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The Future of Korean Cinema at Cannes 2023 (2): HOPELESS, by Kim Chang-hoon

Jun 29, 2023
  • Source by Online Magazine K-Movie by KOFIC
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HOPELESS, an “Asian Extreme” movie that harbors an inner light





Placing an unknown rookie actor like Hong Xa-bin alongside star Song Joong-ki and the innovative musician Bibi (Kim Hyoung-seo) in her debut role, Hopeless, one of the films presented in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, provides the audiences with somewhat of an original collaboration of talents. But even more unusual than this cast is the director himself, Kim Chang-hoon. Born in 1989, the 34-year-old received an invitation from Cannes for his debut feature film. Hopeless, based on a original script he wrote, is a noir film revolving around Yeon-gyu (played by Hong Xa-bin), a high school student who wants to leave for the Netherlands (the film is named in Korean after the old Korean name for Holland, “Hwaran”, which can also be read as ‘hopeless’), in order to escape from a violent stepfather and school bullying. Burdened by the cost of such a project, he receives help from Chi-geon (played by Song Joong-ki), a mid-level gangster, as he heads down a dark path. His younger stepsister Ha-yan (played by Kim Hyoung-seo) is aware that something unusual is going on in Yeon-gyu’s life and tries to stop him. Director Kim Chang-hoon brings up violence, money, and family issues onto the big screen, and it will come as little surprise that when asked about his favorite movies, he mentions that Park Chan-wook's Old Boy, once classified as the quintessential "Asian Extreme" film, is the title he watched the most. And he agrees that the same codes that fascinated him in that movie can be found in Hopeless. We had a brief interview with him through video call on May 24th during the short time he could grant us between the premiere of his film and the red-carpet photo session. 






Congratulations for your directorial debut making the cut for the Cannes selection. How was it to have your film shown for the first time at the Théâtre Claude Debussy today? It must have been an extraordinary experience to watch your film along with filmmakers from around the world.

It is truly an honor to present my first film on such a grand stage to a wide audience. To the point where I was incredibly nervous. I was anxious about how the audience would receive it, and how they would perceive the film.


I heard that you shed tears upon learning your film was selected for Cannes. What was the significance behind those tears? Did it remind you of the journey so far?

When I received the news over the phone, I simply replied, "Understood," and then I hung up. And then, once I was alone, the tears of joy started to well up. The actors and staff members had all worked so hard, and I felt some sort of relief that I could at least repay them in some small way. This is my first experience making a film, and although I’ve had my fair share of challenges during production, film-making has been my dream since childhood. I was going through a lot of different emotions, which eventually brought me to tears.


You probably didn’t expect to attend the Cannes film festival this early in your career? Did you have a self-imposed goal in mind, like making your film debut before a certain age?

I told myself, "I should debut before turning forty." I wanted to make a film quickly anyway but I ended up in Cannes much faster than expected, which left me in shock and in disbelief.


What did Han Jae-duk, the CEO of production company Sanai Pictures, initially think of the screenplay?

He jokingly said, "Everything has already been said and done in old films. Today's films may just as well be iterating on those classic films. The screenplay for Hopeless seems to take after the films that came before." (Laughs)


It is known that the two of you met through July Lee, the CEO of talent management company L' July Entertainment. What relation do you have with her?

Before joining Sanai Pictures, I worked as a writer in another film company, but none of my projects ever got off their feet. During that time, I formed a bond with July Lee. She’s a very nice person. At some point, she said, "If you have any screenplays, please show them to me," so I sent her the one I had for Hopeless, which eventually reached Han Jae-deok as well.


After signing the contract with Sanai Pictures in 2017, you began production on Hopeless in 2022. What happened during that gap of five years?

I believed that Hopeless shouldn't be one of those films that need to perform well at the box office to break even, so I first spent some time alone to write a few scripts in preparation for other projects. I worked part-time jobs to make a living.


Was there a specific reason that drew you back to Hopeless?

One day, Han Jae-duk contacted me and said, "Chang-hoon, let's make Hopeless. We only live once, so you should do what you really want to do." After that, Song Joong-ki read the screenplay and was eager to join the project, and then we were able to start production.


