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Producer Lee Junhan of Ajoomma, the First Korea-Singapore Co-production Film

Oct 31, 2022
  • Writerby KIM Subin
  • View1896

"It matters to have the mindset of respecting each other's culture, cinema & industry."

 


 

The film, Ajoomma, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) this year, depicts a happening when a middle-aged Singaporean woman who falls into the K-Wave comes to Korea. While Asian audiences reacted to the adventures of the middle-aged woman, the film was selected as one of the most popular films at BIFF this year. It is the first joint film between Korea and Singapore. Director Anthony Chen, the representative filmmaker of Singapore and who is well-known for the film Ilo Ilo, participated as the producer of the film, and South Korea's Lee Junhan joined as a co-producer with the new director He Shuming in charge of directing. Producer Lee Junhan earned his master's degree in film production in the United States and produced several feature films and short films, including The Strange Ones, screened at Sundance and SXSW. He also participated as a creative producer in the interactive VR film Horizon VR produced by Barunson, building a wide range of filmography. We had an interview with Producer Lee Junhan to talk about the film Ajoomma, which was completed during the Pandemic.

 


 

- Ajoomma met Korean moviegoers for the first time through the 27th Busan International Film Festival.  

= Since the story unfolds from the perspective of a Singaporean middle-aged woman, I was worried about whether the film could appeal to Korean audiences. I was also worried if there were any parts that could not be understood or if Korea in the movie could look different from what the audience thought. However, I am satisfied because the reaction during the premiere was better than expected. There was a lot of laughter in the theater, and the response of the Korean audience to support the growth of the middle-aged woman was memorable.

 

- Each country has a different laughter code for the audience. Did you have any concerns about that?  

= That is still one of the most difficult parts. Ajoomma is not entirely a comedy film. In terms of proportion, I think there are some comic elements here and there in the drama. The director's intention that includes the laughter elements could be understandable, but I wasn't sure if they would actually work the same for the audience. In addition to the script, more elements were added during rehearsals or filming with the actors, and the response to the laughter factor was better than expected.

 

- Making the film had been discussed since the end of 2015. Which stage of the movie did you join? 

= I think it was around 2018 when I joined. My acquaintance, Anthony Chen, a Singaporean filmmaker contacted me. He said he was working on a project called Ajoomma, and looking for a co-producer. He also said he would send me the script if I was interested in it. When I joined, the script was complete enough to shoot the film right away. After I joined, Director He Shuming visited Korea and changed the storylines according to the local situation in Korea, and especially there was a process that the characters of the film were planned and developed in Korea. Except for the characters and places, the framework of the plot was already in place.

 


 

- Tell us the reason you decided to make the joint film. 

= Frankly, before the joint work, I hardly knew much about Singaporean films. So, before starting the work, I watched several films directed by Anthony Chen. Watching Ilo Ilo, I gained trust in the idea that Singapore is producing good films. Also, while reading the script of Ajoomma, I thought it was special in that it was a growth film for a middle-aged woman. There are many coming-of-age films for children and teenagers. On the other hand, middle-aged women have been alienated from film narratives. When I read the script for the first time, I felt some parts were a bit strange, including the point of view of K-dramas. However, I thought there would be a point where audiences in Asian countries could be connected through the theme of 'mom.' The word 'Ajoomma' is a generalized word for middle-aged women in Korea. Women are called by their first name and then when they become mothers, they are often called by their kids' mothers. Instead of the lives they want to pursue, mothers are used to leading lives that support what their families want. My mom is also in her mid-60s, and I think it took a long time for her to learn to express what she wanted, such as where she wanted to go or what she wanted to eat. Since the story depicts growth from 'Ajoomma' who supports the family to an independent 'woman' with subjectivity, I felt that there would be a point where the film could appeal to not only Singaporean audiences, but also Korean audiences, and even Asian audiences.

 

- During the production stage, the film encountered the COVID-19 Pandemic. Was there any difficulty in the co-production process due to the situation?  

