Director LEE Il-ha of COUNTERS
Aug 28, 2018
- Writerby KIM Su-bin
“I want to make cool movies”
While racial protests against Koreans were raging in Japan, a group of Japanese citizens was willing to put up physical fights against them. They are called the “Counters” (as the opposers of discriminatory protests). This group was first established on Twitter in 2013 and has been active since then. They were the first to successfully push a law prohibiting discriminatory expressions in May 2016. The documentary film Counters closely follows during five years this group of people, and especially a group of men called “Otokogumi”. It won the Grand Prize at the Seoul Eco Film Festival (SEFF), and the Beautiful New Docs Award at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ DOCS), along with many positive reviews. Following A Crybaby Boxing Club (2015), this is director LEE Il-ha’s second documentary.
I heard that you decided to shoot this documentary after experiencing a hatred protest in 2013.
I knew that there were many hatred protests happening through the media. One day, I went to buy some instant noodles at the Korean town in Tokyo’s Shin-Ōkubo and ended up witnessing one of these protests. Interestingly, it felt completely different from what I thought they would, based on what I saw in the media. That’s when I thought that I should shoot a documentary on the protests.
It must have been difficult to participate in the protests and film them at the same time.
While the Zaitokukai (Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai) would receive official authorizations to hold their protest, doing a counter-protest was illegal. That’s why the police would restrict the counter-protestors. Since I was shooting from their side, the police tried really hard to stop me. A lot of my shoots were interrupted, and sometimes they even confiscated my camera. I wanted to shoot the people in the middle of the demonstration, but I would constantly get the police in my frame, so I had to hold up the camera really high. Since the demonstrators would form long lines, it was physically difficult to walk around and capture the events. One group of female counter-protesters called “Onnagumi” played an important role at these protests. Unfortunately, if the film exposes their identities, I’m afraid they would receive unwanted phone calls at their work or get lynched and find themselves in danger. That’s why, even though I have footages of them, I decided to edit them out. If we look at the men to women ratio of people who participated in the counter protests, it was 6 men to 4 women, but it’s mostly men that are portrayed in the film.
The activities in which the Otokogumi get themselves involved may seem quite funny. How did you come to choose this kind of tone for the film?
That’s what it’s like to participate in a counter-protest. Takahashi especially likes to wear Gucci shoes and a Louis Vuitton stylish bag when going to protest. He wants to live in style even if it’s his last day. Also, when they make posters, they want them to be 100 times better than the ones the Zaitokukai have. And if the Zaitokukai sings Japanese pop, the Otokogumi will rap. That’s how they got young people involved. Being a part of a counter-demonstration in itself is cool and is a subculture element. That’s why I decided to keep the film light-hearted while observing them in action.
The CG elements, the animations, and the texts you used stand out. When the Zaitokukai has a heated discussion with the mayor of Osaka, it is presented like a fighting game, while the camera in front of the interviewee transforms into a Transformer-like robot at some point.
The person who worked on the film’s CG effects is a friend of mine who lives in Japan. My friend and I discussed a lot about how to make this film sexy, especially the CG effect of the Transformer. This is the result of 10 different ideas of CG effects we had. That’s how long it took for us to get this result.
Your film alludes to many different topics.
These days, I’ve been reading a lot of posts on the internet regarding the refugee problems. A lot of these comments sound like what the Zaitokukai usually say. They’re groundless rumors. Many instigators distorted data, and the same thing is happening now in Korea too. That personally makes me sad. I wonder, “How could they say the same things as the Zaitokukai?”
Your two films are based on two different groups of protagonists, but they both discuss discrimination against Korean-Japanese.
I’m interested in social issues. And within social issues, I’m mostly interested in individual rights. Just like any documentary filmmaker, I try to observe society. Since I was living as a foreigner in Japan, I was constantly faced with discrimination. However, as a Korean-Japanese, I was discriminated against even in Korea. That’s why I wanted to talk about this group of people, and so I made my first film, A Crybaby Boxing Club. Counters
has a lot of layers, and one of them is about the story of the Korean-Japanese. But beyond that, this is about the civil society that went against the hatred. I wanted to let people in Korea know that there are also quite a lot of people who are studying and living peacefully in Japan.
I heard that you’ve relocated to Korea. Since you’re no longer an outsider, do you think your subjects could change?
Since I’ve lived abroad for so long, I can still get the feeling of being an outsider living in Korea. I might not understand 100% of it, but I can relate because I’ve lived with this perspective in mind for half of my life. I think these perspectives are something documentary films should cover.
You have lived in Japan for 18 years, since 2000.
When I was young, I had the desire to live abroad. Since I could make money while studying in Japan, I decided to go there. I loved films even before I left Korea as a transfer student. I wanted to try something that involved music and films, so I studied films in Japan. While shooting works that combined both music and film, I noticed that I kept on talking about social problems. They featured a lot of characteristics of documentaries, and I soon realized that I was actually shooting documentaries. In my films, I create the images through the music, so music is very important to me.
What made you decide to settle in Korea?
Even while I was living in Japan, I knew I would return to Korea someday. It’s hard to live as a foreigner, even more so when you are a film director; it’s very difficult to get a visa as an artist. That was the biggest issue I had. I also saw my limits as a foreigner. However, the location isn’t important. It’s just that the place of residence has changed. I could easily go back to Japan to work, and I would also like to go to the US or Europe to work too. Borders aren’t such a big issue to me.
What kind of films would you like to make in the future?
Cool films. I always ask myself what defines a good film. Just because a film gets a large audience, it doesn’t mean it’s a good film. In the same sense, just because a film doesn’t find an audience, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Then, is a film that moves you to a good film? However, there are many good films that do not pull on your heartstrings. Film as a medium is specialized in stimulating emotions. Then, are films with strong narratives good films? I don’t believe that stories are essential to audiovisual works. It’s just a technique to bring in audiences. I always question myself about this, and my honest answer is, “I still don’t know.” I believe it’s my homework to find the DNA of films.