TIFF Interview: Kim Yang-hee (The Poet and the Boy)

This year at the Toronto International film Festival (TIFF), I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kim Yang-hee, director of The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑). Director Kim was kind enough to answer questions about her first feature film, the challenges in making it and about the relationships that drive the film. It’s a subtle, relationship-centered film that balances the almost sweet innocence of someone who lives his life in poetry and the bitter reality of the world around him.

All answers have been translated by my lovely friend Hana, from our interview with director Kim Yang-hee.

The Interview

Hello, can you please introduce yourself and tell our readers what made you want to be a filmmaker?

Hi, I’m a filmmaker from Korea. I debuted with my first feature film, The Poet and the Boy. It will be screening in Korea from Sept 14. I am honored to be invited to TIFF with my first film for its first Film Festival.

And as a follow up question, can you tell us about your film, The Poet and the Boy?

My movie is about a poet living in Jeju with his hardworking (relentless) wife. He wants to live in the beautiful, poet world, but he also has burdens from real life such as making money, writing good poems but he is the opposite person. He is not writing any great poetry and is living off his wife because he barely makes any money. He was looking for poetry inspiration from his life. Then, he meets the boy. The movie follows his feelings which are close to love, friendship, and sympathy.

You’ve made some shorts before but The Poet and the Boy is your first feature film, what were some of the challenges or difficulties you faced making the film?

It has been 10 years since I graduated from Film School. It is more common for filmmakers to write their own scenarios in Korea, especially for their first debut films. It took me a while to write a story that I wanted to talk about, it was more challenging to find an investor, gather people to work with, and the cast. It is not easy to make a film, but even harder to grab a chance for all the filmmakers in the world. Especially, this movie is not categorized as a commercial movie or as an artistic movie either. Plus, the market for artistic movies in Korea is so small and not there yet, so it was hard for me to be seen as a newbie director.

Hana: I found out that you have really interesting castings. Yang Ik-Jun has stronger persona in movies, Jeon Hyejin is known for her ‘cool’ image, Jung Ga-Ram is a new face to movies.

It required big courage for the poet’s character to understand the feelings and emotions about same-sex love whether it’s more physical lover or about the relations between humans who wants to love someone else. This concept is a big issue in Korea for actor’s filmography. Many actors turned this character down. I casted Yang Ik-Jun for my graduation film back in the time when I was in film school. We couldn’t make the film together because of some issues, but I filmed something else, then I remembered him for this character. Before Breathless, he was known for good-natured characters. He showed a different Yang Ik-Jun in Breathless. I really like Jeon Hyejin, and always wanted to work with her.

The poet and his wife, they speak in different languages. He speaks in poetic words, because he is a guy who collects beautiful words. He does not like his wife’s language, therefore, I thought I needed to have a strong character for the wife. I gave her tough words. Jeon Hyejin really like her lines and enjoyed the character. Jung Garam showed us good acting from Fourth Place. He once disappeared from the industry due to issues with his agency. However, one month prior to the beginning of filming, he showed up with a new agency. I loved his expressions in his eyes. It is important for him to show how he acts on the screen, but he has beautiful eyes to express his characters. He was the boy as he is.

You’re also the screenwriter, what influenced the story/script? What was the inspiration for it?

I was born in Seoul but moved to Jeju six (6) years ago. I felt trapped and wanted to change my life. I didn’t have enough money to go abroad. Jeju, in our history, was a place of exile. Now, it is known as an artistic island with a lot of artists and its amazing nature. I felt so behind and inferior, and almost gave up on making films. But I ended up teaching film, writing scenarios and considering that I could make myself on the stage as a director. It was incredibly difficult to write my story by myself for the first script. That’s when I met a poet in Jeju. He was a chubby, big buy but had a little boy inside, was kind, and loved self-depreciating humours. I thought I can make him a character in my movie and I saw a wife next to him, and created an event between them, which is the boy. I started to think I can make a movie from my six-year experience in Jeju.
What is your favourite part of the film? Did you have a favourite scene, character, line, or moment during filming?

