A current visiting fellow at the University of Auckland, Korean filmmaker Park Kiyong sat down with The Lumière Reader’s ZHOU TING-FUNG (an editor on Moving) to discuss the conception and making of his documentary response to the Christchurch earthquakes.
Director Park Kiyong would not be too pleased with me if I were to take the liberty of romanticising his work, or even more perilously, his temperament.
His previous feature films, Motel Cactus (1997) and Camel(s) (2002), are meticulous, minimalist observations of human disenchantment. Oscillating between monotonous despair and precarious expectancy, it is only by coincidence that the characters in Park’s films stumble, for a brief moment, upon the possibility of hope, and though these moments might linger, they ultimately unravel and reveal themselves as nothing more than sad lament. His characters are resigned to their unhappiness.
Park’s latest film is a documentary. Titled Moving, it is made up almost entirely of a single interview with an immigrant Korean couple in Christchurch, who speak openly and affectingly about the extraordinary hardship of their life New Zealand, their loss during the earthquake, and their spiritual struggle in coming to terms with that loss. Diverging from his previous films, Moving ends on a note of resilience, a thematic echo about that which sustains a migrant’s existence: the hope for a better life.
I met Park Kiyong almost a year ago, an incurably nervous film student hauled into the South Korean director’s office as miraculous proof that there existed a student who had not only heard about, but had actually seen, a Yasujiro Ozu film.
He was on a sabbatical of sorts, having spent the last ten years as the executive director of the Korean Academy of Film Arts. In my desperate attempt to appear inscrutable, I did not hear him offer me a seat. Perhaps because he feared me mute, and probably convinced that I was dumb, he signaled toward the chair. Inexplicably, I failed to respond, proving him to be correct on the second charge. I am still not sure how it is that I eventually found my way onto the chair in his office that day.
Undeterred by this misunderstanding, he invited me back to his office the next week to continue to talk about films. Perhaps he saw that I was infatuated with the fleeting, transient moments of humanity that could be captured on celluloid. Perhaps he recognised something of himself in it. Or perhaps he simply wanted to verify that I had actually seen an Ozu film.
When I brought up the idea of interviewing him for The Lumière Reader, I also asked him to choose a spot for the interview, which he felt best represented him, literally or figuratively. I fancied that he might choose a shaded bank under a camphor tree, where dappled specks of sunlight might penetrate the leaves, or a dilapidated apartment block, with the intrusive groan of the city weighing on us like an anonymous calamity.
He chose his office.
It could be interpreted as stoicism, or simple pragmatism, but to me, there is also mischief. To me, at the heart of Park Kiyong’s films is not despair, but compassion, a compassion that emerges like the a blushing adolescent, a blush that stings no matter how assiduously one tries to conceal it.
Maybe, to Park Kiyong, this would romanticise both him and his work too much. I hope he will forgive me this excess.
* * *
ZHOU TING-FUNG: What gave you the idea to make Moving?
PARK KIYONG: I was in Christchurch. The first time I was in Christchurch was last November; I was there to do research on this Korean family, a suicide story. I liked Christchurch quite a lot.
As soon as I heard about the February earthquakes, I thought about going back. I thought I should make something about this, about the lives of Korean immigrants in Christchurch after what happened with the earthquake.
I called my friend, who is a journalist for a local Korean newspaper. I called him every week, to find out what the situation was. Then in early April, he gave me a sign that it would be okay for me to come down.
I thought about how I should approach this story, how I would construct the documentary. I didn’t want to make a conventional documentary about the earthquake, I wanted to try something new, and I had this vague idea to make a film essay. But I knew it depended on who I could interview. I didn’t know who I would interview, all the interviews were being arranged by my journalist friend who was down in Christchurch. I only had this very vague idea.
I was disappointed when I first arrived in Christchurch, because everything had been cleared out. The red zone, the downtown area, was barricaded and I couldn’t get in. All I could do was walk around this barricade and look into the downtown area, which was seriously damaged.
