Six creative films in oneDon’t presume the film “If You Were Me 3” will be a dull political morality lesson.
The third edition of an omnibus film series produced by the National Human Rights Commission is part of an ambitious project by the state to promote awareness of social discrimination in Korea.
Perhaps the fact that each section was shot by a celebrity director has something to do with this, but the six stories featured are more open-ended than didactic, poetic rather than political.
In the first and second editions, which appeared in 2003 and 2005, directors highlighted the stories of social minorities, including young North Korean defectors, ethnic Koreans from China, children and contract workers.
In “Tongue Tie” from the first edition, for example, Park Jin-pyo (“Too Young to Die”) showed a young boy studying at an English kindergarten who was forced to undergo tongue surgery by his mother so he could speak English with better pronunciation.
“Never Ending Peace and Love” by Park Chan-wook, who previously directed “Oldboy,” reconstructed the true story of Chandra, a migrant worker from Nepal in a local textile factory who was put into a mental hospital after being sued by a Korean restaurant owner because he couldn’t explain in Korean that he had left his wallet at home.
But instead of drawing a clear diagram of power relations, many directors focused on the complex cycle of social oppression, showing how the position of an individual shifts depending on the roles they take in society.
In “Someone Grateful,” Jang Jin (“Guns and Talks”) used a black comedy to tell the story of a student activist who sympathizes with a police investigator who uses torture on his suspects when the policeman complains of his cruel working conditions. In “Never Ending Peace and Love,” director Park manages to show the evil in all men without depicting them as villains.
In this third installment, the formal spectrums of the directors differ even more dramatically than in the previous two series, both in style and content.
The films range from the militant style of Hong Ki-seon, who previously directed “Road Taken” about unconverted prisoners in South Korea, who focuses here on the unstable working conditions of contract laborers in his short “An Ephemeral Life,” to the more playful approach of “A Tough Life” by Noh Dong Seok, which shows the pressures put on a young boy who brings his black girlfriend home from school.
Yet despite the film’s common political flavor, the styles of each director are clearly expressed in the current series, which almost seems to act as a testing ground for their visual experiments.
Kim Hyun-phil’s “The Girl Bitten by a Mosquito” blends devastation and humor in the story of a teenage girl who turns into a bear after being subjected to social stereotypes for not being raised by her parents.
In “Gap,” director Lee Mi-yeon deliberately compromises the political content of her film about childcare by ending with a parody scene where a father carries his child in a mock TV commercial encouraging paternal leave, complete with a cheerful voice-over.
The sequence stands in stark contrast to the film’s central plot, which focuses on the same father in an intense dispute with his wife over their daughter’s childcare.
The segment’s endings seem to show the directors’ political stance to the issues they tackled.
In “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb,” the story of two friends at a boy’s high school who are ostracized because of rumors that they are a gay couple, directors Kim Gok and Kim Sun, despite showing the boys’ suffering, gives no clues to whether the rumor has any truth, forcing the audience to acknowledge the circumstances without making any judgment.
During a press screening Lee, the director of “Gap,” admitted that her use of parody was inevitable as a realistic resolution in her film, explaining, “As I looked deeper into the issue of childcare, I found that it was much more complicated than other levels of life within a marriage.”
The films embrace the harsh reality of the characters with artful irony and wit.
In “A Tough Life,” the director shows a parent who is overjoyed to hear that her child’s English kindergarten only has teachers who are “white and blonde.”
In “Muhammad the Hermit King,” Jung Yoon-chul, the director of “Running Boy” (also known as “Marathon”), implies that an immigrant laborer who had been given a warning for refusing to wear a mask in a factory hadn’t actually needed to breathe at work, because he was a famous diving champion in his home country.
The creative margins of the films, which help keep them from becoming propaganda, show a subtle balance between the stylistic moviemaking and artful humanity.
“A story had to work first,” says Lee Hyeon-seung, the producer of all three installments of “If You Were Me,” “because the subjects needed to be addressed within our lives. That was a difficult balance. Many talented directors turned down our proposals because they were concerned that their commitment to the subject wasn’t enough for them to make a film out of it.”
Many of the scenarios in “If You Were Me 3,” which featured primarily amateur actors, triggered tensions and forged friendships in real life as well.
“We had to force a black girl in the film to cry in one scene,” said Noh, the director of “A Tough Life,” referring to the scene in which Korean children sit in a circle making fun of an American girl by saying she’s from Africa.
“She volunteered to cry at first, but she couldn’t cry when we got to the moment,” he continued. “So her Korean friends had to tease her to help her cry. I think the girl was actually hurt as the situation in the film was turning into reality. We apologized to her after the shooting. Perhaps the boy’s apology from the film was our apology.”
The crew of “An Ephemeral Life,” which depicts the agony of contract laborers in a storage company, experienced the opposite situation ― a bond between amateur and professional actors.
Normally there is evident tension when actors from independent and commercial films get together in the same film,” says Hong, the director of the segment. “Here, the celebrity actors were deliberately more cautious. They never sat during the shooting; they always mingled together with the rest of the team. It was a pleasant experience.”
“If You Were Me 3” opens Nov. 23 at cinemas nationwide.
by Park Soo-mee