Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 2

Spring in my Hometown

by Donato Totaro, Peter Rist Volume 3, Issue 3 / March 1999 12 minutes (2768 words)

PR: I was just thinking of the isolation now of North Korea, not just from South Korea but from the rest of the world. We hear these horrible stories about starvation and poverty, and yet no one seems to be interested. So everyone seems to be isolated from North Korea. I felt in your film the sadness of that isolation.

KL: Yes, I feel very bad about the Korean people, especially the young people because they are not interested in North Korea either, like the rest of the world. My family is from North Korea in fact, and my grandfather and father came down to the South for business and suddenly we were divided and they couldn’t go back to the North. In the North there is still my grandmother, and two aunts, and two uncles. So it means that for my grandfather he lost his wife and two children because of history and the division. And my grandfather passed away just one week before we started shooting this film, and he never knew for sure whether his family was alive or not in North Korea. He could not communicate, he couldn’t see them, for forty-four years. It is just absurd, just absurd. But many people don’t care about that. From my childhood I had experiences, for example Thanksgiving Day, my family would come together for a celebration, and suddenly the mood changed because my grandfather would get tears in his eyes because he missed his family so much. The tragedy is just absurd and it’s a reality in Korea, I mean 10 million people are like my grandfather, but no body cares about that, especially the South and North Korean governments, they are just ashamed. They try to show an interest in these matters but they don’t try at all. So I got very angry about that and I thought we need to bring up the subject matter to overcome our reality and we have to do something for someone like my grandfather.

DT: It’s great that you are taking this on, that cultural-historical identity, because once that generation dies…..

KL: That’s right, they are dying now. My next film will be directly concerned with that.

PR: To completely switch gears. On the style of your film I was very struck by the color. I wonder if you could talk a bit about what you were trying to achieve with color and possibly how you did that?

KL: I think Korean people are very much connected to nature. We are familiar with nature, we are from nature, and keep nature near us all the time. That’s our culture and our tradition. So I used colors from all of nature, brown and beige were the basic colors of my film. And so you can see many beige and brown colors in the film. Of course there are some greens because of nature. I used the color blue for Sung Min’s family, the main character’s family, because the blue is from the sky, and it is not usual, but it shows that they aspire to go up in society, so I used blue for the Sung Min family members. They still all come from nature, but I used two artificial colors, black and red. Black comes from some dark side of the human being. For example the clothes on the line are dyed black to show the black side of the Sung Min family, their dark desire to be rich and be successful in society. I also used the artificial color red as a symbol of humiliation. Red is one of the most humiliating colors in that period. But still it has very symbolic meanings. They used red to humiliate the boy’s father, not just to say he is communist, but because red was, and still is, one of the worst colors in South Korea because it means communism there. I used that color to show the American soldier’s humiliation of that boy’s [Sung Min] father. But still the red color has other meanings. It shows the artificial desires of the father. From the beginning to the end I used a greenish-yellow color, because this color reflects my own memories. As I told you it is not a direct description of what is going on. It happens only in my memory, in my head, my reflection on my father’s life. So I wanted to show the time difference from the past and the present. When I use that color, greenish-yellow, I feel kind of heartbroken. When I feel that greenish-yellow color I feel sad. People usually use the color orange to suggest a period feel, but I fought with my DP because he wanted to use orange. And because in Korea we never use this type of color [greenish-yellow], and the time correction people were really shocked because I wanted to use this color and they never did this kind of color. So the DP was very afraid of using this color and was very against it, but I insisted that we need this color because orange is quite different from this color.

PR: Yes that’s right, the sepia color is very artificial and people immediately understand, oh it’s nostalgic, and you didn’t want that. You didn’t want straight nostalgia, you wanted something else. I was very struck because of the incredibly strong sense of nature in the film. Which eventually was a sort of positive force for me, despite all of the problems and the sadness, there was this positive feel through the color. The other thing in the same relation is that there seemed to be very little direct sunlight, so the light seemed to be diffused and I had the sense there of light coming from the north rather than the south. We can see in this one [referring to a film still in hand] that there are shadows here from sunlight, but I thought it was interesting because during the daytime scenes it was never really bright, which again fits in, maybe, with not having spring. I was curious, there was one shot in particular, which I thought was strange, and that’s after they find the body of the boy in the water, there is this white flower on ferns down by the river. There is this ocean of white, which had a funeral quality but also seemed to me to be like spring, so I don’t know (laughter).

KL: In fact, that’s not a flower, it is a reed.

PR: It was very beautiful but strange and that seemed like spring to me.

KL: In the fall we have many of those types of colors in Korea. So it is not a flower, but a reed, that in the fall turns to a brownish-white, so the color is not from a flower. I wanted to create a feeling of isolation for the boy, and the Chinese mother, because he is very lonely, and walking down alone there. The corpse of his best friend is being taken from the water, and after that the boy is walking down and we feel the boy’s isolation from his best friend, as his mother is coming, and he is walking all alone. So I wanted the feeling of isolation in this scene.

DT: You mentioned yesterday how you were using the landscape in a direct emotional way, to reflect the emotions for the characters, and there is one shot near the end where I thought you were doing that really well. In the shot you have Chang Hee’s grave on the right and on the left you have these four or five trees that were bending over rightward, almost as if they were mourning over the grave. And then you had the mother dressed in white walking up into the trees and there is this incredible stark contrast between the ash black trees and her white dress.

KL: Yes that’s right. You can also see in the background, not a river, but some water.

