An Encounter with Park Heung-sik By Élise Domenach

in 25th Torino Film Festival

by Élise Domenach

The FIPRESCI jury was happy to reward in Torino in 2007 a South Korean film director for his second movie The Railroad (Gyeong-ui-seon). The feeling of discovering a new film director, unknown to us, led us to investigate: who is Park Heung-sik? The day after the first screening, in the historical Ambrosio Theater, we met to discuss his career and his views on film. In the only Chinese restaurant in Torino city center, the middle aged man wearing a cap was surrounded by a Korean distribution executive and his leading actor, Kim Kang-woo (Man-soo). He was obviously relieved to escape from a comic Italian journalist, wearing a vivid orange outfit, who had been trying to arrange a satiric interview with the author of the film that was running favorite for the festival award, and relieved to (eventually!) talk about film.

Even though The Railroad was a discovery to us, the film premiered a year ago, at last year’s 11th Pusan International Film Festival in the New Current section (cf. Kim Seemoo’s “A Tendency of Korean Film”, Pusan 2006). The movie was released on May 10th 2007 in South Korea. But it has not been distributed yet outside South Korea. Park Heung-sik was particularly anxious about the reaction of the audience in Torino. In fact, Nanni Moretti’s film festival was a unique opportunity to get in touch with distributors from all over the world. Furthermore, even though The Railroad is Park Heung-sik’s second film, the director regards it as his real film debut, his first personal work. His first movie, Twins, was more of a commercial product, produced within the film industry, as he explains. The Railroad relates more directly to his previous short movie, A Day (Ha-roo), presented in the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, and winner of the Best Short Film in Torino in 1999. An unemployed construction worker, separated from his wife and child, struggles to get by and find some money to celebrate his mother’s memorial day. One finds in The Railroad the same sense of a person on the edge and the same evocation of seasons, place and moods, within a dark social picture of the contemporary South Korean working class. After directing The Twins (Yeokjeon-ui myeongsu), Park felt dissatisfied. He decided he would write a screenplay of his own, “to make the story he wanted to make”.

Park Heung-sik studied German Literature in Seoul, and traveled to Berlin. His main influence while writing comes from novels, particularly Hermann Hesse and Christa Wolf. The project for The Railroad arises from three different sources. One is an unfinished novel that Park Heung-sik wrote when he was a student, and his wish to go back to this early piece of work. The novel tells the story of a man and a woman who meet on the South Korean seashore, in a place that’s famous for suicides. After this brief encounter, each one decides to take a new start, a fresh beginning. Another source, more abstract, is his wish to tell a story that would illustrate two concepts that are particularly significant to him: union and difference. Director Park Heung-sik wanted to talk about his country, about the prospect of a reunion of North and South Korea, as well as about the divide into social classes within the South Korean society. Living in Berlin for some time, during his studies, he witnessed the Reunification process and was struck by Christa Wolf’s novel The Divided Sky. The third and most immediate source for The Railroad is a trivial fact: a train accident that happened in Seoul. The depiction of the event in the media and on the web and the interviews of the train conductor inspire the final version of the script for The Railroad. But none of these sources or impulses would have given birth to this film, without the urge to write a screenplay within thirty days (so it happens) in order to comply with the deadline for applications to the KOFIC Production Support for Low-Budget Films Program.

The first draft for the subtle screenplay of The Railroad was written in a rush, in less than a month. Park Heung-sik remembers that he has spent twenty five days investigating on the train accident, collecting papers and interviews, and the remaining five days actually writing a short screenplay that was sent to the Commission. The screenplay differs from the original novel in one important respect: the location of the story. Instead of the seashore, the filmmaker chooses another meaningful setting for the encounter of two lost souls. The protagonists meet in a railway station, on the famous train line that goes from Seoul (South Korea) to Pyongyang (North Korea) and then way North, up to the Chinese border, the Gyeongui Line. The reason for this change has to do with the accident, which happened in Seoul a few months before he started writing the screenplay, as well as with the past of the film director himself. In fact, Park Heung-sik grew up closed to a railway, and he was interested in using his own memories in his film.

When asked about the way he directed the actors, who are both well know in South Korea, Park Heung-sik recalls that the rehearsals with Kim Kang-woo (Man-soo) and Son Tae-young (Lee Hanna), turned out to be very different. The film was shot within 22 days, and the small budget (400.000 dollars, one tenth of an average production budget for a South Korean movie) didn’t allow for long rehearsals. With Kim Kang-woo (The Coast Guard, The Beast and the Beauty, Silmido), he mainly explains rehearsed gestures, and bodily attitudes. Since his part is almost silent (except for a moving confession scene), the main issue was to get a hold on his interior life through very simple daily gestures, and work routines. On the contrary, the girl’s part involved long dialogues. It required numerous discussions with Son Tae-young (Sad Movie) about the character’s psychology, her passion German Literature. Park Heung-sik used his own knowledge of German Literature to create the character with the actress.

Leaving the Chinese restaurant, we couldn’t help thinking about another film focusing on the reunion between nations and people, between people living on the other side of the world, in Germany or in Turkey. Both Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven, best screenplay in Cannes 2007) and Park Heung-sik, tell beautifully complex stories that express the difficulties and pains involved in reunification processes.