Highlighting Invisible Poverty – An Interview with Korean Director Jeong Hee-Jae
Jeong Hee-jae, the 33-year old Korean director, first made a splash in Korean cinema with her short films Bokja and A Company on a Dead Gloomy Night, both of which were invited to several film festivals such as the Seoul Independent Film Festival and Korea’s Indie Forum.
Her debut feature, A Haunting Hitchhike, details a teenager’s journey to find her estranged mother, all while dealing with adults that have given up expecting anything out of life. The film was provided financial support from Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Cinema Fund, and has won the Audience Award at the Pitch & Catch program of Seoul International Women’s Film Festival.
As part of the Contemporary Asian Cinema Series by Singapore Film Society and Filmgarde Cineplexes, A Haunting Hitchhike will be screened on November 16 at with a post-screening Q&A with director Jeong.
Sinema had the opportunity to speak with Jeong Hee-jae via email to find out more about the budding director, and about the making of A Haunting Hitchhike:
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
When I was 14 years old and making a super short film, I found a promotional notice by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) calling for submission of short films made by teengaers. I was fascinated by that ‘notice paper’ because I was just a kid who loved watching movies but never thought that I could make a film or create a story. It was that moment when I made up my mind that I would want to make a film with my friends.
A key reason for why I want to be a filmmaker is that I think I’ve always been very interested in people’s emotions. I love to share the emotions and thoughts of and with my friends, family, and the characters in old films. I like to watch and portray the whole journey that one particular person goes through in everyday life or during specific events. I think these are all the things that make me want to be a filmmaker.
What are the challenges of being a relatively young director working in Korea?
I think the most difficult thing that our generation – including me – struggles with is with getting opportunities and gaining trust. 15 or 20 years ago, young directors back then would often get opportunities to shoot their first or second film with quite a big budget and with full trust. This allowed them to try various things and genres with their own colours and flair.
But nowadays, containment and verification by investment companies during the pre-production process is very strong and it takes so many years for everything to be approved. Of course, it is necessary to make that effort but it’s quite ‘over-tested’ and I think this is wearing out young directors’ talents and the possibilities they can achieve.
Yet because of this, there have been a lot of good independent films in Korea from young directors who escaped from this system. I think young directors who are struggling to break through such severe regulations are making good movies by making ideas with smaller budgets.
So the hardest part is gaining trust even if the talent is there or someone has a good story for a film. I think it’s not only about the film industry, but also about the other industries within society in recent years.
What was the casting process like behind the film?
The first cast member involved in our project was Roh Jeong-eui, who plays the lead Jung-ae. Afterwards, I looked to cast the character Hyo-jung, Jung-ae’s best friend; someone who would have a wonderful chemistry with Jeong-eui. I settled on Kim Go-eun.
With the other roles, even if their characters are only briefly on-screen, I put in a lot of effort finding suitably wonderful actors and actresses. The efforts were nothing special – I wrote directly to them with a whole-hearted email proposing specific characters in the film and followed by a sincere phone call.
I did things this way because I believe that cinema is all about the audience’s experience, and about them taking part in the film’s universe. This film has a story that carries with it realistic elements around our ordinary life, so I wanted to make it seem as real as I can portray. That was what was most important to me when I went through the casting process.
What was the inspiration behind the film’s story?
These days there’s so much ‘invisible poverty’ especially with the younger generations in Korea, and that makes them give up dreaming and trying to do something cool in their own future. There’s a constant struggle and anxiety to find a way to sustain their own lives.
For example, poverty and hardships were ‘visible’ in the older generations’ time so they could understand and help each other. But today, people don’t know each other’s hardships – because of its invisibility – even though the situation is getting worse. So the younger generation feel helpless, not understood, and isolated from their own society and friends.
I thought it is very important and necessary to show a character who doesn’t give up on each small attempt, and a character who tries to be with their friends and family while working together to solve the problems they are facing. I wanted to say that these small attempts are more important than achieving great results. I think, for me and the people around me, we were more accustomed to giving up one by one than to expect something.
Were there any difficulties in directing the actors given the emotional weight of the entire film?
There were so many tough moments for the actors and actresses especially for the main role, Jung-ae. Actress Jeong-eui and I often discussed and talked about anything and everything from our past and what we want out of our future. We didn’t practice the lines a lot. Instead, we just kept talking and observing each other. I believe this worked out by helping to prepare for the profound topics and themes surrounding Jung-ae.
As much as we could, we shared our specific experiences related to the lead character. That was the way we prepared and decided how to express the emotions and entire journey of Jung-ae.
What would you want the audience to take away from the film?
The film is a story about a character who doesn’t give up. I hope young people can keep going and living without losing their hopes, or giving up on their beliefs and identities as they struggle to overcome the many limitations of life. I hope to encourage and cheer on the younger generation as they embark on the difficult journey of life.
Could you give us an idea of what your next project is about?
I’m currently working on three different stories. One of them, introduced at this year’s Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum, is a story about a contract killer who gets in trouble protecting the target’s daughter.
The other two stories are about young people living in Korea today, struggling to find meaning in their lives. This is based more on ordinary life than the first story.
Where do you envision Korean cinema in the next 10 years?
I think cinema becomes more like an experience. At the same time, my country is very dynamic in every way, such as with politics and economic situations including economic crises and development issues. So I think there’s so many things that we go through without talking and thinking enough about them. These issues, which mostly include historical events, will be topics in the future of Korean cinema.
And I think there will be many more young talented women filmmakers in the future.
I hope you will be able to catch my film’s screening on 16 November, and I hope you will have a continued interest in Korean films.
Check out Sinema’s review of A Haunting Hitchhike here!