When the interviews started, the interviews that my friend had arranged turned out to be very dull. Either very short, or very dull. Almost everybody told me the same story. All they said was, we were doing something, and then the whole building was shaking, so we ran out, and that was it.
ZTF: You mentioned that what attracted you was Christchurch, this location or place. When you approach a film, do you usually start with an idea of a place?
PK: I think I could say that I start with the idea of a place. My first feature film as a director, Motel Cactus, the whole idea for that film started with a motel room and my second feature film, Camel(s), I also started with the location. One day I was passing by, I was actually driving on the highway, I saw this newly developed resort area by the west coast (of Korea). I knew about it, but I had never been there. I was just passing by on a winter afternoon, and I was curious about it, so I made a U-turn and spent a few hours there, just wandering around. I was very much intrigued by the location and I wanted to make a film there, so that’s how that started.
I think it was quite similar with Christchurch. Of course, if there hadn’t been an earthquake in February, I might not have made this documentary, but I still would have made something in Christchurch. I find Christchurch very interesting, in many ways. I like Christchurch—I had this feeling, this strange feeling, about the place.
Christchurch is the only place I visited in the South Island, so I can’t compare it to the other cities in the South Island, like Dunedin or Invercargill. But the cities I visited in the North Island, Wellington, Tauranga, Napier, didn’t interest me very much. Nothing was really special.
Even Napier was not really special, even though there’s the Art Deco architecture…
ZTF: I’m very fond of Napier.
PK: I like Napier. But it was not as exciting as I expected. Firstly, it was too small, everything is contained in one block. And this Art Deco architecture—it’s interesting, but not that interesting.
For Christchurch, maybe its because I like European cities. I felt Christchurch was the most interesting. Its architecture, it’s atmosphere, everything—the Avon River, it’s not really a river, it’s a stream, but anyway, I found everything to be interesting. It stayed with me.
Also the name of the city, Christchurch. I read in the papers that the first Korean immigrants who decided to settle in Christchurch, it was because of the name. Many Christians immigrated to Christchurch because of this name.
ZTF: The film itself is very minimalist, very simple in its construction. Why did you decide to make the film in this way?
PK: Well, I didn’t decide to make it in this way. It just happened. When I say I didn’t want to make a conventional documentary, the reason I say this, or the reason I thought in this way, was because I wasn’t sure I could make an interesting conventional documentary. I was a one-man band, and it was my first documentary, so I wasn’t very sure about the construction, structure-wise, and also dealing with interviews. After I shot the interviews and images in Christchurch, until I came back to Auckland to edit, I wasn’t really sure how this documentary would end up. I still wasn’t sure about the interviews, but as soon as I decided I would only use the last couple, the structure came very naturally.
ZTF: I think it was very daring of you to have shot all these different interviews, and then to have decided to focus the entire documentary on just this one couple, and not just that, but to clearly have the documentary as a single seemingly uninterrupted interview. What gave you the courage to make that decision?
PK: Well I can’t say it was courage; it was just a matter of choice. As I said, I was not sure about the story, but as the interviews were going on, I became worried, because the interviews were very dull. I can’t make a documentary, a film, out of dull interviews. As the interviews went on, I was thinking, in my mind, what should I do? After day four or day five, I complained to my friend,. I said, “I need to talk to you seriously.” Until then I hadn’t said anything to him about the interviews. So, we sat down at a Korean Restaurant for dinner, and I told him, all the interviews so far, were unusable. He was shocked. He’s not a filmmaker, so I can’t blame him. He thought that whoever he arranged, I could interview them and use them in the film. He thought nothing was wrong, that everything was going okay. I told him, “I’m in trouble.” When I told him that, he said, “No, we are in trouble, because I told these people that they would be in a film! If I go back and tell them that they won’t be in a film, I’ll be in trouble.”
I told him: “You must find somebody else, because all the people I’ve interviewed so far are not interesting. They’re good people, but their stories are not interesting.” So he made some calls, and he found this young woman, a single mother. She was divorced recently. She was not willing to give an interview, but he pushed her very hard, because he thought a single mother was more interesting… The next afternoon, he brought me to her house, but she didn’t want to give me an interview. We tried to persuade her for an hour, but she just wouldn’t do it. She told me, you can’t film me, but if you really want me to tell my story, you can record [the audio], but only my voice can be used.
