One morning last year I had this email in my inbox:
My name's Colin Marshall. I host and produce Notebook on Cities and Culture, a podcast dedicated to in-depth conversation with creators and observers about the work they do and the world cities they do it in. I'm e-mailing because I'm coming to Korea soon to record English-language interviews for the show, and having enjoyed your writing on cinema (I do like reading about Asia in Spanish, for some reason), I'm very interested in inviting you on to record one. If this sounds possible and appealing, please do let me know. I should be in Busan in early to mid-July; perhaps you'll have some time then?
We finally meet during the summer in Busan, the city where I live in South Korea, the same day as the final game of the soccer world cup, played by Germany and Argentina, my country. It was a pleasure talking to him and thanks to his questions I could put lots of thoughts in order. The original interview was published as a podcast that I transcribed. Check out his admirable work because is very interesting and has a lot of information on books, people, countries, movies. Hence, everything we love.
- If someone is interested in Korean film and that is why they move to Korea, would you recommend them to move here to Busan?
- No. Of course it depends what are the expectations you have. For example my ultimate dream was to work in the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). That in reality hasn't been an option because they do accept foreigners but with a very high level in Korean. So when moved here I came as a Korean language student and then I searched for a job. For this kind of life style Busan is probably better, less stressful, easier to adapt to than Seoul and of course there is the weather and the beach. Seoul’s weather is cruel, is not a minor topic: in summer is extremely hot and humid and of course is rainy season, and in winter snows a lot and the city is covered with ice. So for the everyday life probably Busan is much better. But the truth is that everything is in Seoul. So you would probably have more opportunities to meet people related with the film industry in Seoul.
- We are speaking with someone that has a lot of experience writting about Korean film, watching Korean film, thinking about Korean film. Sofía Ferrero Cárrega, she is a film critic and journalist that writes mostly about Korean films. If you can read in spanish I personally recommend her website www.sofiabari.com.ar
So tell me, what was so atractive to you about BIFF?
- BIFF is the biggest and the most influential film festival in Asia and therefore in the world. Everyone involved with the film industry come here: programmers from Cannes (France), San Sebastian (Spain), Mar del Plata (Argentina), Locarno (Italy), etc. Back in 2013 Quentin Tarantino suddenly decided to attend the festival because he declared himself as a huge fan so he was generous enough to make an OPEN TALK with Korean director Bong Jun-ho about movies and the point of you on each other’s cinematography, but he didn't come here to work, he came as a fan. And despite being this big it is a very accessible festival. For example, the parties and social meetings in Korean culture are crucial to make contacts and to people to take you serious (that and having a business card!). In european festivals usually there are levels of parties you can actually have access to according with your ID. So if you have let’s say Press ID type A, you can go to every event; if you have type B, only to certain kind of events. In Korea this is not like that even though BIFF is a huge festival. Is not an elitist festival so you can have an actual conversation with Park Chan-wook of Kim Ki-duk or they jury or the programmers we mentioned before. Or Quentin Tarantino! So it is a very magical experience full with these kind of events that make your experience exponencially much fruitful and of course, the cinephile self is in extasis.
- Especially if you are a foreigner. They seem to be very eager to have contact with the foreign world outside of Korea.
- Well, it depends. I have been wanting to interview this actor and because I request this meeting through an email written in english I guess, they never answer. I feel rejected even though we could find a way to make it work. But this actor’s profile is focus on asian audiences so is not a sure Yes just because you are a foreigner.
Back in 2013 too, I asked to interview director Bong Jun-ho (Memories of murder, Mother, Snowpiercer) the press agent said yes right away. They arranged everything, even the translator and we had the interview in a coffee shop during BIFF. When I saw the way his team works I understood why he is such a mayor international figure. This is also what makes them great too: to be accessible, opened, willing to talk about their work, helping us fell closer to them. Otherwise how would we know them?
- There is not much written about Korean films in spanish, is there?
