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Abandoned Spaces: An Interview with Jeon Soo-il

An interview with the South Korean filmmaker of "I Came from Busan".

The following is a joint article, co-authored by Adam Cook & Kurt Walker.

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Born in South Korea in 1959, Jeon Soo-il is a genuine artist, the lesser known of his Eastern contemporaries, who understands the power of silence and the landscapes of emotional exploration. Having received a doctorate in Film Science at the Paris Diderot University and now a professor himself at Kyungsung University, his life is one intertwined with cinema.

Unacquainted with Western audiences, his work conveys something unmistakably Korean, with an emphasis on borders, be they physical, emotional or psychological. With a style that is heavily influenced by European art cinema, Jeon Soo-il’s melancholic, Antonioni-esque aesthetics are distinct from his Asian contemporaries, but he shares the same obsessions with loneliness and distance that is found in the work of Tsai Ming-Liang and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Now, Cine-Asie is presenting a retrospective that is currently touring North America. It began in Montreal and has expanded to Toronto, Vancouver and L.A., and will visit Ottawa, Washington D.C., and finish in New York in April. Not part of the retrospective is his latest feature, I Came From Busan, a drama about the issues of child adoption in modern Korea.

Below is our brief yet telling exchange with this little-known filmmaker.

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NOTEBOOK: To start off, can you tell us a bit about your latest film, I Came From Busan, and how you conceived it?

JEON SOO-IL: When I left Korea to study abroad in France, I escorted onto the airplane a Korean child who was going to be adopted by a French couple. When I met the French couple at the airport, the child didn’t let go of my hand for a long time—I conceived of I Came from Pusan from those painful memories. In Korea, about 2000 children are given up for adoption each year—and most of their parents are unmarried girls between 16-18 years of age. So in the film I portrayed the pains of a young mother who gives up her baby for adoption.

NOTEBOOK: Your use of music is very interesting. What relationship do you think music has with cinema, and in specific, your films?

JEON: I like to use music as an enhancer of images in the films. I want to give a voice to the sounds of the interior mind—which do not yield actual sound effects—with music instead.

If the music is very dramatic, it tends to exaggerate the emotions of the characters or the story arc too much. But in my ending credits, I do often use dramatic melodies.

NOTEBOOK: There is a large emphasis placed on the landscapes and environment in your work. Does the cultural or political situation in Korea have any influence on this emphasis or other aspects of your films?

JEON: The spaces in my film are usually abandoned ones, or ones that are about to disappear. The protagonist searches for him or herself and explores his/her identity further in these spaces. Due to its fast economic growth and its volatile political climate, Korea tends to transform its historical spaces into ones made of cement, and destroys its human nature. In this climate, I wanted to capture the struggle to maintain one’s identity.

NOTEBOOK: Does your time studying in France have an influence on your career? Do you consider French cinema personally significant?

JEON: I don’t necessarily think that France or French cinema have affected my film career. But my time abroad was a period where I had to survive times of solitude, as well as deep introspection into my own identity, and thinking about what was important to my filmmaking.

NOTEBOOK: A lot of your Eastern cinema contemporaries and predecessors seem to be fixated on the distance between people, whereas it seems less of a concern in western filmmaking. Why do you think this might be and are you conscious of it?

JEON: My films often demonstrate the impossibility of human communication, or the current of apathy that runs through human relations. The reason for this is because society is becoming an increasingly economy-based one, and capitalism and consumerism breed such attitudes. So I wanted to show the reality of our society by conveying them in my films.

NOTEBOOK: What is your role as an associate professor at Kyungsung University, and why do you think it is important to maintain this side of your career while also being a filmmaker?

JEON: My students work as interns on my film sets and learn about the realities of filmmaking. In our intellectual exchange I learn from their individual perspectives. I also like to convey what to depict in their films, as well as the how to my students, instead of teaching them specific film techniques.

NOTEBOOK: With the decade wrapping up, what are your thoughts on the state of cinema in the 21st century?

JEON: It is the time of cinematic technology and confusion of reality!

NOTEBOOK: And finally, would you mind sharing which filmmakers have inspired you the most? 

JEON: Many directors have influenced my work—specifically, Andrei Tarkovsky, [Michelangelo] Antonioni and [Robert] Bresson.

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