The Flame that Kindles – Minji Kang (part 2)

The second and final part of a most comprehensive interview, Minji Kang dives deep in her other short films, discusses ‘The Loyalist’ in great detail, and reveals her future plans.

Moving on to another film, the first work of yours I saw was ‘Her Smile’. The story of a young girl searching for family was difficult enough to deal with, but there were certain twists that made it a bit more challenging. How did you get the idea to make that film?
I wish I could remember a particular encounter that sparked the idea, but it all just happened on an odd afternoon. An abstract thought came to me, I don’t remember exactly how clear the thought was, but it provoked some strange feeling inside me. I wanted to find out what it was, so I started to writing. A few hours later, what I wrote was the story of ‘Her Smile’.

What were the challenges you encountered in directing a film like ‘Her Smile’? I don’t imagine it to be an easy film to direct, especially on an emotional level.
The most difficult challenge was how much to show the troubling relationship between Sumi and this strange man who she’s been waiting for. Eventually, at the end we realise the man is actually her father. But, I was very fortunate to work with Christine Yeh who was willing to explore the character and the circumstance in depth and to portray the soul of the character, Sumi. At that time, she was studying psychology and acting was for her a fascinating platform where she could intensely experience the hidden human psyche and secret mind. And of course, she is incredibly talented.

It doesn’t strike me that the ordeal of the main character is a particularly unique one. What kind of research went into the film? Did you interview others in a similar plight, for example?
At that time I was reading books on emotionally absent parents, and the ways in which their children deal with the emptiness in their hearts. Often times, those parents don’t care or don’t have the time to care about what their children are going through, but always they force the children to do what they want. The setting of ‘Her Smile’ might be an extreme one, but the heartfelt feelings Sumi lives with express what needs to be dealt with, and the ending raises the questions “Why” and “How”, which I left open for audience to fill in with their own words.

There’s an interesting power dynamic that remains fluid throughout all your films. At any given moment in time, each character would wield greater influence over the other. I wonder whether this is a deliberate tactic from your side, so to speak, in the creation of conflict for your films.
That’s a wonderful observation; your keen eyes delightfully surprise me! Within the given circumstances, dramatic relationships and dynamics between characters are vital for me because those forces have a greater effect on their choices. Why they live the way they do is always a captivating riddle for me, but I don’t construct my stories in a logical, cerebral way. I always follow the character’s motivations and emotions in order to further their challenges and battles within.

In ‘The Unpardonable Night’, I started to see strains of overt representations of faith. In particular, the statue outside of the mansion appears to be one of the Virgin Mary, a representation which I also detect in another film of yours, ‘The Loyalist’. How important is religion to you, and, at least on a conscious level, what kind of role does it play in informing the direction of your stories?
Religion and art have been spellbinding spheres for me because of my endless questions about the creator and creation. How religion and art impact and have impacted our lives throughout history captivates me. When you look closely, religion and art are actually a greater part of the society we live in. Faith and passion are definitely what I’m drawn to, and undoubtedly, they breathe in my films. Yes, in my films, I often ask the questions: How can faith and passion alter one’s life and choices? How can good faith sometimes metamorphose into blind faith? And if so, under what circumstance? There are many more “endless” questions. I’m still trying to find the answer to how important religion is to me, or trying to understand. In my next film, ‘ILLICIT: Motherless Savages’, you’ll witness a much complicated presence of religion.

Your short films are already complicated enough! It’s a complication which I enjoy, though, because in films like ‘The Unpardonable Night’, there are hints of a bigger picture we’re not allowed to see. In fact, there are points (silent looks here and there) that make me feel like the film was lifted almost directly from a feature film. I suppose that same description could also be applied to a lot of your films: they’re slices of feature films on a short film plate.
Yes, more than any other film, ‘The Unpardonable Night’ does feel like a slice of feature film. There is so much going on in that story, but we are also dealing with a short duration of time on the screen. It was also a challenge to create a contained world with intricate characters for a short film, while also dealing with complex subtext and silent but power-drunken dynamics. As you described, the silent looks between characters are definitely a clue to a bigger picture not presented in the film. Perhaps the rest of the story will be included in my later films, because by now, I realise I’m searching for answers to a similar thesis in all my films, whether it’s a film I wrote, or one written by someone else.

