Just before the premiere of Sangnoksu (Evergreen) at the Marché du Film in Cannes this year, director Chulhan Kim (also known as Kim Cheol-Han) stepped up to the front of the screening room and looked straight towards the back of the venue. Then, ever so quietly and gently, he started speaking in French.
In his short speech, he thanked us for attending, spoke a bit about the film, and explained briefly why it was so important to him and to the people of Korea. He barely made eye contact with his audience, seemingly shy of the unfinished cut he was about to present.
Sangnoksu has not been completed at that point; we were just given a chance to watch a rough presentation of the entire film.
There was still a fair amount of editing and audio mixing left before it was deemed suitable for release, and Chulhan plus company looked apologetic about the entire thing.
After speaking for two minutes, he simply returned to his seat and watched his film.
In Sangnoksu, we witness the struggle faced by protagonist Chun Je (played by a defiant Nara Kim) in trying to fight for her cause. The movie follows Chun Je’s journey as she leads a group of peaceful rebels against the Korean government.
Despite their law-abiding protests and conduct, the team face various hurdles due to a corrupt legal system.
This version of Sangnoksu may still need a few more finishing touches, but its impact on us was quite tremendous. The film has a raw edge to it on top of a truly powerful ending that will inspire audiences to get out there and make the world a better place.
What struck us deepest about the entire thing was how real it all looks. Sangnoksu starts off hinting that it’s going to be an action film but explodes into a maelstrom of political anguish and rebellion within its first 10 minutes.
Most shocking of all, the film utilises actual names of political leaders, events and places. Current president of South Korea Park Geun-Hye is labelled a murderer while her appointment is compared to letting “Hitler’s daughter” run the country.
“The names we didn’t change belonged to mainly politicians and historical figures, as well as people who are still fighting for justice,” stated Chulhan when we caught up with him a day after.
He was in the booth of Dodo Co.Ltd, the South Korean production house responsible for Sangnoksu.
“We don’t have problems addressing most of these names, but of course we could get in trouble for calling out the real politicians.”
Chulhan was one very serious man amidst the vibrant 68th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. He was here on a mission, and he wasn’t going to mince his words when it came to his beliefs.
“The Korean government might sue us by saying we’re making fall accusations and I could be brought to court and sent to jail.”
“But if that is enough to stop me from making this movie,” Chulhan stated matter-of-factly, “then I should be in jail.”
Sangnoksu is Chulhan’s third film after Mubeopja (The Outlaw) in 2010 and Alice in 2012. According to Chulhan, his films explore political and social issues in Korea.
“In Alice, I wanted to talk about [former South Korean president who was discovered to have committed suicide] Roh Moo Hyun but it’s done through metaphors instead of being addressed directly,” Chulhan claimed, regretful.
“Now I realize that the movie shouldn’t gave gone with metaphors because it couldn’t deliver the message as effectively. Therefore I needed it to be more direct this time, which is exactly what I’ve done with Sangnoksu.”
“Mubeopja was similar. It was more about social problems and based on real events, but it was also delivered indirectly. When it was brought out, most saw it as a personal story instead of a piece on society.”
Because of this, Chulhan had a fair bit to say about the use of metaphors.
He opined that metaphors are only ever used due to the overwhelming influence of finance and power which stunts free speech.
“Take a look at movies from other countries: they might have their messages but they use metaphors and resemblance in trying to make things agreeable and entertaining,” Chulhan began.
“What’s their aim? Of course to sell more tickets and make money. I saw limits in that; I wanted to reveal the truth about reality and what’s happening in our culture. What I’m doing comes under arts and culture, and I believe there is no need for metaphors in this case.”
Chulhan and the entire Dodo group especially despise the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).
This came about after they discovered that budget for the Busan International Film Festival was slashed in half after the screening of the South Korean documentary Diving Bell last year.
“KOFIC are terrorists,” Chulhan stated, dismissive.
“They don’t work for films.”
Diving Bell examined the sinking of the MV Sewol in April 2014 which resulted in 304 deaths. This was a highly controversial tragedy, as survivors were rescued by fishing boats and commercial vessels long before state officials reached the scene.
Chulhan is bold and steadfast in his views. He knew however that there was a huge challenge lying ahead of him.
“I want this to be a good example to the rest and give them hope,” Chulhan told us.
“In that regard, I think I have accomplished my goal.”
Based on what we’ve seen and heard, Sangnoksu could either qualify as a documentary shot as an action film, or a visualisation of one grand conspiracy theory. The team’s conviction in the film and its message however is powerful enough to sway viewer opinion on the Korean nation.
“I want to leave Sangnoksu as a reference for the future generation,” Chulhan stated.
“I needed to portray in the film what’s really happening now, so that future generations know that history is written by the ones in power.”
“Roh Moo-Hyun appears in my film and he’s the main subject. But he has said something very important before which I think is important for all of us to keep in mind.”
Chulhan took a moment to recall the words, and when they were let out they carried with them a weight.
“Yes, we are fighting an injustice, a fight we cannot win with this generation. But we need to do this for future generations,” he said, finally smiling.
“I’m just trying to do my part as a filmmaker.”
Watch the trailer for Sangnoksu on Youtube and like their page on Facebook. Distributors, buyers, and those interested in the film can contact the team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, screeners are available upon request.