I had similarities with the poet and the wife from the beginning because we are the same age.  However, when I was filming, I tried to understand the boy. The boy was created for a function in the movie. I was thinking whether I can carry this character well to the end of the movie. I see my teenage life from the boy. I didn’t study well, didn’t think I wanted to make films, but I wanted to do something, but my family was poor, there is no one to understand me. The character brought out a lot of my memories from high school when writing about the boy. Well, there is a difference that he has a dying father, but I had a similar time and tried to understand the boy. At the last scene of the movie, it shows that he finally arrived in Seoul (she said, “land”) I become so emotional whenever I see the last scene. I was living in Seoul when I was a teen, but teenagers in Jeju admire land (Seoul) and want to live there. The island is isolated and there are not many role models for young people to spread their wings. I think the poet was almost killing himself to push the boy to the land (Seoul) so that he can move on from there. I hope the best for the boy when he accepted the money from the poet and finally landed in the big city and was happy for him to have big chances.

Hana: You must felt that the boy almost is like your son. You gave him a birth by creating the character and brought him to the world.

At the audition, he said he came from Mil-yang to be an actor. That was just fitted into the story. He is now a big man whom I can’t even get closer, as he made a Samsung commercial.

When I watched The Poet and the Boy, one of the things that struck me was the balance of sweetness (the poet falling in love with the donuts) and misery (the young man’s dying father) which made the characters seem more real, especially the poet. Who never truly loses his innocence, except perhaps at the end. Was it difficult to cast his character?

I am happy to hear that you could see the balance between the sweetness, cuteness and misery. The reality that I see is not just about sad or cute, funny, happy things. I thought it is more realistic to see them all in the scenes. When I wrote a scene, I don’t write it too sad or serious. I want to be different like a line in the movie, “Do you want to eat chicken?” I hate the series of continuing seriousness. That’s the real world I see with the balance of two different ends. But I couldn’t write the story too light for a person who goes into despair. Yang Ik-Jun questioned me whether it is a right tone of the movie that he goes between the two ends. He especially felt almost painful when he acted exaggeratedly when eating the doughnut. I explained him my perspectives and he agreed. I really enjoyed working with him.

After the period of love with the boy, he faced the unexpected unhappiness in his life. It made it easier to write his poetry in return, but his life was thrown into unhappiness. He looks like he is having a normal life like others, but his heart was full of sadness and loneliness. It is similar to the guy in The Lady with the Dog written by Anton Chekhov who has a secret in his life. He seems unhappy in term of having a dual life, but continuously lives with the hope that he pulled the boy to the land with complex feelings. The poet says “I used you” when giving the boy 30 million won. That’s because he wanted the boy to take the money without feeling guilty. He really wanted him to move on and make his own way.

The film is very relationship driven, but there is ambiguity in the budding relationship between the poet and the boy. While it seemed that most of the other characters inferred the poet had sexual feelings for the boy, his behaviour in many ways was more of a family member who simply wanted to take care of him. How did you want the audience to see their relationship?

I had a press screening on September 5th in Korea. The biggest issue was about whether it is love. If it is love, is this love between the same-sex or a gay movie. I said it is not just about the gay movie, but it was quoted in many articles. When you mention a gay movie in Korea, it gives a strong impression on their physical relationship. I wanted to say it is not just about the feelings between two men. It is more about the feelings between people who wants to protect, lead and support. I would say…maybe the poet was curious about physical love in his mind. But if I say it is a gay movie, then I lose the lines about feelings and relationship. I was asked why there is no obvious gay codes in the movie such as kissing and sex, I tried to edit the scenario. All the people around me and the investor told me that wasn’t helping the story. I asked myself whether this is the story I wanted to tell people, if I ever wanted to make a gay movie or not. I looked into my mind and confirmed that I wanted to make a film about relationship. And The Poet and The Boy is the final piece of work. I was confident that I can make a good movie without the typical/physical gay code. It is about the relationship.