Generally speaking, what is your thought process like in developing stories? Do you conceive of a bigger idea before cutting it down to size, or is there a different approach here?
Usually, the story springs from the characters, and then I find worlds for them (location and production design). ‘The Unpardonable Night’ is actually the only film that I did not write. My dear collaborator, Alvaro R. Valente, was the writer and the producer of the film. When he had the script, he asked me to direct the story. There were many elements that I was already familiar with, and I liked the world he created. I wanted to bring it to life.

It’s funny you mentioned that, because ‘The Unpardonable Night’ that the location and production design leapt off the screen. The mansion truly haunted as a character in its own right, while certain props like the paintings added more potential for deeper readings.
I enjoy designing films so that I can bring the world closer to my own vision. Usually, this process happens spontaneously while I’m constructing the story, or in this case, while I was reading and getting familiar with the world Alvaro created in the script. Then, I further developed the story with the visuals. I usually create a visual wish booklet for every visual element in the film – from colour to costume details, production design, and location, along with “mood” visuals. The visual wish booklet always helps me communicate with the cinematographer and the production designers about the location and such.

Well, the house itself was fantastic.
True! It’s a great location to begin with – we shot at the Hempstead House at the Sands Point Guggenheim Mansion. It’s truly a fascinating place. Prior to choosing this location, we saw almost every mansion possible in the Long Island area. I was looking for a castle-like or perhaps cathedral-like location that could create the particular feeling that I got while reading the script. And of course, once we found this stunning location, more ideas came into the picture.

In an interview with Stage 5, you mentioned that ‘The Loyalist’ was originally developed as a feature film. What was the reasoning behind the decision to change it into a short film?
I was writing a feature-length version of ‘The Loyalist’ in my second year at Columbia University when I decide to write something closer to me personally. I happened to come across an old essay that I wrote at Tabor Academy for the all-school speech meet. It was about my impression after visiting the Berlin Wall, expressing how one day, my country would be unified just like Germany. I wanted to write something closer to my origin, but in a more dramatic setting. I wanted to write a story about a woman who is tormented because she has one foot in the East and another in the West. I also wanted this to be a family story, so that the story can illuminate a universal theme. Then, by the time it was time to make a thesis film (Columbia only allows a short film to be a thesis), I wanted to make a short film version of the feature. The genre of the film was modified because the feature is a spy-thriller. I wanted the short version to be a character-driven, dramatic piece that studies the characters’ interior emotions and struggles.

You also mentioned that finding actors capable of speaking with a convincing North Korean accent was difficult. Can you illuminate this casting process in more detail?
We filmed ‘The Loyalist’ in Upstate New York, which I used as a base, and where my collaborators were located. I looked for Korean actors in New York, but I was unable to find actors who were right for the daughter and father roles.

However, because there have been some Korean films portraying North Korean characters, some of the South Korean actors were already trained or have learned to speak with a North Korean accent. So, I reached out to a casting director in South Korea, recommended by a close friend of mine who is also a film director.

I flew out to South Korea six months before production and met Kwon Hyuk-poong for the father’s role. He’s really a renaissance man. He has such a broad knowledge base and so many experiences, and not to mention, he is a veteran actor who often works with the Korean director, Bong Joon-ho. Mastering a North Korean accent wasn’t a difficult process for him, and he prepared the role perfectly. His dedication and passion for film always amazes me.

As for Jung Woorim, I actually met her at John F. Kennedy International Airport a few days before filming. Of course, by then we had been communicating details by phone for about a month. Around that time, the actress who was going to play Shilla had to drop out because of a schedule conflict, and I already had to be back to New York. But, the casting director, Noe Chi-Hyung, helped me find Jung Woorim within a day. Jung had just started university to study acting, and she definitely had a freshness on screen, and her performance was very subtle and organic, which I truly loved. I saw great potential in her, beyond words. Everything happens for a reason, and it would have been a very different film if it weren’t for Jung Woorim.

Lastly, I got to know Kim Jongman, who played the role of the North Korean driver/assassin, through a Korean actor friend of mine. At that time, Jongman was studying acting in New York.

There’s a lot of Korean actors in New York…
What a small world it is! After Jongman was casted, we found out that Jongman had acted with Hyuk-poong in the Korean feature film, ‘Eye for an Eye’. Making ‘The Loyalist’ with this amazing trio was the most unforgettable, spectacular memory!

