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Ko - production in Busan
  • JEON Go-woon of Microhabitat
  • by SONG Soon-jin /  Apr 03, 2018
  • “I wanted to tell a heroic story, not a coming-of-age story”

    Microhabitat is about Miso (E Som), a girl who loves her whiskey, her cigarettes, and her boyfriend. She is an unprecedented female character who isn’t hung up about marriage, starting a family and finding a place to live but someone who rather continues to do what she enjoys in her life. Microhabitat is about Miso’s journey as she wanders from one friend’s place to another while becoming the mirror reflecting the oppressions and obsessions from which most of contemporary Koreans suffer. This film is the debut feature from JEON Go-woon, the co-CEO of indie production company KwangHwaMoon Cinema, which produced Sunshine Boys (2013), The King of Jokgu (2014), and The Queen of Crime (2016). After starting many conversations at Busan International Film Festival and Seoul Independent Film Festival, Microhabitat was recently released in theaters. We met with director JEON Go-woon to talk about Miso’s heroic tale.

    Microhabitat touches on social issues like youth unemployment, the young generation that is forced to give up the standard way of life due to economic distress, real estate problems, and the unfair patriarchal system. What was your inspiration to tell this kind of story?

    I’ve always been concerned about housing prices. We’re pressured to marry and give birth, but housing prices rose so high that it has become impossible for anyone to purchase their own homes. And then, the increase in the price of cigarette in 2015 was the final blow. That’s when I started to work on my characters. I started writing in January of 2016, and also included a story about friendship and love that I always wanted to write. I could say a lot just with Miso’s character, but I decided to make it into a road movie by having Miso visits several friends in order to tell diverse stories I heard from people around me. It wasn’t difficult to give each character their own issue since these are problems we all face. I hadn’t seen yet any films covering these problems in an overall manner, nor treating them with humor. That’s why I thought it would be worth giving it a try. I wanted to make a movie revolving around a single female character while touching on the prejudice against smoking women and the things we begin to lose with age.

    Miso is a character unlike any other in Korean cinema. How did you come up with her?

    Miso is the ideal personality of my dreams. She’s poor, but she has self-respect and remains elegant. She knows very well what she likes. She’s not the type of woman our society would see as “feminine”; she is just a human being in good health. That’s why I wanted to make her look somewhat androgynous. The media often portrays women as frail and cute, so I tried hard to do the opposite. I also tried to prevent from making her smile or cry too much. I paid attention not to give her smoking hands any sexual meaning. The reason why I represented Miso and her boyfriend Han-sol (AHN Jae-hong) as equals is an extension of the same idea. In terms of the story, I wanted her to be an independent individual. That’s why Miso may feel somewhat unrealistic.

    How did you decide to cast E Som as Miso?

    Microhabitat’s cast is like a collection of my favorite actors. They’re people who moved me, whether it is with their performance or with their attitude towards life. That’s why I reached out to them first. The protagonist is played by E Som who previously appeared in The Queen of Crime. The Miso I had in mind was a little bit on the crazy side, and so when I told this to The Queen of Crime director LEE Yo-sup, he recommended E Som to me. After meeting her, we naturally came up with Miso’s character while she was cold-reading and improvising. That’s why the Miso from the film is very different from the one in the script. When E Som joined the project, she gave Miso her fashion style but also her confidence and her class. KIM Jae-hwa who played Jung-mi also helped a lot with the character building. In the script, Jung-mi is a rich young mom who raises her child with elegance. KIM Jae-hwa recently had her second son, so she could tell us about the difficulties of raising a child. After listening to her, I realized that I had been depicting Jung-mi as someone superficial.

    I heard actress KIM Hye-soo helped you during the planning stage.

    I was a screenwriter and a script supervisor for Familyhood (2016) which starred KIM Hye-soo. She’s known for being very sweet to the production staff, and of course, she was very nice to me too. One day, she told me that she heard about KwangHwaMoon Cinema, and asked me to show her the script for our next project. I felt like she really meant it and I was thankful for her kindness. I’m a shy person and I don’t want to be a nuisance to anyone. But with Microhabitat, I sent her the first version of the script right away. I then received a call from an unknown number. Her voice sounded very cheerful and she said, “I’m not very good at reading these, but I enjoyed it very much and want to help you.” I told her that I was worried about the casting, and she gave me a list of supporting actors and actresses she had been keeping her eyes on.

    Up to now, The Queen of Crime, Familyhood, and Microhabitat are all films led by a single female protagonist. Have there been female characters that have influenced you?

    I love films and I’ve watched so many that I’m sure I have been influenced by many characters. I'm especially mad for great female characters. For example, PARK Chan-wook’s Geum-ja in Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005), or Ho-jung played by MOON So-ri in A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003) influenced me a lot. I also love the Spanish female characters in director Pedro Almodóvar’s films. People that are in good health and independent are very attractive to me.

    Will you continue to work on films that are mainly female-focused? What is your next project?

    Many people have been asking me, but I have no plan yet for my next project. If there is a character, a story, or a genre that suddenly comes to me like it did with Microhabitat, I will make another one. However, the writing process was very hard to me. It took me a lot of effort to determine what I wanted to convey to the viewers through my story and what I should keep to myself. I was my toughest critic. I have a few pieces of ideas here and there, but I don’t have a concrete character or a story yet. However, I’d be very interested in making the film for Netflix with a female protagonist. The reason is that I think Netflix will allow me to represent female characters with complete freedom. If I pitched a 3-part series called “Smoking Woman”, it would never be broadcast in Korea. If I ever get to make a series for Netflix, I would like to tell a story about a group of women instead of an individual.
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