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Ko - production in Busan
  • Director JUNG Hyung-suk of THE LAND OF SEONGHYE
  • by SONG Soon-jin /  Jul 10, 2018
  • “I look forward to seeing the impact this unexpected ending will have”

    *This interview contains spoilers for The Land of Seonghye.

    The Land of Seonghye, winner of the Korean Competition Section at this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), is a unique youth film that has never been seen before. The protagonist Seonghye (SONG Ji-in) works day and night to pay for her father’s hospital bills, on top of her own living expenses. She represents the typical poor young living in this day and time. In JUNG Hyung-suk’s second film, which shows Seonghye’s life as if it was documentary, the protagonist suddenly meets good fortune when she is given an unexpectedly large sum of money. How will this affect her life? The questions director JUNG Hyung-suk asks with his film continue to linger in the back of our mind even after the ending credits.

    JUNG Hyung-suk: Currently the manager of a theater company, he also writes, produces and directs films in which he plays as well. In 2017, he debuted at JIFF with his feature film, The Night View of the Ocean in Yeosu (2017), and is currently working on his third feature titled Ensemble with the help of JIFF’s production support program.

    First of all, we would like to know more about the reasons behind your choice of topics for The Land of Seonghye. You tackle the problems of youth unemployment, the minimum standard of living, sexual harassment, and other social issues related to the young generation.

    In June of 2017, a young man was found dead after a month in a kind of very small and cheap one-room apartment that we call “gosiwon”. Ever since this incident, we have seen much more news regarding young people in a state of poverty. Actually, most people don’t make the connection between the words “youth” and “poor”. At first, I couldn’t understand it either. They’re healthy and they are open to doing anything to make a living, so I wondered why they would commit suicides. That’s why I looked up a few cases and found out how serious the situation is. Our young generation must design the future and be prepared for it. They need to invest their time, but the reality is that all their time is spent earning money just to feed themselves. Since I work in theater, I always meet young people who are in financially difficult situations. Personally, I prefer to know who is coming to me asking to play on stage, and so I ask them where they live, where their hometown is, and if they have a place right now. After all these questions, I suggest them to quit if they can’t help it. This is because it’s very hard to make a living as a theater actor. After paying the rent and doing your shift at your second job, which is necessary to make enough money to live, you are too tired to act when you finally go to the rehearsal. It’s something you do with passion, and you must be very invested in it, but that gets exhausting over time. After watching so many young people ending up like that, I started to understand their lives and decided it would be a good thing to address in a film the matter of precariousness among young people.

    An interesting aspect of your film is that it is a black and white film that looks like a documentary.

    I did my best to stay true to the characters and to keep a certain distance from my subject, just like a documentary. Likewise, I omitted the soundtrack, but I paradoxically took the decision to film in black and white, an esthetic choice that is very cinematographic. At first, my plan was to tell this story in a short film. Perhaps that’s why many people asked me if it was necessary to show Seonghye’s daily life in the beginning. However, I found the story’s ending before writing the rest, so it was important to help the audience relate to Seonghye so that they could better understand her decision in the end. And for that reason, it was necessary to show enough of her life in the beginning, and so the project grew into a feature film. The reason why I shot in black and white is for the opposite reason. Showing the world in color would have given too much information, and it would feel too realistic. In such a case, it would have made harder for the desperate situation and the emotions of the protagonist to be conveyed. Also, I thought black and white would better suit Seonghye’s dull and monotonous life.

    The most controversial part of the film is the ending where Seonghye has to make a difficult choice. She gets 500,000 dollars, and instead of investing it like most people would probably do, she decides to spend the money carefully so as not to have to work again.

    What is interesting with that amount of money is that it's almost the minimum cost of living. If you’re frugal, you can live off it for 30 years, but unfortunately, 500,000 dollars isn’t enough to change someone’s life. After choosing this ending, I asked some young people in their 20s and 30s what they would do in her position. Some said they would start a business, while some told me they would study more. When I made them realize it also represents the minimum cost of living for 30 years and so they could as well choose not to work, they all seemed repulsed and said, “Oh, that’s a possibility”. But when I asked people in their 40s, they had no problem agreeing with me. It’s a decision a middle-aged person would easily come up with, but 29-year-old Seonghye made that decision. The reason why I chose this ending is that I wanted to warn this society. When you’re in your teenage years, you benefit from the protection of your parents as you study. As a young person, you start to work and become part of society, and when you get older, you want to be compensated for all your work and spend the rest of your life in comfort. That is what it’s like for most people, and the world revolves around them. But when the social system collapses, the elderly have to work at convenience stores and the young lose their passion. The Land of Seonghye shines a light on the young people who are no longer passionate because they were never given the chance by society. It tells society that we should look at Seonghye’s choice, who would rather give up working, and wake up. However, in each Q&A session, I’ve done, I was disappointed to see that most people were only interested in Seonghye’s difficult life. I wish politicians or the officials at the Blue House, who can influence social policies, will become aware of this issue upon discovering Seonghye’s decision. Luckily, none of the people in their 20s or 30s I’ve met have chosen to give up working. I was a little afraid that my questions would give someone the idea of following Seonghye’s choice. As soon as someone starts to think that way, it’s a staple of our society that’s cracking. And it’s probable that this will soon become a reality.

    The Land of Seonghye is very different from your previous work, the comedy-drama The Night View of the Ocean in Yeosu. Besides movies, you have also directed plays. Is there a common element among all your works?

    First of all, it has to be an interesting story. I choose a theme or a subject matter among those I’m interested in at the moment. That theme can come to mind immediately, as was the case for The Land of Seonghye. In one word, I’m an omnivore. I don’t have one theme or style that is common to all of my works, and I always want to do something different. Among the plays I’ve written, some of them were commercial successes in Daehakro, the theatre district of Seoul, such as the mystery drama Catch Him, as well as the experimental piece Hamlet in the Dark. However, I think I have a style of my own. I incorporate film elements into my plays to show something that’s different from other plays, and, conversely, I use a lot of theatrical elements when I’m making films. This could be seen as my strength as well as my weakness. Just like for The Night View of the Ocean in Yeosu, I’ve heard people say my latest work isn’t like other Korean films.
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