- No. There isn’t. Everybody can write but not everybody know. With this I am not saying I know what I am saying but before you asked me why I moved to Korea: once you fall in love with this culture you get to understand that if you are not here you will never be able to understand only a little bit of it. What I am always afraid of is to be ... of course I am from western so my view will be westernized, but I always try to at least be aware of the prejudices that com with reading a culture from a totally different cultural point of view. That is why I came here in the first place.
- What was your first encounter with Korean film or Korean culture of any kind?
- I am from Argentina and after concluding my university degree I moved to Barcelona, Spain, to study a Diplomatura on film critic. One of the subjects was Asian Cinema. This was back on the 2009, when the new Korean directors were crushing european film festivals (Bong Jun-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, etc. ). Here you meet people that came to Korea because they love kpop (Korean pop) or doramas (Korean tv series) and they know every celebrity out there. My first time facing Korean culture was through studying its films. Author films with the help of great teachers like Manu Yañez. So I was lucky enough to have had their point of view, their eyes through those first steps that have mayor impact when we are talking about getting in touch with another country’s cinematography. According to what you watch first is easy to get a wrong idea or just don’t get what you are watching. At the same time Korean culture is not very appealing on a first encounter.
- What were those first impressions?
- Well, for example Hong Sang-soo is my favorite director.
- He is very interesting but once you get to understand his movies and that takes watching at least 5 or 6 of his films to get to see his sense of humour, deep subjects disguised into these nuisance, oblivious characters. But it takes effort and patience. As discovering any culture.
The first impression of Korea I had was a very well-dressed country. Not extremely handsome because it is a different aesthetic, they do look very westernized. But they all have a sharp sense of fashion. Is like a national effort to look good!
- You can say that. The fashion is very westernized but they don’t act that way.
- Thank God they don’t! The food is very different and the differences between dishes are very suttle for a western palate. So sometimes we go to a restaurant with Korean friends and I say: this kimchi chigué is delicious! They correct me: this is not kimchi chigue. See? It has soy sprouts. Kimchi chigué does not. So it is in the small details where you can find the variety. And that is another thing I like. You need to pay attention.
So my first encounter with Korean culture was through cinema, then I tasted Korean food (in my city there aren’t Korean restaurants) so I had the chance to go to one living in Barcelona.
- Do you think that in Buenos Aires are there any Korean restaurantes?
- Probably there are but then again, is not a very appealing food at first. Like choosing to eat japanese or chinese food. So I am not sure how successful would that be outside of the Korean population. I would go, though!
- So for you was Barcelona where you could have exposure to Korean culture. Was living away from your own continent a step that helps your decision about coming to Korea easier? Maybe feeling it was not such a lip to move again?
- Yes, definitely. Before coming to Korea I went home for 2 month and when I was saying I was going to Korea the reaction was unanimous: What? Why? Where are you going again?
In Argentina we have no connection with Korea, even though lots of Koreans live in there. But I have never had a Korean friend or classmate back in my country.
- How did the decision of moving to Korea came along? Ever since your first encounter with Korean cinema did you start thinking maybe I should move there....or it was more of a sudden thing, like when you were trying to decide where to go next. And maybe you though it should be Korea? Was it gradually or was it sudden?
- If I think about it now that you mentioned it was gradually because I started learning about cinema, then we decided to write a book about contemporary directors, then I started learning the language and I didn't have a choice, actually. I needed to come here. I needed to be here. Like any passion: at some point you cannot choose. Is not something that you can experience outside the country. I studied Korean for 2 years before coming here and when I arrived I couldn’t understand one word. It was so frustrating. Learning Korean outside Korea was a huge help to get in touch with the culture and avoid a big cultural shock when I moved here but in terms of communication, only in here I could learn the language.
- In Spain who were the other people learning Korean with you?
- They were all from Spain. They had been studying japanese before Korean, that is actually the average situation: they like japanese culture, manga, music. They learn the language and then their interest expands to Korea (that during the last couple of years has been more noticeable thanks to movies, music and tv series mostly). The grammar is the same as japanese so they were so familiarize with it. For me it was so difficult, I was doubting my intelligence every class. Why are they understanding and I am not! When I arrived here I started from second level, which is very basic compared to all I have already studied but the truth was I couldn´t understand. I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I finally experienced that magic that happens inside the classroom: we could all communicate in Korean and we understood everything the teacher was saying. In my classroom here at some point we were from seven different countries so Korean was the only thing we had in common.