So I did the interview with only [audio] recording. Of course, I couldn’t use it. It’s a documentary, I can’t use this. Her story was much more interesting than the others, but still, not what I wanted. I complained to my friend again, and he was desperate to find somebody interesting for me. Then he found this couple. Actually, he didn’t find this couple—he knew them before—but because their situation was so harsh, he didn’t dare to ask them to talk in front of a camera. But as things were becoming quiet, I was becoming harsher on him, and he thought, okay, why not give it a try? So he contacted this couple and surprisingly they agreed. I interviewed the couple on the day I came back to Auckland.
ZTF: What attracted you to this couple? Do you think their experience is representative of the migrant experience, or do you think it is the exception, given how harsh what they describe is?
PK: Well, when I thought of making this film in Christchurch about Korean immigrants’ experience of the earthquake, in terms of style, I didn’t want to make a conventional documentary. At the same time, content-wise, I didn’t want to tell a conventional story about Korean immigrants living in Christchurch and affected in this way by the earthquake. Of course, I had no answers because I didn’t know who I would be interviewing.
What attracted me to this couple was not only that they experienced this very difficult time as immigrants in Christchurch, but also, I think I should say, their ability for storytelling. Both of them [Jung Jin-suk and Lee Kyung-mi] are very good storytellers. They know how to tell stories. They were very open-minded, and didn’t hesitate to tell me anything. When you listen to somebody, somebody’s story, you immediately realise if this will be a good story or a bad story. And that’s what happened to me when I was interviewing. As soon as the interview started, I knew it, “Oh this is it. This is the couple.” I had to wait until the interview was over to be sure, but I was right. The interview was over after an hour and a half or two hours, and I was sure. As soon as I got out of their house, I smiled to my friend, and he was also very sure, because he was there.
He was also listening to the interview, and he’s a journalist, so he has a sense of what makes a good story. So he also knew that this was the best one, and he smiled back at me. So we knew that this was the story.
ZTF: We’ve been circling around this idea of style, and what makes a conventional documentary. When I watch this film, it’s almost like you’ve reduced the storytelling down to a single element, which is just someone talking—the sit down interview. Of course, sit-down interviews are very common in conventional documentaries, but you’ve used it to a very different effect, because you removed everything else. You’ve chosen not to use any photographs of their past life, you haven’t asked them to take you to any particular locations that might serve as a narrative reference. As an audience, we only have what they say to make sense of the story. Why did you make the choice to do it like this?
PK: Firstly, their two restaurants were in the red zone. I had no access to them. Actually, the morning of the interview, they did go to visit one of the restaurants, but even if I had known about it beforehand, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to follow them because it was very restricted. Even if I was lucky, and I could have followed them and shot their restaurant, I’m not sure I would have used the footage. I didn’t ask for any photos, and I didn’t think of shooting the other parts of their house, because as I was listening to their story, I was pretty sure that their story tells everything. In their story was their past life, their present, and their future, everything. The characters were in the story, so there was no need for me to show other things, or other elements to add to that. Everything was there.
ZTF: Why do you think that in many other documentaries, the director doesn’t trust their subject in this way, just to be able to tell the story without relying on other elements, particularly in the editing?
PK: I don’t know. All I can say is that this is my way of making a film. I don’t know how this started, but my attitude towards filmmaking is to tell the story with… as [little] as possible. I don’t know how this developed, but it’s just… how I do it. In this way, I feel comfortable. If I add things—of course, every time I make decisions, I’m worried and I’m frustrated that this won’t be enough. Later I might regret that I made the choice. But that’s how I make films, I guess.
ZTF: So this is your first documentary. As you mentioned before, you’ve made two narrative feature films, Camel(s) and Motel Cactus. What were the challenges of making a documentary, coming from a narrative background? Do you think Moving is linked to your previous work?
