Prize-winning drama “Sub-Zero Wind” (Kim Yu-ri, 2018) is on its way to Korean theaters this November. This intense coming-of-age story tells the lives of two girls, Young-ha (Moon Sang-an, An Jin-hyun, Kwon Han-sol) and Mi-jin (Park Su-jin, So Eu-jin, Ok Su-boon), in three parts. Set against the backdrop of religious righteousness, sexual assault, and financial hardship, “Sub-Zero Wind” wrestles with the question of family in a world where it’s hard to tell from right and wrong.
This year at the 21st Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, Kim Yu-ri’s debut feature competed in the Korean Features Competition. “Sub-Zero Wind” previously won the Jury Prize at the Festival International des Cinemas d’Asie in Vesoul, France and screened in the “Korean Cinema Today’s Vision” section at the Busan International Film Festival. At SIWFF, we parsed out some of the finer details of the grand family epic with Kim Yu-ri.
Where does the title “Sub-Zero Wind” come from?
I borrowed the title from a novel called Sub-Zero Wind. Though the story takes place in a different era, it’s a similar narrative; an older sister called Yeon-ha and her younger sibling face the harsh chill of reality. I tweaked the name of the characters, so the title is a pun in Korean. It also means “Young-ha’s Wish.”
“Sub-Zero Wind” is a rollercoaster of different themes. What kind of message did you want to tell?
I don’t think the world is divided between good and evil. In fact, I think a lot of problems don’t start maliciously. How do good intentions go so awry? How do loving families fall apart? It’s ironic; people recognize problematic relationships as they grow older, but it’s so hard to break free from what you’re used to. The idea of “home sweet home” clashes with violence, yet coexists with it all the same. I wanted to make a film that represents this sort of domestic tragedy, this sort of vicious cycle: the physical and mental violation of a happy family home.
Did you look to your own life for inspiration at all?
There are certainly aspects of the movie that are directly inspired by my own life. Eun-seok (Shin Dong-mi), for example, is based on my own upbringing. The mother is not just a passive housewife; rather, she’s someone who manages the entire household as both the breadwinner and caretaker. I also borrowed my childhood friends’ stories. No matter the [financial and social] status of each household, complications happen all the time.
You mention “home” often.
There were four locations in total. Young-ha’s Seoul home is very warm; it’s full of happiness. However, the interior design is still very sectioned off. The characters rarely stay together in the collective space of the living room, and instead retreat to their individual rooms when it is most convenient for them.
For Young-ha’s Busan home [where she moved into by the age of 19], I wanted to make it clear that this is not a home that Eun-seok chose. This is a home that the family was forced to move in to. In this sort of space, it is impossible to even dream of growing together; this is the sort of house the family can only fall apart in. We were also really picky about choosing neighborhoods: while we shot in a studio for the Busan house, we shot the outdoor scenes separately in an abandoned area. This site was actually selected for reconstruction, so it was on the brink of demolition. It’s symbolic. Like the neighborhood, the family has no future.
And the actors – how did you select them?
Casting took a while. Since there are three versions [of Mi-jin and Young-ha], we had to gather together a cast of six for three characters. I looked for actors that resonated with the characters so that the performance would be more organic. The child actors especially didn’t know how to deal with the cameras [since they were first-timers], so we encouraged them to just be natural. We rehearsed a lot, and sometimes we would film unscripted scenes as well — moments where the actors would just hang out to get to know each other better.
Actually, the school scenes came as a surprise as well. With a bigger budget, people usually hire extras; however, since we were tight on money, we just asked for student volunteers from the three schools we filmed in. The students were so comfortable in front of the camera since they were just being themselves. They didn’t need any further direction. It was very refreshing.
What challenges did you face in making your first feature?
It took a while to receive support. From the very beginning of production to its release [this November], the project took a total of two years. I first received funding from the Busan Film Commission in 2017; they granted me 100,000,000 KRW (85,000 USD). This is very small for a feature, but my team and I were delighted. We said to each other, “Wow – how lucky are we to have all this money!”
Busan International Film Festival’s Asia Cinema Fund supported post-production. Like my short films, I did a lot of the work myself. I directed, I casted, did the make-up, scheduled the day — but this was all just such a wonderful experience. Everyone worked so well together. Rather than thinking of it as “work,” I thought of it as “fun.”
Since we’re at SIWFF, I’m curious — did you face any challenges as a woman director?
When shooting on-location, we would talk to passerby and curious bystanders. Sometimes they would ask, “Who’s the director?” When my crew would point at me, quite a few people — especially older men — would be surprised that a young woman could be in charge of her own feature. (laughs)
Now that your film will be released in theaters, what are you working on next?
I’m still working on several scripts. Like a salaryman, I wake up everyday and write to a very strict schedule. I want my next film to be about a story that only I can tell, and something that I can only tell at this particular stage in my life!