Director Jeon Soo-il Talks About `Himalaya'

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporters

Director Jeon Soo-il can be grouped among "the Kim Ki-duk clan" of artists who are better appreciated in the international film festival circuit than in local theaters.

His latest film "Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells" is slated to compete in July _ when he turns 50 _ at the 44th Karlovivary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. This means that all six of Jeon's features will have been invited to major cinema events.

But as much as the film, now showing in theaters, marked the comeback of "Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik, its press preview attracted a mad crowd of reporters (Some 20 people had turned up for his previous multiple award-winning "With a Girl of Black Soil").

The aforementioned Kim is known to provoke onscreen, and Jeon also does not hesitate to depict shocking characters that take performance art to an extreme degree and commit suicide on stage ("I Have the Right to Destroy Myself").

"I had Choi Min-sik in mind when I started writing the script", Jeon told The Korea Times in a recent interview in Seoul. But "The Himalayas" required no brutal violence or sweeping passions from the "hardboiled" actor Choi, because it is one of those anticlimactic movies that are more about inaction and the things unsaid.

Jeon's films can be as elusive as the wind but they have a certain "earthy" quality that leaves a palpable resonance in the heart of the viewer. It is perhaps because the foremost protagonist of his works is the setting, rather than a character _ the character may be as lost as the viewer, but there is always a sense of time and space.

"It is important to find a space where the protagonist _ or myself _ can search for something and feel something", said the director. The Gangwon Province native said he was inspired by the deserted coal mines near his home for "With a Girl of Black Soil" _ "a philosopher once said that the ruins of cities are beautiful but the ruins of man is even more beautiful", he said pensively.

"The Himalayas" is set in the stark, mountainous village of Sharkot, Nepal. A Nepalese laborer in Korea named Dorje dies in an accident, and the listless middle-aged Choi (Choi) sets out to deliver the dead man's ashes to his family. Once Choi reaches Sharkot, however, he cannot find the courage to tell them he's brought back Dorje in his suitcase.

"Delivering Dorje's remains is really just an excuse for Choi to escape", said Jeon, speaking from experience. "I was feeling frustrated so I was drinking, and I decided to take off at the crack of dawn", he said recalling his first trip to Nepal in 2002.

He flew to Bangkok and then boarded one of the departing flights to the Himalayas. He trekked along popular tourist routes but he soon grew tired of the teeming greenery. He wanted to explore the road less taken and ended up in Sharkot, where he would return again for personal travel and then four times for the film's pre-production.

The director agreed that "The Himalayas" can be seen as "the Nepalese version" of his 2006 film "The Time Between Dog And Wolf - Movie", where traveling far away allows one to know oneself and where one comes from. Jeon himself, who lives and teaches in Busan, travels about 10 times a year.

An intriguing aspect of the film is that it blurs the line between fact and fiction. Moreover, it documents real sentiments. "That's true", said the director about the documentary-like quality of the film. "There is no artifice to the acting and shows everything as is".

It was shot in chronological order, and Choi decided not to travel to the site beforehand because he wanted to be in character _ fresh and alien to Nepal. Jeon, who teaches at Kyung Sung University, always tells his students not to embellish the narrative.

Taking Choi's suggestion into account, he hired non-actors from the area. He spent a lot of time with them so that they would feel comfortable with the camera and crew. A housewife Tsering Kipale Gurung played the beautiful heroine. "I saw her by chance and had to persuade her very hard to appear on film. She was a busy housewife, and had to take care of her husband and in-laws… I was struck by the admirable transparency and confidence of the villagers", he said.

"I'd like to return to show them (the cast and villagers who helped out) the movie", he said. He also wishes to do more traveling via a semi-documentary about a penniless musician busking around the world.

In the meantime, Jeon fulfills his wanderlust by touring film festivals. It's at festivals where he does most of his movie watching, for he prefers raw, experimental debut movies that capture the unique perspective of newcomer directors. He rarely goes to the local cinema.

How does he feel about being labeled as an art film director? "I don't make my movies according to film festival standards per se", he said. "Perhaps cinema is the process of translating your inner self on film? Or perhaps it's a way of pursuing a different way of life". His dream, he says, is to keep making more movies. "I've made six, and 10 doesn't seem like a bad number", he said.

"Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells" is now showing in theaters with English subtitles. 95 minutes. 12 and over. Distributed by the Korean Arthouse Cinema Association.

A special photo exhibition of images from the Himalayas are on display through June 24 at Gwangju Theater.