Fantastic. What was it like, though, directing these actors? I mean, one was very new while the others have a lot of experience. Did you have to change your approach?
We all loved talking about the film and the story for hours. I shared everything I imagined, felt, and knew about the characters. Through the process of profound conversation, our understanding of the world of ‘The Loyalist’ ripened, and allowed us to challenge ourselves even further, and to try to achieve the most perfect results possible. They were incredibly gifted, sentient beings, and every second with them sharing our passion for ‘The Loyalist’ was truly breathtaking, especially when the camera was rolling. I’m truly grateful for their hard work and love for the film. I was fortunate to work with such exceptional actors.

Was this the “strong trust platform” you mentioned elsewhere?
‘The Loyalist’ was a difficult production, but I’ve previously collaborated with some of the crew who took important roles. They already understood how I operate the production and communicate throughout the filming. They came back to collaborate with me because they trusted and believed in the vision I had for the film. I also wanted to collaborate with them again, because they surprised me with their strong passion. Even some of the new key members, they quickly adapted to the atmosphere on set. What I meant by “strong trust platform” was that the atmosphere was filled with the same, driven goal. It’s truly wonderful to walk with them through the moments of creation.

Were there any extra sensibilities or issues you had to deal with as a South Korean filmmaker portraying North Korean characters?
While making the film, in early 2014, the North Korean regime was changing and apprehension arose around the world through the media and news. The timing of making ‘The Loyalist’ felt oddly flawed, especially when the film ‘The Interview’ with James Franco and Seth Rogen was released. Therefore, I tried to be careful not to touch any political issues that might provoke further complications. However, I went into making it, because yes, the character’s social identity in ‘The Loyalist’ is North Korean, which is an enormously important element of the film, but the story is really about a father and daughter who don’t have the choices and freedom that we have. History repeats itself. This situation has been witnessed in many countries over the course of history, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps that’s why the film was well received and awarded in film festivals in those regions, because they understand the tormented, heartfelt situation Shilla and her father have to go through in the film as the film unveils the complexity of patriarchy, tradition and horror in a family.

Yes, again, that theme of tradition, family and such factors arise in this film. At the same time, I also detect a strong undertone related to the idea of the home and nationhood, almost equating one to the other. How deliberate is this?
When I was making ‘The Loyalist’, I was about to turn 30 years old, and I realised I have spent half of my life in America. I questioned myself, who I have become, where I’m heading, and what “home” and “roots” mean to me. Also, my long academic journey was coming to an end, which meant my student visa would no longer be valid. Although I’ve spent half of my life in America, I’ve always been a legal alien. So more than before, I thought of and questioned “the idea of the home” and “nationhood”. Even though now I’m holding an artist green card that allows me to create films in Los Angeles, transitioning to this phase has not been uncomplicated emotionally. But, after all, I find myself much stronger, with clear perspective and purpose.

It’s complex because my entire family still lives in Seoul, Korea, and I have all kinds of memories growing up there. No matter where I am, no matter how old I become, I’ll always have one foot in the East and the other in the West.

Much like Shilla.
Yes. I believe it is my weight to carry, whatever complex feelings may be evoked while I’m standing in between, perhaps it is one of the flames that kindles my creative mind and the new stories where I seek unity and peace, “home”.

In an interview with Arpa Film Festival, you talk of correlating your own experience as an international student with that of the main characters in ‘The Loyalist’. How much of your good self is projected on the screen?
The circumstances of main characters in ‘The Loyalist’ are rather dramatic because of her social identity and the conflict that arises within. But yes, absolutely, a lot of myself is in her personality. Also, having gone through boarding school like Shilla in ‘The Loyalist’, the world she’s in is definitely closer to my heart. She has to make a choice if she should go back to her motherland or stay in the West. I also had to stand on that crossroads. But of course, where we come from is very different, even though we could be sisters.

How so?
Perhaps the character Shilla was incubated, whereas I desired to see myself in a more dramatic situation in order to vindicate my decision when I was standing at a turning point in my life. When it comes to expressing myself through art and film, I always stay honest and true to inspirations. Therefore, I think it’s natural that part of myself always breathes on the screen.

With all these films about family and such, how have your own family reacted to your films?
I’d also be curious to know what they really think about some of the films I’ve made. They’ve only watched some of my films, not all of them, but no one wanted to talk to me about them. When my father saw ‘The Loyalist’, he commented that he couldn’t believe it’s a film I made. I don’t know exactly what he meant, but he didn’t explain further. But, I got the sense that he was surprised that I actually do make films.