PK: Well, I think there is a strong link to my previous work, even though it is a documentary. In what way? I think in terms of style. As I said before, so far I’ve made films in the way that makes me feel comfortable. This documentary also developed in that way.
I’ve made films, not only feature films, but also short films, without a script before, but it is quite different. Although Camel(s) didn’t have a script, I had actors who I could make the story with. But with this documentary, I had nothing, all I had was this location and these images, and I wasn’t sure how these images would work. Also, with the interviews, I also wasn’t sure how they would be combined with the other images. Actually, until two or three weeks after I had come back to Auckland and had started editing, I wasn’t sure if I could make this film, if I could finish it at all. Everything was uncertain.
That was the biggest challenge for me, having no script, nothing.
ZTF: Coming back to your previous two films, in relation to this film. Your two narrative films, I think they are very erotic films, very sexually charged. But sex, as you’ve portrayed in those films, isn’t fulfilling. It doesn’t seem to fulfill what these characters are looking for, and ultimately we’re left with a sense of frustration, or maybe that engaging in sex doesn’t adequately address the loss they are trying to fill. Thematically, do you think there’s a link to Moving, which is about the migrant experience?
PK: I think so, because one of the reasons I was attracted to this couple is that they are failures. They’re not successful. If they were successful, I wouldn’t have been attracted to them. I like failures. My previous films, my narrative films, are also about failures. Failures in life, or failures in love, or failures in their relationships. What I found interesting about this couple was that they were almost successful—successful migrants. Before the earthquake, they were a typical migrant success story that you might see in the newspapers, or on a TV programme. I wouldn’t have made a film about them if the earthquake hadn’t hit them.
They interest me because they are failures. They lost everything.
ZTF: What interests you about the idea of failure, or people who are failures?
PK: There are many more failures in the world than successful people. Normal people are failures in some way or another. There are very few successful people.
ZTF: So for you, film isn’t a medium for escapism?
PK: Well, I like hard-working people. I like successful, hard-working people who have earned their success after years of hard work and trying very hard. I like that. As a person, I like these sorts of stories. But as a filmmaker, these kinds of stories don’t interest me. That’s not my kind of film.
ZTF: Moving itself is very simple. It’s just interviews with images of Christchurch undergoing reconstruction from the time you were there. In these purely visual sequences, my reading of the film was as if you’re progressing through the possibilities of shot language. We start with something that is static, with static objects and no movement at all. Then in the next image, you introduce movement, and then human subjects and then eventually you introduce camera movement, with the long sequence from inside a car, and then you explore lighting as a visual element, by cutting abruptly from day to night. Did you plan to deconstruct the film in this way in your choice of images, and what do you see as the relationship between the visual sequence of images and the interviews?
PK: I didn’t plan it, because I wasn’t sure of anything. Everyday—I was in Christchurch for one week—I’d wake up at 6 o’clock and sit in my hotel room drinking my first coffee, and I’d be thinking, “Oh shit, what am I going to do today? What will I do with this film?” Because I wasn’t sure about anything, and the only thing I could do besides meeting my friend and going to the interviews, the only other thing I could do was to go out with my camera and just find whatever there is, to find something interesting. So that’s what I did, I walked around. As you know, downtown Christchurch is relatively small, so I was just circling around this downtown area. I couldn’t go inside, so I was just walking around the red zone area every day. And if something interesting appeared, I’d just set my camera up and shoot it.
I became very friendly with the guards and soldiers because they would see me everyday, and they would ask me, “What are you doing here?” Shooting these motionless images. I told them, “Oh, this is my hobby.”
As I went on shooting, I slowly got confidence that I’d be able to make a film with these images. I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I thought that I should use long takes. For images that interested me, I would go on shooting, ten minutes for each image, each shot. I knew I could use a few minutes from this ten-minute shot. I became quite confident about this, but I was not sure how I would combine it with the interviews. That happened only later, when I was editing.
ZTF: When you got into the edit then, what determined your decision making process? Which images to use, how long to hold them for, and in what order you would put the images?
PK: I don’t think there was any… rational reason [for this], it just happened.
