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What our dreams say about us

What our dreams say about us

Filmmaker Zhang Lu speaks about his latest film ‘The Scenery,’ a unique documentary on the lives of migrant workers in Korea

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Published : 2013-12-10 19:30
Updated : 2013-12-10 19:30

Filmmaker Zhang Lu poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Dec. 4. 
(Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

Filmmaker Zhang Lu’s dreams often have scenery of Beijing and Seoul all mixed together, making it hard for him to recognize where he actually is.

The ethnic Korean-Chinese filmmaker, who was born and raised in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, has been working in Seoul since last year, after many years in Beijing. Zhang, who considers himself a “stranger” wherever he goes, pays special attention to the dreams of others in his latest film.

Titled “The Scenery,” the film features 14 migrant workers living in Korea. Some are from the Philippines, while some are from Cambodia and Vietnam. One gives furniture-making lessons for a living, while another works for a textile factory.

Zhang asks each of them only one question: What is the most memorable dream ― the one you have when you are asleep ― you have had since moving to Korea? The answers are often poignant and heartbreaking, and even eerie: Viewers witness the loneliness, horror and hopes that fill the lives of those who ended up living away from their homes.

In many ways, the film reminds us of a line from Freud: “Dreams completely satisfy wishes excited during the day which remain unrealized. They are simply and undisguisedly realizations of wishes.” It is also about unexpressed emotions that are, in Freud’s words, “buried alive and come forth later” in different ways.

The 51-year-old filmmaker, however, said the film was not inspired by Freud at all. In fact, he chose to ask the workers only about their dreams for rather practical reasons.

“Many workers were very reluctant to talk about their private lives on camera. And many of their employers were not comfortable with it either,” said the director during an interview with The Korea Herald last week in Seoul.

“And I wasn’t comfortable making them uncomfortable, by asking them the kind of questions that they were not comfortable answering. I could have, but I didn’t want to. So I approached them saying, I will only ask you one question, that question will be about their dreams. Most of them just laughed when I said that, and agreed to talk to me on camera.”

Some of the dreams are predictable, while some are not. A Filipino worker shares his dream about winning the lottery and purchasing a Hyundai car, while a worker from Bangladesh talks about his dream where he and his wife back home visit Korea’s Jeju Island.

“I don’t even know where Jeju Island is and I’ve never been there in real life,” the man says in the movie. “But in my dream, the island was so pretty and beautiful.”

“No one would really lie about their dreams, because they are just dreams,” Zhang said. “But dreams also have a close connection with our realities. In many ways, they reveal things about real life. That was one of the reasons why asking about their dreams was effective.”

A Thai worker, whose face was severely burned in a work-related accident in Korea, shares the dream he had shortly before the tragic event. In the dream, he followed a ghost ― who had hung herself ― from Thailand, to a river. When he got on a boat as he was asked to, the ghost set fire to the vessel.

Another worker from Bangladesh, who has not been home since arriving in Korea about 15 years ago, says he had the same dream five times in a row, on the day he decided to quit his job. In all of the five dreams, he told his boss ― who had been verbally abusive in real life ― he no longer wants to work and is quitting.

“What struck me the most was their loneliness,” said Zhang, who has been teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul since last year. “I think loneliness is what dominated their dreams. The kind of dreams you have when you are away from home are very different from the ones you have when you are not. They are more vulnerable and uneasy.”

Zhang, who made his film debut in 2004, is best known in Korea for the 2010 Korean-French coproduction “Dooman River,” a tale about a North Korean boy and his friendship with an ethnic Korean boy living in China, just across the Tumen River (Dumangang River), which serves as the border between the two countries. The film was shot in Yanbian, Zhang’s hometown, near the Tumen River.

“The Scenery” is Zhang’s seventh movie and first documentary film. He created the film in response to Jeonju International Film Festival’s request last year for a film about “strangers.”

“I am not really comfortable in any place,” Zhang said. “Wherever I go, I think a part of me always wants to leave for somewhere else. I guess I can say I am most comfortable in Yanbian, where I was born and raised, but the Yanbian I am familiar with is the one in the past. When you leave a place, it moves on, too. It’s not just you who is moving on. The Yanbian today is very different from the one I knew.”

Zhang, who is currently editing his upcoming romance “Gyeongju,” starring Korean actor Park Hae-il and actress Shin Min-a, said “The Scenery” is the “warmest” film he’s made so far. For him, a “warm” film is one that seeks the truth and does not romanticize.

“I think it takes courage to do that,” Zhang said. “The courage not to romanticize the subject for the sake of entertainment. Shooting a documentary required me to be sensitive and careful with the subject matter. It taught me how to seek the truth while trying not to hurt or inconvenience others as much as possible.”

“The Scenery” opens in theaters in Korea on Dec. 12.

By Claire Lee (

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