During those five years, did the story of Hopeless undergo any change from its initial concept? And is there any idea or theme that you wanted to keep at all cost as the director of this film?

There were several exchanges of opinions during the production process, and little by little, some aspects of the story underwent changes. However, my idea was that at the core of the film there should be things like, the fact that the protagonist, Yeon-gyu, tries to find hope even in the difficult circumstances, and that he always tries to remember his inherent goodness, and so I had to make sure these parts were not lost.





I’d like to talk more about Yeon-gyu. Some post that the protagonists of Korean films are some sort of allegory for the Korean society, as they often find themselves divided and stuck between a rock and a hard place. Why doesn’t Yeon-gyu leave the city and instead endures the violence he is subjected to? Is it because he's still young or is it just an iteration of the confinement structure that is characteristic of Korean films? Why did you choose a reclusive city and put your characters into that kind of setting?

It’s not that Yeon-gyu chooses not to leave; he cannot leave! It's because of his mother (Park Bo-kyoung). Yeon-gyu wants to leave the neighborhood and go to the Netherlands with his mother, but his mom has lost her will after enduring violence for such a long time and is now apathetic. And so she no longer wants to change anything. Yeon-gyu is unable to leave because of the internal conflict that comes from his desire to take his mother with him. His mother being the only blood relative he has, she is important in Yeon-gyu's life.


This is the first time I saw a movie that features this type of crime called "motorcycle predatory lending”. Since the film belongs to the noir genre, the crimes depicted needed to be realistic yet cruel. How did you come up with this concept?

Motorcycles themselves put you in a precarious situation. Even the slightest mistake can lead to a serious accident. This precariousness echoes Yeon-gyu's life. Already from the moment I was writing the screenplay, I knew that the device I was going to use to lead the narrative into the world of crime would be a motorcycle. In the process, someone asked me whether the Chi-geon’s gang would resort to stealing motorcycles to survive. This question eventually led me to imagining a scenario where they would seize control of the entire neighborhood. To the people living in that neighborhood, motorcycles are everything. And so I imagined what would happen if the loan sharks stole motorcycles, creating a vicious cycle that would force people to borrow money from them.


In an official interview for the festival, you said, "I made this film with the conviction that we can remember that there is a small light within us even in the darkest times and circumstances." Do you feel that you gave that light to Yeon-gyu after watching the film in the theater today?

Instead of saying that I provided some light to Yeon-gyu, I see him more like a character who strives to act according to the light of his true nature. However, due to constant difficulties and a toxic environment, Yeon-gyu is forced to live a life that goes against his true nature and finds himself in a critical situation. Despite that, he reflects on and contemplates the mistakes he has made. Considering that he seeks to turn his life around and makes a certain choice at the end of the movie, I’d say he has not lost his inner light. He followed it through.


While it is true that Yeon-gyu strives to protect his own light, he also receives help from people around him who act like beacons, such as the organization's middle boss, Chi-geon, and his younger sister, Ha-yan. 

First and foremost, Chi-geon is a character who deeply empathizes with Yeon-gyu. The relation between Chi-geon and Yeon-gyu is that they share the same past and future, each representing an alternative version of the other’s past and future. As a result, the two individuals take a deeper look at each other, to the point where they can even take a glimpse at their own inner selves. In other words, they are like mirrors. However, due to the way Chi-geon has lived until now, he cannot live anymore without resorting to violence, and all he can do to help Yeon-gyu is to impose a similar way of life on him. Would that really be of any help to Yeon-gyu? On the other hand, Ha-yan does not impose anything on Yeon-gyu and accepts him the way he is. Ha-yan feels somewhat responsible for the situation Yeon-gyu has been forced into and thinks of herself as her brother's guardian. Therefore, she plays a significant role in preserving Yeon-gyu's inner light. Yeon-gyu must have eventually recognized as well that there was this difference between Chi-geon and Ha-yan.





How did you come up with the idea of bringing together Hong Xa-bin, Song Joong-ki, and Kim Hyoung-seo for the characters of Yeon-gyu, Chi-geon, and Ha-yan?

