Director talks about issues of capital punishment and domestic violence in her upcoming film
She made a highly successful debut with a charming romantic comedy in the late 1990s, and enjoyed another box-office home run with a heart-warming tale of a grandmother and a grandson in 2002.
Now director Lee Jeong-hyang is back after the nine-year break, with a deeply philosophical and layered work on forgiveness and crime ― “A Reason to Live.”
“I have had this film in mind since the late-’90s,” Lee told The Korea Herald. “At the time, I happened to read a Reader’s Digest column about how one can do wrongs by forgiving too easily, and thought I’d make a film about the topic someday. I started writing the script in 2005 and it took me four years to finish. It did take me a long time.”
Starring Song Hye-gyo, the film tells a story of Da-hye, a non-fiction moviemaker whose fianc was killed by a hit-and-run motorcycle accident on her last birthday. Shortly after he died, she had forgiven the 17-year-old offender, even writing a petition to exempt him from punishment. At the time she thought that was the right thing to do, as she was told so by many around her.
Yet Da-hye goes through emotional turmoil and confusion, as she unexpectedly discovers the young boy stabbed one of his classmates to death only about a year after the hit-and-run accident.
Da-hye’s story is interwoven with that of her assistant, Ji-min, a high school girl suffering long-term physical abuse from her father.
Through the cases of Da-hye’s interviewees, who are family members of murder victims, the film offers a painfully thorough cinematic approach to forgiveness, while raising concerns about highly-sensitive social issues including capital punishment and domestic violence against children.
Lee talks with The Korea Herald regarding her highly nuanced and powerful film.
Director Lee Jeong-hyang poses for a photo in Seoul, Thursday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Q: The stories of Da-hye’s interviewees feel as if they are real cases. Have you met real-life family members of murder victims while preparing for the movie?
A: No. I didn’t want to do that because I knew I would only use very small portions of their stories for the movie. And doing so would’ve hurt them in one way or the other. But I did a lot of research on real-life cases and asked professor Pyo Chang-won of National Police University to look over my script after I completed it. I also interviewed him many times to learn about real-life legal and criminal cases.
Q: A mother of a death row prisoner appears in your film. What is your view on capital punishment?
A: I think the most important thing is to set solid systemic measures so offenders do not repeat the same crime. I am not against the idea of abolishing it. But I think we should first talk about the alternative measures and programs if we really want to get rid of capital punishment. And I personally don’t think we have anything prepared, especially considering we have not carried out any executions since 1998.
Q: What are some of other problems, aside from the issues of forgiveness, that you’ve found through your research?
A: Families of the victims don’t get a chance to meet the offender in Korea. But having the opportunity to ask why he or she has done it in person is very important for many family members. Also, when the offender receives an early release from jail, the victim’s family members are not notified. For those who are scared of repeat crimes by the offender, this can be a horrifying policy.
Q: It seems like you have a lot to say about the parents of criminals in the movie. What’s the story?
A: Through my research I’ve found out most of criminals, especially the young ones, have had problems with their parents. In Korea, however, even a serial killer’s upbringing as a child is not investigated, and his or her parents are not asked to apologize to the victims ― all under the code of human rights. In my movie, Ji-min and the 17-year-old offender are like fraternal twins. They are both brought up by abusive parents. The only difference is Ji-min hurts herself while the offender hurts others.
For many young victims of domestic violence, it’s hard to admit their parents don’t love them, and their parents have problems. So in order to rationalize their parents’ abusive behavior, many of them commit misdeeds on purpose. And they think, “I’m a bad kid, so of course my parents don’t love me.” My message for young souls who have been in such situations is that, admit that your parents are wrong, and start loving and respecting yourself on your own. Perhaps that way they’d know how precious the lives of others are, just as much as their own.
Q: What was it like to work with the big-name star Song Hye-gyo?
A: When she first contacted me, before I even finished the script, I simply told her, “Thanks for calling, but you don’t suit the character.” At the time I just thought of her as a young, bubbly and popular actress. But when I somehow met her in person, she turned out to be very much like Da-hye. She’s very prudent and quiet ― certainly an introvert. I liked the fact she’s an only child like Da-hye, and that she doesn’t work on too many films all at the same time.
Q: What is the message you want to give to your viewers?
A: I want this film to be a piece of consolation to the real-life families of murder victims. I want them to know that they have the right and freedom not to forgive, if that is what they want. And that it is okay to take their time, and they should not feel guilty or horrible about themselves for not being ready to forgive. And for those who haven’t been in such situations, I hope they don’t speak mindlessly about forgiveness, or even force others to forgive, especially those who have lost their loved ones by someone else.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com