TIFF Interview: Lee Choong Hyun, Director of Bargain (몸값)

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Last week at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), we sat down with Lee Choong Hyun (이충현), the director of the Korean short film, Bargain (몸값), along with producer Kim Dongha (김동하) for an interview. Bargain played in the Short Cuts program at TIFF as the sole Korean short. But before we get to the interview, let’s talk a little about the short.

Mini Review: Bargain (몸값)

Bargain tells the story about a high school girl and a middle-aged businessman who meet in a hotel room where she’s about to sell her virginity to him. As they engage in small talk, he starts to bargain her price down… until it’s fraction of what it was. All the while though, she’s plotting something different.

There’s a lot going on in this short and the simplicity of the filming, it was shot all in one shot or take, allows the viewer to concentrate on the story. Speaking of the story, pretty much from the very beginning but especially after the bargaining starts on her ‘price’, it’s obvious that something is going to happen. That the story is leading the viewer somewhere else, that this isn’t a film about prostitution. But that’s the reason it works so well.

The twist is more abrupt than expected, and certainly different. Partially because the female character was a high school student and partially because of the lack of a dramatic buildup, I expected something simpler, like the guy being robbed but what happens and how it happens raises the short film to another level. Loved the ending but that’s all I’m going to say so I don’t give it away – you should watch it yourself. Although I would really love to know why the price dropped so drastically when they were bargaining, it certainly was an interesting short with an unexpected ending.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

The Interview

Hello, can you please introduce yourself and your short film to our readers?

Lee Choong Hyun: I am a university student from Korea who wants to be a film director in the future. I came to Toronto thanks to one of short film distributors in Korea who submitted my film to TIFF for me. Bargain is a story about human trafficking which was shot in one take. This film has a twist and I wanted to make that more dramatic by using the one-take method. *

Kim Dongha: One-take: like a theater act, the whole story gets taken in only one shot filming.

You started making films in high school. What made you wanted to be a film maker?

Lee Choong Hyun: I went to an arts high school wanting to be an actor. And I happened to be interested in filmmaking naturally while in school more than acting.

You wrote and directed Bargain, where did you get the inspiration for it?

Lee Choong Hyun: I got the inspiration from its Korean title. The Korean title for this film is a bit different from the English one. It’s called “몸값 (ransom money)”. I came up with the title “몸값” first and then wanted to make a reversal film with this title.

Like you mentioned earlier, you filmed Bargain in one shot. What challenges did that offer?

Lee Choong Hyun: This film has a lot of dialogue between the two main characters, which is challenging for the actor and the actress to memorize the whole script just like a theater act. So we had to do a lot of rehearsals before shooting in order to make as less NGs [editor’s note: NGs = scenes that aren’t good] as possible.

Why did you decide to film it that way? 

Lee Choong Hyun: I never had thought about doing one-take shooting before. When my producer suggested one-take, our director of photography was against to the idea. But I thought it might make the twist more impactful, and I decided to try it despite of some challenging factors.

Kim Dongha: I recommended it.

It was a good idea.

Kim Dongha: Thank you.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Bargain starts off with what appears to be a high school student selling her virginity to a middle-aged businessman but she quickly turns the tables on him in a manner that most people won’t expect. How did you come up with ending like this?

Lee Choong Hyun: I thought it would be interesting if I turn the girl who everyone thinks a victim to a criminal, and that was the big picture of my storyline. Then I chose the ending we have now after trying many different twists. We figured that it flows with the girl’s character very well this way and makes the ending dramatic.

As a bit of a follow up question, even though it touches on unpleasant topics and illegal activities, and the male character loses his temper, there’s still an almost casualness to the film, the flow seems very even with no ramping up of the flow or pace. How did you convey that?

Lee Choong Hyun: When editing the scenario, I tried to make it hard to guess the ending while giving out hints throughout the beginning, little by little, so that there will be a twist to it. Also I figured that it will be more crucial and effective if the story flows casually than to make it a big deal out of the change of the girl’s personality.

Going back to the unexpected ending, which was different than I foresaw, I thought the removing of the wig was quite symbolic. How did you want the audience to react to her changing to the aggressor?

Lee Choong Hyun: The girl consistently lies in the beginning and reveals her real character at the end. I wanted to make the scene look more shocking by changing her look when she changes her personality.

Kim Dongha: Her hair already was very short and it gets even shorter to which is such a rare style in Korea, we just wanted the image of that scene to be very shocking.

Lee Choong Hyun: The film is not a happy ending story, and I wanted people to think what a crucial world it is nowadays. However, audience seems to find it satisfying even though that was not what I intended.

Erica: They are wondering what twist you expected?

I thought he was going to be robbed. I thought she had an accomplice.

Erica: That was one of their options.

What film makers has influenced your filmmaking? Why?

Lee Choong Hyun: Bong Joon Ho (봉준호) and Na Hong Jin (나홍진). I like their sense of humor.

Last question, are you working on anything new?

Lee Choong Hyun: I’m working on a feature film scenario, but not sure if I’m going to film this yet.

Final Thoughts

Thanks so much to director Lee Choong Hyun and producer Kim Dongha for meeting with us during TIFF for the interview, it was much appreciated. Thanks also to my lovely friend Erica for acting as interpreter and translator for the interview. Bargain played at TIFF in the Short Cuts 6 program.

If you saw it, we’d love to know what you thought of it. And if you were as surprised by the twist as I was?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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