BUSAN, South Korea – There is little doubt that the Pusan International Film Festival is a vital component of not only the Korean film industry, but of Asian cinema as a whole. So many accolades are bestowed upon the largest film festival in Asia that many find it easy to forget the much smaller, yet exceedingly prestigious, Busan International Short Film Festival. This quaint and eclectic offering of short films from all corners of the globe is a stimulating approach to the cinema. Given the recent drought of quality summer films, I would hope that other fervent film buffs had the opportunity to catch some of these remarkable features at the festival back in May. I had the honor of attending the opening ceremony and press screenings, as well as a screening of several notable entries.
I decided to focus my attention on a rather slight, yet sweetly accentuated film by Korean director KimJoe YoungHyun. Her delightfully crafted romance, Whoever You Are, weaves together intricate layers of tough social issues that would certainly incite discussion where there would otherwise be none. The film plainly, yet charmingly, approaches issues of abortion and gender reassignment and wraps them around two very identifiable characters. Best of all, this difficult parable takes these touchy subjects and examines them under the microscope of modern-day Korea, pulling no cultural punches.
Much to my dismay, some very significant symbolic gestures went under my radar long after the film had ended, and it wasn’t until I spoke with the director herself that I learned what her inclusion of scenes involving seaweed soup meant. Not only is the film an ode to the delicate mindset of women after undergoing an abortion, it is an adroitly tuned piece of film making that boats a superb palette of colors in its cinematography.
I had the pleasure of talking with Director KimJoe about her film, going in-depth about the themes driving the beautiful narrative, and the interesting technical choices she made to bring the stunning cinematography to life:
Busan Haps: The first thing I wanted to discuss with you was your striking use of color. You told me, briefly before we started the interview, that your use of color was not only a personal expression but also an outlet for your experiences while living in India and absorbing their culture and gaining an affinity for their use of vibrant colors. Perhaps you could explain that a bit more.
Director KimJoe: I wanted to show the protagonists ever-changing emotional state through the use of color. At the start of the film we see the color red during the abortion sequence, in a very dark and morbid manner. It’s a dark, blood-red color that could only be a display of her despair. However, as the film progresses, we see the shades of red that she wears get brighter, until the last scene in the film where we see a bright sort of orange-red color that has our protagonist glowing with a bit of contentment. For me, color is emotion, and that was my way of setting the mood and tone for her characters progression. Take my use of purple as well; for example, used much in the same way.
BH: I also noticed that the abortion scene, in the beginning, the color was de- saturated. This is especially noticeable considering the vibrant color palette used in the rest of the film. Was this done deliberately?
Director KimJoe: Yes, that was my intention. It was kind of a flashback, a traumatic memory, and of course it’s not a good memory. I wanted that to feel very gritty and realistic.
BH: It is a very unsettling moment, and we’re hit with it right at the start of the film. Most notable about that scene is her boyfriend waiting in the hallway while the procedure is taking place. His demeanor is so casual, so cavalier and seemingly unsympathetic. He lights a cigarette and just sort of saunters around the hallway. I felt like this wasn’t a preachy, overcritical view of men, but a very honest insight into the fact that we can’t really grasp what a woman goes through when she has that experience.
Director KimJoe: I certainly wanted to approach these matters delicately, without attacking or being overly critical of either gender. I did, however, want to show that men certainly can’t grasp what it’s like for a woman to not only have an abortion, but what a woman experiences when she is pregnant and all of the changes that her body goes through. It’s that deep emotional attachment that grows out of the physical, and it doesn’t take very long. The purpose of her boyfriend’s attitude was to show that there’s simply no way a man can ever fully understand what that is like. During the Q&A, a male audience member asked me “Do you hate men? If not, why portray men as such negative and unsympathetic characters in this situation?” I had to reassure him that I most certainly did not hate men. I just wanted to show this man’s lack of understanding. If he was such a bad person, why would he be there for her during the procedure? A lesser man would cut and run, leaving everything on her. I just wanted to show that he doesn’t understand what kind of changes she’s had to endure due to this abortion. This wasn’t a film that was made to put men down, or some way to show that a transgendered person is capable of being an even better man than the one she had before. This is a film about how people relate to one another, no matter who you are.
