Daehakro, Seoul, Monday 8 June. This year’s trip to Korea had been full of pleasant surprises: people I had not expected to meet, things I had not been expecting to see. But the most pleasant surprise of all had been an invitation to visit Studio Meditation with a Pencil, creators of my favourite Korean animated feature, Green Days. The invitation had come via Facebook, when Frances Yoo from the studio had spotted that I was in the country.
Frances had been in the UK last year, and had come to the London Korean Film Festival to gauge audience reaction to the screening of Studio MWP’s second feature, This Road Called Life. After the screening she had chatted to some of the members of the London Asian Film Society who had attended, myself included, and the contacts made there resulted in an excellent interview feature by Andrew Heskins in Eastern Kicks.
With a full agenda for my Korean travels already in place, the only time available for a visit to the studio was before travelling to the airport on my final morning in Seoul. I pay my hotel bill, buy a ticket for the KAL Airport Limo Bus, leave my bags at the hotel bell desk and set off on foot towards Myeongdong subway. I measure the length of the journey to the studio to the nearest minute, so that I can work out the latest time I can leave and still get back to the hotel where I will catch the airport bus.
I arrive at Hyehwa subway station slightly before the appointed time of 8:45pm, giving me the opportunity to get a quick coffee and pastry in the nearby Starbucks. Frances arrives on time, and we take the ten or fifteen minute walk to the studio on the top floor of an unassuming four-storey building. On the third floor is the office of Korea Independent Animation Association, which I will visit later. And as we walk up the stairs to the top floor we encounter stills from Studio MWP’s animations and, on the half landing, a small cairn.
A pile of stones is rather an odd thing to have on a staircase, but it has been growing over the months because when visitors, particularly from overseas, ask to visit the studio they are asked to bring a pebble from their home country to contribute to the cairn. Because my visit was unplanned I don’t have a stone to offer and I arrive at the door of Director Ahn’s office feeling slightly rather discourteous.
I’m also feeling inadequate because just about every question I might have asked Director Ahn had already been asked in the Eastern Kicks interview. He does not seem to mind, so as we sat down in Director Ahn’s pleasantly cluttered office we simply chat about his latest work.
There are two projects on the go: what looks like a charming full-length feature based on an original story, and a couple more classic short story animations as a follow-up to their excellent trilogy This Road Called Life. The two stories chosen for the Studio MWP treatment are Hwang Sun-won’s classic Shower and Kim Dong-ni’s Shaman Painting.
I have to confess to Director Ahn that I find Shower rather dull: boy meets girl; they go for a walk; it rains; she catches a cold and dies. I’m pretty sure he said that when he was younger he too found it dull too, but he has since begun to appreciate. Since returning home I’ve put it on my list of things to re-read. Many Koreans find it deeply moving, partly for the unique quality of the language and partly I suspect because they associate it with their childhood – it is a story that everyone studies at school. A contributor to Wikipedia seems to think that the scene where the boy and girl take shelter together has inspired similar scenes in hallyu favourites such as My Sassy Girl and The Classic.
Of more interest to me is the adaptation of Shaman Painting – which was one of the few short stories from the 1930s in the Modern Korean Literature Anthology to have registered with me as one that I would recommend to someone else: a moving tale of a shaman whose practice is being eroded by the encroachment of evangelical Christianity: both a human tale and a tale of modernising Korea. We talk about death of the central character, the shaman. I had recalled that she had committed suicide, but Director Ahn said the narrative was not clear on this point. Another reason to go back to the text, and to look forward to Studio MWP’s adaptation, which will go under the title The Shaman Sorceress.
I can’t remember now whether there will be a third short story, as was the case with This Road Called Life. As part of our polite conversation we were talking about Jirisan, from where I had just returned, and Director Ahn said he had always wanted to adapt a story set in the Jirisan region, but couldn’t think of a suitable one. And, you heard it here first folks: if ever Studio MWP does an adaptation of O Yong-Su’s Echoes (1959) – a story about a husband and wife rebuilding a new life on the slopes of Jirisan after the total ruin of the Korean War – that was my suggestion.
We move on, literally, to Studio MWP’s other project in progress: their full-length animation, A Thousand Years Together. We get up from the table where we are sitting and proceed over to Director Ahn’s computer. On the way Director Ahn points out the significance of one of the many objets which give his room such a comfortable, lived-in feeling: an old-fashioned typewriter which served as the model for a similar typewriter in Green Days. But over on Ahn’s computer screen, a trailer for the new movie awaits. I am immediately gripped by the magical atmosphere it evokes: the walls of the Deoksu Palace, a quaint coffee shop, and kkokdu which come to life. It reminds me of a children’s TV programme in the UK called Mr Benn, in which a very ordinary man goes into a fancy dress shop, tries on a costume and re-emerges into a magical world linked to his costume. In Studio MWP’s movie it seems to be the coffee shop where magical things happen. It is hoped that it will be ready to premier at the Annecy International Film festival later in the year: the same place where Green Days had made its first international appearance four years earlier.
The clock is ticking, and I am wondering whether I am going to be able to terminate this delightful meeting in time to make it back to Myeongdong for the airport bus. No sooner had the thought popped into my mind when Frances suggested it was time to move on to a quick tour around the rest of the studio so that I could get back. I could not have hoped for a more considerate host. We exited Director Ahn’s office through another door and into a similarly homely space occupied by his co-director and wife Han Hye-jin, and then onwards to the shared work area of the artists and animators. Hanging everywhere were still of the various characters from the animations; and framed on the wall was a collection of the tools of the studio’s trade: hundreds of pencils aligned like a painting by Hong Kyoung-tack.
It’s now definitely time to head back to the subway. I say my farewells, and am given a new companion to escort me: an animator from Lebanon who had pestered the studio for years to take him on, and finally succeeded. On the way downstairs, we look in at the office of the Korea Independent Animation Association and I head back to the hotel with a couple of extra kilos to fit into my luggage in the shape of catalogues, annuals and other materials relating to the Korean animation industry, as well as publicity materials and a treasured DVD of Green Days.
There’s not much left to report. I get back to the hotel, catch the airport bus, check in, and before long I’m on the flight home enjoying more in-flight entertainment. More than any other Korea trip I have been struck this time by how much chance and coincidence have been the hallmarks of my visit, aided in no small part by the generosity of my various hosts and of friends both old and new.