This is the third of a series on up-and-coming Korean filmmakers. -- Ed.
It is a bright Wednesday morning in Seoul, and a man wearing a pair of thick-framed glasses walks into the quiet cafe near Hongdae. In spite of his toned-down manner and geek-like vibe, director Yeun Sang-ho cannot hide the twinkle of excitement in his eyes.
It is just a day before the official release of Yeun’s multiple award-winning feature animation debut, “The King of Pigs.” His iPhone keeps on ringing like an impatient child, and the interview starts only after Yeun has taken three calls.
It’s been almost three weeks since that interview on Nov. 2, and the movie, which opened in theaters the day after, attracted 10,000 viewers in the first two weeks of its release, a first for an indie film in Korea. The $150,000-budget animation also swept three awards at BIFF.
Yet on the day of the interview, Yeun, who says he’s been visiting the Korean Film Council’s website “like mad” while waiting to see his film introduced on it upon the release, does not seem to predict his upcoming success. Even on winning three prizes at BIFF, he simply says, “I think I was lucky.”
Yeun, who has been an avid animation lover since elementary school, only realized the existence of animation directors during his middle school years.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he says. “I thought animations were created by some companies, not by individuals.”
By this time, Yeun owned a box -- which was “as big as the size of a washing machine” -- completely packed with anime DVDs. His all-time favorite artist is the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.
|Director Yeun Sang-ho (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
“He’s made so many films, but you can tell that it’s done by Miyazaki whether you watch ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ or ‘My Neighbor Totoro,’” he says.
“So becoming an animation director became my dream, and I started taking private art classes.”
Yeun’s dark “The King of Pigs” is, in fact, the story of two middle school friends who are reunited 15 years after their graduation. It begins as Kyung-min, one of the two, impulsively murders his wife after his business goes bankrupt. He seeks out his long-lost friend Jong-suk, who now makes his living by ghostwriting someone’s autobiography.
The duo’s awkward and gloomy reunion is mixed with flashbacks of their teenage years, when they were both severely bullied and even sexually harassed by their cruel classmates. They were both small in stature, weak academically and lived in a poor neighborhood.
“I was a rather quiet, ordinary student who was friends with everyone,” Yeun recalls. “But I still remember the sense of guilt I felt for ‘not doing anything’ when I was either approached by the kids who were bullied in the class, or witnessed things that should not have happened. In the movie, my middle school self actually appears as one of the ‘invisible’ students sitting in the background.”
Hence it’s unsurprising to hear that the bullies and what they do in the film are based on what Yeun actually witnessed during his middle school days. The part where the bullies cut off Jong-suk’s jeans, which he had stolen from his sister, and make fun of him for being a “pansy,” or when one of the classmates gets urine thrown at him for trying to help those who are bullied, is based on his real-life experiences.
“I actually met the classmate who later became the basis of the Jong-suk character when I was in elementary school -- he was very poor at the time,” Yeun says. “I ran into him by accident when I was in high school. He had become overly sensitive.”
Aside from its highly insightful depiction of the nature of power and its brutality, the movie also gives an almost sociological overview of systemic poverty and how it limits one’s access to both social and cultural resources. But Yeun did not do much research for this film, and wrote the script in four days after a three-week preparation period.
“I often burst into tears while writing the lines,” he says.
And some lines in the film, especially the one by Jong-suk’s sister after she steals a Walkman, come directly from him and his own life experience, Yeun says.
“I wanted to see what’s so great about it,” Jong-suk’s sister says in the movie. “I wanted to learn how to use this thing that everyone else has!”
“I didn’t know there were different kinds of coffee beverage till I finished university,” he says. “I did not know there were things such as caramel macchiato and cafe mocha aside from just coffee. I once ordered a cup of espresso, not even knowing what it is, and was shocked at the small amount of the drink I was given. And the person asked, ‘you don’t know how espresso is served?’ I was extremely embarrassed.”
Yeun says he wants the movie to be an hour and a half-long experience for his viewers to feel what it means to be “completely hopeless.”
“I think people begin to take action when they feel that utter sense of hopelessness,” he says. “I don’t want to sugarcoat reality saying everything is good, everything is fair. And for those who are experiencing the grudge and despair as much as the characters in the film, I hope they realize that they are not alone.”
Yeun does not hide his affection for the anime genre, and says its only limitation is the limited attention from the general public.
“Making a film that deals with some epic fighting taking place in space would not cost more than making ‘The King of Pigs,’ if I make it an animated film,” he says. “Making SF action heist films such as Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ and its budget would be unimaginable in Korea. But it’d be totally possible if one decides to do it with animation. Anything, really, is possible with this genre.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)