BH: What’s very notable is that you manage to tell this story with a 17-minute running time. Some people might see that as a limitation, working within the short-film medium. What sort of challenges did you face with the time constraints placed on the short film?
Director KimJoe: My initial plan for this film was to make it 25 or even 28 minutes in length. However, after I finished shooting, I took a step back and really looked at it. I came to the conclusion that longer was definitely not “better”, in this case, because some of the images that I shot turned out to be a bit stronger (due to subject matter) than what I expected.
BH: When it comes to cinema, it’s all art to me, and I try to leave my political views at the door. Having said that, I never once felt like your film was being preachy. It never felt like it was screaming anti-abortion messages. It just felt like an earnest and very realistic approach to what women go through when they get an abortion. I have to ask though, was that your intention? What’s your stance on the issue, pro-life, pro-choice?
Director KimJoe: If you ask me my personal opinion, I’m pro-choice. A woman does have the right to choose, I believe. In the case of my film, however, that was not my intention. I’d like to think my film is neutral, simply showing what a woman might go through should she choose to have an abortion.
BH: I very much appreciated that about the film, the very objective approach that it takes towards these issues. That’s what’s so great about it, is that it leaves the audience to their own personal views without any attempts at distorting them. I’ve got to go back to the technical questions again for a moment. How much footage was actually shot, versus what ended up in your final cut?
Director KimJoe: I shot for nine days straight, day and night, in the HD format. I think I maybe got roughly 3 or 4 hours, which is quite a lot. All digital, of course, because film stock is so expensive these days, especially for an independent filmmaker like myself. I also felt like I could really achieve those vibrant color palettes more efficiently with the HD format.
Scene from "Whoever You Are"
BH: Going back to gender issues in Korea, as represented in your film. There are times when I’ll go into a public bathroom, and there will be a stall for the women and a urinal for the men. The bathroom itself is not gender defined, kind of unisex in a way. I noticed that, in the bathroom sequences in your film, when the characters are in their respective stalls, you never show whether or not the bathroom is for men, women, or unisex. Was that intentional as well?
Director KimJoe: I think you missed it because one stall was marked for women, and the other stall was marked for men due to the men’s bathroom being under construction. It was a temporary toilet for men. So in this case, the transgendered character is a female who has become a male, so he is a male, so he’s going to use the male toilet. It is common, though, for people who have undergone gender reassignment to be afraid to use the toilet of their new gender.
BH: It would have been easy for any director to progress their relationship through the use of a sex scene. It’s the easy thing, to just show two people having sex onscreen. To refrain from that and show the expression of their feelings in the unique ways that you did is the real challenge. Did you shoot a sex scene and then decide to not include it?
Director KimJoe: I had conceived of such a scene that was in the script, but ultimately decided not to shoot it. This is a relationship that would face a challenge in that aspect, obviously because one of them is transgendered, so to bring other emotional situations to the table is ultimately what I decided to go with.
BH: I think the final scene was particularly sweet, and interesting because you have a shot of the two of them sitting on a bench in the background, yet in the foreground you’ve placed a plant. What motivated you to use the plant in that way?
Director KimJoe: Yet another expression of change. Everything is changing. We can grow beyond our own expectations, and we don’t need to worry too much because change will come with time no matter what we do. We don’t know if their love will continue on beyond that moment, we don’t know how long they will carry on for. We just know that in that moment, they have accepted the change, and have managed to heal each other.
BH: Also, the scenes involving the seaweed soup, and perhaps it’s a cultural thing but I seem to be at a loss on that one.
Director KimJoe: The seaweed soup is eaten both 'when women give birth' and 'when one has a birthday' in Korea. In that sense I wanted to show that my protagonist couldn't have the seaweed soup when she had the abortion, and on her birthday she can have the seaweed soup while reflecting, and it becomes a kind of healing.
BH: I’ve lived in Korea for over 3 years now, and shame on me for not knowing that by now! I should have seen it. Now that I know the significance behind that dish it really helps me to appreciate that scene even more. So fantastic!
Director KimJoe: That was a very important element, for me. Aside from that, you seemed to interpret my film so well. Thank you!
BH: Director KimJoe, thank you so very much for taking the time to answer my questions and discuss this wonderful little film with me. You’ve done a fantastic job, and I wish you the best of luck with your film here at the Busan International Film Festival.