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.
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