This article was produced in collaboration with the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). The 2020 festival will take place from the 29th. From October to October 5. The November 2020 digital emissions will take place exclusively in Australia. All films at KOFFIA 2020 are free to watch. For more information please visit the website of the festival.
One of the most exciting aspects of this year’s KOFFIA 2020 is that eight of the eighteen films in the series were made by women, many of whom are beginners or second-year students. Among the most watched films in the series are The House of Us, directed by Yoon Ga Eun, and The Boy and Songreen, a debut film directed by Ahn Joo Young. The House of Us is the sequel to her acclaimed debut film Mir took (2016), and her work has been recognized by director Bong Jung-ho, who named director Yoon among the twenty up-and-coming filmmakers who will see the film in the 2020s.
Boy & Sungreen and The House of Us are unique because they show young heroes between the ages of 10 and 14. This is the age at which children are old enough to cope with the more mature situations around them, but have not yet reached the adulthood and fears of high school students. This period between childhood and adolescence is even more dangerous, and it is a period that rarely gets more attention in the film industry.
These tracks are now very well received at festivals around the world, and the success of last year’s festival, Hummingbird, is similar to last year’s with a 14-year-old schoolgirl. In Korean independent cinema there is a tendency, especially among female filmmakers, to use this difficult period in a child’s life to fight lesser known stories and solve social problems.
Respect for departure and children as adults
I am very interested in the hearts of children who accept and eventually overcome a certain amount of time that touches them directly. And there aren’t many stories like that, are there? Girls growing up aren’t the right subject for movies. I want to tell stories about children as long as the children allow it and as long as I can do it well enough. I also want to tell stories about people who are rooted in reality. – Directed by Yoon Ga Eun at the Maison des Us.
Never work with animals or children – a common saying in the film industry. In addition to laws and restrictions, directors often have difficulty communicating with and dealing with children. Because films often focus on the purchasing power of adults, producers also feel that viewers are less interested in children’s stories, especially in the early teens in the 10-14 age group, when the stories are no longer funny and childish and do not fit the high school or film genre, which is approaching adolescence.
Director Kim Bora said the worst advice she ever received about her film was the hummingbird house: Why focus on a schoolgirl? Make her a high school girl so you can film an actress by name. Because it is much easier to sell stories about students, stories about students are often overlooked. In A Boy & Sungreen and The House of Us, directors Ahn Joo Young and Yoon Ga Eun have great respect for the personalities of their heroes, both precocious and childlike. These characters are completely independent and do not form an extension of the adult characters or serve to give them a moral. Instead, they get an agency, and we, the public, experience the world as they do.
The two main characters of A Boy & Sungreen, God’s Best Friends (Ahn Ji Ho) and Nokian (Kim Joo A), are very popular because each director can identify with adult characters. They actively participate in their own journey and literally create their own narrative material by making a documentary film. The act of filming can also be felt in the quintessence of its time, given that smartphones are now widely used, even by children. Instead of a cliché tired of accepting the danger of smartphones in children’s hands, Ahn Joo Young uses them as a tool for children to take responsibility for their own stories, both to seek the truth (God is trying to find out who his father is) and to document their experiences (Nokian, a novice filmmaker).
At A Boy & Sungreen it’s about the choices we make to shape our identity, including what we believe in. The events that take place in this story are never like those that happen to God and Nokiang (apart from the unexpected loss of their family), but rather because of their desire to learn the truth about the Father of God, which they actively undertake. After all, the truth is a story they want to build and believe based on the observations they have made. In that sense, it’s very nice to see that Ahn Ju-Young is convinced that his young heroes are able to make the right decisions themselves without ever having to deal with characters or spectators. God accepts the fact that he may never know what eventually happened to his father, and maybe that is normal because he has discovered that the people around him, including Nokiang, really matter.
Meanwhile, Yoon Ga Eun continues to follow exactly the style she built in our house, where we view the world as the protagonist of Khan at the age of 11. The camera is often at child’s eye level, as in the opening shot of a film where Hana is literally in the middle of a quarrel between her parents and their faces are cut out of her image. We see a torrent of emotions running over his face for a few minutes. This, too, is a brilliant touch from director Yoon, leaving her camera on the faces of the young actors so that we can see the innumerable emotions they feel.
