive. Once you get the message across and the audience is shocked for the first time at seeing the sheer cruelty and brutality of it, I think you really don’t have to do much more than that. The audience is incredibly skilled in filling in gaps left by the filmmaker and so I let their imaginations do the rest rather than be explicit in the imagery. I’m glad that you thought it wasn’t over-dramatised; I was always worried that because the nature of our film requires repetition, everything might seem overly drawn out and repetitive. That was quite a challenge too when editing.
The film was shot in unfavourable conditions, in winter. How did the location impact the filming?
Christine Ko: We went to a location where we thought we had the best chances of getting snow! Because we knew we didn’t have many days to shoot it, we knew we couldn’t have bad luck with the weather so we just had to increase our chances. The main house that we shot at was really in the middle of the mountains, kind of far away from everything warm and cosy. No cell service, no bathrooms. We had a lot of generous friends who donated WC cars and catering so that we could shoot safely at our locations. Our cast and crew were such champs all around.
Since you directed the film and Seo Ja-yeun wrote the script, how rigorously did you stick to the script whilst shooting?
Christine Ko: This is kind of a script you can’t deviate much from, especially because everything is so meticulously planned. Some of the more emotional scenes, we were able to deviate a little bit based on how the actors were feeling about the scene when on set. Sometimes the situations can feel a little bit awkward or inappropriate once you get to the location and realise that you need to tweak it on the spot. Listening to more experienced actors and crew members helped me get through those moments of sheer inner panic [laughs}.
What was the most difficult process during the post-production stage?
Christine Ko: I had a wonderful editor who helped me through the first stage of editing but because she had other commitments afterward, I had to edit the final cut alone and because I put myself under a deadline to submit to film festivals, I had to pull many all-nighters for about a month and a bit. While editing, I realised that the most challenging part about doing a thriller/mystery is the pace and the rhythm. There are no right answers but the rhythm is the most important aspect in creating tension and uneasiness. A sequence or a cut can go from good to terrible with the smallest changes. An extra frame or two can make all the difference and realising that during the post-production stage was a huge learning experience for me. When deciding on what felt right and what didn’t, I tried to trust my gut and my years of watching the greats do it.
Your film was screened at the BFI London Film Festival, how was it for you to have your first feature debut screened at such a prestigious film festival?
Christine Ko: It was an absolute dream come true. I had always just seen red carpet photos of all the artists that I had admired over the years at LFF and I’ve watched many hours of LFF Q&As on YouTube. To be at the festival that you had only dreamed about attending (even as an audience member) was crazy enough but to be there with a film that I directed felt like a fairy tale. The audiences at LFF were amazing and so supportive – I feel incredibly blessed to have had this experience and to do it at such a prestigious film festival was possibly the greatest moment of my life and career. I can’t thank Tricia Tuttle and the programmers at BFI enough for their generosity and their taste in film.
Any new projects in the pipeline?
Christine Ko: Looking for mini-series scripts to direct on my own at the moment but also about to co-direct something that’s going to start shooting in February. Hope we can talk about it more when the time comes.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Featured image courtesy of Christine Ko