The following interview took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on 7 November 2014, prior to the London Korean Film Festival 2014 Special Screening of 'A Girl at My Door' and Q&A with director July Jung:
Hangul Celluloid: You began your career making short films, A Man Under the Influenza having received huge critical acclaim. I’ve spoken to many directors who have talked of the numerous problems faced in moving from shorts to feature films and with A Girl at My Door being your debut feature what are your experiences of such difficulties and how did you ultimately overcome them?
July Jung: In Korea, it’s a reality that is it extremely difficult not only for film-makers in general to move from making shorts to features but also for female directors to debut. Luckily for me, while I was at university there was a project that took place involving one of the biggest Korean film distribution companies offering investment. I was chosen in that project to turn a treatment into a scenario but subsequently, in the final stages, though I worked incredibly hard to create the scenario, I wasn’t selected to have it made into a film. Obviously, I was deeply disappointed by that decision but a professor at the university – the Korea National University of Arts – was also a judge of that project and though my scenario was a small story he felt it was very meaningful. He offered to be the producer and work with me. That story was of course A Girl at my Door and as well as being extremely lucky on the production side, when actress Bae Doo-na agreed to take the starring role in the film, it seemed that the conditions were almost meant to be.
However, until we were actually ready to start filming the main investment company still wasn’t decided, so I was majorly lacking the investment I so desperately needed. As such, the lack of funds meant the budget and indeed scale of the film had to be decreased resulting in it becoming almost like an Indie film in the final stage. So, all in all it was a fairly desperate situation throughout and a number of those involved in the film-making only continued because they had a deep desire to see the film made.
Hangul Celluloid: You have spoken of the difficulties faced by women film-makers attempting to debut with a feature in the still male dominated film industry in Korea. If we look at A Girl at My Door, it could be said that the film is as hard-hitting as many features helmed by male directors but there is a noticeable humanity and even femininity present in this story of two damaged females finding strength through their emotional bond, each making the other stronger and, perhaps, more complete. Was that a deliberate aim of yours or do you feel that humanity – that feeling and emotion – came almost automatically from your female perspective on a story about women?
July Jung: I certainly did approach the film from my own perspective on two very lonely people, and when I was writing the script I was in an extremely lonely situation myself. I wanted to show the conditions for both a young girl who doesn’t know what being lonely is like and an adult who is fully aware of loneliness, its pain and even its consequences. It was vital for me to show both those emotional sides and indeed their crossover. In order to show the characters’ deep and if you like theatrical loneliness, I gave them each specific ‘damaged’ conditions, as you mentioned, such as child abuse on one side and a woman in a very prejudiced situation, on the other, who cannot express her loneliness and is living in utter frustration and solitude, as a result. These aspects in themselves allowed the hard-hitting side of the film to show itself naturally while leaving space for aspects of humanity I felt were pivotal to the story.
I want people to see this film as a story of two women who can’t turn away from each other, can’t even look away from each other and build a relationship because they both want to and really need to. I was also very careful when I was dealing with those issues and I put a huge amount of thought into that process.
Hangul Celluloid: Stepping directly on from that, A Girl at My Door has a great deal of deep and serious social commentary - child abuse, immigrants, and same sex relationships. You chose to set the film in a tiny, rural community away from the throng of city society. Was that decision taken to more easily focus on that commentary by placing it in almost a microcosm of society at large?
July Jung: Yes, choosing such a small town and community was entirely deliberate and in doing so I did try very hard to give even the smallest things symbolic meaning and act as signs, as well. I’m not sure if the setting made those meanings easier to see and feel but, to use your phrase, a microcosm did allow me to bring underlying commentary to a larger proportion of areas than a larger setting would have allowed. The idea of a woman travelling from Seoul, running away to a smaller town and community was also vital to the development of the story, as well as being the mainstay of the film. However, the film was never meant to be bigger than it is, rather it was intended as a story that could take place anywhere, i.e. a damaged girl who happens to exist in a village somewhere. Luckily, we found a seaside setting and in placing a girl in that setting I felt all the elements needed were present and fitted together. That’s how the village was chosen and it also further allowed the development of the story.
