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Director SHIN Dong-seok of Last Child

Sep 04, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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“I wanted to look into the methodology of mourning”

A couple loses their teenage son. The father, Sungcheol (CHOI Moo-sung), wants his son to be remembered as a hero who sacrificed his own life to save his friend, while the mother, Misook (KIM Yeo-jin), gives birth to another child to replace the son she lost and tries to find the will to live again. As the two of them deal with the sorrow of loss and are trying to heal in their own way, the boy their son saved comes into their lives. Kihyun (SUNG Yu-bin) is at first the subject of their hatred but they soon start showing him sympathy until one day, he confesses the secret behind their son’s death. How will the three of them live together after that? Last Child is the debut feature of Korea National University of Arts graduate SHIN Dong-seok, who previously directed the short films Stirring Ripple (2005) and Gahee & B.H. (2006) After winning the FIPRESCI Award at the Busan International Film Festival last year, Last Child was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival. The film looks into the abyssal pain struggle of the ones left behind after a loss. We met with director SHIN Dong-seok to hear about his filmmaking process.

I heard you came to write this story after working on different scripts that were all talking about death.

When I was in my early 20s, I lost a few people. I had mood swings and often felt depressed. That was the process of mourning for me. But one day, I got upset at someone trying to comfort me. I realized that even I had thought very lightly about comforting someone until it actually happened to me. The words that I said might have caused more pain than comfort to those people. After that, I started finding comfort in films and novels that dealt with people mourning after a loss, and I decided that I wanted to make a film on the same topic too. I just didn’t know that it would be my first feature film.

Was there a specific film or a novel that you were influenced by while making Last Child?

While I was making this film, I read a book by professor SEO Kyung-sik entitled “Looking for Primo Levi, The Witness of Our Time”. Primo Levi is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and has experienced the Holocaust. Although he was traumatized by his experience, he wrote a testimonial about it. Then one day, he just ended his life by committing suicide. As the author SEO Kyung-sik travels to Europe, “Looking for Primo Levi, The Witness of Our Time” questions why Primo Levi chose to end his life. While reading the book, I thought ethics and mourning might be connected. When one makes a decision or mourns after someone’s death, I felt that their actions were probably based on their feelings for the deceased.

Your film is about the bereaved, and how the society treats the bereaved. In the last few years, there were quite a few tragic incidents in Korea including the sinking of the Sewol Ferry. The families of the victims were often shown in the media. Your film is meaningful because you tell their stories and lives from a deep, inner perspective.

When I first started to write this story, I didn’t think about the victim families involved in the sinking of the Sewol Ferry. However, those who read it often mentioned the Sewol tragedy. Actress KIM Yeo-jin advised me that it would be better not to objectify the bereaved, and after hearing her thoughts, I became more careful in portraying this couple who lost a son. 

How did you apply her advice in the film?

For most people, there’s a certain expected way the parents of a child who passed away should act. They should be living in misery and probably be too distressed to care about their looks. How could they smile after losing their child? Such preconceptions and perspectives objectify the bereaved and strangle them. This is something I discussed a lot with KIM Yeo-jin. She suggested ideas about her outfits because it was not really necessary for Misook to always dress in dreary and raggedy clothes. That provided a chance for me to look back at the stereotypes I had about people who lost a child, and while thinking about it, to try my best to find some kind of balance.

Your film stars CHOI Moo-sung, KIM Yeo-jin, and SUNG Yu-bin, popular drama and film actors. Wasn’t it hard to cast them?

After finishing the first draft of the script, we created a casting list. These three names were the ones I wrote down first. Not only do they act well but the characters fit them perfectly. Most of all, imagining the three of them in the same shot made me very happy. Sungcheol looks cold on the outside but has a soft side to him, and that’s why I thought of CHOI Moo-sung. I found SUNG Yu-bin very attractive in The Tiger (2015). He looks so innocent when he smiles, but once he stops smiling, his face looks like he’s hiding some kind of secret. He turned out to be the exact same age as Kihyun. Usually, we would’ve gone through an audition process to cast this role but I suggested SUNG Yu-bin without him going through an audition. When we gave the script to KIM Yeo-jin, she was hesitant to read it. She said she was reluctant because it was such a heart-breaking story but after she read it, she felt relieved and consoled in some way. It’s a small film and when we were doing the casting, we didn’t even have a distributor. The actors agreed despite all that, so I’m thankful that they were willing to perform in it anyway.

Last Child is the fourth polished low budget film from production company ATO. How did you get to work with them?

After finishing my script, I showed it to JE Jeong-ju and told him I wanted to work on this. (They’re both alumni of the Korea National University of Arts.) We worked on the script together and edited it until we reached a final version. It was just after The World of Us (2016) had been released, Yongsoon (2017) was about to be released, and HOME had just finished shooting. I wanted to work with ATO because they were being successful in releasing indie films. I had high hopes that as a production company, they would help me polish the film, and the producers’ (KIM Ji-hye, JE Jeong-juLEE Jin-hee and KIM Soon-mo) criteria for selecting projects were close to what I believed in. Producer JE Jeong-ju helped me a lot with polishing the details of the script. Since he has a lot of experience with indie films, he knew how to create great films despite a small budget and it was very helpful. 

It might be too early to ask, but are you preparing a new project?

I’m currently writing a few scripts but have put a halt on it for the Last Child’s release. One of the stories is about a female detective who captures a murderer. It’s not a crime film or a genre film, but the story is more focused on the psychology of the detective as it looks into her thoughts. I believe this is my strength. I’m working with JE Jeong-ju from ATO again since I was able to get a lot of help from the production company with Last Child. Just like director YOON Ga-eun of The World of Us, I want to grow with ATO.
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