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Seoul stripped bare-naked: director Jeon reveals urban barbarism

2011/03/21 | Permalink | Source

By Lee Hyo-won

A child molester, unable to suppress his desires, tries to commit suicide; a North Korean refugee becomes disillusioned in the land of promise; and migrant workers suffer in hushed silence.

Jeon Kyu-hwan has made a name on the international cinema circuit with films featuring red-hot taboos, but he doesn't seem to mind being reputed for mixing controversy into the creative process.

"While leading our daily lives, we usually try to avoid filthy, uncomfortable truths. But art, be it literature, painting or film, cannot and should not ignore it. There may be pleasant works of art, but there are also creations like Picasso's 'Guernica' that evoke terror", Jeon said in an interview in Seoul last Monday.

"I'm excited to meet audiences all over the world with my story", said the director, who had just returned from the Berlin International Film Festival. His North Korean refugee story "Dance Town" garnered favorable reviews there and the film is now vying in the competition section of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which runs through April 5.

Director Jeon Kyu-hwan poses for the camera during an interview in Seoul on March 7. "Dance Town", the latest in his "Town" trilogy portraying taboo urban issues, is competing at the ongoing Hong Kong International Film Festival. / Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-won

But Jeon's mise-en-scene is not so much about portraying such marginalized characters than it is about drawing a larger portrait of the barbaric urban jungle that these individuals inhabit.

"My characters aren't the protagonist in my films - I am trying to tell a larger story through them, to focus on a particular aspect of the city through their stories", he said. "Dance Town", for example, is far from being political. "'Dance Town' might look like it's a political movie since it features a North Korean defector. But it's not; If I had shot the film in Paris, then I might have featured an Algerian immigrant or such. I just wanted to portray one of Seoul's multifaceted faces".

And yet, his uncensored films, albeit mercilessly revealing all that is dirty and rather "uncomfortable", evoke a classical Korean aesthetic - like oriental paintings, the subjects are always but a meager part of a larger landscape.

"Film critics have told me that they see audiovisual expressions that can't be seen in Western films. I think it might be because I like to capture everything without exaggeration", he said. A minimalist, Jeon absolutely despises fancy cinematography techniques and insists on shooting everything as if it's "seen from the bare naked human eye".

He dissuades his cast and crew from embellishing too much. For "Animal Town", which is now showing in local theaters, he asked Lee Seong-tae to act as "normal as possible, like yourself" for his role as a child molester - it is also unclear whether the character is eyeing an injured kid out of humane sympathy or sexual lust.

"I don't know the answer either; it's up to the audience to decide. I'm not trying to defend sex offenders - in fact I despise them. But I was unsatisfied with the way these individuals are often portrayed. I am sick of all these movies that use the same template for storytelling, by casting particular actors for the same type of roles and manipulating reactions from audiences with audiovisual effects and props. I do not want to communicate with moviegoers this way", he said, adding how he had to stop the art director from placing child porn magazines in the character's apartment.

Jeon used to manage renowned actors such as Cho Jae-hyun and Sol Kyung-gu, before venturing into directing. He even sold four cars to fund his three films, but cannot give up the craft because of filmmaking's greatest pleasure: storytelling.

"I am aiming for a realistic audiovisual language - instead of trying to present the audience with something new and different, I want my films to be genuine, and not force anything onto the viewers. Mainstream movies are all already doing this".

Though reputed for portraying the marginalized and dispirited, Jeon wishes to continue evolving as a cineaste. "I want to make bright, warm stories too", he said. He is working on a melodrama, "Varanasi", about a woman who falls in love with an Indian man. But he also plans to continue exploring the grotesque in "The Weight", featuring uncanny characters in a fantasy world.

"Dance Town" will be shown on March 28 and 31 during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Visit for more information.

"Animal Town", distributed by Puzzle Entertainment and rated 18 and over, is now showing at CGV Gangbyeon, Guro and Daehakno as well as Arirang Cine Center in Seoul; .Lotte Cinema La Festa and Bupyeong in Gyeonggi Province; Lotte Cinema Daegu; and CGV Seomyeon in Busan.

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