I tried all kinds of things: this image, that image, here, there. And if this image feels comfortable, or right to me, in this part, then that’s it. Something like that. There was nothing [like] a so-called plan. It just happened through the editing process.
The driving sequence in the film also happened in this way. Because everything was so motionless and still, I thought I needed something moving. So I asked my friend to drive me around and I shot this driving sequence. But because my friend was constantly talking, I couldn’t use the sound. His daughter was in the back seat complaining, so I couldn’t use the sound. The only way I could use these driving shots was the opposite—which means to use music. That’s how it happened, naturally, moving in that direction.
ZTF: The music in the film—you’ve used a lot of Erik Satie, and also one piece of original music composed by Jessica Tsai. It lends a different feeling to the images, it makes them somehow poetic and somewhat surreal. I think the music is the only overtly expressive element you’ve used in the film. How did you come to the decision to use music?
PK: While in Christchurch, it rained everyday. I think there was only one sunny day. Most of the time, it was windy and rainy, dark and wet. Of course, while I was shooting I was very unhappy with this, because it was very uncomfortable to work alone in the rain. I had to hold an umbrella and also try to shoot. It was very very difficult. I complained, to myself and to the weather.
Because everything was shot in this bad weather, everything was quite dark. When I was thinking of music, I didn’t really think of using music much. For my previous narrative films, I had used music, but I had never thought that a film must use music. I always thought about making films without music, and of course, that is completely possible. For this documentary, in the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of using music, because this is a documentary.
But the so-called style [of the film] developed through the editing process, and very naturally, I thought of using music, and very naturally, I thought of Satie, because Satie is one of my favourite composers.
Also, it is one of the few pieces of music I have on my laptop. I didn’t have that much choice.
ZTF: Speaking of style, let’s talk about the forklift sequence. We start with the forklift being very loud, dismantling this building that has been damaged by the earthquakes. It’s very noisy, but eventually, the music comes in, and then the forklift fades out, until all we hear is the music, and then silence. Very abruptly, the diegetic sound of the forklift returns. What inspired this sequence, and what did you want to communicate with the surreal juxtaposition of image and sound?
PK: The film is about the experience of the earthquake, but I didn’t have any footage of the actual earthquake. I only had these shots of damaged buildings. I thought, I need something that gives the audience the feeling of the earthquake. Or, a feeling of this couple’s experience of the earthquake.
I thought the only way I could show this—[to] give this feeling to the audience—was through this long forklift shot. From the beginning, I wanted to use this shot. I thought the shot could give this feeling.
At the same time, I wanted the shot to be interesting. While I was editing,… I thought it could give the surreal feeling of the mindset of this couple, going through all these experiences. To achieve that, I had to play with the sound. The real sound, the piano, and also the silence.
ZTF: It’s a very bold and formally daring sequence. What about the long driving sequence? It sort of echoes the ending of Camel(s) and more broadly, one of the stylistic continuities from your narrative work to this documentary, is your preference for long takes, without cutting. How did you develop this style, and what attracts you about it?
PK: Long takes? I think… I started to use long takes because I was not very comfortable with editing. I wasn’t good at editing.
Or should I say, I was not good with scene breaking. When I was at film school, the most difficult and fearful part of filmmaking was scene breaking.
ZTF: What do you mean by ‘scene breaking?’
Scene breaking means, breaking a scene into shots. Where should I put the camera for the opening shot, how do I break this scene into shots? That was the most difficult and fearful [thing]. It made me feel very uncomfortable.
Of course, I could deal with it in a conventional way. But that always made me feel, you know, not right. I was just doing what everybody [else] did. That was not interesting for me at all.
Then, later on, I encountered Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films. I realised I could make a film without editing [laughter]. Just one scene, one shot, style. I was surprised, and I was also very much encouraged by Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films. I don’t know why, but I just liked them.