It’s all thanks to Song Joong-ki picking this screenplay that the movie could be made. As a director, it was great to see a much more complex character be created from the juxtaposition of the impression of softness this actor has to him and Chi-geon and the darkness he carries. For Yeon-gyu, I wanted the audience to feel like they are peering into the life of a total stranger. That's why I thought the role required some new face we had never seen before. Xa-bin exudes something extremely peculiar and that feeling lingered in my mind days after I saw his photos. And when I saw Xa-bin interpret the lines during the read-through, I had a strong conviction. "That’s him! Isn’t he Yeon-gyu for real?" As for Hyoung-seo (aka Bibi), I've always felt she’s a musician who displays an overwhelming energy on stage and in her music videos, and so I felt she would be great at acting too. I see Ha-yan as the character with the strongest mind in this film, and so I figured that such a strength would be better conveyed if she could be the one interpreting her.


Is there a reason that you often deal with themes of family and money in your films? In 2012, you directed a short film called Dance with My Mother, which tells the story of a hardworking son and a gambling mother. There seems to be a connection between Hopeless and that film.

Now that you mention it, I remember that when I wrote the script for Hopeless or filmed Dance with My Mother I had issues related to money and family problems that resulted from that. Those were the two biggest issues I had in my life at the time. I didn't want to give up on filmmaking, so I would work two jobs, even three jobs. I worked at motels, call centers, restaurants, built houses, all the while writing the screenplay. I was wondering what was the right life path at that time, and I think this led me to filmmaking.


I heard you also worked as a trainer at an acting school.

That's correct. For a year, while writing the screenplay, I worked at a private acting school and also did overnight shifts at a call center for a credit card company. I would work at the call center every other night, staying up all night, take a short nap in the morning, then go to work at the private school, and finally come back home to work on the screenplay.

The movie Hopeless, with its story of tenacious men who would rather do physical labor rather than white-collar jobs, seems to have been heavily influenced by previous Korean noir films. What are the Korean films that have become that you hold dear?

Since my high school days, from the moment I watched a lot of film as if I was studying them up to now, the movie I've watched the most is Old Boy by Park Chan-wook. Although it may have been highly influenced by Korean noir films, I believe the fundamental aspects of Hopeless were more influenced by the films of Lee Chang-dong.


Did you intend to amplify or tone down the level of violence depicted in Hopeless compared to other works that deal with violence?

I didn't have the intention to intensify the violence. Especially in scenes that involve domestic violence, I preferred not to show the violent act itself. I didn’t show moments when Yeon-gyu is assaulted, instead communicating it through the reactions of his mother. This way, it is up to the audience’s imagination but I’m not imposing it on them.


However, despite that, there are violent scenes involving the use of fingernails and sharp metallic nails. By utilizing every day’s objects like those, you tried to maximize the sensation of pain. How did you come up with such ideas?

I used a lot of my imagination. Considering Chi-geon's occupation as a carpenter, I imagined that there would be nails scattered all around him, and so I imagined he could be cleaning up and suddenly use them to subdue someone in one move.


You mentioned earlier that you developed a passion for films when you were in high school?

I first dreamt of becoming a filmmaker when I was in elementary school. My mother really loved movies, and since I didn't have many friends, we would always stop by the video store on our way home from school and watch movies at home. I also loved dinosaurs when I was young, and one day my mother took me to the theater to see Jurassic Park (1993). My jaw was on the floor. I was wondering what I have to do to be able to create something like that so I asked my mother, and she said: "You should become a filmmaker." From then on, I always held onto that vague idea of becoming a filmmaker, and my dream never changed.

Did you ever deviate from that path?

Never. Movies were my favorite thing, so I never thought about doing anything else.


In an official Cannes interview, you said, "I always wanted to direct a crime movie. It isn’t the crime itself, but the consequences that I find fascinating." Among crime movies, some highlight a certain sense of liberation achieved through crime, while in others this leads to a tragic ending. Each movie is different, of course, but what kind of crime movies do you prefer?

Of course, as an audience member, I can also appreciate the enjoyment one can find in the entertainment value of crime itself. However, when I made this movie as a director, I wanted to show how the occurrence of crime and violence can influence in a way people's growth and ruin their lives. And so, paradoxically, the question I wanted to ask with that was whether crime and violence are truly tolerable, paradoxically.

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