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KIM Ui-seok, Director of AFTER MY DEATH

Sep 27, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
  • View1225
“I Captured the Light and Shadow of Guilt”

YOON Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night (2011), PARK Suk-young’s Wild Flowers (2015), Steel Flower (2016) and Ash Flower (2017) trilogy, and LEE Su-jin’s HAN Gong-ju (2014), a number of Korean indie films that attracted critical acclaim for their sensitive and serious portraits of teenage life have been emerging in the public scene. In 2018, KIM Ui-seok’s feature debut film After My Death added its name to the list. 

After My Death observes how each character’s hidden guilt is a mirror of one’s evil nature. After high school girl Kyung-min goes missing without any explanation, the police conclude that she might have committed suicide and officers interrogate Young-hee, the last person who was with her before she went missing. Kyung-min’s family and classmates blame Young-hee for her supposed death, and in order to prove her innocence, Young-hee fights tooth and nail. Graduation project of the 10th year of Korean Academy of Film Arts, Feature Film Production Course, this film won the New Currents Award at last year’s Busan International Film Festival, as well as the special Jury Prize and the Youth Jury Award Comundo at the Fribourg Int’l Film Festival this March. It was theatrically released in Korea this month. We met with the up-an-coming filmmaker KIM Ui-seok to hear his views on the film. 

Through the portrayal of the impact the death of a teenager has on a community, the film sheds light on Korean society.

I wanted for the presence of Kyung-min’s death to grow and become a symbol or metaphor for every social problem. When I was first working on the screenplay, someone questioned whether ‘this was a story that could be cinematized well in a film’. The issue was that the premise was just too fragmentary to create a full-fledged narrative out of it. But this made me feel even more strongly that this was exactly why I wanted to tell. The death of a person who is close to you could mean everything to someone. The cause of Kyung-min’s death is never revealed, but the characters in the film continue to each make assumptions in different ways. I wanted them all to sound plausible and reasonable. No one knows what really happened, but everything serves as a reason to the cause. I wanted the shadow of Kyung-min’s death to grow to the point that it drives everyone into a state of insanity. 

After My Death shows various groups of people feeling guilt over the teenage girl’s death. Each character’s guilt unravels in its own way, and we can feel as a filmmaker, how deeply you thought about portraying this in the film.

I established the basic emotion that runs in this film as guilt and wanted to depict how such guilt spreads (as Kyung-min goes away) and fades. Yet, the characters never admit their own feelings and they put the blame on Young-hee, but in fact I wanted to show a situation where no one could actually be blamed. The classmates who go up to Young-hee to vent their anger never display that much antagonism against her, and the detective who interrogates Young-hee is apologetic despite cornering her to make a confession. The principal also wants the case to be closed as soon as possible but feels sorry for Kyung-min’s parents at the same time, and I thought the balance between these emotions would make the film more consistent. The same goes for the main character, Young-hee, who insists on her innocence but feels that she really did something wrong, that she did her friend wrong in some way. And thus, although she wants to place the blame on others (those who call her a victimizer), it is in fact herself she sees in the mirror as the one to blame. People’s minds are filled with thoughts that are different from one another, and everyone is looking in a different direction. I wanted to show how these gazes clash. People struggling to survive in their own way, this is the image of society I wanted to capture in this film. 

You set the film in a girl’s high school. It must have required to research how to portray the teenagers of today.

Looking back, I can’t say that I am more mature than when I was in my teens. Not much has changed really, just the way I try to express myself in a more sophisticated manner. Likewise, I didn’t want to show teenagers as immature beings so I didn’t intentionally try to make a teenage premise. The only details I especially worked on to depict the high school students were the costumes and behavioral specificities. I felt the basic emotions and relationships should be no different from those of adults. 

What did you particularly focus on in your cinematography for this film, the tone for example? 

I wanted the film’s overall tone and spatial mood to be totally different from other films that have teenage students as protagonists. I made each space seem like a monastery in the film. For the characters to focus on and immerse themselves into their own emotions, I tried to make the spaces as simple as possible. Making light and shadow coexist in one frame was the overall concept I had for the film. Like mentioned before, the characters’ emotions were expressed with ambivalence. Light and shadow continue hovering over people’s heads along with their emotions and I wanted to capture those. Every element in the film including the Mise-en-scène, lighting and production design were created out of this basic idea. 

JEON Yeo-been, who played the main character Young-hee, had to give an extremely physically-demanding performance. SEO Young-hwa who plays Kyung-min’s mother is another gem that was discovered through this film. A number of actors also stood out with their very natural performances. 

Because it is a small film, we couldn’t pay the actors sufficiently. So instead, I hoped they could freely express themselves and get a sense of accomplishment through their performances. Because it took me 2 years to write the screenplay, I gave a background story to even the smallest role, creating a whole universe unrelated to the film’s main storyline, and thus, for each character. When they came to the shoot, I was able to tell them this and that about their character’s personal history. It created the perfect opportunity to communicate freely with the actors. For the high school students, I instructed the actors to pay no attention to how much the camera was on them, and even when the camera wasn’t on them, I told them I wanted to see them in character. As JEON Yeo-been had to perform a physically-demanding role, I followed this guideline whenever I felt she was struggling with a certain scene and I hope that when she gets to see this film, she can be proud of her performance. Regarding SEO Young-hwa, I didn’t communicate that much with her because I knew she was the kind of actress who could take what I had in mind and run with it. I was often quite impressed with her performance. I just hope that she can receive more attention with my film. 

This is your first feature film. What did you learn from this experience? 

I’m always thinking that this is going to be my last film whenever I’m shooting. Even now, once in a while, I can feel this fear. Since a short film must be shot within a 3-4 days period, I was often placed in the predicament of shooting without enough preparation. But unlike shorts, a feature film feels like you’re paving the way as you go, or setting up dominoes. Since you need to shoot in one take with shorts, there’s not enough space for corrections, but with features, if you come up with a different idea, you can make revisions and incorporate it in the next shoot. On the contrary, there were days when we had to recall emotions that were portrayed in a scene that we shot days before. It was an interesting experience, and it felt like I was creating something as the film shoot went on. 

Do you have any overseas screening schedules? And what are your plans for your next project?

I was told that this film will soon be theatrically released in France. I was also informed that the film was sold to a Southeast Asian territory. I am currently working on my next project and it makes me feel like I’m starting from nothing once again. Without anything up my sleeve (ideas) for now, I am just toying with this and that to see where it will lead me.
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