INTERVIEWS, NEWS, South Korea — 06/19/2012 10:14 AM

Seungjun Yi (S. Korea) :”global audience would like to see docs about Asia with different perspectives”

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Seungjun Yi is the lucky director of “Planet of Snail” for which he recently won many awards. In this exclusive interview for ADN, the South Korean doc maker speaks about his film and his new project.   

Could you introduce yourself (education, career background, filmography) ?

I studied Asian history at my university and started my carrier as a documentary director since 1999. I joined the documentary, “The Invisible War, India Bihar Report”, as a codirector. It was only screened at some festival in Korea. After that I worked with photographers for about 2 years, and we made a documentary magazine. My role was to film people living in country side of Korea, edit, and upload on the website. I have made many TV documentaries for Korean channels. Most of the time I worked as a freelance documentary director but between 2002 and 2006, I worked for a small cable channel in Korea.

What was your first documentary as a director ?

I directed “Like Wild Flower, Two Women’s Story” in 2007 which was aired through KBS, one of the biggest TVchannel in Korea. I received 2 awards with that documentary in Korea.
In 2007 I went to Nepal, and made a feature documentary “Children of god” which was at Hotdocs in 2009. I’ve traveled some oversea’s film festivals with that film, Even though they were not major festivals.
In 2011 I finished “Planet of Snail”, it was premiered internationally at IDFA and got Best Feature award. And also I received awards at Docaviv, Documenta Madrid and It’s All True.

How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry ? 

Since I was high school student, I liked watching documentaries, mainly on TV. When I watched documentaries, I used to be excited by the fact that documentaries deal with ‘fact’. Sorrow, anger, pleasure, etc… Any emotion in the documentaries, I loved enjoying.

Sometimes I felt goose bumps. I wanted to become a documentary director sinse then and never changed my dream. I liked watching TV documentaries dealing with everyday life of ordinary people.

Can you speak about your last doc film “Planet of Snail” ? Why such a title ?

It is about a deaf and blind man and his wife who has spinal problem, so is very short. Mainly it’s love story, and through their relationship, through their everyday life, I wanted to share their ways of feeling, expressing this world.

In a sense they feel this world differently, and they think something more important that is not regarded important by us. I wanted audience to think of ‘feeling, empathizing with this world and human being’ rather than ‘just seeing and hearing.’

About the title… The protagonist used to said, “deaf and blind like him is similar to snails, because it takes more time than us to communicate with other people. Snails are slow.” and I thought finger Braille remind me of antenna of snails.

And from the beginning of this project, I wanted to make this documentary like a fairy tale for adult like “Little Prince”, the famous French novel. I thought the protagonist of Planet of Snail looked like the little prince of the novel, and the little prince has his own planet which is very different from Planet Earth. That’s how I made the title Planet of Snail.

How did you found the story ? How did you found the main characters ?

The main characters was invited by a forum for deaf and blind in Japan in 2006, and he learned finger Braille there. After coming back, he started using it and Korean news papers covered his story. I read news articles about him. In 2008 I was making a TV factual science program about ‘fingers of human being’. So I filmed him for 2 days. After several month, I started to prepare a feature documentary and I thought his story could be interesting because Korean public does not know much about deaf and blind in Korea. But after meeting the couple several times I came to be interested more in their ways of feeling, expressing this world than the fact he is deaf and blind.

How long did you shoot and edit ?  

It took me 2 years to finish this documentary, and I filmed them for 2 years. I started shooting on March 2009 and the last shooting was on February 2011. In 2010 I edited 67 minutes version for a Korean documentary festival at which I became the winner of pitching in 2009 and received some money for the production, and the condition was to premier it at next festival. So I edited for it, I kept filming after it. It took about a month, I guess. At the end of 2010 I again started editing for NHK which was on board as a coproduction company. It took another month to finish it. For feature version, I called a Lebanese friend of mine who was also a documentary director, and had studied editing at a film school in Paris. With two versions we edit final feature version together, and extra sequences which I didn’t use, I edited roughly and showed them to the editor. If he thought some extra sequences were interesting, we put them in the feature version. It took around one month to finalize the feature version of the film which was released for the first time internationally at IDFA.

How did you financed it ?

