Alleyways: My Two Years Making a Film in Korea (and Iowa)
Red Stroke is a 52-minute independent film set in South Korea. The main character, Hyo-shik, a mathematically-minded delivery driver, is urgently trying to get much-needed allergy medicine home to his wife when a thief steals his bag and the lone object of his wife’s survival.
Meanwhile, Hwei-jae, a soldier mourning his past, returns home to find out it is not as secure as he once thought. Both Hyo-shik and Hwei-jae must determine what constitutes true justice and how their wrongs should be put right.
Red Stroke was written and directed by Joseph Boyle, a 26-year-old English teacher, currently living in Gimhae, South Korea. It was made with a miniscule budget of under $500, featuring all volunteer actors and crew (usually just his wife Abigail), and borrowed locations and equipment. It took around two months to write, four to shoot and another year to finish editing and scoring. Director and writer Joseph Boyle writes below about the experience of making the film which will show this Sunday, May 27 at 7 p.m. at Vinyl Underground in the Kyungsung area.
BUSAN, South Korea — One cool night in the fall of 2009, I stepped out into the cramped streets of Bugok-dong near PNU to think. I was staying at my brother’s place, an old Korean house in a tangle of back-alley roads. As I paced discontentedly and shuffled ideas around in my head, I remember looking at a car parked beneath a little concrete wall with some sharp metal work on top that was apparently there to dissuade anyone from summiting it. On the other side lay a narrow patio strewn with abandoned broken flower pots and random bits of otherness that led directly into my brother’s first floor apartment. I began to wonder, “What would happen if someone were evading some sort of capture and ended up hiking themselves up over that wall and making their way inside, uninvited?” And all at once, out of this labyrinth of asphalt roads and cracked walls, a tiny nugget of a story – that would lead to a film – started to form.
I began making films, like so many others who’ve done so, with Star Wars action figures when I was about 12-years-old. I who never have imagined at that time that I would someday be making one in a different country on a different continent in a different language. The writing, as usual, came slowly at first, but I knew I had a strong core idea and so I started to build layer upon layer around it. This has always been my method and, within a month or two, I had a newly penned screenplay in hand, though there was one problem. It was in the wrong language.
A short time later, I sat down with a Korean friend of mine (who spoke the best English of any Korean I knew) at the now defunct Turkish restaurant Kebapistan in PNU. I was hopeful that he would be interested in helping me translate the film. I had no idea that I would emerge with a lead actor as well.
That night, we discussed the powerful film The Shawshank Redemption. It was quite fitting that our conversation fell to that film because the main questions that are posed throughout this film have to do with the true nature of justice and, by extension, redemption.
One of the difficulties I was faced with in this whole process was the question of how the film would translate (literally and figuratively) to different audiences. Here I was, a 24-year-old American from the heartland writing a story from a Western mindset that was to be set in Korea, would be translated into Korean and performed by a largely Korean cast. Would this work?
Though the language translation process went over with hardly a snag, we did stumble on a few difficulties. There was one line that read, “Does that mean you’re cold-blooded?” This line was complicated because it had a dual meaning, conveying not only an absence of remorse for murder, but also bodily frigidity. It was difficult to pack all that meaning into one line in Korean, so it ended up as, “Are you Mr. Numbness Man?”
Whenever it comes to that moment in the film, I wait to see if there is an odd reaction by any fluent Korean speakers. But, nary a whisper so far. In terms of cultural translation, there may be a few head scratchers for foreign audiences such as guys riding around on scooters tossing business cards and delivering food in dented metal cases. But, thankfully, deeply human themes such as love, hate and revenge can rise up and transcend cultural divides.
We started filming in the early evening of a rainy March day in the northern area of Busan. It’s always really odd to be filming on set (a remote alleyway in this case) the first day. You’ve been anticipating the day, thinking about it constantly as you play it out in your head, and perhaps even dreading it. It is always a bit frightening to move from theory to practice, in any life discipline, and it is no different in filmmaking. And so, as I sat there on the gritty damp ground with a running scooter laying sideways and Korean fried rice exploded all over the road, I excitedly entered a new unknown.
As we ventured further into the shoot, we visited many different areas, from the Jagalchi Fish Market to my brother’s house where it all got started, to a crab restaurant with a giant plastic crab over the door in Jangjeon-dong. We encountered a red-faced, soju-stained executive from Samsung offering us his unflinching assistance; we were berated through a second story window for continually filming in the same neighborhood week after week; and we crashed a scooter into a telephone pole at least once. Our days ranged from just a few hours at the beginning to one that lasted over 17 hours. Every difficulty that I expected (and a bunch that I probably didn’t) visited us, but we made it through.
After finishing filming, for a reason I can’t explain, it took me nearly six months to get the film cut. Mostly likely it was the continual business of living in Korea and teaching English to children who can barely speak Korean, coupled with preparation for heading back to the States for a monthlong break – or perhaps I was just being lazy.
When I arrived back in America, I met with the composer for the film, Devin Kirby-Hansen – half of the crushing bass and drums duo The Post Mortems – with whom I’d worked before, and who had a good handle on what I wanted. Meanwhile, I was working on the color correction process as well as adjusting the audio mix and doing post-recorded sound effects called foley. (To be clear, this was usually just my buddy and I crushing clay flower pots in the snow alley behind my parents' house in Iowa or stabbing knives into a log in their basement – not quite as glamorous as Hollywood!)
This period of time reminded me of how complicated and yet satisfying the process of making a movie is. It was shot in Korea in the spring, editing partially in Korea in the summer, and the sound effects and music were created in Iowa in the winter. Truly a collaborative process. When we finally made it back to Korea – after one month turned to four – Devin delivered the music to me and I finally finished it up. It was amazing, the number of people who were willing to help out and give hours upon hours of their time for nothing more than some kimbap or a Gatorade.
It’s been two years now since I started, and although it was an incredible amount of work, I couldn’t be more pleased that I did it – or rather that we did it. The whole complicated wonderful process reminds me a bit of Red’s words from the aforementioned Shawshank Redemption, explaining Andy Dufresne’s escape: “Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to.”
After meandering out into that twisted alleyway all those many months ago, I finally crawled my own way out and emerged clean on the other side, with months and years of struggles imprinted on a disc – film in hand.