Has any of them been screened in South Korea?
The only film screened in South Korea is ‘The Unpardonable Night’ when it was invited to Pucheon Fantastic International Film Festival in 2012. Some of my family saw the film, but no one was interested in knowing anything further. None of this matters to me, because I’m not looking for anyone’s approval or permission to for what I should put on the screen. But again, I’m curious, and would very much like to talk about my films with them, whenever they’re ready.

Coming back to ‘The Loyalist’, the film itself certainly has a very slick technical quality; at one point, as the general walks up the stairs at his daughter’s boarding school, we hear the footsteps of an army battalion, marching. How involved do you get in the sound design of your films? Is it something you partake in directly, or do you delegate to your sound designer?
Thank you! And yes, when it comes to sound, music, colour, production design, even lighting, what I want is very clear and particular in every frame. I welcome their creative suggestions, but I don’t just rely on them. I always go for what I felt, what I saw, what I heard when I first envisioned the film. I’m stubborn with my visions and voice, but I’m not unreasonable or controlling. I love serendipity and collaboration with others. From the very beginning, from the forming a story stage to mastering and completing a film, I’m closely hands-on in all aspects while I also respect and welcome the creative collaborators’ advice and propositions.

It would not have been out of place as a feature film. Would you still be interested in adapting it sometime down the line into a feature?
I dream of making a feature version of ‘The Loyalist’, but it is not going to be my next film, as I’m already four years into trying to bring the story ‘ILLICIT: Motherless Savages’ to the screen. My co-writer and I are in the final stage of locking down the latest draft at the moment, and we’re hoping to bring it into the production stage by the fall of 2018.

Can you tell us a bit about the story?
It wonders why we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The film also presents the re-occurring theme in my films – breaking away from tradition, and the freedom to understand what’s valuable in life. The film analyses the complexities and terrors of adolescence and growing up in an allegorical, fictional world. The story centers on the character of Mona, a blind, yet free-spirited young woman who dares to act on her dreams and elude her seemingly idyllic, but darkly oppressive household.

I want to offer the audience something that’s both fearful and comforting. By the end of the film, I want them to feel cinematic catharsis for Mona and emotional resonance in her shoes. Why do good intentions do not always succeed? I wonder if they (the audience) could rewrite the tragic ending of ‘ILLICIT’ into a bright, hopeful, profound one, by trying to make meaningful choices in their own lives. Can we transform the most horrible into the most beautiful? And eventually, can we find “What’s worth living for?”

Many filmmakers with an extensive body of short films have the objective of directing a feature film in mind. Yet in your case, you have actually done it. Can you tell us a little bit more about ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’?
Yes, ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’ is a feature-length film that I directed exactly ten years ago while I was a student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a film that taught me tremendously important lessons. We filmed for 59 days over five months both in Savannah, Georgia and Chicago, Illinois. I think that experience was the greatest directing mentor to me, and certainly the best film school on set – I learned so much while making that film. ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’ also taught me that I needed to strengthen my art and craft of storytelling, and that was when I decide to go to graduate school to study film directing and writing at Columbia University.

Beyond some clips from the film released online, there’s little information about it. Can you update us as to the status of the film?
Though the film genuinely taught me many lessons, I wasn’t happy with the completed film. Looking back, I think tried to say too much in one film. I was young, and my ability to speak about a story of that length in depth was premature. I rushed into making it when the story needed more preparation and work before filming. That’s why I’m more careful than ever before going into the filming of my next feature ‘ILLICIT’, which I’ve been shaping the stories in for quite some time now.

Frankly, ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’ is probably the only film I don’t wish to release. Sometimes, I believe there is no reason to bring the past into the present. Nonetheless, I’m very glad that I made ‘Actually, Adieu My Love’ because in all the films I made afterwards, I was able to portray the film in the way I imagined, and I give lots of credit to the making of ‘Actually Adieu My Love’.

Let’s finish up with a quote of yours. “Art opens us up to new and exciting conversations. It elicits emotions and questions.” If you could pick one question that resonated the loudest with you through your discovery of art and your own arts, what would it be and why?
Creating is an active transformation to make the invisible visible and yes, once it’s visible, it elicits emotions and questions as it invites us to exciting conversations.

Lately I’m hearing the question “What differences can I bring?” the loudest, and it’s a question I’m still pondering. Perhaps, when I stop contemplating, I’ll get to find out why.

Read part one of our inner view here. Minji’s film ‘The Loyalist’ can be seen here. Find out more about her films at her website. We previously wrote about her films here, while our friends at CQ Magazine published her article on gender and identity.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training 
Profile image credit: Don Q Hannah

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