When asked whether she had used close-ups for her first film, she replied that I always wanted to show the drama expressed by the face of my protagonist. Again, it’s about honesty in body language, children don’t have an unmoved face. Close-ups often seem like an easy way to understand a character’s emotions, but in our house the use of Yoon close-ups also extends to objects. Details of the handmade box, countless pictures of egg dishes throughout the film – these close-ups seem useful to describe in detail the small but growing world of children. All the sounds in his films are as dietary as any child could experience. I want the audience to feel the atmosphere: Sounds, words, screams… To take you into the world of the children and let you feel their energy. This naturalistic and thoughtful story avoids manipulating the audience and instead trusts them to feel the same emotions as children.
While A Boy and Sungreen focuses on enabling the characters to tell stories, Ons Huis focuses on building a world for three girls, one of whom belongs to the private sector. In both cases, the directors show respect and attention to the development of the inner world of their heroes, despite the difficult situations in which they find themselves and the struggles they are engaged in.
Destruction of the nuclear family
A divorce is a unique pain, unlike other types of loss, because it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is an intention, or at least a creeping inevitability, to divide families with children, and the feeling, however unreasonable, that all who survived the event were active participants, even if there was collateral damage after a divorce, all children have at least some moments when they wonder whether it is really their fault. – writes Matt Zoller Seitz in Die Königlichen Tenenbaums1 Seitz, Matt Zoller. The Wes Anderson collection. New York: Abrams, 2013.
In A Boy & Sungreen and The House of Us and in Moving On Yoon Danbi, another film by the first female filmmaker in the KOFFIA 2020 series, the nuclear family splits up, splits up or forms around something new. By using children as storytellers, these directors ask a big question: What does a family do? We see families found, treated and mixed as a result of the injuries and traumas of a dispersed person. Perhaps it is because the formation of the nuclear family was so deeply rooted in the socialization of girls and later women, and because the family is the traditional core of most Asian societies, that the deconstruction of the myths surrounding it has become an irresistible recurring theme for female filmmakers.
A Boy & Sungreen’s best friends, Bohee and Nokyang, have undoubtedly made a link in the general parable of parenthood in families. They told God that his father had died in a car accident, but they found out that maybe his father had just left them, him and his mother. Meanwhile Nokian’s mother died during childbirth, causing her father and grandmother, who were bothering her, to raise her. Chae’s mother’s lack of honesty makes him and Nokiang look for his father, despite vague clues. But apart from that it is partly a journey for the person himself, certainly in contrast to Nokyang. Nokiang is the instigator: confident, determined and assertive in every sense of the word, she fights to be like God; the media often put forward the full questioning of the roles of boys and girls. God is the victim of sexist insults that have taken root in her close female relationship, and this clearly affects her more than Nokiang. Perhaps the lack of self-respect for God is also a result of the stigmatization of single-parent families in South Korea, and what led the mother of God to say that her father had died in an accident instead of revealing that he might have just left the family? Director An never gives us clear answers, so the audience can draw its own conclusions, but there are clues.
Although this is mainly the story of God and Nokiang, we see a single mother having difficulties, and it is clear that Nokiang’s father does not have the same difficulties that we hardly see. At the end of the film the audience understands that in the end it never made sense to find the Father of God, but that it is God who finds a supporting structure around him that helps him shape what he will become. His mother made some mistakes. She’s not perfect, but who? In the end, she does everything she can to offer him a safe and happy home in spite of his situation. In the friend of his half-sister Namhi, Sung Uke, he finds the incredible figure of a surrogate father, a clumsy man who doesn’t want to take care of him in Namhi’s absence, and who comes to him to really take care of the boy. Nokiang and God also realize at the end of this journey that they are each other’s family. After all, what is family, apart from those who stay close to you in difficult times? It is also refreshing to see that their relationship remains completely platonic and even develops into a deeper family dynamic. Part of the charm of A Boy & Sungreen is building your own stories. So it seems fitting that God and Nokian unite to form their own strange and growing little family.
