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The ‘Catcher’: Yoon Sung-hyun

Director delves into psyche of his generation

This is the first of a series of articles on up-and-coming Korean filmmakers. ― Ed.


Director Yoon Sung-hyun has been watching a lot of soccer games on TV lately. It’s always been his favorite sport, and he’s been an avid fan since he was a child. And though it’s only been two weeks since he won a prestigious film award, what pops in his head, when asked about recent days, is watching the sport, not winning his trophy.

“I’ve been watching a lot of soccer,” he tells The Korea Herald with a half-smile.

It’s almost pointless to talk about how talented this 29-year-old is. His feature debut, an alluring high school tale released in March, was in fact his film academy graduation project. The film, titled “Bleak Night,” won him numerous local and international awards, including 2010 PIFF’s New Currents prize and the Best New Director prize at this year’s Daejong Film Awards. It also attracted some 20,000 viewers, which is a sensational record in Korea’s film scene ― with 10,000 viewers for an indie movie considered equivalent to 1 million for a commercial flick.

Yet sitting over his orange drink at a cafe in Gangnam, Yoon seems rather unfazed by his own accomplishments. He displays binary qualities: One minute he’d shake his legs, looking bored and even aloof, and then become fascinatingly eloquent and engaged the next.

“Bleak Night” was the story that he had “always wanted to tell.” Featuring three high school boys whose friendship is ruined by a series of trifling moments and misunderstandings, the movie’s Korean title, “Pasuggun” ― meaning “catcher” ― is in fact titled after J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.” With an abandoned train station and a grim apartment complex in Seoul as its background, the film portrays young and vulnerable souls who end up losing each other, while only trying to defend themselves from getting hurt.

“It’s something that I had to tell either this time or later,” he says. “It really is the kind of film that I’d always wanted to see as a viewer. I wanted to make my own movie for myself, and wanted to watch it in the theater. I wanted it to tackle the theme of human loneliness, and wanted to console myself with it.”

Loneliness, among many others, is something he is used to, Yoon says. Growing up as an only child of working parents, he spent most of his time alone after school. His mother, who was an avid movie lover, would leave him with piles of VHS tapes of movies that she recorded off TV.

As a young boy home alone, he’d watch those tapes over and over again, on top of the soccer games he watched religiously. His favorite films were “The Sound of Music” and Spielberg’s “E.T.”

“I liked ‘Sound of Music’ at the time because it was simply fun to watch,” he says. “And it still touches me in other ways now. It deals with WWII and a devastating situation where a family has to flee to another country. Yet the film does more than simply portray the dark reality, by bringing music and life.”

Yoon also spent time in the U.S. from age 9 to 10.

“It was a small town near L.A., and there weren’t many Koreans living there,” he says. “I knew instantly that I was different from most of the kids in school. I’d hang out with them at school fine, but wouldn’t spend time with them after the classes. Yet I was free and respected and while I was there, and was told what I want to be is the most important among other things.”
Yoon Sung-hyun (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Yoon Sung-hyun (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

His years in Korea as a middle school student were a disillusioning experience. Yoon remembers being similar to Gi-tae in “Bleak Night,” a reckless and inwardly vulnerable character who acts macho in front of his peers. “I wanted the power, and I wanted attention,” he says. “I didn’t like being ignored and would show my affection for things in an aggressive manner.” During this period Yoon also started hitting movie theaters and reading books alone, while often daydreaming about, of course, soccer.

Looking back to the past, Yoon describes being in Korea’s education system was like being one of the “racehorses.” And it was his experience overseas that made him realize the nature of the system early, he says.

“The race track becomes your everything, and you only learn how to compete without even knowing where you are going,” he says.

“So getting admitted to certain schools become your dreams, not what you actually want to do. You have no idea what you want to do. They’d give you this fantasy that if you sacrifice your middle and high school years, you’d be rewarded with something wonderful once you get into the university. I knew right from the start that what they were saying was only an illusion. I knew working on those math problems would not get me anywhere I wanted. I’m convinced that I was right.”

“Bleak Night” solely focuses on the relationships of the boys. While many of the scenes take place at their school, there is a noticeable absence of teachers in the film. It excludes what one would consider as “schooling”― exams, classes, studying, and even report cards. Yet what Yoon thinks such “schooling” does to the psyche of his generation explains the film’s characters the most.

“The system doesn’t allow you to be who you are or what you want to be,” he says. “It makes you to constantly think of what others want from you. So you inevitably become vulnerable and defensive, and start saying things you don’t even mean to say.”

The film is also about growing up, though an extremely painful one with much disillusion and utter sense of guilt.

“I don’t want to generalize,” he says. “But I think most men in Korea develop some sense of guilt as they go through the process of entering university, getting a job and having children. It could be from their past-relationships with their ex-girlfriends, or what they experienced while serving the military duty. And most of all, it could be from situations where they had to beat someone to survive.”

Yoon wants to tackle fantasy or sci-fi for future works, while keeping his cool about his feature debut success at such a young age.

“I don’t get overjoyed when I receive good reviews, and I don’t get so down when I hear negative ones,” he says. “I just keep doing my own thing. My goal is to continue making films, not become a king of the box office.

“I want to make films that deal with the essence of human nature,” he continues. “And I think the genre of fantasy allows me to do that, as it embraces all kinds of people. Like Greek mythology: it certainly does not reflect our every-day reality, but it really is about the nature of human beings.”

Right after answering the last question, Yoon abruptly gets up and leaves the cafe with a quick, casual bow.

He walks out quickly, with his iPad in his hand, looking both confident and drawn into his own thoughts.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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