- For me what happens is that because I don’t live here all I have are the movies and some movies I do understand all they are saying, like Hong Sang-soo’s movies. Other movies, similar movies maybe I do not get what are they saying. Have you had that experience?
- That is maybe because Hong Sang-soo’s movies are all about casual encounters and social manners so the dialogues we hear there are probably the formulas we learn in class. Like light conversations or greetings. And they are always saying the same things, talking about the same things and facing very similar situations. He is always making social arrangements and conventional behaviors. Other movies they may seem simple but they are more difficult to understand because they have deeper conversations.
- Do you find yourself facing the same situations when you go out with friends? Hearing the same things you hear in Hong sang-soo’s movies?
- When I came here I couldn’t stop thinking: yes, yes, I have seen this, I understand this. Like a deja vu. Exactly the same!
The day he arrives, 2011
Oki's movie, 2010
- In another country, the HSS movie where Isabelle Hupert is the protagonist. A foreign woman alone in Korean context. Did you feel much kinship with her in that movie?
- Yes... sometimes I make an effort not to forget where I am. Everytime I get into a plane I try to stay in touch with that first excitement you feel when you take the first flights of your life: the rush, the fear-slash-happiness and looking around these other people just seating there, reading a magazine, with no excitement whatsoever, like oblivious to the moment we were in. I really try to keep that with me and in Korea is the same. Is easy to get use to being the only woman, or the only foreigner, the only white between Korean.
In another country, 2012
- It is an advantage to step outside of the society, of the culture. You get to have a clear perspective, it gives you some kind of distances that makes you understand the culture in a different way Koreans can.
- Yes, but I always feel very jealous about their history, their baggage, their untranslatable words due to the fact that they have a 5.000 year history and so the language. My country, my culture is barely 200 years. They have that deep sense of history. In latin america we are building that now. We didn't have that sense of unity or roots. That is why we have tango, because we are lacking history, we have melancholia for something we don’t remember missing. So I don’t feel lucky I can understand their culture from outside, I feel jealous I will never be able to be inside, the track that path and understand it.
- And with Koreans I always get the feeling they are often very concerned of connect themselves with their distance path. Just the last 500 years or so.
- You can see that on TV and movies. Last year was a hit the dramas situated in Joseon Dynasty. At the same time Koreans can be conservative and racist, for example when mixed-couples, because they need to protect their culture and is understandable, of course. It is very complicated to read it from outside Korea. We have all these words: racial, discrimination, close-minded, sexism, but you cannot use them in here.
- Is true. We come from societies where the race relations are more complicated. As a Korean friend of mine was saying (he is a Korean who went to USA 20 or 30 years ago) and he is always struggling with Korean mind. He says: Koreans they always complain that americans are so racist when they see some news about this kind of problems, but they don’t have any other racist, so they don’t even face that issue. Until you start diversifying, like now. That is happening.
- Yes. It is happening and it is bringing some issues. I remember I was watching a tv show that is called We got married. This program is about a couple of famous people that get married for the show so they share a house, they do activities together but before that show they haven’t met. The idea I guess is to see how this two people fall in love in front of the camera, in an, of course, very platonic way! It is very strange but it hooks you up! One of the couples was this Korean actress with an mixed Korean, who’s mother is french. So he, raised in France was saying that he wanted to collaborate in the job work and her, in here middle 30’s got very serious and said: we will see how that is good for me. That was very enlightening for me because coming from a feminist background or just coming from western we tend to categorize the was Korean women behave like old fashion, and sexist but in Korean culture the house is the power place of women. They rule there. The education of their children is also in hands of women (that is another reason why a mixed couple of a Korean man and a non-Korean woman is so problematic). Because according to Korean mind children would not learn the cultural heritage.
- It was interesting for me to see in the subway all these adds on match making services where they say Don’t wait to get married. We can get you married now! And even in conversations here they are, compared to the States specially, they talk about marriage so often. I find myself thinking why do they keep talking about this? In the States it exist, of course, but is not the focus of everything. How do you feel about that?