Speaking of characters, the wife seems to care for him at the beginning but slowly the audience sees aspects of her personality that show that she may not truly care after all, things like the fact that she gossips with his friend about things that should be private or publicly berated him about his failings. And a comment she made about marrying him saved her from being an old maid made me wonder if there was more subtle social commentary in the film than I first saw. What were you trying to portray in The Poet and the Boy? What did you want the audience to leave the film thinking about?

There is a hint of the wife’s personality when the Poet says “You, a class clown”. She is the type of person who share’s everyone’s secrets to have a topic in the conversation. She cares less about privacy, but values more in the current atmosphere. However, that does not necessary means that she does not love her husband. A small village in Jeju is an even smaller and closed place. When I first moved there, it looked so odd to people there to see a single woman moved there alone. When I tell them I’m not married, then people ask, “you are divorced, it’s okay, tell me about it”. Every time I walk my dog, people, they give you a look and silently say that you are an odd person. It’s them…they don’t have personal space, are almost rude, but they think that they have to know everything to take care of you, even how many spoons you have at home. It is big deal that you are not married yet, or married but no kids. They think there is something wrong with you.

The wife was born and grew up there and was considered as an old maid by her village. Jeju is a female-driven place known as 4.3 uprising and historically. Women put a man in the centre of family and take care of kids and husband. Women are stronger in Jeju. I felt that the wife thinks that she runs the family, the husband has to listen to her. This relationship can’t get any better, more balanced because the wife was more dominant. ‘You live off on me, you only do this much, and have to follow me the way I lead!’ This is the underlying relationship between them. I like preposterous scenes like having sweetness and cruelty together. I purposely wrote the wife’s character to show multiple layers of personality.

I also have the gap between the reality and the ideal as a person who is doing art. The poet and the wife are the ideal and the gap. The poet does not want the warmness in his life, he is immature character wondering about sadness because his poetry isn’t getting any better. The wife is mature enough to take responsibility to look after the people around her. I put these two values in the measure, and agree that her value is more important. This movie is about the poet becoming mature in the relationship like his wife.

You could ask why the poet gives the boy money while he could’ve given him the poet. I think the poet who was living in his ideal life started to think that the money might be the thing what the boy realistically needs.

I hope you think about the meaning of the gap between reality and ideal because everyone else experiences this gap and decides where to walk towards.

Okay, let’s ask a couple of more general questions. Which directors are your favorite and why?

I’ve been loving movies since I was little. I don’t like flakey or obtuse movies. I prefer easy but well-written, professional movies. The movie of my life is Running on Empty. I also liked Hollywood dramas such as Terms of Endearment and Ordinary People. After going through Film School, I opened up my eyes to the movie world. I’m inspired from Ozu Yasuziro’s movies about family and society with the sentimental emotions. I also like Hirokazu Kore-eda who is also coming to TIFF. I want to make films with a good and strong story and the various feelings and emotions that people have.

Are you working on a new film or script at the moment?

I was able to write The Poet and The Boy really quickly because I got the motive from the real poet whom I met in Jeju. I also have old scenarios that I had worked on to debut. I will read those again. Who knows, I might get to meet someone like the poet. At this moment, I don’t have an ‘I gotta do this’. But if there is anything that I determine that I have to start, then, I will make it into a film.

I want to write about a woman who is lively, big (as an ocean she meant?), like the wife. The wife was around the main character in The Poet and the Boy, but I want to bring her into the main and write a story about her. I know and have many strong and lively women in Jeju, I want to write about one with the beautiful scenery from Jeju.

Final Thoughts

We also spoke briefly about the difference in the English title (The Poet and The Boy) versus the Korean title (시인의 사랑, literal translation: The Poet’s Love) for the film and director Kim Yang Hee said basically that she didn’t want to give an ambiguous impression but she wanted to poke a point with a title, The Poet and The Boy, so that people can have more direct information about the film.

Huge thanks to director Kim Yang-hee for taking the time after she had just arrived in Toronto to sit down with us for the interview. Thanks also to Finecut Co. for facilitating the interview and to Hana for once again acting as my interpreter and translator.

If you get the chance, I definitely recommend watching The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑). Like I said above, it’s a subtle film with complex characters who show that life is rarely simple and we can’t always have everything we want.

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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