Where A Boy & Sungreen does not like to give clear answers, the house is more clearly focused by us on the theme of divorce, a multifaceted subject that has been the subject of several high-profile films that reflect its complex nature. What makes Our House particularly destructive of wedding scenes (1973) or the history of marriage (2019) is that we witness a divorce through the eyes of a child. Moreover, Yoon Ga Eun decides to bring his story into a state of inevitable fluidity when marriage fails.
We all know what’s next, we’ve seen it and in some cases we’ve even experienced it, and that’s usually where the move starts. But the fear of daily frailty is unique to every family, and it is this fear that ultimately causes the biggest wounds. If you want to break, do it! Hana Chan’s older brother (by the way also played by Ahn Ji Ho) screams during the fight against his parents, while Hana watches. Chan Splash is probably what all children of divorced parents thought about or what they actually said out loud. Hana is an 11-year-old woman, naturally optimistic and mature. She sees and knows that her parents’ arguments are a symptom of a bigger problem. Her chance encounter and the bond she establishes with her sisters Yumi and Yujin show that for them she naturally falls into the role of an older sister. While she tries to save her parents’ marriage by offering them a family trip, she also tries to save Yumi’s and Yujin’s house from sale and wants to reunite them with their parents. She sincerely hopes that her experiments can only be carried out by a child. Her brother, who’s in high school, has already agreed to the impending divorce. When he sees her making egg rolls for the whole family before the sea voyage, he sniffs… You know this isn’t gonna work, right?
Hana’s egg dishes are a recurring motif throughout the film. Because Yumi and Yujin’s parents live far from Seoul for their work and their uncle sometimes has no time for them, Hana cooks frostbite, steamed eggs, boiled eggs and spicy noodles for the sisters to eat. We see that Hana starts cooking for her sisters because her own family often does not sit and dine together, a sad but accurate reflection of modern life. The bright yellow colour of the eggs is reassuring and fits into the almost childlike colour palette of the film. Director Yoon emphasizes warm tones and blue, so the yellow is very bright, which only makes it more destructive in its meaning. Eggs are a sedative and in Asian societies they are often synonymous with warmth, life and family. Since both groups of biological families have disappeared, Khan Yumi and Yujin make his family through the eggs. When the final scene of the film arrives, Hana finally comes to the conclusion that her family will inevitably be destroyed. It is also the first time in this story that she and her family are finally eating together, and of course she serves each of them a simple fried egg on rice.
The written works of Ahn and Yoon have largely been compared to those of Hirokazu Corida or Hou Xiao Xien, and it is clear that these thoughtful family dramas (with a hint of age) will not seem inappropriate in their films. However, it is important to note that with a new wave of female filmmakers in South Korea, directors Yoon and An-along offer a uniquely feminine perspective and show ways to deconstruct and destroy family unity in a fresh and nuanced way, away from their male colleagues. The journeys the heroes undertake and the sensitivity to the problems of girls and women reflect how the feminine nature of South Korea has influenced the experience of the filmmakers and the stories they tell.
If you look at A Boy & Sungreen and The House of Us and think of films like Yoon Danbi’s House of Hummingbird, Moving On and Yoon Ga-Eun’s debut film, The World of Us (2016), it is quite understandable that each of these films has a unique character, despite the fact that the films have similarities in certain themes and of course in the age range of their main characters. Even the House of Us, which functions as a spiritual continuation of the world of Us, is very different in the subjects it deals with. Yet each director uses the views of children and young people to make social comments and reflect on the challenges facing modern Korean society: the stigma of the family with a single mother, the struggles of the working class and the disintegration of the nuclear family. Children are one of the most vulnerable groups in society and when it comes to them, most problems have to do with them directly and in the most difficult way. Yet their stories are ignored because they are not seen as universal or exciting, ironic, if you look at the way all directors and viewers have experienced the age of eleven.
Children like Ahn Joo Young and Yoon Ga-eun were able to simplify the problem and get to the bottom of it. Perhaps even more compelling is the fact that both directors have allowed their characters to participate actively in their own travels and give children a voice in which they can be ignored outside the world of film. We can only hope that these filmmakers will continue to receive financial support so that they can continue to tell countless stories and bring more diverse experiences into our lives on the big screen.