= Finding funding and investors was quite challenging, and especially the investment part was problematic continuously. Singapore is a rather small film market with a population of 5.97 million. I asked the OTT platforms for investment, but they didn't want to invest in a market they didn't know well. We had to quantify the performance result to some extent, but it wasn't easy to do that, and that made us struggle with the investment issue. In Singapore, Ajoomma was not a small-budget film. Anthony Chen said he had produced his first feature film at half of the production cost of Ajoomma. In Southeast Asia, Singapore is said to be a rich country, but they thought filming Ajoomma in Korea cost an arm and a leg. In conclusion, the first main investor of the film was the Singapore Film Commission, and we received some funds as equity financing. The film was also produced with the support of the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), the Seoul Film Commission, etc. We received the Korea-ASEAN co-production grant from KOFIC, and that was the first time that KOFIC invested in the work of Southeast Asia. The rest of the investment came after the funding came to some extent through the soft money of KOFIC, the Singapore Film Commission, and the Seoul Film Commission

 

- It is the first joint film between Korea and Singapore. It must have been very challenging for you because there were no precedent cases for that. 

= In any case, making a joint film must be very challenging all the time. Especially, the hardest part is drawing investment. In fact, a movie recoups expenses to some extent in one market and then approaches the next market. However, it is difficult to estimate how much a film will produce a positive result from the POV of Korean distributors or investment companies, and it may be the opposite when viewed from Singapore. However, the market is not as big as the U.S. If it was originally planned as a Korean commercial film, there would be ways to make it happen, but it was difficult in that this was the first case between Korea and Singapore. While attending the Busan International Film Festival this year, I received many suggestions related to co-production projects. Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore contacted me a lot, but I think it seems to be more difficult after experiencing the co-production once. At least, I think there is a need for more systems that can be practically helpful in co-production between countries with co-production treaties.

 


 

- Languages are also an important factor in the co-production process. The characters speak in Korean, Chinese, and English in the film, and we are curious about what languages the actors mainly used to communicate in the field. 

= More than 80% of the filming took place in Korea. Director He Shuming can't speak Korean at all. So we communicated in English and Chinese mostly, but I felt more comfortable with English. The main actor Hong Huifang speaks English and Chinese, but she speaks Chinese more fluently. Starting with the assistant director, we made the team with staff members who can speak foreign languages. We had to make a list of the staff members before shooting the film, but it was not easy to do that considering that lots of the staff members were engaging in loads of drama filming and that they should make them understood in English. Everything the director said, including on-site, rehearsals, and pre-production, had to be translated. After thinking hard about it, I hired a Singaporean translator who majored in acting at the Korean National University of Arts. Along with his job as a translator, he was teaching Actor Kang Hyungseok's lines in Chinese, and since the translator majored in acting, he played a role in filling the gap between the actor and the director. So, it had to take more time to film scenes compared to other films. In the field, whenever the director wanted to say something to the actors or when the actors wanted to suggest the director, they had to go through the translation process. We also recruited two bi-lingual scripters, one checking the lines and the other checking if the shot was okay. Only after the checking process, the director could say 'Okay,' and that's why it took more time to make the film. And that's why we had to prepare for shooting more carefully. If you have a massive budget, you can shoot the same scene 40 times and 50 times, but with a small budget, you had no choice but to schedule it tightly. So, we excluded the situation that we had to decide something new on the spot, proceeded with the shooting as prepared as possible, filmed what was prepared accurately, and moved to the next scene. Although he's a rookie, I think Director He Shuming is a very reasonable person when dealing with the story and filming. He couldn't do everything he wanted, but the director cleverly controlled what he had to do for sure until the end and what he had to compromise under the situation. Since the translation consumed a lot of time, we could only film up to four or five takes for one scene at best. More than that, the assistant director cut it. (Laughs)

 

- Ajoomma was selected as a Singapore entry to the 2023 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. At the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan in early November, it earned 4 nominations, including Best Actress, Best New Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. The film is enjoying favorable reviews from the critics. Can you tell us how you feel about that as a producer? 

