A natural thing

Park Kun-young on A Distant Place and the ongoing struggle for acceptance in South Korea

by Jennie Kermode

A Distant Place
A Distant Place Photo: Inside Out

The story of two men trying to make a relationship work in a rural area where one of them is determined to keep his sexuality a secret, Park Kun-young's A Distant Place is a beautifully photographed film which challenges social mores but also the assumptions made by its protagonists. It presents viewers with a fully realised world and a collection of characters whose lives are interwoven in complex ways. Shortly before it screened as part of Inside Out, I connected with the writer/director to ask how it came about.

Park Kun-young: The idea for the film was developed from a space, an actor, and a poem. I discovered Hwa-cheon, a mountainous city which is not that far from a big city, Seoul, but has an unfamiliar scenery. And then I started to come up with the details of the characters and the story while discussing the inspiration I received in Hwa-cheon, with actor Kang Kil-woo, who plays Jin-woo. And when I was writing the scenario, a poem of my friend, who’d become a poet, was brought to my mind. So these become the inspirations to the film.

Jennie Kermode: The way the film unfolds, we often see events from a distance, through doorways or from the height of the 4-year-old girl, Seol, whom Jin-woo is raising. Why did you choose this approach?

PK-y: I thought this film is about a sense of distance. I wanted to use this theme - a sense of distance - in various way, not only in terms of the story, but in terms of formal elements. So I tried to express the relationship between characters, or the emotion of the film by making full use of a distance between a camera and subject, a distance between characters, and several layers existing between characters.

JK: When many people think of gay relationships, they think first of sexual desire, but this film focuses much more on the longing that Jin-woo and Hyun-min have just to hold one another and spend time together. Did you feel it was important to put the emphasis on aspects of love that anybody could relate to?

PK-y: I made this film to put a question to different stereotypes, and to break them. As part of this, I tried to express the film in a different way from what people usually think of in queer films. I wanted to deal with the universal aspect of love, and family.

I wanted to depict various shapes of love existing between birth and death. And, the things that emerge when these relationships run into and interlock with other relationships, I think that’s our lives.

JK: Some of the tension in the film derives from Jin-woo’s anger at inequality and its clash with Hyun-min’s desire to fit in. Do you feel that this is a common dilemma for gay Koreans?

PK-y: I think the pessimism about the reality of Korea is inherent in most people, and there are two kinds of people, who actively react to it or who resign themselves and accept it. I just empathise with the pessimism about the unequal reality, rather than be sympathetic to one character’s viewpoint.

JK: How did you find the right actors for these roles?

PK-y: When I write scenarios, I usually tend to think of specific actors. And even if that’s not the case, I try to put each actor’s unique atmosphere, facial expression, impression in characters. Kim Si-ha, who plays Seol, was the only actor I met through the audition.

I held the audition at the sheep ranch in the movie, and she was the only one who wasn’t excited with sheep, but calmly cared about the ranch. I was convinced of her at that moment.

JK: How did you work with her to get such a natural performance?

PK-y: I asked and also talked a lot with Kim Si-ha about what she thought about Seol’s situation and her reaction to it. I let her act freely as she felt, and only gave her feedback on the parts that I felt excessive and unnatural. Although she’s young, I was amazed at how actively she acted in long-take scenes.

JK: In some ways the most challenging part of making the film seems to be getting the character of Eun-young (Seol's mother) right, so that we understand her feelings and she doesn’t seem like a bad person invading a happy family. How did you get the balance right?

PK-y: Even though there are not many details about her background story in the film, I wanted to put some moments to look into and think about her feeling in the film. And I wanted to draw a question “what is ‘being a mom’?” through Eun-young.

JK: How did you choose the location where the outdoor scenes are shot, and did you feel that it also has an important role in the story?

PK-y: One of the most important motifs of the film was the spaces in nature. I already decided on the locations that appeared in the film from the beginning - when I first came out with the idea of the film. Changes in seasons, fog, sunset, snowflakes, animals, all the things that made up those places were very important. I wanted to express the feeling, theme, atmosphere of the film with these natural things. I thought these could help people to think about how natural and inevitable the forms of love depicted in the film are.

JK: How do you feel about the way people have reacted to the film?

PK-y: I took comfort from them, once faced hatred as well. And the place for debate about homosexuality, and outing issues had been opened. I feel rewarded when the film could create various talking points.

JK: Do you think the situation for gay people in Korea is improving?

PK-y: In the recent election, one gay candidate was attacked, also experienced violence only because he was running for the election and was having a voice. Also one LGBTQ rights activist committed suicide recently. I think the situation is getting better slowly, but often feel we have a long way to go.

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