DT: Oh yes, the water is a beautiful blue.

KL: When we were looking for locations and went to that place and saw the water, with its color, I almost cried because it was so sad. So I wanted to put the landscape together with the mother’s feelings. I don’t know why, but that river and the angled trees made me very sad.

DT: Have you seen Earth by Dovzhenko, a 1930 Russian film?

KL: No.

DT: You should see that film because I think you would like it. It influenced Tarkovsky and it uses the landscape in a very similar way.

PR: I was thinking of this as we were talking, and this is in relation to the audience. I think the problem a general audience, whether Korean or North American or whatever, has with films like your own is their own relation to the pacing. They are just not used to having to work at feeling or understanding a film. The kind of film I hate is where everything is done for me, something like Spielberg where this hand comes out of the screen and grabs hold of your heart and pulls it out and I just hate that. And for me your film is extremely emotional because the emotions gradually build, but the emotions come out of the experience of watching the film. And when I say work it’s not exactly work but it’s a different relationship with the screen, and this is where your film is like Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and other filmmakers, in that general sense, in the way we respond emotionally. So where other people might be bored, to me your film is never boring because I was in a different position to it than to other films, but I think it is a general problem with audiences. Not everyone is receptive.

KL: Yes I think so. When I made this film in this style I thought about that, how the audience would receive this film. When I was in pre-production preparing for this film in the spring, one day I was looking out the window and I saw some greens in the trees, a lot, and they were budding. I didn’t realize it was spring. I had been preparing this film for a long time and suddenly it is spring. I felt very strange. When I was watching that bud on the branch of the tree I realized that I have to make that kind of landscape. Many people don’t even realize there is that kind of budding in the spring. And some people like me just watch and note the green colors of spring. But if you go deeper, you realize the drama of the tree, that the tree experiences the whole process behind the budding during the winter. So I don’t have to show or tell the audience this is spring, this is a bud on the branch. I just want to make the trees and buds outside the window and the audience has to create their own drama that the tree has experienced during the winter. So my audience has to create it for themselves. I don’t have to make a close-up of the bud, or speak out of the screen. I just want to make this kind of landscape and I want my audience to make their own drama with the material.

DT: I think an important part of your aesthetic is your decision not to move the camera, which perhaps you can talk about. And also when I saw the screener copy of the film on video at the film market [at the Montreal World Film Festival] I noticed something odd in the final shot where you have a long shot of the family leaving down the winding road. At the end of this long take there is either an optical zoom or a camera zoom out to an even farther distance.

KL: No, there is no zoom.

DT: So it is an optical zoom, because there is such a zoom on the video version.

KL: No, they made a mistake in the video transfer (laughing)!

DT: You know why they did it then, because what happens is it zooms out and then this creates a black border on the bottom of the frame over which your dedication appears, “In memory to my grandfather and father.”

KL: I haven’t watched this video.

PR: Well it looks like they destroyed the ending!

DT: It is very striking because you have an extreme long shot and then it zooms out even more to a further extreme long shot. So when I saw that it looked strange because I wondered why you would move the camera so arbitrarily right at the end when it was static throughout the film. But you didn’t do that?

KL: No, that was stupid. As I told you before, the whole film’s visual scheme came from this idea, and I wanted to be very reflective on this period and on my father’s life. I wanted to have some gaze on the past, to find some meaning in my father’s life. I had to gaze on his life, not move around. So the camera angle and the movement of camera came from that idea, of that perspective and that gaze onto the past, that is why I didn’t move the camera at all.

PR: Well that last shot, whether it is intended or not, feels like the last shot of Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On , except it’s opposite. Where, there, you have a car which is going up a hill and it finally goes up the hill, here, your family is going down the hill. So I think that’s sort of interesting that it is quite similar but it’s almost opposite in the movement.

DT: Also because the mother is wearing the white dress you can always spot in the frame where they are.

PR: This is just a comment on the relationship between the film and the present day situation in Korea. I was very struck by the two families who were together in the beginning of the film and they are both struggling and they both live in relatively primitive homes, and then we have one family that is isolated into extreme poverty and the other family becomes rich. But then at the end of the film that family is going down hill, so it’s very interesting to think about that situation in relation to Korea now.

KL: In relation to the two houses that you mention, there is another one that is on the side of the mountain that Chang’s family made, it is a house, but really it is a…

PR: It is a hut.

KL: Yes, a hut. I wanted to show how they lived and how they struggled to survive. And in that last image, you can barely see, but the road goes down one side and after that finally it goes up into the mountains, and so it goes down and it goes up a little bit. The family is going down and down, but I wanted to make this kind of image because usually there is some hope, that is why they could survive and endure life itself. Because they think always that there is some hope. The boy, Sung Min, has hope that his best friend Chang Hee is not dead and he might be alive somewhere in the world. That’s his hope I think. The family is going down but they still have some hope, which is why they are trying to start a new life, a different life. I was trying to make that kind of an image with this shot. The family goes down with despair, but still they have some hope. And the hope is quite complicated I think, like the child in the sister’s belly [Sung Min’s sister, Young Sook]. She is pregnant and the baby will be a mixed baby, part white, part Asian, and the future of the kid will be very difficult in Korea because we are pretty much a non-mixed people, and he will have a real hard time in Korea. But still the life of the boy is the hope and the future. So I wanted to make a complicated nuance of hope with this picture.

Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 2

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Interview with Kwangmo Lee, Part 2

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 3, Issue 3 / March 1999 Interviews   country_asia_korea   film style   korean cinema