"Our Cats" explores creating purrfect harmony between felines and humans

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"Our Cats" explores creating purrfect harmony between felines and humans

Producer Cho Eun-sung,left, and director Lee Hee-seop of the cat documentary "Our Cats" pose for a photo in Lee's home along with his cat and roommate, Lenny. [KWON HYUK-JAE]

Producer Cho Eun-sung,left, and director Lee Hee-seop of the cat documentary "Our Cats" pose for a photo in Lee's home along with his cat and roommate, Lenny. [KWON HYUK-JAE]

 
The word butler conjures images of immaculate men in suits and white gloves, ready to wait on their wealthy employers at a moments notice.

 
In Korea, however, you need to replace wealthy employers with furry, four-legged friends. That's because the Korean word for butler not only refers to those who wait on people, but also those who wait on cats.  
 
“Our Cats," a documentary which premiered in theaters on May 14, focuses on these so-called butlers who dedicate their lives to taking care of street cats. Producer Cho Eun-sung, who also directed and filmed another cat documentary “I am a Cat” (2017), which takes a look at the lives of street cats across Korea, Japan and Taiwan, joined forces with another cat lover, director Lee Hee-seop, to make the documentary.  
 
The JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, met with the two feline fanatics in Lee’s home in Mapo District, western Seoul, and were also joined by Lee's cat, Lenny.   
 
“The central theme of my documentaries has always been coexistence,” producer Cho said in an interview. “We discriminate people based on their color, sexuality, race — even the disabled.
 
“As I began to film stray cats, which are usually the first things that I see when I go outside, I began to wonder, 'If we couldn’t even coexist harmoniously with these small creatures, how can we live in peace with other human beings?' That was when I decided to start [filming] animals,” Cho said. 
 
“Our society tends to eliminate things that we find uncomfortable. There was even a case a few years ago where all the local street cats were purposely locked in the basement storage of an apartment complex in Apgujeong-dong [in southern Seoul], to be starved to death. I found it horrifying to imagine what kind of world the children who grew up watching such atrocities would build."
 
Cho met Lee while he was wrapping up filming “I am a Cat” in Japan. Lee happened to be in Japan as well, looking for locations for his debut film “The Goose Goes South” (2018). Lee also had prior experience filming cats in films such as “How to Break Up with My Cat” (2016) and “Cat Day Afternoon” (2018). 
 
With such common ground, the duo scoured local towns far and wide for places where cats and people lived in harmony: from Hyoja Village in Chuncheon, Gangwon, which was then on the brink of being transformed into the country’s first cat village; the redeveloped Seongnam, Gyeonggi; Noryangjin Fish Market in southern Seoul; Cheongsapo village in Busan; and Heyri Art Village in Paju, Gyeonggi.
 
A spot in Hyoja Village where people distribute cat food for the cats in town. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

A spot in Hyoja Village where people distribute cat food for the cats in town. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

 
The stories of these street cats, the people who care for them and the relationships the duo witnessed, were more than enough to be turned into a film. 
 
Characters include Red, the cat who spends his day gazing into space and tagging along with the owner of a violin store all day, Jopok, who never misses a chance to pick a fight with a fellow feline but also has a soft spot for Red, and the resilient Ibbeuni, who managed to escape a life of abuse.    
 
This is Jopok, the feisty fighter in Hyoja Village but a softy for his crush, Red. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

This is Jopok, the feisty fighter in Hyoja Village but a softy for his crush, Red. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

 
Although these characters might not take direction well, Lee assures that filming cats is the easiest thing in the world. 

 
“I would squat somewhere on the street and wait for hours, but it didn't bore me. I actually have an advantage [filming cats] because I have light footsteps and I enjoy being alone."
 
Lee says the difficulties he faced filming "Our Cats" stemmed from people.  
 
“I thought people [who take care of the cats] would be happy doing what they are doing — you know, helping out the cats. But to my surprise, they weren’t,” the director said.
 
For the documentary, he met with and interviewed different people who were caring for the stray cats including an elderly lady who feeds the cats at the Noryangjin Fish Market and an owner of a Chinese restaurant in Chuncheon who gives cat food to the stray cats he spots eating leftover jjajangmyeon (black sauce noodles) from the delivery bowls waiting to be collected. “It’s not as if I placed the cats there, they were already living here [when I started feeding them],” the owner mumbled when a resident complained that his actions attract the cats to the neighborhood. 
 