Later, I read somewhere that Hou said something quite similar to my experience. He was asked by the interviewer, “How did you develop this style, using long takes?” and he answered, “Probably because I’m not a good editor.” I don’t know if this was his real answer, or if he was just joking, or teasing, but anyhow, I was introduced to this long take style through Hou Hsiao Hsien. Of course, Hou is not the only filmmaker who makes films in this way, but from then on, I tried to copy Hou, or I felt encouraged to do something similar.
I like continuous shots without cutting, because I think that’s real. When you edit a shot, you decide what the audience should watch. This part, that part. Of course, film is all about making decisions, but rather than cutting a scene into smaller and smaller shots, I liked the subtle, small details that accidentally happened, or unintentionally arise, during a long take.
Every time I use long takes—of course, I like them—but I fear that the audience will hate this. But the reason I use this method repeatedly is because it makes me comfortable.
ZTF: You’ve mentioned to me before, that after a screening of Camel(s), Hou Hsiao Hsien approached you and said, “That was a bit slow, wasn’t it?”
PK: Actually, he said to me, “The takes were very long!” I told him, “I’m just learning from you!”
“No, your shots are much longer than mine!”
ZTF: What you were saying about the accidents or coincidences that happen during a long take, we can see in Moving as well, in the way the light changes over the course of the interview. This was something you hoped for?
PK: Sure. Well, I can’t say that I hoped that it would happen, but I liked that it happened. I can’t say I expected or looked forward to it happening, but the result is, I liked that it happened.
ZTF: Do you consider yourself a Korean director? Even after coming to New Zealand, your subject is to do with Korean immigrants.
PK: It’s strange, because when I was in Korea, I never considered myself a Korean director, I only thought of myself as a director. I thought I could make a film anywhere.
But my experience of living in New Zealand for a year and a half makes me think, perhaps I am a Korean director. Now, I’m not so sure that I can make anything, that I can make a film anywhere. Probably because my experience in New Zealand has made me think in this way.
Before, I thought I could understand people other than Koreans. If I go to England, I would understand the English, if I make a film in Germany, I would understand Germans. That’s what I thought.
But I found out it was much more difficult; it was much more complicated than I thought. So at this stage, I don’t know. I can’t say that I can make a film about just anything, or anywhere.
ZTF: As a migrant here, do you sympathize with some of the feelings or experiences the couple in your film talk about? Obviously, your situation is different…
PK: Possibly, in some ways. I’m not an immigrant, but we’re the same generation. Our ages are very similar.
ZTF: Moving is probably one of the more challenging films in the documentary section of the New Zealand International Film Festival, especially for a film that has been produced in New Zealand. How do you feel about that?
PK: [Laughter]. Well, I never intended to be this difficult person, or this difficult filmmaker, or someone who makes difficult films. It just happened that way. Sometimes, I kind of feel sorry about this. I want to be able to show my films to my parents, to make them happy, to make them proud of me, but until now, I couldn’t do that.
But the thing is, I can’t lie. I make what I am. So this documentary is what I am in 2011, in New Zealand. If I made this documentary as [someone] who only visited here for a short time, then things would be different. It’s because I was here, I was living here for more than a year, not as an immigrant, [that] maybe I felt… what the situation of an immigrant is. I felt more affected by this story. I think I sympathize with the story more than just a visitor.
ZTF: You came here with an established reputation in Korea. What’s your perspective on the film industry in New Zealand from your time here so far?
PK: Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced as much of the New Zealand film industry, or filmmaking in New Zealand as I expected, because I wasn’t given the chance. I regret that, but in that sense, I can’t say much about the industry.
[In regards] to what I felt and what I saw during the year and a half I stayed in New Zealand… Before coming here, I knew something about the industry because I had worked with the industry [from Korea] on several occasions.
I expected the people in the film industry to be more daring, but I was disappointed. I can’t really say what the reason is, but the films that I saw from here, I mean old films, like Goodbye, Pork Pie and also the early films made by Roger Donaldson, were very daring. They had an independent spirit and were very interesting.
But recent films, they don’t have that spirit, that kind of indie spirit, which I think the New Zealand film industry really needs, because this is a small country, with a small population. The industry, if you take out Peter Jackson, is really nothing. So without this spirit, how can you survive?