- In here being married gives you status. A lot of people they just get married because is time. A very common thing to do here is called soguetting, that means blind date: someone you know introduces you to someone they know and they think you two would match and I have met lot of people that got married after dating for 3 or less month. And that person, the one and connected both of you takes responsibility. So it makes sense that lots of times it actually works.
- And how much has movies helped you understand other parts of Korean society? Specifically through films. Have you learned a lot that helped you understand how things work here?
- Not really. No. Is the same as trying to understand american culture through Hollywood. In a way they do give you an idea, a tone, a big picture but everyday life is different. So the responsibility of movies is to entertain... well, they brought me here because my love for this country started there. Hong Sang-soo is the most accurate director if we are talking about a very small part of Korean ways reflected into the movies. Actually I was writing about him before coming to Korea, in an essay that is part of the book I mentioned before, but when I got here I understood him. I could see why those movies were born.
-As soon as you got here or did it take some time?
- It took very short time! Because we were talking about how his movies are about social behaviour in social situations like meetings, greetings, first encounters, social drinking, etc.
- And the way that social life here has no limit that divides event from event. If you get together with people it just flows into other thing, smoothly. You just ride the flow of things. You may meet them at 6 o’clock in the evening but you don’t know what will be happening eight hours from then. The group may change and you might end up with a complete different group that the original one. In America is quite different. If you meet somebody at 6 you may be free again at 9. I don’t know what is like in Argentina?
- Very similar to North America. Actually my peruvian friend she has serious problems with that because she has a very tight social life and at the beginning she made the same mistake often: she had three different appointments in the same night and she could only get to the first one. She has lost more than a friend because of this.
- When was the first time you participated in a Korean film festival?
- Actually it took quite some time because I arrived here in November and during winter there are no festivals so I had the time to get ready and go to Jeonju in May, which was a magical experience! It was also the first time I traveled in Korea. I went alone and there I met the ones that became my closest friends now. So Jeonju is a very special festival for me.
- Jeonju is not a big city but is it well known for having very good food and for its festival so now that you have more experience at Korean film festivals, what is so special about JIFF (Jeonju Int'l. Film Festival)?
- JIFF is independent film festival. They show small and first or second movies and they are very jealous and protective with the talents they recognized first. So many of the directors that win the Grand Prize are later invited to participate in the Jeonju Digital Project, that is a world wide recognized. The screen these movies in lots of festivals around the world. I remember, while living in Barcelona, watching some of the Jeonju digital project movies in the extinguished Barcelona Asian Film Festival, for example.
- Jeonju is a mayor film festival in Korea, as us we are saying is Busan, which is the biggest. There are others though. What are some of the smaller festivals that you’ve been to?
- I love Women film festival in Seoul. it is very special festival because it recognize the importance of films outside the industry. They reconnect movies to their political values and their role of denunciation and militancy. Takes you out of the shining side of movies and festivals. It brings movies back to their cultural womb. Movies are culture, movies are made in a specific context for various reasons. Sometimes they screen movies that per se are not good movies but they are followed by a rounded table were they talk about important issues involving women realities all over the world and they have interesting guests like philosophers, writers, etc.
- The appealing part of festivals is that people involved with making films will be there. We can say that film festivals give you the context, right? You are not getting too much of other people perspective but you are getting your own experience. Is like eating Korean food in other countries. You can do it but you don’t have the context. Is like that, watching movies in a film festival will not be the same as watching the same movie in a theater somewhere in a random night maybe.
- Actually is a very good remark you are doing because you know that on April 2014 we had this huge catastrophe of the Sewoho , the ferry that sinked and more than 300 school students drown. I went to festivals the year before this happened so I could compare the experience. When this catastrophe occured not only the atmosphere was sad and mournful but the movies shown were too. Which is a very interesting coincidence because movies screened at a festival are made the year before. Because the whole country was in mourning all the activities not related with movies were suspended. So no events, concerts outside, parties, nothing happened apart from the screenings.