Hangul Celluloid: In terms of the homosexuality featured in the film, such stories have for a long time been largely taboo in Korean cinema, with the situation only beginning to change, really, in the last few years. Did you feel that this was the right time to depict such a story because of that gradual change or did you think that it would still be seen as controversial?
July Jung: While making A Girl at My Door it was impossible for me to look at my film from anyone else’s perspective so in saying back then whether I felt the time was right for the sexual aspects and statements depicted or if the film would be seen as controversial would have required me to come to a decision that I’m not sure I would have been able to make.
However, in hindsight two things come to mind: Firstly, I feel the time was ultimately right for me personally to make this film with these aspects as an integral and important part, and secondly I tend to think that any producer in that position in the Korean film industry would certainly have had to think about the possible controversy of those aspects at length. Perhaps many of them still would.
Hangul Celluloid: Lee Chang-dong – to my mind one of the best Korean films directors working today – is credited as one of the film’s producers and it could be said that his films speak specifically to Korean society while having a universality that can be wholly understood outside the domestic Korean market. Did you hope that would also be the case with A Girl at My Door (which in hindsight it truly has been)?
July Jung: My first and most driving hope was that the story would be seen as meaningful to Korean society in spite of its small size and budget. Of course, the involvement of such a luminary as Lee Chang-dong was a dream turned into reality and was both a massive boost for me personally and for my inspiration, but the idea of producing a universally accepted film was outside my field of vision. Sitting here now in the UK and having seen the film so well received at international film festivals has made me realise that perhaps I did succeed in producing a universal story but looking back such a wish would have been far too bold for me to make or even consider.
It is still utterly surprising to me that my small Korean story of two Korean females has resonated in so many countries around the world. I think that making this film has given me the courage to continue in this career. However small the story, if it is meaningful it can resonate with people in many walks of life in many countries. I am happy to move forward on that thought alone.
Hangul Celluloid: A Girl at My Door features incredible performances from both of the main female actresses, Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron. Bae Doo-na is forging a staggeringly successful international career while also continuing to act domestically, and Kim Sae-ron is building a reputation as a talent to watch, from her performance in The Man From Nowhere, through Barbie and now in A Girl at My Door. How did the casting of the film come about? How did you succeed in securing a star like Bae Doo-na and in terms of Kim Sae-ron how did you know she would be able to handle such an emotionally complex character?
July Jung: Bae Doo-na seemed really drawn to the story and in fact she and Kim Sae-ron agreed to appear in the film without pay. As far as Kim Sae-ron is concerned, I would love to give you a long and detailed answer as to how I knew she was right for the role but, if I’m honest, I just knew… I don’t know how, but I just knew [July Jung laughs].
Both actresses wholly embraced the story and I only helped them fully absorb the intricacies of the narrative. They produced astonishing performances throughout simply from their talent and the strength of the story being told. I also feel that Bae Doo-na’s experience in so many Korean and international films allowed her to bring a wholly fresh approach to her performance and Kim Sae-ron drew on that, I think, to become even stronger in her role. I still feel extremely lucky to have both actresses in my film.
Hangul Celluloid: I being asked to wrap things up but I have one final question. Your film is being screened tonight as part of the 2014 London Film Festival and it’s also being released in UK cinemas and on DVD, by Peccadillo Pictures. What would you like to say to someone who is about to sit down to watch A Girl at My Door for the first time?
July Jung: I would say go into the film with as little prior information as possible. I have even asked for a synopsis of the film to be omitted from its promotion so people can wholly immerse themselves without any preconceptions and watch the film on its merits, alone.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and answer my questions.
'A Girl at My Door' is released in UK cinemas by Peccadillo Pictures on 18 September 2015.
* Asian film website easternKicks also undertook an individual interview with director July Jung, on the same day. As interview time was limited (even though the above interview lasted for 26 minutes rather, than the scheduled 15), Hangul Celluloid and easternKicks decided to include links to each other's interviews to give readers the chance to delve even deeper into July Jung's thoughts.
You can find easternKicks' interview with July Jung at: http://www.easternkicks.com/features/july-jung-interview
* I would also sincerely like to thank Andrew Heskins of easternKicks for putting me in touch with A Girl at My Door's UK PR company. It is entirley because of his kind actions that the Hangul Celluloid interview with July Jung took place. Many thanks.