Isabelle Huppert, Jeon Soo-il, Ounie Lecomte Talk About France, Korea Co-production

Talks emphazise challenge of work-method differences

Paris Image Cinema, 2016 Korea-France Relations
Photo by Martin Dale

PARIS — This year’s 16th edition of Paris Images Cinema/Industrie du Reve (Feb. 3-5) focused on relations between France and South Korea, which have intensified since the two countries signed a co-production treaty in 2007.

Key conclusions from the discussions included the different storytelling codes prevailing in France and South Korea, as well as the different financing requirements and working methods.

On Feb. 4 a series of round tables were held dedicated to different aspects of this topic, as well as a special session with French actress Isabelle Huppert, who discussed her experience of filming in South Korea for “In Another Country,” directed by Hong-Sang-soo, who had previously shot “Night and Day” in Paris in 2008.

In the round table on co-production experiences, French-Korean producer Nam Yoon-seok talked about producing in Paris “Night and Day,” which had a relatively small crew of 20 technicians. The film was shot during August 2007, and Yoon-seok explained that August is the best month to shoot in Paris if one requires flexibility of production planning.

One of the issues raised during the discussions was the different rules applying to nudity in France and South Korea. In the case of “Night and Day,” the director included a scene in the Musee d’Orsay in which the main character looks at Gustave Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World,” which features a close-up of a woman’s genitals. The Korean producer wanted to cut this scene because it meant that the film would be classified as suitable only for those aged over 16, but the director insisted on keeping it.

The discussion then passed to Korean director Jeon Soo-il, who trained at ESRA in France and has directed more than 10 films in co-production between France and South Korea. His most recent film, shot in Paris, is “A Korean Man,” which was released in South Korea in July 2015 on 25 screens, clocking up 2,000 admissions. Notwithstanding this relatively small audience, Soo-il says that the film underlined the diversity of Korean cinema.

Soo-il explained that there is relatively little support in South Korea for independent films, and that investment is strongly linked to box office potential. He funded his film through a mixture of crowdfunding, and selling TV rights.

French-Korean director Ounie Lecomte talked about her 2009 debut feature “A Brand New Life,” which was partly based on her own childhood in Korea, where she was sent to an orphanage. The pic won best Asian film at the 22nd Tokyo International Film Festival in 2009.

The screenplay for “Life” was written during a script workshop at the French national film school, FEMIS. Structured as a French-Korean co-production between Gloria Films and Korean director-producer Lee Chang-Dong, the film was entirely lensed in Korea with a Korean crew including young Korean d.o.p. Kim Hyunseok, who subsequently shot Lee Chang-Dong’s Cannes-player “Poetry.”

Given that it was Lecomte’s first feature, it was difficult to raise financing, especially in South Korea, even though the film was to be shot there. Canal Plus pre-bought the film and the distributor Diaphana then put up a minimum guarantee, but the investment contract in South Korea was signed only 15 days before the shoot.

Lecomte explained that the way that cast and crew are paid in South Korea is very different from the French model. During the five months of pre-production in which there was no guarantee that the shoot would actually go ahead, none of the Korean team involved received anything. They then received 50% at the start of the shoot and the other 50% at the end.

“A Brand New Life” was one of the first films to be approved under the French-Korean co-production treaty, which had been signed the previous year.

“Life”’s d.o.p. Kim Hyunseok explained that co-productions can often be catastrophic due to the difference in working methods between France and South Korea but said that he established a good understanding with Lecomte and the shoot ran smoothly.

He explained that one problem is that in Korean films the lighting tends to be very dramatic to add emotional charge to each scene, which often clashes with the European style of auteur films. He also suggested that many Korean cinematographers like to use a short depth of field and close-ups, obscuring the background in the shots, which he says has been strongly influenced by Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy.”

For “Life,” Kim Hyunseok revealed that he chose to film in the style of French cinematography that he greatly admires.

French producer Guillaume de la Boulaye, at Zorba Productions, described his experience of working with young Korean director Jero Yun, whom he initially met after receiving an email that had been posted to many production houses. He said that he was interested because of his admiration for South Korean cinema.

While living in Paris, Jero Yun had become fascinated by the plight of North Korean refugees in Paris and then went to China where he met a North Korean woman who had been sold as a slave to a Chinese peasant. Jero Yun’s documentary “Madame B” follows her attempts to reunite with her family, now living in South Korea.

Boulaye explained that the issue of North Korean immigrants is subject to strict censorship in South Korea, which led to them to decide to launch the film as a trans-media project, in which people would share their personal experiences related to this topic.

He said that the working methods in South Korea are also completely different from those of the French and German co-producers involved in the project and that created significant problems.

During the shoot, the director was arrested on several occasions, due to the prohibited nature of the film’s subject matter and was imprisoned in Thailand. They had to lobby various embassies to ensure his release. Boulaye added that all the rushes sent back to France were screened by the South Korean Secret Service and took months to arrive.

When it came to editing the film, the producers chose Tunisian editor Nadia Ben Rachid, who previously edited “Timbuktu,” for which she won the César Award for best editing. However, during the course of editing the film this led to divergences with the Korean producer, who said that the film had to highlight emotions in order to engage with audiences and guarantee box office in Korea. Boulaye said that this led to the opposite reaction when it was screened for selection in the Berlin Film Festival, where it was criticized for being too sentimentalist.

Paris Images Cinema/Industrie du Reve is the fourth event in the Paris Images Trade Show (Jan 28. – Feb. 6).