- I planned this trip to Korea before the Sewol Ho. That is not going to make me not come to Korea but some Koreans friends told me: oh, is too bad that you are going now because Korea will not be as joyful as it usually is. People’s mood will be down and things will not go as well as the usually do. because of the Sewol Ho. I would’t know because I haven’t been to Korea before this trip. Would you say that those effects still last after almost three month? Do you feel is still not at the normal level of excitement?
Usually Korea is very load, and cheerful. I live between two universities and the area is full with bars, restaurants, shops with loud music, and during weekends is the party spirit everywhere. When the Sewol Ho, everything was silent, and dark. No music, no lights, no parties. All the exams were cancelled, the school trips, the events, the entertainment programme, series, only news. No movies, albums, concerts. In Korea the cultural industry is huge and music shows and album releases and come backs and debuts of singers are important. Is a mayor part of the economy too so saying this is saying that much. Nothing for two month. The first big event is the world cup and everybody is being very cautious about it.
- The only thing that I can compare to is the 9/11. I can think of things cancelled that day, the day of the attack but after the only difference was that the new were talking about it. And I live in Washington that is thousands of miles away from New York and there was never a feeling of I could have been there because is so far away. In America we don’t feel like the country is your family while in here a Korean can picture himself in another person’s place. I don’t know how that goes in Argentina as far as the closeness of the country itself.
- In Argentina we have a very strong solidarity sense because to start with we made the country. And we have continued economic and political crisis so if we dont help each other we have nothing but in Korea the big difference is the culture: Confucianism they are ruled by a hierarchies system. So if you are older than me, or you have started working in a place before I have or if you are in a higher position that me I should treat you with respect and you have a big responsibility towards me: you are responsable for me, you should teach me how to do things right. One of the greetings you say when you meet someone you will work for or is in a higher position you say: please, take good care of me. So one of the comments that was heard right after the Sewol Ho, were older people, same age as the captain of the ship mostly, saying: I am sorry. I am sorry we couldn't protect you. I am sorry that one of us let you died. You can read this in some banners or pins in yellow color, that is the color they chose to represent this event. The captain is responsible for the crew and the passenger, the crew is responsible for the passengers, the captain and the crew abandoned the ship and let the passenger die.
So older people are from the same generation, they have been taught the same values so if he let those kids died they did also, in Korean mind. And the students in Korea are thinking if those kids died, they also could have died.
This also brough to everyone’s eyes that Korean security sistem is very weak and old. Korea became the tigers of Asia in a very short time, leaving much to chance. Security is one of them. And corruption is everywhere: the company which the Sewol Ho belonged to is one of the biggest here and they were carrying 3 times the allowed load; the weather was not fit to sail but then this was the only ship allowed to sail and etc ect.
- So when you are writing about Korean films how much of the interest you have in connect the films with social issues or context issues as we were saying before, complications of Korean culture today. Are you always trying to connect them to what is going on in society.
- And is it always possible?
- If it is not possible I don’t write about it. That is why I like writing about film festivals because I can watch 10 or 20 films and have a general idea, a wide spectrum of the situation. I find no interest in writing about one movie, only the movie, the director, the actors, the story. One of the reasons I forget names of actors and directors! No movies but I never focus on one movie and just the movie itself. These kind of texts are too enclosed with the world and the events surrounding certain movie.
- It seems to me that Korean film are willing to critique their society and in a sense it feels that Korea has more movies wanting to discuss or at least make comments about social issues. Does it seem to you too that Korean cinema has more directors and works like that?
- Usually independent movies are very harsh on Korean society. Last year one of the greatest movies that were premiered and that won the big prize in the Busan Film Festival and in other international film festivals as well was Han Gong-ju. Is the name of the protagonist but has also a meaning: it means Korean princess. Is a true story, a terrible event happening to a student and her friend and the reaction of the society. Is a master piece and it helps you understand a lot about the way of thinking and acting of Koreans. In western this movies couldn't have been made. Doing the same in a humorous tone is Hong Sang-soo. His protagonists are always movie related people: directors, screen writers, teachers and as we mentioned before about hierarchies in Korea he choses to talk about this very respected people that are assholes in real life! You know that we are lucky enough to have the chance to interview some people we admire and sometimes, very often unfortunately, when asking a general question like why did you chose to make this movie or talk about this character they answer: I don’t know. I just made this movie. I don’t know. And I keep thinking to myself: if I cannot ask you about what you do, how should I ask to! It makes me very angry. They are artist and they don’t think about what they are doing? Is something you have inside and you just need to express? Come one, don’t be such a snob....