In terms of financing, we had several international supporters. Japanese NHK joined in this project as a coproduction company. YLE (Finland) and NRK (Norway) were on board. We got fund from Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach and the Finnish Film Foundation. In Korea we got fund from EIDF Documentary Fund which was prepared by EBS International Documentary Festival and BCPF (Broadcasting Content Promotion Foundation in Korea).

Is it only for theater or did you edit a TV version ?

As I mentioned, I have 3 versions of the film, but we regard 2 versions as official versions, TV version (NHK version) and feature version.

Do you have some TV broadcasting in the pipe in and outside Korea ? if yes, in which countries ?

NHK (Japn), YLE (Finland), NRK (Norway) will show the doc.

The film won several international awards (IDFA, Docaviv …) and have been selected in many festival. How do you explain such a success ? 

I didn’t expect such a success festival-wise, honestly. When I heard that the film was selected for official competition of IDFA, I danced in my office in joy. I was so much satisfied with that fact itself and I went to Amsterdam just to enjoy other films. I had 4 screenings at IDFA, and after 2 screenings people started talking about “Planet of Snail” and approaching me asking if I were the director. They enjoyed the film very much. I travelled a lot with this film, and most of the audience really liked the film and used to tell me that they’re gonna give you the prize if they were jury members.

I think it’s because the characters were so powerful and lovely, they give audience an opportunity to feel this world in a different way, audience could see important aspect of this world which they’ve taken for granted.

And even though the film does not have a conventional story line, even though it deals with simple everyday life of the characters, if it is filmed with heart, then audience are never bored.

What is the biggest impact of these awards ?

After such a success, we could have chance to release theatrically in US, UK and Japan scheduled on June, July, etc. The promotion of the film is still going on, so I cannot talk about the result. I’m preparing for a new project and the success will be very helpful when I try to get fund, if only I have a good project.

Do you have a new doc project in or about Asia ? If yes, What is the subject ?

I’m preparing a new documentary project, it’s about a mother whose daughter was born to be deaf and blind, and cannot speak a word.

I can say “Planet of Snail” was about ‘a different language from ours’, the new documentary will be about ‘language beyond language’ which is very challenging to me.

I’m writing synopsis and gonna apply for some fund in Korea. If a trailer is ready, and if I get some money for the production from Korean organizations, then I’m gonna try to attend pitching programs abroad and apply for fund.

I cannot talk about exact schedule, it depends on whether I can get money for the production, but I will start filming on July to make Trailer.

What do you think about the evolution of the Asian documentary industry? Is it easier to make doc in Asia now ?

Recently the atmosphere of making documentary in Korea is getting better, even though it’s still hard to collect money for making documentaries.

After several successful documentaries, like “Iron Cows” which got award at IDFA 2009, “An Old Partner” of which box office in Korea was huge (3 million Korean have seen the film in theaters), “My Barefoot Friend” which was also included in official competition for feature length at IDFA 2010, several documentary pitching programs have started and organizations begin supporting documentaries.

At least Korean documentary industry is ready to grow.

There have been a lot of documentaries dealing with Asia, but most of them known to the world are made by western channels and production companies.

Now global audience would like to see documentaries with different perspectives, I think. Still are there tons of stories worth being told and shown through ‘film’ media, and if there are co-works among Asia and western countries as many as possible, then we might be able to expect a kind of new wave of documentary.

So I’d like to have more opportunities to work together with western staffs, channels, funders, etc.

In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries or docs about Asia which impressed you ? 

I loved “A.K” directed by Chris Marker. It was made long time ago, but I could see it at Hotdocs 2012. I liked the distance between the director and the characters, and his cinematic skill was so impressive.(he did most of the works, directing, shooting, producing, even sound designing.)

A.K film page on IMDb   Film trailer on YouTube

Interview by mail on 16 June 2012


. Film page on ADN database / “Planet of snail” (2011 / South-Korea)

6 doc films about Asia at Silverdocs 2012

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 with a strong taste of Asia

Docaviv 2012: “Planet of Snail” wins the International competition

Tribeca Festival 2012 World Documentary Competition includes 3 films from or about Asia

. Hot Docs 2012 selects 20 films from or about Asia Pacific

“Planet of Snail” touching in many ways (Korean Herald)

. In Amsterdam, Four Asian docs win awards at 24th IDFA

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