An old lady who is one of the sellers in Noryangjin Fish Market feeds this cat every day when it comes by. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

An old lady who is one of the sellers in Noryangjin Fish Market feeds this cat every day when it comes by. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

A Chinese restaurant owner delivers daily cat food for the street cats using his own expenses. His companion cat, who likes to climb up his shoulders, sometimes tags along in his delivery. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

A Chinese restaurant owner delivers daily cat food for the street cats using his own expenses. His companion cat, who likes to climb up his shoulders, sometimes tags along in his delivery. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

 
“The most important thing about a cat documentary is the space, the village,” Cho said. “People can leave when their homes undergo redevelopment, but since cats are territorial animals, they stay. Is it truly a good environment for everyone to live in only if clean buildings go up if communities are destroyed?

 
“Our main setting in the film are old towns, and there isn’t a clean street in sight,” Cho said. “That’s the kind of environment cats live in. And those who can barely look after themselves are the ones who take care of the cats.”
 
Both Lee and Cho reiterated that anything that didn't go to plan in the filming process was down to the people, not the cats. 
 
“We actually wanted to film year-around in Hyoja Village where they were planning to build a cat village, but so many disputes arose [among the residents] that we had to leave,” Lee explained.  
 
“We first went to Noryangjin Fish Market when its demolishment was imminent, and to the city of Seongnam, where the majority of people had left. The handful of people left are doing everything they can to transfer the cats that remain to a safer environment. In Busan Cheongsapo village, [where a cat village already exists,] we wanted to see if it’s possible for cats to adapt to a new environment, and everyone can live in harmony.”
 
"Our Cat," which premiered on May 14, is about how town residents look after street cats and live harmoniously with them. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

"Our Cat," which premiered on May 14, is about how town residents look after street cats and live harmoniously with them. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

 
“My grandmother ran a restaurant in Chuncheon for a long time, and she had a cat,” Cho reminisced. “I looked into its eyes when it was a kitten and thought I was peering into a universe.”

 
This experience sparked Cho's love of felines. His current roommate is a cat called Happy that he adopted from the streets.  
 
Lee fondly remembers his first encounter with a cat too. “There was this cat who used to come by our home in the countryside to evade the cold,” Lee said. When Lee moved to Seoul and began to live alone, he officially became a cat butler.  
 
He met Lenny, his one and a half-year-old cat who has been with him for a year, through this film when a cat adoption center asked him to look after Lenny who had been shuttled from one center to another because of pneumonia.  
 
Photo of Lenny, Lee's cat who once suffered from pneumonia and has a hoarse voice. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

Photo of Lenny, Lee's cat who once suffered from pneumonia and has a hoarse voice. [M&CF, INDIESTORY]

 
“I was told that he was really shy and timid, but strangely enough, he layed down comfortably almost immediately on his first day here,” Lee said.  
 
The duo has more cat-related ambitions for the future and are planning to create an omnibus short film series related to cats. For this series, another cat lover and director Kang Min-hyun, who is currently filming a documentary on street cats in Busan, will be joining them.  
 
“I’m also thinking of creating a feature film about people whose lives were changed due to cats,” said Cho. His dream cast includes actors Ma Dong-seok and Im Soo-jung, as he heard that Ma is also a “butler” living with a rescue cat, and Im, who narrated “Our Cat,” feeds street cats even though she has a severe allergy to cat fur.  
 
“There are those who don't understand why we should look after animals on the street when there’s enough going on [among people.]” Cho said. “We’re not asking or demanding that they should take care of the cats though. We just don’t want them to have any issues with those who do." 
 
“And we hope that people refrain from killing, abusing or chasing away cats that already live in an area,” he continued. “When we ask the question, 'Are we going to live with cats, or with mice?’ the answer is obvious. The torment inflicted upon animals will come back to haunt people some day. We hope stricter legal measures can be taken on animal abuses.”
 
“We’re not saying that animals come first, we’re saying that we should be able to live together in peace,” Lee emphasized. “I hope the audience can get a glimpse of understanding into the reason why we love cats so much through the film.”  
 
BY NA WON-JEONG   [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]  
 
 
 
 
다큐 만든 '고양이 집사'들 "이 작은 생명체와도 공존 못 한다면"
 
 
‘고양이 집사’란, 고양이와 함께 살아가는 사람들을 말한다. 까다롭기 그지없는 고양이가 콕 집어 의지하기로 결정한 사람. 14일 개봉한 다큐멘터리 ‘고양이 집사’는 동네 고양이들을 돌보며 살아가는 그런 사람 이웃들의 소소한 일상을 담았다. 3년 전 한국‧일본‧대만 3개국 길냥이 삶을 담은 다큐 ‘나는 고양이로소이다’의 기획‧제작‧연출‧촬영을 몽땅 겸한 조은성(48) PD가 그 이상의 고양이 덕후 이희섭(43) 감독과 새롭게 의기투합했다.  
 
