Kim Dong-ryung (1977, South Korea) majored in English Literature and Filmmaking at KAFA and University of Paris 8. Starting out as a photographer, she made short films and documentaries on the daily lives of people in a US military camp town. With “American Alley” (2008), a feature-length documentary about foreign women working as entertainers in the US military camp sites she won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Park Kyoung-tae (1975, South Korea) studied sociology and visual anthropology. Since 2000, he has made intimate, short documentaries on women and children from US military camp towns in South Korea. Together they directed “Tour of Duty” (2012), a documentary about Park In-soon, a former US military ‘comfort woman’ and “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” (2019), a fictionalised version of her biography and was in competition at the Seoul Independent Film Festival.
“The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” was selected for IFFR’s Bright Future section, dedicated to young and emerging film talent with their own style and vision. We met with the directors in Rotterdam to discuss amongst other things the change in direction for this latest film, working with In-soon and their working relationship.
You made the documentary “Tour of Duty” with the same main character In-soon and I was wondering what led you to revisit her and to make this film?
Dong-ryung: We met In-soon twenty years ago, long before we worked together on “Tour of Duty”. At that time, we made a documentary in a direct cinema style. And after finishing it, we kept going back to the same actress and the same places. Because of that it was a bit pointless to follow her again in another documentary and, as a result, “Tour of Duty”, which was released in 2012, was already a step towards a more experimental format. In that film we followed three main characters and one of them was In-soon. But, In-soon has her own personal story to tell as an actress and as an individual and so, we decided to work together again.
Originally, we wanted to make a film about a woman looking for her lost daughter that is living in America. But this idea didn’t come true. So, we decided to focus on In-soon’s story instead. She makes drawings and we used these as an inspiration and a way to get into her story.
Where does your fascination for life on and around US Army bases in Korea come from?
Kyoung-tae: I majored in Sociology in Korea at the university and basically, my interest in history and American army base stories is a result of this. I started out as an independent social worker and also as a bit of an activist because I was very interested in social movements and in the use of video in journalistic formats. So, in the beginning of my career, I actually started on these and that is when I met In-soon. I’ve kept the relationship with her just going up till today. That happened quite naturally. Maybe it is a Korean tradition to keep relationships for such a long time and just keep seeing each other. But as a result, by now I feel really close to her. I ended up combining my personal interest in social history and the cinema language and when you do that, time just flies by.
More than focussing on the history of US army bases in Korea this film deals with the telling of stories. Why this change of direction?
Dong-ryung: Where our old film was about the trauma related to the army base, this film is more about the story itself. We focused on the meta-story and not on the background of the story. Korean US army bases usually form the very material for social journalism. They appear in newspapers all the time, so for us it was a bit useless to use the same perspective, so we decided to express it in a bit of a different way.
Kyoung-tae: I would like to emphasize that this film is actually about the power relationship between the character and the story itself. The history we learn about was made by powerful people. But in contrast, the history pictured in this film could easily be forgotten, because the main character has no real power.
Can you explain where the title “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” comes from?
Dong-ryung: When I found In-soon’s paintings, I asked her about them and she actually answered ‘Oh this is the pregnant tree and that the goblin’. She just keeps considering herself as a goblin and she actually addresses a lot of other things as “pregnant” like a pregnant stone, pregnant bird,….
Kyoung-tae: The reason she keeps emphasizing the pregnant state of things probably has to do with her history of sexual harassment. The same goes for the goblin character. Sometimes she considers herself to be the goblin and sometimes others. It depends on her interpretation at the moment.
How was it for In-soon to act in this film? Did she have problems with certain scenes or have any demands?
Dong-ryung: In Korea after the world premiere in Busan there was a Q&A where someone from the audience asked her a similar question and she answered that she didn’t act or do anything. That she was just naturally expressing herself. The scenario is actually based on her own very personal experience so maybe that is why she said she didn’t have to act. Actually, she just responded to the situations. And she really enjoyed it, she thought it was like a play, although sometimes she rejected our directions.
In-soon gave us one condition for making the film. It is kind of a revenge thing because she wanted to cut her husband’s neck and drag the dead body over the ground. There was no specific scenario for the fantasy part. So, we listened to her personal opinion and so we added this bit.
Part of the narration uses a voice-over, but it is hard to pinpoint who this voice belongs to. Was it meant to shift the point of view of the film in this way?
Kyoung-tae: There is no specific answer. It is really an open question and an open answer, and I think the interpretation depends on the audience. The use of the voice-over was inspired by traditional Korean storytelling. Instead of perfectly continuing the story, we experimented with the story to continue and continue and continue… like a traditional Korean story. Also, some of the characters in the fantasy part, like the messenger from the afterlife, have very Korean connotations.
Overall, the music is very classical, but two parts stand out: a Christmas carol and a traditional Korean song. Why did you use those?
Dong-ryung: Most of the music we took from Bach’s Toccata 911. The Toccata has a number of variations and we selected a few of those. But indeed, we also use the Christmas carol “The First Noel”. This was inspired by the fact that since the village is very poor, a lot of organizations deliver food to the neighbourhood on Christmas day. And then there is the Korean folk song. This happened naturally during filming and the actor singing is actually a professional Korean folk singer.
You both worked alone on other films. How was it to work together on “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” and “Tour of Duty”?
Kyoung-tae: In the beginning, it was really hard to work with her because I tend to be a bit complex and chaotic. In contrast, her style is very organised, and she has a very redefined way of working style. Probably because she graduated from a film school in Korea and I did not.
But is a very complementary relationship. While I’m always experimenting and try to bring a lot of elements together, she tends to filter what can be used and what not. So, it was a really good harmony in a way, although we have opposite characters.
What are your future plans?
Kyoung-tae: I’m actually not 100% sure if I will work with Dong-ryung on my next project. But since our long-standing relationship I want to work with In-soon and hope to get some funding from Korea. I’m really dreaming to go to America with her to make the film about looking for her daughter based in America
Dong-ryung: At the moment, we are finishing a project about an American soldier in Korea, about the life of prostitutes near the army base but also about children with a mixed nationality. Filming for the project has finished and we are editing it right now.