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AN OLD LADY Director LIM Sun-ae

Jan 13, 2020
  • Writerby KIM Su-bin
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“I wanted to bring attention to the problem of sexual abuse of the elderly.

LIM Sun-ae’s debut feature An Old Lady (2019) follows 69-year-old Hyo-jeong (YE Soo-jung), a victim of sexual assault committed by a young man, as she sets out to report the incident and keep up the fight. The film addresses the rights of the female elderly population, who is particularly exposed to sexual violence, as well as the prejudice that society harbors against the older generations. An Old Lady (2019), which brings up a topic that had never been given the treatment it deserves in films, was granted the KNN Audience Award at the 24th Busan International Film Festival and was later screened at the Seoul Independent Film Festival, where it received high praise from the audience. This week we sit down with the creator of this solid drama, LIM Sun-ae, to talk about the film.

How did you come to write An Old Lady (2019)?
One day, I was doing some online searches when I came across an article that said that the sexual assailants of elderly people were committing their crimes unbothered by the prospect of reports because these are insignificant. I was shocked and tried to look up statistics of one kind or another, and so I learned that only 1% of sexual crimes committed against the elderly are reported. That these people could find themselves in a situation where they couldn’t even report the crime they suffered enraged me. I thought it would be nice if this issue could be brought under the spotlight. I used to think sexual crimes against the elderly were rare, but it turns out this is not the case. It is said that, in the whole Dongducheon region (TN: Dongducheon is a small city in the vicinity of the DMZ that was home to up to six US military camps after the Korean War), there is a lot of recidivism among US soldiers who sexually assaulted elderly people living alone. I too, as a creator, wanted to put this problem at the center of public debate.

Considering that you took a course on fiction screenplays at the Korea National University of Arts (K-ARTS), you must have written a lot of scripts in those days. Why did you choose to make your debut with An Old Lady (2019)?
Our lives don’t always turn out the way we planned. I was originally working on expanding the screenplay I wrote as my graduation project, but then I came across that article. That doesn’t mean I worked on this film from that day on, however. I happened to show a treatment of An Old Lady (2019) to a director I know, who, after telling me he liked it, introduced me to someone who is now CEO of a production company. And he too liked it. It meant a lot to me to hear him say, “Let’s roll with this”. It was the first time someone ever told me that one of my original stories was interesting and offered me to work together on bringing it to life. That’s why it felt so good. That was in 2016. Since then, I’ve developed the treatment into a screenplay and pitched it to several production support funds. Receiving the Pitch&Catch Fiction Film Megabox Grand Prize at the 20th Seoul International Women’s Film Festival turned out to be a wonderful push. It made me realize that it sure is a story that speaks to a diverse range of people, not just to us. This was all the more welcome given that this was period when I needed self-confidence.

The protagonist, Hyo-jeong, is a character with a firmly entrenched lifestyle. Come rain or shine, she doesn’t go a day without taking a swim, and she pays much attention to how she dresses. These two aspects are evoked several times through the dialogues too. Did you give yourself some guidelines to create this character?
It seemed to me that if Hyo-jeong had been doing her best to preserve her health and sanity living alone thus far, surely she would have been keeping fit. Even if it’s in the movie, there isn’t that many sports you can do when your joints have gotten weak, is there? So, it was only natural that swimming crossed my mind. Swimming is an image I found appealing as it’s an activity in which people reveal their bodies, whatever their age. There is a scene after the prologue and before the title ends where Hyo-jeong is seen floating around on the surface of the water, as if she was dead. By giving her the appearance of a dead body, like a floating corpse, I wanted to portray someone who has been spiritually wounded. And although the movie starts with the image of someone who seems to have lost all will, just floating around without swimming, later on she eventually regains her will to live. There is a scene in the end where she emits a sigh, albeit a faint one. This stands in opposition to holding your breath under the water. There is even a scene halfway through the film where she is swimming hard in the hope of overcoming her trauma. I also wanted to show a certain prejudice regarding people’s attire. I wanted to point out in a natural way that there is a certain social preconception with the belief that what you wear is determined by your occupation and your age. The scene where Hyo-jeong, wearing nice clothes, climbs to a viewpoint and declaims against the world is also important to me.

Hyo-jeong and Dong-in face their problems head-on, without the help of their entourage. Why didn’t you set up any character who would support them?
Since the beginning I believed a helper shouldn’t become so big it cannibalizes the main plot. I thought it wasn’t so important to know who comes to their help. What is important is how they come to the decision to not give up. I felt it would be better if these two old people who venture into their sixties were in a situation where they could influence each other and find enlightenment as a result.

You have also been working as a storyboard artist since 2001, and notably worked in such capacities on more than 40 titles, including King and the Clown (2005), Miss Granny (2014) and SVAHA : THE SIXTH FINGER (2019). Did this experience help you a lot when you moved to directing?
A lot of film directors appreciate when the storyboard artists feel free to give their opinion. If they end up choosing one of our many suggestions, they must have their own reasons. As far as I am concerned, I came to realize that even if another idea might seem more appropriate in the moment, I ultimately realize once the film is done that the director had the right idea all along. If we were to compare the cut that became the movie with the storyboarding process during preproduction, there would be quite a few differences. I think I’ve gained a lot from this experience. This work made me interested in scenarios too. I ended up attending a fiction film scenario masterclass of the K-ARTS’ film school given by LEE Chang-dong, of whom I was already a fan. Storyboarding is like the root, the asset that has allowed me to make movies up to now, and for that it is extremely precious to me. 

Could you tell us how you first got interested in movies?
I was attending the advertisement design college of Hongik University, and there was a class where we were shooting music videos. During that class, we were directing a music video for an existing song based on my own storyboard. It was the first time I tried drawing a storyboard from start to finish. My contribution was with that storyboard, and the work was really exciting. I understood then for the first time that audiovisual work was interesting. And even among these videos, I realized how much I enjoyed completing a story. I have something of a curiosity, a desire, to live the moment, as long as the interest is there. And so, I took a break from school and started filming. 
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