Small is beautiful

Yeom Ji-ho on making a small space work to his advantage in Next Door

by Jennie Kermode

Next Door
Next Door Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

We’ve all had mornings when we’ve woken up feeling a little the worse for wear due to the antics of the night before. As Jeom Ji-ho’s Fantasia international Film Festival contribution Next Door opens, we can tell that it’s not the first time Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) has suffered as a result of drinking too much, but given the way he reacts, it’s probably the first time he has woken up in a strange bed with a body lying in a pool of blood on the floor beside him. He can’t simply call the police because he doesn’t remember how he got into that situation, and the rest of the film follows his frantic efforts to get out of it.

It’s a nicely crafted, tight little comedy thriller clearly made with low budget filmmaking in mind. When I met Jeom at the festival, he explained (through a translator) that it began life as his graduation project.

“At the end of my studies there was a programme from the school that supports some budgets for feature film projects by the students, and they selected a few projects, then they chose only one to support with funds for the creation of the film. I was going to apply for this programme and I was going over some ideas and some notes that I made in the past. I make notes whenever I have good ideas, and I found a one note that takes a person who wakes up and finds a dead body beside him, and I thought that it would be quite interesting to use that idea to make the feature film. After choosing this idea, fortunately I was selected as the student who could have the aid from the programme so we could make the feature film. I decided the location so I’d know what kind of space and what kind of characters to choose, so in accordance with the small budget, I chose a small space and very few people and made that.”

As you’d expect with this sort of story, there are all sorts of little clues as to what happened hidden around the apartment. I ask Jeom if he had a production team to help him put that together.

“Yes, I had a production team and they made the set. However, I wanted them to make us a set where the actors could not in any way avoid seeing the body, apart from on the veranda and in the bathroom. According to the director of cinematography, in that case it would be very difficult for the according to give varied impressions and atmosphere, because it's such a limited space, but I personally insisted on having that situation where the actors could not avoid the body wherever they went. In order to hide our weak points and emphasise our strong points in many situations, we tried to focus more on the performances of the actors.”

“We made the decisions about how to film this sequence by sequence in order to create some variety in the impression it made. So for example, in one sequence we used only handheld camera and then in the next sequence we use a camera that was fixed in one place in order to create different feelings and impressions and ideas.

“If the space is very limited then it is sometimes difficult to persuade the audience about what's going on logically, so I thought that if I made them laugh, that would be the easiest way to make their minds open. And to do that, I had to use comedy. And if they laugh, they emotionally there they become happy, they can open up their minds more easily and also overcome the limits set by the small space.

“I thought that the more we went to extremes in that situation, the more the audience would be interested in the scene, and yeah, from the beginning, when the main character wakes up and they see yes, he's hungover and he does not remember anything about what's going on and then in that state of mind, he tries to do the best things he can, all these things would in my opinion make the audience more interested in the character and more preoccupied by what's going on for the character, more likely to worry about him.”

We discuss the casting of Oh Dong-min, whose gift for physical comedy brings the film to life.

“Before making this film, I saw two short films with him,” Jeom explains. “One was about him as a gangster, and the other was where he played a cute, funny, goofball character. I liked both of them and I thought that he would make the perfect fit for this movie, which is thriller and comedy as well. So I met him and then gave him the scenario, he accepted the scenario and he liked it very much. So we decided to work together. And during the shooting, I found out that he's an actor of free will, and he was kind of cautious not to be become too much accustomed to what he was doing and filming. So he didn't want to have many rehearsals. We kept the number of rehearsals to a very small number and he wanted to show what he wanted to express by improvising it on the spot. So I respected his opinion and I found that the result was very good.”

For any graduation project to find its way to a major film festival is obviously quite an achievement, but Jeom has an extra reason to be excited.

“For me, it is the first time that my film was projected on a screen in a country outside of Korea, and it was a really good experience to see the movie together and to communicate with the audience. It was a really new experience and a very pleasant experience. I found out that even if we cannot communicate in one language, we can still enjoy the film, so it was a really excellent experience.”

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