“I’m still very interested in the children’s mind”
*This article contains spoilers for The House of Us
Having drawn significant buzz in major film festivals around the world such as the Berlinale with her short film Sprout (2013) and her feature-length debut The World of Us (2016), which explored the secretive psychology of elementary schoolers, YOON Ga-eun is back with her sophomore feature The House of Us. This time, she is telling the story of children who have the courage to take matters in their own hands to protect their family and home. A coming-of-age story refined with the warmth and acuity of YOON’s characteristic sensibility, the film follows 11-year-old Ha-na (KIM Na-yeon) who cooks meals and plans a trip for her family with the hope that her parents, on the brink of divorce, would patch things up. One day she meets Yu-mi and Yu-jin, two sisters tired of moving around, with whom she reaches an agreement to protect each other’s “houses of us”. YOON Ga-eun, who captures children’s stories through a mature lens, shared with us some thoughts on her latest film.
Your debut feature The World of Us (2016) started out as the short The Taste of Scarlet Sage, which was released in 2009. Could it be that this film is also an extended version of one of your short projects, the 2011 film Guest?
You could think of it like that, even though the film wasn’t necessarily made with Guest in mind. Guest is the story of a high school girl who visits her father’s mistress and meet up with the kids living there. In The House of Us too, the main character Ha-na appears as a child who takes the problems in her family and between her parents upon herself as if they were her own and tries to resolve them. Even if this film isn’t cut from the same cloth as Guest is, you may feel like it features a similar set-up to that of the sisters Yu-mi and Yu-jin, with the big sister looking after the youngest.
How did you come up with The House of Us protagonist Ha-na, a child who alone pulls out all the stops to resolve the problems in her family?
This spirit of taking responsibility for the issues afflicting your family and wanting to resolve them as a member of that family has some similarities with my personal history. I am actually the eldest daughter. (laughs) The “eldest daughter complex” we often hear about is something that applies to me as well. I spent a long time thinking that nobody understands what these kids have on their mind, that hardly any movie goes out of its way to shed light on it. And it was while spending all that time mulling over it that I suddenly felt like doing exactly that myself.
After wrapping up The World of Us, you said that you would like for your next project to tell a story about children cooperating to accomplish something. The trip Ha-na undertake with the sisters Yu-mi and Yu-jin to visit Yu-mi’s parents looks like a fantasy road movie.
Whereas The World of Us was a story about the children’s mind, I wanted The House of Us to be a story about their actions. Besides, let’s get real, whatever the children do cannot solve their family issues. In the end, they have no choice but to endure the painful moment and face the problems head on. Once they have done that, there is a liberating side to it. I decided to integrate all that process into a road movie, and while making my movie I came to respect directors who make road movies. (laughs) It was quite a challenge, because whatever the framework is, you always come up with scenes that seem too familiar. The scene of the tent allowed me to briefly illustrate the children’s own unbroken peace and profound friendship, and I put this scene in the movie because I wanted to give them something after going through such a difficult journey. Isn’t there cases where strange miracles come to our lives? I think I granted such a moment to the children.
It feels like a lot of effort was put to represent the children like children. Which standards do you have when you deal with storytelling and characters?
I’m so relieved to hear that it feels that way in the movie. Initially, I had decided not to bother including situations the children protagonists wouldn’t experience, nor information they couldn’t hear. All the things you see in The House of Us are limited to what Ha-na sees, hears and experiences. We also positioned the camera so as the shots wouldn’t be in high or low angles, but at their eye level. The creation of the characters was a similar process. When I write a script, I don’t go too far with my character descriptions. I rather focus on the structure, the storytelling or the narration itself. Then I meet several friends during the auditions, and if we settle on the roles, I give them a more concrete shape. For The House of Us, I imagined Ha-na as a lively child with a bouncy way of talking, but it was only after meeting the actor KIM Na-yeon in real life that I was able to define Ha-na the way she appears now in the film.
What is impressive is also the fact that the characters from The World of Us make a cameo in The House of Us. You explained that you did so in order to show that these kids are going well. It seems like you are feeling a new responsibility, as an adult who produce movies about children, but also a director.
I think I feel too much like that sometimes. (laughs) At first, I brought back Bo-ra from The World of Us in The House of Us because I was feeling sorry for her. In The World of Us, Bo-ra remains a bad child until the end, and I was very sorry to end the story in such a way. That’s why I brought over Bo-ra in The House of Us to appear as the girlfriend of Ha-na’s big brother. That reminds me, Seon (CHOI Soo-in) and Ji-a (SEOL Hye-in) too left me wanting for more. I wanted to show them in the same neighborhood, all grown up. Getting to see again these kids in The House of Us, I was relieved. (laughs) And I also hoped this would give people watching The House of Us reassurance that in 2 or 3 years from now Ha-na, Yu-mi and Yu-jin too will have grown up as well as the others have.
The House of Us also drew attention for the eight rules enforced on the set that outline “the language we ask from the adults working with children actors”. Having to be careful about the discussions between adults and the way they behave, along with precautions when in physical contact with a child actor or when complimenting on the look, these rules were applied carefully enough that they may act as a wake-up call to the industry and set an example.
I didn’t know back then when I made these rules public, but I’m realizing now what an important and scary thing it was to come up with that document. (laughs) Speaking of these rules, they came into being from my desire to not forget my past mistakes and what I took away from them. The actual content is a synthesis of the points that not just me, but all the production staff that worked with me on The World of Us felt strongly about while on the set. Even though we had discussed ad nauseam among the production staff of a series of precautions to take while shooting The World of Us, we faced new problems again on the set of The House of Us and even I ended up making the same mistakes again and again. Since there are always people who come to the set to show their support, or even short-term staff members, I think that writing down these rules is the minimum safety to prevent adults from committing these mistakes. I stuck these rules on the front cover of my script book too and would frequently look at it, but I was shocked every time. “I did something wrong today again”, I would think, and I would be quick to apologize or do something to make up for my mistake.
What are your concerns for your future projects?
On the one hand, I don’t think I will only make movies about children, but on the other hand my mind tells me to keep telling the stories of children. I’m really interested in the heart of children who come to terms with a certain period that affect them directly and eventually overcome it, and now I’ve finally come to admit this is my taste. (laughs) And there aren’t that many stories like that, are there? Girls growing up isn’t a subject that lends itself to films particularly well. I want to keep telling stories about children, as long as the children will allow it, and as long I can do it well enough. I also want to tell stories about people that take root in reality. I want to track the changes of heart that occur in very special yet universal circumstances.