두 사람을 서울 마포구 이 감독 자택에서 만났다. 이번 영화에 화자로 나선 이 감독의 고양이 ‘레니’도 함께했다. 영화 속 주인공뿐 아니라 제작진도 고양이에 흠뻑 빠진 집사들이었다.
 
“옛날부터 다큐 만들 때 테마가 공존이었거든요. 우리가 피부색, 성 정체성, 국가가 다르다는 이유로, 장애가 있다는 이유로 차별을 많이 한단 말이에요.”  

 
이번 영화를 기획‧제작한 조 PD의 말이다. 그는 독립 다큐 ‘시민 노무현’ ‘무현, 두 도시 이야기’에 더해 ‘60만번의 트라이’ ‘울보 권투부’ 등 스포츠에 얽힌 재일동포 사연을 꾸준히 전해왔다. “밖에 나가면 가장 먼저 마주치는 고양이들을 찍다 보니 이 작은 생명체와도 공존을 못 하는데 과연 사람끼리는 가능할까, 동물부터 시작하자는 생각이 들었다”고 했다.    
 
“우리 사회는 자기 불편하고 싫어하면 없애려고 하는 주의잖아요. 압구정 모 아파트에서 길고양이를 지하실에 가둬 다 굶겨 죽인 사건도 있었죠. 이걸 보고 자란 아이들이 만들 세상이 너무 끔찍한 거예요. 독일속담에 고양이가 없는 마을은 조심해라, 하는 것처럼요.”
 
그는 2016년 ‘나는 고양이로소이다’ 일본 촬영을 끝낼 즈음 현지에서 감독 데뷔작 ‘대관람차’ 촬영지를 헌팅 중이던 이 감독을 만났다. 이 감독은 ‘어떻게 헤어질까’ ‘캣데이 애프터눈’ 등 고양이 영화에 촬영감독으로 참여해왔다.
 
그렇게 둘은 2년 전 고양이 마을을 추진 중이던 춘천 효자마을부터 성남, 노량진, 부산 청사포, 파주 헤이리마을까지 고양이와 집사가 있는 곳이면 어디든 찾아갔다. ‘묘연(猫緣)’이 닿은 고양이들도 각양각색. 바이올린 가게 아저씨의 일편단심 바라기 ‘레드’, 그런 레드를 좋아하는 동네 싸움꾼 ‘조폭이’, 목줄에 묶여 살다 낯선 사람의 학대 후 탈출한 ‘이쁜이’….  
 
“고양이를 찍는 게 제일 쉬웠다”고 말하는 이 감독 눈빛이 애정으로 빛났다. “다니는 길목을 관심 갖고 봐뒀다가 무조건 기다렸어요. 한 시간이고, 나올 때까지 쪼그려 앉아서요. 저는 유리한 게 워낙 발걸음도 조심조심 걷고 혼자 있는 게 일상이라 크게 심심함을 느끼지도 않거든요.”
 
다큐는 처음인 그는 “오히려 사람 집사들은 행복해 보이지 않아서 힘들었다”면서 “고양이 때문에 행복하실 거라 생각하고 갔는데 그렇지 않았다”고 했다. 사람이 모두 떠난 성남 재개발 지역에서 터전을 빼앗긴 고양이들을 구조하고 있는 이들부터 40년 넘게 머물던 서울 노량진 옛 시장에서 매일 쫓겨나길 반복하는 생선가게 할머니까지. 한 달에 자비 200만~300만원씩 들여, 자장면 대신 동네 길고양이 도시락을 배달하는 춘천의 중국집 사장님은 반대하는 이웃과 부딪히며 하소연한다. “내가 없는 고양이 불러다 밥 먹인 것도 아니고 원래 있던 앤데.”
 
조 PD는 “고양이 다큐를 만들 때 가장 중요한 게 공간성, 마을이었다”면서 “사람들은 재개발되면 떠나면 되는데 고양이는 영역 동물이라 계속 머물 수밖에 없다”고 했다. “삶이 피폐해지고 커뮤니티가 말살돼도, 깨끗한 건물만 올라가면 살기 좋은 환경일까?”고 반문하면서다. “저희 영화 보면 주 무대인 춘천 효자동도 낙후된 마을이고 깨끗한 골목이 안 나온다”면서 “고양이들의 환경이 그렇기 때문이다. 유독 자기도 하루하루 벌어 먹고살기 힘든 분들이 더 애틋하게 매일 밥 주면서 고양이를 챙긴다”고 말했다.  
 
