Some people from the audience accused the director of taking advantage of the main character, an old Korean woman, who did not quite understand that a film was being made about her. It took a bit of explanations from the filmmaker to calm things down.
“After the discussion I couldn’t sleep,” Hosup Lee says.
“The guy in the audience was probably angry about my attitude. It is my fault, because there was probably some misunderstanding about the topics. I explained my film to Grandma Wike, but she didn’t really understand why she was on TV. But during the four years she almost became my own grandma.”
It took five years for Hosup Lee to make And Thereafter. It is the director’s first feature-length documentary, which developed out of a short film graduation project. The documentary tells the story of Young-ja Wike, an elderly Korean woman who married an American GI to escape her hopeless, destitute situation after the Korean War. Young-ja has lived in the US for forty years, but her life is no American Dream. She never learned the language well and was looked down upon by Americans, whereas Koreans called her a whore. The ‘thereafter’ of the marriage turned into an isolated life with a mentally ill husband suffering from war traumas and with grownup children she can hardly communicate with. They treat her with contempt and Young-ja’s only joy is to grow chilli peppers in a small field outside the house. The film is structured around the changing of the seasons and working in the chilli pepper field.
Inspired by Fiction and Wiseman
The story of the dysfunctional Wike family is structured like a drama. The family secrets are gradually revealed and these dramas are used as plot points that turn the story into new directions, thickening the layer of humiliation and sometimes violence Young-ja has to put up with.
“Every sequence is made like a fiction film; every scene is very composed; it has a style, because I try to control everything,” Lee explains.
One very beautiful shot in the film is one where the snow is falling quietly on the house. The picture then dissolves into a rain of red chilli peppers spurting out of a grinder machine like red snow.
“I waited four years for the right snow to fall. There was snow but not the kind I wanted, but finally it came. Patience is the number one rule in documentary filmmaking,” says Lee with a smile.
Hosup Lee is also greatly inspired by Frederick Wiseman and direct cinema.
When I ask him about his view on filming someone who does not fully understand that she is in a film, he refers to Wiseman.
“We should think about why Wiseman wanted to film in a hospital. He wanted the same as me: not to make money but to show what goes on. I want to show an isolated person living in America.”
“If I want to show the society, I choose the ‘microscope’ approach. I can show unequal relations between Korea and America by watching Grandma Wike.”
By zooming in on Grandma Wike’s story, Lee brings out the losses and personal costs of war of the persons who are still suffering the consequences.
“I met Grandma Wike five years ago, I knew her story, and my philosophy about the film is that it is a kind of declaration of love,” Lee says.
“I didn’t cheat her. Legally, there is no problem. I had the family members sign a contract and paid them a lot of money for the copyright.”
Lee did obtain the family’s signature on the release papers, although Jimmy, one of the sons in the Wike family, was hostile to Lee’s filming. Lee filmed Jimmy throwing a knife at him and cutting down Young-ja Wike’s favourite cherry tree with his axe at night. But the filmmaker chose not to show these scenes in the film.
“I shot many of these situations where he gets angry, but I didn’t include them in my film, because my focus is on isolation and on Grandma Wike,” explains Lee.
“She is isolated and I only deal with that subject. So if I use their private lives, if it’s a problem, it’s my fault, but I only deal with a small part.”
In one particular scene, one has the feeling that the filmmaker transgresses on the son’s privacy. The first time the camera shows us Jimmy’s room, he is not there himself. It is Young-ja Wike who lets the filmmaker into Jimmy’s room while he is out. Small plastic soldiers, porn magazines and porn videos are piled up in the messy room and provoked laughter from the audience.
I asked the filmmaker if he had had any problem with shooting that scene.
“That scene is the most difficult to me. But I explained about my situation. I think about Wiseman again – he also shows people’s rooms even though they are not there.”
“I want to show that the family members abuse Grandma Wike and that they are a bit strange. I don’t need to show who they are. I show the son’s room because I want to express his character. That is enough.”
Because of the tense relationship between filmmaker and son, and because Lee wanted to protect Young-ja Wike, he didn’t show Jimmy the film.
Young-ja Wike has seen it, but according to the filmmaker she never quite understood it was a film about her.
And Thereafter was made by a one-man team. Hosup Lee prefers to works alone with his camera. Before he starts shooting, he interviews the subjects without a camera. He determines their attitude to him and his film and whether they accept him as a filmmaker.
“And then I decide whether to shoot this person or not. For this project, I met more than fifty Korean war brides, and it took almost a year to find Young-ja Wike. Then I shot without any pre-constructed plan. That took another year. During this time we got to know each other and I learned how to grow chilli pepper.”
Lee also wrote a scenario for the film, structuring the story in four chapters following the seasons of the year. And then he shot the film again according to his script.
“However, it’s not easy, and it took two years because Grandma Wike is not an actress and I cannot control the environment or the doings of family members, or the weather, or September 11,” says Lee.
The Wikes’ house in Browns Mills, New Jersey, is close to an army base, and this created obstacles for the filmmaker.
“I didn’t have a boom and there was this army base near by. So every ten minutes there was a plane flying over. It was difficult; there was much noise from the planes, etc., so I had to tell Grandma Wike to come out when it was quiet, so I could shoot.”
Also, after September 11, Lee couldn’t go to the family’s house for a month.
Lee works his material with patience, waiting for the right moment, and if necessary re-shoots the scene. One scene in particular had to be worked on a lot to make it come out right. It’s a scene where Grandma Wike reveals a terrible family secret while sorting the chilli peppers in the cellar. The filmmaker knew about the secret beforehand and asked the old woman to tell it again in front of the camera.
“I interviewed her about twenty times in the cellar, because I felt I couldn’t get it right. The fact is the same, but her feelings were different every time. Anyway, one day it was great,” says Lee.
“To me, the emotion is much more important than the fact. If someone wants to know the fact, he can read the newspaper or books. It takes a few minutes. Why should anybody want to watch a documentary lasting one hour?” Lee asks.
And Thereafter is the first film in a trilogy. The first film is about a Young-ja Wike, a Korean war bride who married an American GI. The second is about a woman who was a prostitute for US soldiers stationed in Korea after the war. She married a soldier and moved to the US. The third is about a woman who was a prostitute and didn’t get married, but stayed in Korea.
The short version of And Thereafter received the Best Documentary Award and the Best Cinematography Award at Cityvisions 2001.
“I have been seriously studying the documentary for ten years. However, I still don’t know what a documentary is. The textbook definition of documentary is vague, and I believe the definition should evolve. I know I stand on the borderline.
To me, it is so meaningless to discuss if my work is a documentary or not. I am only concerned about how I can make a good film. I am an independent filmmaker using real stories and real people.”
FACTS about the filmmaker
Hosup Lee was born in Seoul and graduated from Seoul National University. After graduating with a degree in public administration from New York University, he returned to Korea where he worked as director and producer of the “Sunday Special” at the Korean television station KBS Media Enterprises.
He then returned to New York City and enrolled in the MFA programme in Media Arts Production at City College of New York.