Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Adam Hartzell interviews the director of Host & Guest


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I have to hand it to the 10th SF Asian Film Festival and the 5th Korean American Film Festival, both of which ended for me Sunday with a screening of the 1963 Korean War movie Marines Who Never Returned. Its first ten minutes felt as eerily documentary-like a depiction of combat as any I've seen on film. It makes me glad I still live in the Richmond District not far from the 4 Star Theatre, though for some of the programs hosted there in the past week and a half I would certainly have traveled much longer distances. And I was delighted to learn last Friday that the venue had booked four more days of festival fun, starting yesterday and ending on Thanksgiving, in the form of a Chinese-American Film Festival. Along with films from China and the Chinese diaspora, there will be one more Korean film in the program. Sometime contributor to this site Adam Hartzell has more:
This year, when asked to help out with the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, I decided it was time for me to do more than simply write the program notes as I have been asked to do in the past. And do more I did, much more than a guy who has a regular day job that requires him to wake up at 4:30 AM, work 10 hour days, and travel abroad from anywhere from a month to two months should really do, but that’s what you get sometimes for volunteering. Thankfully, I worked with a great bunch of people who equally worked their butts off. But regardless of how much you work, some things just don’t work out.

And one of those things that didn’t work out was we weren’t able to get Sin Dong-il’s (alternate Romanization is Shin) wonderful film Host & Guest into the festival. This had to do with coordination difficulties across the globe, conflicting country holidays and work schedules. Let’s just say I was working outside of my skill set. But thankfully, Director Sin intervened on my behalf and Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre offered to open up some slots amidst his Chinese-American Film Festival that began this Monday. Host & Guest will be screening this Wednesday, November 21st at 9:30pm, and Thanksgiving Day at 5pm.

It’s been over two years since I’ve seen Host & Guest, but it’s a film that's slowly grown on me as I've sat with the images and dialogue of the bizarre coupling of a bitter, arrogant film-less Film Professor and a conscientiously-objecting Jehovah's Witness. What I recall after two years away from the film (for thoughts fresh from my viewing the film at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2005 you can go here) is that I appreciated how, although strong in its contempt for the Cheney/Bush administration, the film didn’t focus its critique solely outward, but inward as well. Host & Guest is equally as critical of the South Korean government as it is the United States. Host & Guest is equally critical of itself as it is others. In this way, what might appear clumsy in less skillful hands was gently laid to grow within my thoughts and my emotions that followed me after sharing witness with Sin’s vision.

I asked Sin if I could do an interview with him of a few simple questions over email. I offered him the option to respond in Korean if he felt more comfortable speaking in his first language. He responded mostly in Korean with an exception I will note. Along with thanking Sin for taking the time to answer my brief, amateurish questions, I must also thank Kaya Lee for her willingness to translate under a tighter deadline than I’d prefer to request. I adjusted some of her translation for flow, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her. Equally helpful to bringing the film to San Francisco were the SF Korean American Film Festival director Waylon McGuigan, Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre, Kim Hee-jeon of CJ Entertainment, and Director Sin’s sister who lives in the Bay Area but whom I won’t name because time constraints don’t allow for me to confirm whether she’s comfortable with my posting her name here.

The following is the interview.

Adam Hartzell, for Hell on Frisco Bay: The title, Host & Guest, is an interesting one. What brought you to use that title for the film?

Director Sin Dong-il: I was building the story’s plot and surprisingly, the English title Host and Guest came across my mind before the Korean title. I really loved the English title; so, I chose one of the main characters’ names as “Ho-jun” from “Host” and the other’s name was “Gye-sang” from “Guest”. I felt so much interest in the idea that two characters who have totally different ideologies respectively on the surface meet each other as a host and an uninvited guest, that is, as a visitor. As their relationship proceeds, each character becomes a host and a guest as well, and it means both are the host of their own lives.

HoFB: Could you talk a little bit about military service in South Korea to give American audiences an understanding of it since an understanding of the obligation all young Korean adults have is important to the film?

Director Sin: Korean people have been considering men’s military service as an obligation that they should accept naturally without doubt because of ideological confrontation and military tension between North and South Korea which has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Such represents that nationalism is controlling Korean people’s consciousness. It is true that people who refused the military obligation under conscience demands for peace have not been known to the South Korean public. I believe nationalism is an anachronism as the cold war composition has already collapsed around the world.

HoFB: Being a first time film director, having one character be a film professor who has never made a film makes me wonder how much he is based on your own experiences. Does that character represent your life in any way? Or is he more the kind of person you are worried you could become?

Director Sin: My life experience helped in making the film. Unlike the U.S. film market, South Korea’s independent film industry is very vulnerable. It is very hard to pursue my original thought into film without negotiating with the commercial/business world. South Korea’s film industry is focusing on box-office value too much. Actually it will bring serious risks/result in the end. I débuted with a feature film, but making a feature film is too hard. I am so gloomy whenever I think about how to get financial support for my third film. If anybody is interested in my third work after watching Host and Guest, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I always welcome producers for my work… just like a host and a guest. [laugh] It’s half seriousness and half joke. In addition, even though Ho-jun is called a professor, he is actually a part time instructor.

HoFB: If there is any kind of statement about the film you wish to make, feel free to add anything else you might want to say.

Director Sin: [Here, Director Sin Dong-il chose to type in English.]

Most people see only what they want to see. This world labels you a stranger once you trespass the standardized rules of the society. I want to open the door that is shut fast to these strangers.

If you want to look at this film closely, I would like to call your attention to Ho-jun’s snobbish elitism, deeply ingrained in his personality. Ho-jun finds himself transformed into an enemy of himself after having gone through days full of breakdowns and failures. He then meets Gye-sang, another soul, who’s also wounded by the prejudice and ignorance of the world. Thanks to Gye-sang, Ho-jun finds himself again, no longer as a "visitor" in his own life, but as both "host" and "guest."

I dedicate this humble film to those who are dreaming of a different world.