Jeon Go-woon has an eye for finding the beauty in ordinary life, as can be seen in her feature film debut Microhabitat. Starring Esom in the lead role as Miso, the film is charming and moving as it shows that one can see the good in the world even in a bad situation. The young filmmaker is emotive as she speaks with MyM Buzz and others about her film, which opened the London Korean Film Festival earlier this month. She laughs easily and finds it interesting that we all love her lead character so much, even when Miso’s attitude to life divided viewers in her home country of South Korea. As a director, she is as curious as she is keen to talk about the film, and it makes for a lovely experience.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve spoken about the difficulties faced by directors, and especially by female directors, in being able to make films. Was it those difficulties that made you want to creative a collective group of artists to make producing your films easier?
“In truth, it’s not like I created this collective because I had difficulty in making films as a female director. It was just a group of students and friends, it just naturally got formed and now we are making films together, so there’s a different chronology.”
MyM Buzz: Miso is such a lovely, selfless person, she wants to take care of everyone around her and all she needs in life is her whiskey, cigarettes and to be with her boyfriend. Why were you interested in featuring a story with someone like her as the lead?
“I think that I’m very different to Miso, I’m the sort of person who would give up my tastes and my quality of life in order to maintain my own home. So, I wanted to see the opposite kind of character, someone who is giving up her comfortable place in order to pursue the things she wants to have in her life.”
MiniMiniMovie: It was very easy for the audience to define the characters, and who they were, how much of that was in the writing, and did the actors bring things to the characters themselves?
“My script was relatively loose intentionally, because I wanted to be open and after I cast the actors I wanted to develop the characters with them.”
Hangul Celluloid: As each of your characters are introduced they are assigned a musical instrument, there’s a feeling that they’re ex-musicians who have moved on with their lives. Why did you choose to have ex-musicians be the focus for your characters? Why musicians rather than anything else?
“Everyone sort of aspires to be in a band, especially teenagers, because of the energy that comes out of being in a band together. It’s an aspiration that almost everyone has, I wasn’t in a band myself but given the amount of time that people give to this passion, and the fact that they have the most fun playing music together, I thought that being in a band could be a symbol of youth.”
MyM Buzz: Something that we don’t often see in cinema are men who can be vulnerable on screen, but in your film all the male characters are going through a hard time. They are visibly upset, and you do see them cry, which is quite refreshing. Why did you want to portray this in your film?
“Men, especially in Korea, are almost expected and sort of forced to create this masculinity but they are human as well, perhaps it’s not visible externally, but I witnessed a lot of this weakness and fragility in men behind the scenes, so this was something that I wanted to capture.”
MiniMiniMovie: There were a lot of subtleties in the film, but one scene that wasn’t subtle was the dreamy horror-like sequence with the parents of the vocalist [trying to keep her at their house]. Did you decide to keep that in and leave it there, or add another scene like that? because it was very different to the rest of the film.
“I don’t think it was so well calculated from the beginning, I just wanted to create a different situation for each band member and I thought that with this character who was a vocalist. His family situation was the most intense, and in a way directly violent so it just naturally formed in that way.”
Hangul Celluloid: Miso is played by Esom, who I first became aware of when she exploded onto the acting scene in Scarlet Innocence with Jung Woo-sung. How did her casting come about, especially since she’s getting quite big and you’re a first-time director, how did that fit?
“I had a relationship with Esom because she was in the third feature made by the Gwanghwamun collective, The Queen of Crime, so I already encountered her before I started to make this film. I had a sense that she had a great mind and attitude as an actor, and I admired that. When I shared my script with her she was interested, and I had already built up a trust with her as an actor, so we worked together.”
MyMBuzz: This film will speak to a lot of people around the world, not just in South Korea. In London, we also have extortionate rent prices, and alcohol and cigarettes also cost a lot of money. Did you expect the film to have such a universal appeal?
“I didn’t have any time or energy to consider that at all, making an independent film was extremely difficult task so finishing it was my number one priority, and then I thought maybe I could release it domestically in Korea, which was my second priority. So, no I didn’t have any thoughts on that as I was making the film.”
MiniMiniMovie: With the Gwanghwamun collective, was there a reason that the group was called that? Some of the films that have been made by your group touch on politics and quite serious matters, did the name come about because of the area, or was there an underlying reason?
“It came about out of necessity, we made our first film called The Sunshine Boys with a budget of under £10,000 and it was entered into the Busan Film Festival. I was informed that they needed a name for the production company, so we had to come up with some sort of name, at the time I was living in Gwanghwamun, and we did a lot of work in this film at my house, so that’s why!”
Hangul Celluloid: The character that plays the somewhat overbearing mother of the vocalist is a hugely famous lady called Lee Yong-nyeo whose been in Park Chan-wook films year after year, like I’m A Cyborg and The Handmaiden, and she almost always plays a nutty lady. How much of her character in your film was created because you cast her in the role, how much did she bring to it, and why did you choose her?
“I think when I think about the actors who are in that age group there is very limited choice in Korea so when I formed this character I couldn’t help but think about Lee Yong-nyeo very naturally. No one can replace her, she’s an amazing actor.”
MyMBuzz: This is your feature film debut, were there any challenges that you had to face whilst making it?
“The most challenging part to me is this discrepancy between two processes in filmmaking [writing it and making it]. When I write my script it’s the most artistic and creative moment, and once that part is done, and until you release the film, the entire process is the opposite. You kind of become a machine, there’s so much admin so it’s the opposite of being creative, you have to think of all the practical bullshit, so to me this discrepancy was difficult.”
MiniMiniMovie: There’s a lot of steps in this film, literally. The apartments that she goes to in the cheap area of Seoul are at the top of a lot of steps, and when we see her leaving her apartment we’re looking up at her as she’s on the stairs and you can see a conglomerate building behind her. Was this intentional, is there a bigger purpose to these scenes?
“The special contrast between Miso and these high-rise backdrop shows her situation very well. There’s no particular reason for the apartments being at the top of staircases, in Korea the cheap apartments are either below ground level, or it’s very high up and you have to take a lot of stairs to get there. So, when I was looking for a location it was just natural, and that’s how they became the areas that I filmed in.”
Hangul Celluloid: I related to Miso far more than the other characters, and I thought that if there is one character I would be proud to say I was it would be Miso, because she stayed true to herself. What was your intention to put into viewers minds about her? You seem to be very supportive of her, was she your favourite character and what did you want viewers to think?
“Of course, when you make a film you want your main character to be relatable and to be empathised by audiences, in Korea it was interesting because there were two groups: those who identified with the band members, and the others that identified with Miso.”
MyMBuzz: This film has been screened abroad, did you find the reaction was the same and that it was split between those that related to Miso or her friends?
“I have a limited exposure to people’s reaction from outside of Korea, there are comments that I can see online and times that I witnessed it in person but in comparison I don’t quite know as much. But, in Korea there were definitely two groups of people, those who thought Miso was great and those who were wondering what was wrong with her! When I screened this film outside of Korea I never witnessed very strong criticism against Miso, obviously they can’t do this in front of me, but in general it seems like foreign audiences are generous to Miso as a character. I’m actually quite used to strong criticism to her choices and lifestyle, so I am still getting used to this love for Miso, I’m not used to it!”
MiniMiniMovie: Talking about whiskey and the character, are you hoping to go to the home of Glenfiddich in Scotland and get a bottle?
“I don’t have time to travel to Scotland because I have to go to Paris straight away, but as I was walking around London today I came across this amazing whiskey shop which is almost like a museum. I was so happy, and I bought a bottle of scotch!”