= I feel rewarded as much as we suffered. Actor Hong Huifang also cried while watching the film for the first time in Busan, and Director He Shuming also shed tears. Actor Chung Donghwan is nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Horse Award, and he will go to Taiwan soon. I hope the film can get good results at the Golden Horse Awards. Ajoomma was released in Singapore on October 26.

 

- Tell us your overall thoughts on working with overseas filmmakers and cooperation through Ajoomma. 

= It was not an easy task from the beginning to the end. Since each country has a different culture and a production system, the basis should be the efforts to listen to each other better and understand each other's culture. Otherwise, there may be moments when it is difficult to proceed with the work smoothly, whether it is practical or emotional. Fortunately, our production teams were on good terms with each other. Without exchanges and understanding of films, industries, cultures, and people in each country, making a joint film can't be possible and what matters most is to have a mindset that respects each other's films and industries. Nevertheless, it is still a difficult question to target which audience.

 


 

- Tell us the next schedules of Ajoomma. 

= The film was released in Singapore on October 26, and after attending the Golden Horse Award, we can prepare for it to be released in Korea. The distribution has not yet been confirmed, but I think it can be released as early as next year.

 

- After working as an advertising producer, you went to the United States to study film and earned a master's degree in film production (MFA) at Columbia University. Tell us why you started working for films.

= I worked as an advertising producer, and an advertisement is based on the client's needs. So, I thought I wanted to make my own work. I went to the United States because I liked American movies and decided that the U.S. film industry is bigger than the Europe one. Although I majored in film production in detail, directing, playwriting, and producing are all included in the master's program. Originally, since I worked as a producer in advertising, I became interested in planning and producing. That's why I chose to produce films.

 

- Tell us your favorite films. 

= I love films directed by Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve. After COVID-19, lots of cinematic OTT content has been made, and many people ask whether they should go to the theater to watch a movie. The two directors I love are those who show what cinema can do, showing the answer to the question, "Why should I go to the theater?" I watched Dune on IMAX again, which was re-released a few days ago, and even though it was a weekday evening, the seats of the theater were almost full. I felt I could shed tears not because of the narrative or the character but because of the purely audiovisual experience. Whether it's an independent film format or a commercial film format, I like entertaining films.

 

- As a producer, you also participated in the interactive VR feature film, Horizon VR. 

= I'm an alumnus of the school with Director Kang Minji of Horizon VR. Since I didn't produce a VR film before, I wanted to do it. With the support of KAFA, Director Kang Minji and I made a short film called The Five, and Barunson, the production company, liked it. That's how Horizon VR, the first VR interactive feature in Korea, could be born with the support of Barunson. I served as a creative producer and field producer for the film. Until then, the only interactive video I saw was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, so I had no idea about how to work. I got a game storytelling book from Kindle and studied it while making the film. Since we had to create a script from scratch within 3 months, the stages of planning and development were the most challenging. Since all the production staff members are familiar with linear storytelling, planning and developing storytelling similar to video games were the most difficult. In addition, since it is a medium that provides experiences rather than narratives, we had to think a lot about what kind of experiences we should provide. In the filming stage, it was not easy to make a flow chart. In the case of filming a live-action movie or a drama, we already have a workflow and all we need to do is add some creativity to it, but making VR content didn't have standardized video grammar or workflows, so we had to be the pioneer to make them. I felt like we were making a film in the Georges Méliès or David Wark Griffith era. So, it was fun and stressful at the same time.

 

- What are you working on now?

= We are preparing for a female spy action film called Mission. We signed the contract at a time when the script was corrected about 15 times, and we changed the direction of the story, and the new script has been altered 2 or 3 times. We plan to send the script to film companies in Korea and the U.S. starting in the winter. At the same time, I'm working on some independent films and commercial films with low budgets. I also have a global project that has been proposed as a line PD. I'm reading the script of a joint film proposed in Busan, and I am also looking for the IPs on the Busan Story Market to find something that interests me. I'm working with all the possibilities open.

 

- What kind of project or subject matter are you interested in? 

= I want to work with entertaining charms, fun worlds and characters, and well-organized stories, which will give an experience that only cinema can provide. On the other track, I want to produce independent films with the themes needed to be discussed in Korea now.

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