Meet the director behind the only Korean film up for an award at 2021 Cannes
“I was elated when I heard the announcement. I couldn’t believe it,” said director Yoon Dae-woen during a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, on June 2; the day before he left Korea for Cannes, France.
Yoon’s short film “Cicada” (2021) was invited to compete in this year’s Cinéfondation. The Cinéfondation is a section of the Cannes Film Festival for young next-generation filmmakers. “Cicada” was also the opening film of this year’s Cinéfondation, which started jointly with the 74th Cannes Film Festival on July 6.
The 17-minute-long short film is the graduation work of the 30-year-old director who is graduating from the Korea National University of Arts’ School of Film, TV & Multimedia this year. It was also supported by the Seoul International Pride Film Festival and will compete with 17 other short films by young directors from around the world, including Japanese director Huang Menglu’s “The Cat from the Deep Sea” and Argentinian director Sacha Amaral’s “Billy Boy.”
“Cicada” is the only Korean film to be screened in competition at Cannes this year. Two other Korean feature films were also invited, but director Han Jae-rim's "Emergency Declaration" and director Hong Sang-soo's "In Front of Your Face” are featuring in categories that do not offer awards.
Yoon will attend the festival with the film’s stars Kim Ni-na and Jung E-Jae, and will remain in Cannes until the film festival closes on July 17.
“Cicada” tells the story of a transgender sex worker who works on Sowol-gil on Mount Namsan. The film follows one strange night in the protagonist's life and likens the experience to that of a cicada ripping out of its shell to fully become an adult.
Yoon derived inspiration for “Cicada” from a story his friend who served as a conscripted police officer told him; police officers refer to transgender sex workers on Sowol-gil as “cicadas” over walkie-talkie when they patrol the area, although it is unclear where the nickname came from.
“I didn’t know much about the Sowol-gil area,” Yoon said, “but after I heard my friend’s story, that neighborhood started looking completely different to me.
“It was a world so unfamiliar to me, but it turned out that the elderly people [around Sowol-gil] openly knew [about transgender sex work in the area]. Nowadays, many transgender bars have opened in Itaewon, central Seoul, so [transgender people] have come out to the world and are not as taboo anymore. But back in the day when that was not the case, business on Sowol-gil was at its peak, the elders say.”
Yoon thought he could convey a simple yet powerful message through the theme of sex work and cicadas.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be about transgender people or gender identity,” Yoon said. “We all have times when we need to choose a crucial crossroad or direction in our lives. Especially when I meet people like actors or athletes who tend to either make it big or not see much success, I often see them loathe themselves and the choices they have made to pursue that career. So while making this movie, I always kept in mind the theme: 'Do we really mean it when we first step foot onto a path?'”
Although Yoon was cautious not to explain the plot in detail in order to prevent spoilers, the film flaunts bold imagination that has not often been seen in Korean films before; especially toward the latter part of the movie which travels between reality and fantasy, time and space. Yoon added he was especially anxious about using special effects, fearing that the slightest slip could make the film look comical.
“Convincing the staff [of the plot] was quite a task, so I was a bit lonely while working,” he said. “But I thought the movie would be less interesting if the story of entering the fantasy realm was explained too logically in detail. That’s why I tried to film in a more daring and strange way I hadn’t tried before.”
Yoon dreamed of becoming a cartoonist as a child. While attending Gyeonggi Arts High School, he and his friends made a short animated film titled “Where is the Love” (2009) which won an award at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The win earned him an opportunity to study animation in the United States for a year, but that experience only made Yoon realize that he wanted to film live-action films, not program in front of a computer all day for 3-D animations.
So far, Yoon has been praised for his short romance film “Spring Night” (2019) and “Bird Cage” (2020) which explore themes such as homosexuality and disabilities. In between projects, he also filmed commercials and music videos for K-pop idols such as boy band BTOB.
“I love all genres, especially extreme horror movies,” Yoon said. “I think we are living in an era in which beauty is hard to find. There’s an overflow of negative attitudes. But this kind of era that lacks meaning might be better for creating movies.”
BY NA WON-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]