LIGHT FOR THE YOUTH director SHIN Su-won - Exposing the True Face of Korean Society
Nov 10, 2020
- Writerby KIM Su-bin
“I wanted to portray the collective anxiety of millennials.”
Jun (YOON Chan-young) is an 18-year-old working as an intern at a call center for a credit card company. He has to wear diapers as he is not allowed time to go to the restroom. One day when he was working overtime late at night, Jun suddenly leaves to collect personally arrears from a card owner and disappears, only for him to turn up as a corpse. The director of the call center, Se-yeon (KIM Ho-jung) was the last person to have contact with Jun, when she exhorted him on the phone to get the money one way or another. A few days later, she receives a message from none other than Jun. The movie Light for the Youth portrays several generations that are keeping their heads above water in a demanding labor market. The young people in this movie overlap those of SHIN Su-won’s sophomore film PLUTO (2013), and the bleak scenery of the call center conjure up Madonna (2015) and similar environments. I met director SHIN Su-won, who has time and again presented works that cast light on the bare face of society, to learn more about her latest film.
After the release of Glass Garden in 2017, the latest additions to your filmography are tvN’s drama special Mulbineul and the short film Dancing with Wind.
I was doing preproduction work on Light for the Youth, but financing didn’t work so well. I was completely exhausted when the offer for Mulbineul (2019) came in. They proposed me to direct a telefilm based on someone else’s script, and they already had the money for it. After that, I started working on Light for the Youth directly after Mulbineul (2019), when I received a support grant from KOFIC. And this short film, Dancing with Wind (2019), is what I made after wrapping production on Light for the Youth. The plan was to have three films from different directors (SHIN Su-won, LEE Dong-eun and OH Sung-yun – ed.) translated into eight languages by the Korean Culture and Information Service of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and show them at Korean missions overseas. I made a movie on the theme of dance after someone suggested to me that it would be nice for it to include the Korean concept of “heung” (an emotion of passionate and unfaltering jubilation that is said to be an important component of Korean identity – ed.). This is the story of a salary woman who meets a mudong – a dancing child entertainer from the Joseon Dynasty – and dances in the woods. Most recently, I completed filming on the feature film Homage. This film is about the search for the two lost films of HONG Eun-won, a woman director who was active in the 1960s. I plan to start editing after the release of Light for the Youth.
Light for the Youth is a film that reflects the realities of the labor market in Korea, and in that respect is more in line with your earlier works such as Pluto and Madonna, which dealt with social issues, than with your previous work Glass Garden, which had a distinct fantasy tone.
The fantasy genre, with all its CGI, is quite difficult, as I found out. Even so, this is a territory I’m still eager to explore. When I started working on Light for the Youth, I was greatly influenced by the Guui Station accident (a young subcontracted worker was killed when he was hit by a train while repairing alone the platform screen doors in Guui Station, in Seoul). This hit me close to home. It was shocking to know he wasn’t even 19 years old when he died on the job. Jun, the protagonist of one of my previous films PLUTO (2013), was also 18. When I had to come up with a name for the main character in Light for the Youth, I naturally thought of Jun. I once saw a TV documentary program that did a special episode on the death of 18-year-olds. In that documentary, I learned that a female student was working for a call center when she committed suicide, and so I settled on setting the story at a call center. The film being based on actual events, I went for a realistic tone. I met with call center workers, as well as apprentices and teachers from Meister High Schools (vocational schools based on Germany’s dual apprenticeship model - ed.), and job seekers, and did a lot of research and interviews.
The moment when a mysterious parcel is delivered gives the story an air of whodunit fiction.
I like that way of doing. I have been told by someone who watched my movies that they often use the concept of seeking out people who have been forgotten. This film also naturally brings an additional mystery component. Se-yeon lives a mundane life, commuting to work every day. And then, one day, Jun disappears. She might have thought, “He probably just ran away, and I didn’t do anything wrong.” After all, isn’t it common for us to live our lives without actually acknowledging that a single word or an insignificant action could hurt someone? Se-yeon’s life starts to fall apart when she receives the letter. It was in order to express this that I decided to add a touch of mystery.
Even though Se-yeon, as a character who seems to represent the older generation, encourages Jun, she also nags him when he is beleaguered. How did you want to portray this character?
I think that as you get older you get weaker, and that is why you become one of these self-entitled middle-aged managers who try to force their opinions onto others. You cover your ears, close your eyes and keep your mouth shut in order to protect yourself. Se-yeon too is usually a nice superior, but she sure doesn’t look like it when circumstances go against her self-interest. This is a scene you can often see.
Se-yeon’s youth as a factory worker is also briefly evoked through a photograph.
Everyone lives without remembering what it was like for them when they were young. The role of this photo is to introduce the memories that were kept in that box. I thought there would be something being evoked by doing so. In fact, I wasn’t sure about whether or not to use this scene, but I thought it was important to bring up that memory, that there was a time in the past when she was just like Jun.
I’m curious about what you had in mind when you started working on Light for the Youth.
I was thinking that young people in their twenties maybe have pent-up frustration because of this world. I thought it would be good if I could convey that unvented generational resentment in the movie. I hope that the movie manages to capture the collective anxiety millennials have.
Was there anything you wanted to experiment visually with this film?
There is the online study group session that was made with a webcam turned on. It was a situation that I had imagined before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now Zoom has become part of our life. This scene was included in order to depict young people in their twenties trapped in their rooms for various reasons, in the sense that they communicate only virtually, without meeting each other.
The Korean title, A Place in the Sun for the Youth, is also the Korean title of the 1951 Hollywood drama film A Place in the Sun. I am curious about the reason for this title.
I thought this was paradoxical since the characters who appear in this film are overshadowed. That said, I was worried that the reference might be too old. I thought about changing the title, but the English title, Light for the Youth, is so good. People get warm when they receive sunlight, but there is no direct light in the movie. The only scene that is well-lit is the scene where Myeong-ho and Jun bask in the sunlight on the shore of a lake. Other than that particular scene, I always used the light getting in from outside. Jun is also shown looking at the light filtering through the blinds when he works in the call center office, and escape rooms aren’t places where there is much lighting. I wanted to go for a paradoxical title.
You have tried your hands at TV series with the drama Mulbineul.
There was a certain comfort as it was broadcast on KBS1 (the main channel of public broadcaster KBS – ed.). When your work opens in theaters, you are stressing a lot about the commercial results, but since there was no such thing with this project, I was at ease. On the flip side, I regretted not being able to see it on a big screen, but it was eventually screened at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, and the two actors KIM Ye-eun and JEON Seong-woo even walked the red carpet.