이 감독은 “그분들의 이야기에 거짓말을 조금이라도 보태면 안 될 것 같아 최대한 기교 없이 툭툭 던지듯이 편집했다”고 설명했다. “원래 효자마을에서 1년 사계절을 그리려다 고양이 마을이 잘 안 되고 다툼이 심해져서 떠나왔다”는 그가 이후 찾아간 곳들을 영화에 담은 순서에도 의미가 있다.  
 
“철거가 임박한 노량진수산시장에서 이미 사람들이 떠난 성남재개발지역으로 갔어요. 어떻게 보면 노량진의 미래인데, 성남 사람들은 어떻게든 그곳 고양이들을 다른 곳으로 이주시키려고 노력하고 있었거든요. 부산 청사포 마을은 그렇게 해서 새로운 곳에 정착한 고양이들이 어떻게 잘 살아갈 수 있을까에 대한 고민을 담았죠.” 그는 “고양이 마을이란 걸 한번 만들어볼까, 고양이랑 자연스럽게 같이 살 수 있을까, 그런 느낌으로 여행했던 것 같다”고 돌이켰다. 
 
“외할머니가 춘천에서 식당을 오래 하셨는데 고양이를 키우셨어요. 새끼 때 안고 눈을 보는데 우주를 보는 느낌이었어요.” 조 PD가 고양이와 첫사랑에 빠졌던 순간이다. 그는 지금 길에서 자신의 다리에 매달린 아픈 고양이 ‘해피’를 입양해 함께 살고 있다.  
 
“어릴 적 문경 시골집에 몸 녹이러 오던 고양이와 친해지며 마음을 쓰게 됐다”는 이 감독은 스무 살 때 서울에 와 혼자 살기 시작하면서 정식 ‘집사’가 됐다. 지금 1년째 함께 사는 한 살 반 ‘레니’는 이번 다큐 촬영으로 인연을 맺었다. 임시보호처를 전전하다 폐렴을 얻어 목소리가 다 쉬어버린 고양이를 맡아달란 부탁이 시초였다. “그전 집에선 되게 소심하고 겁도 많았는데 희한하게도 우리 집에 와선 첫날부터 편안하게 거의 드러눕더군요.”
 
두 사람은 고양이에 관한 단편 3편을 모은 옴니버스 영화도 구상하고 있다. 부산 온천장 철거촌에서 길고양이 다큐를 찍고 있는 강민현 감독과 셋이 뭉쳤다. 이 감독의 꿈은 “고양이영화, 음악영화를 해나가는 것”.  
 
중학교 때까지 야구선수를 했다는 조 PD는 “평생 파야 할 주제가 스포츠와 고양이 딱 두 가지”라고 했다. 그는 “고양이를 만나서 삶을 변화시킨 사람들에 관한 극영화도 구상 중”이라며 희망 캐스팅으로 배우 마동석‧임수정을 들었다. 그에 따르면 마동석은 실제로 고양이를 구조해서 키우는 ‘캣대디’, 이번에 내레이션을 맡은 임수정은 고양이 털 알레르기가 심한 데도 마스크 쓰고 약 먹어가며 동네 고양이들 밥 챙기는 ‘캣맘’이란다.
 
조 PD는 “사람도 먹고살기 힘든데 길에 사는 동물들까지 챙기느냐는 분들이 계시다”며 “그분들한테 챙겨달라고 요구하는 게 아니라 대신 챙겨주는 분들을 뒤에서 욕하거나 공격하지 말아 달라는 것”이라고 했다. 또 “원래 그 지역에서 살던 고양이들을 적어도 죽이거나 때리거나 쫓아내지는 말아줬으면 좋겠다, 쥐랑 살 것이냐, 고양이와 살 것이냐 하면 답은 명확하다. 동물을 향했던 칼끝은 언젠가는 사람한테 피해가 온다. 동물 학대에 관한 법이 더 강력하게 개정되길 바란다”고 했다.  
 
이 감독은 “사람보다 동물을 우선하자는 게 아니라 같이 잘 살자는 이야기”라 강조했다. “영화를 보고 저들이 고양이를 사랑하는 이유가 뭔지 조금이라도 이해해주실 수 있게 되면 좋겠습니다.”
 
나원정 기자 
 

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