- I have heard Hong ang-soo is very difficult to interview. He gives tricky answers and you feel you are being played with. Have you had the chance to meet him?
- No! I haven’t yet. I think that maybe he doesn't want to me ake a character out of himself. So maybe he considers that there is nothing to be said about him. That the movies talk by themselves. And he would be right. I have read one interview and was very enlightening. It was for the Cahiers du cinema. I had no idea how they made it but it was beautiful. And that was enough for me. I don’t want to read anything else about him actually. Sometimes we have so much information about everything that we are not allowed to have a genuine first encounter with things.
- This is something you mentioned before, when you want to write about a film you never read about the film and the same thing happened when you come to Korea. You said you didn't read books on Korea until you had spent enough time here. How long you needed to spend here before you could read a book safely and not have your experience poisoned by others perspective?
- A year and a half.
- And when you did read a book you said it was The Koreans by Michael Breens which was in this show recently too. How did it feel to finally read about Korea?
- Before coming here I studied a lot about films, as we mentioned and that of course leads to the contextual culture of course. I did read about history and culture. What I did not want to do was reading about others experience of the country.
What I appreciate about that book is that the author talked with lots of people including Koreans: living in Korea or in America but about aspects that they could also feel as remarkable and noticeable. Is not a very private and personal experience about living in Korea for over 10 years. Is a collective perspective. Is also about Koreans that have a close relationship with foreigners living here and the things they have heard and the reasons and explanations they can attempt to give.
- You write in spanish about Korean films and culture so do you have a sense of what is needed to be explained to a spanish reading audience or how do you need to treat them differently from an english speaking audience? For example just hypothetically in your mind when you ae writing what do you have to do or to explain?
- I need to be aware because I got used to and familiarize a lot in Korea so I need to remember to add a context to an everyday life picture. For example I upload a picture on facebook about drinking makkoli. Maybe in America they know but in spanish speaking countries we have no idea so usually it goes like: enjoying delicious makkoli! (Korean white rice wine that in some places you can add some flavor: in this case we had green tea makkoli and nuts makkoli) and is not exactly a wine! But is better to keep them thinking we are drinking milk with alcohol! But the truth is that most of the things have no translating. We have no way of relate this food with something we have ever seen or tried before so at the end the explanations are just a polite way to try to include everyone into the experience. The vocabulary isn’t there.
Budechiqué, spicy soup with nuddles and vegetables.
Meat, sesame leaf and rice.
Kobchang, intestines' barbecue.
- So do you think that Korean culture is due to be experienced at first hand?
- I think so because is not a very accessible culture like we were saying for example japanese culture is. You can explain japanese food: rice, raw fish, meat, sauce, even sake and flavors are friendly to a western palace. Korean cuisine Is not that friendly, is hard to explain, if we do explain does not sound interesting or delicious.
- And after you have lived here for some time what are the Korean things you cannot do without it?
- Korea changes you so deeply. Of course I have had cultural shock when coming here but I think when going back home, that will be the biggest cultural shock. The respect, the safety you can experience here. The relationship with my parents have changed since I am here . In Argentina we talk a lot and strong personalities and opinions are high value. In here is the opposite so my half-italian-half-spanish latin american personality (do your math!) has had some kind of improvement, I think. Apart from that the music, I listen to Korean music. And Korean food. I cook every day Korean food so probably the flavors will be a major part of what I will miss. There are some asian shops in my city, Córdoba, but I don’t think there are any Korean restaurant.
- Any last recommendations?
- Yes. Come to Korea. Enjoy this unique country and its culture. Is worth it!
- Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. We have been talking with Sofía Ferrero Cárrega, a film critic specialized in Korean cinema and living in Korea. Sofía, if someone wants to read your work where can they do that?