British cinema-goers are used to a short commercial before the main feature in which a film director is pitching his latest movie idea to some corporate suits whose only interest is that the film should promote a certain mobile phone network at every opportunity.
So it’s not such a strange idea that a well-known Korean technology giant would want to sponsor a short film that promotes their consumer technology products. Three directors were hired to produce a short film each – a romance, a comedy and an action film – for a project entitled Cine Note. E J-yong’s contribution is the romance How to fall in love in 10 minutes, a film that features a director who is directing a film remotely, via the internet. As an extension to that project, Behind the Camera is the film of the documentary of the making of that short film. And if that scenario is not meta enough, director E J-Yong himself directs the film remotely. From Hollywood.
Confused already? So are the characters in the film. Veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong is pretty furious. The film opens with a phone call as Director E tries to persuade her to take part. He seems to know her schedule in advance, the few windows she had available while filming Im Sang-soo’s Taste of Money. And because she knows he knows her diary, she can’t say no.
And then there she was on stage in front of us at the Curzon Soho, at the Q&A after the screening at the 2013 London Korean Film Festival, telling us the story for real. claiming it was the first time she had seen the film, and claiming that she had only done the film because she couldn’t say no, because Director E knew her diary too well.
What was she doing on set in the first place? Well, her role wasn’t too clear, though possibly she might have had a walk-on part in the promotional movie: when she arrives on set she does ask to see what footage has been filmed already. But like most of the other people on set, she’s not happy that the director is not there.
And what was star director Kim Ji-woon doing on set? And director Lee Joon-ik? Neither of them seemed to have anything to do.1 It was all thoroughly confusing, but so enjoyable that you didn’t mind not being able to figure out what was going on. Why was E J-yong suddenly wearing a Hawaiian T-shirt as he gives directions over Skype? No, wait, that must be the character of the director in the short promo film, played by Ha Jung-woo. They were made up to look so similar that you had to keep your wits about you in order to figure out what level of reality you were watching, which particular nested doll was being presented at the time.
Like E’s previous mockumentary, the delicious Actresses, Behind the Camera is largely unscripted. But with Actresses, Director E did sketch out one particular plot point – the rivalry and bickering between Choi Ji-woo and Ko Hyeong-jeong. In Behind the Camera, the short film itself was fully scripted, but the remainder was “90% improvised”, according to Director E, who was deliberately vague about what was scripted and what was not. The “setting and the structure” was planned in advance, he admitted, leaving the impression that everything else was improvised. “Only the actors will know if they were acting”, he said, or whether the film represents them behaving as if they are off-camera. But as the cameras were on them all the time, there must have been times at which they were off guard and definitely not acting.
The feature and the short film together took three days to shoot. But with 11 cameras on set there were 100 hours of footage by the time they had finished. It took three months to get down to three hours of footage and another five months to get it down to its current length of just under 90 minutes, as Director E looked at possible stories to create from the celluloid on the cutting room floor.
The near walk-out by the cast and crew was planned in secret by the cast – the prank was one of their responses to the lack of structure of the project; Director E could see the revolt coming but had to pretend that he couldn’t. At least, so he invited us to believe at the Q&A. Similarly, it was the cast themselves which came up with the rumour that Director E was not in Hollywood but was in fact directing the film remotely from somewhere in Seoul and might appear on set any minute.
So, was he really in Hollywood? It was the obvious question during the Q&A, but the way Director E answered the question was almost deliberately designed to make us disbelieve him. Yes, he really was in Hollywood, directing the film via Skype. Didn’t we see the view out of the window in the final scene? Well, that could easily have been a photograph or a painting.
And the reason for remote directing? Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho were all making Hollywood films2 while E had not been invited to the party. He wanted to make it big in Hollywood too: “I went to Hollywood, but nobody called me,” he joked at the Q&A. Instead, he was the first to direct a real Korean movie in / from Hollywood.
As with Actresses, there are so many in-jokes and K-movie references that it’s an insider’s film. Yoon, on screen, jokes that she seems to be bouncing between Sang-soos. She is in Im Sang-soo’s Taste of Money, Housemaid and Old Garden, and Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country and Hahaha. She jokes at how she went naked for Im, but refused even to reveal her legs and arms in a swimsuit for Hong.
With two real directors on set, and the internet connection with LA not being entirely reliable, it was inevitable that one of them should try to lend a hand. What was less inevitable was that one of the musicians decides that directing is easy and has a go himself. It’s one of the many comic moments in the film.
Ten years ago, screening such a film in London would have been unthinkable. But there were enough people in the audience who knew enough of the insider references that there was a real buzz in the cinema, showing how much the reception of Korean film in London has advanced in the past few years.
The combination of in-jokes, comedy and the sheer craziness of it all made for hugely entertaining viewing. It really didn’t matter that you came out of the film confused as to what you had just seen, because Behind the Camera is such a blast.
But here’s hoping that one of the extras with the DVD is the finished short promotional film. Then maybe we might have half a chance of putting some of the pieces together.
E J-yong (이재용) Behind the Camera (뒷담화: 감독이 미쳤어요, 2013)
Behind the Camera screened at the Curzon Soho as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2013 on 13 November.
- According to Andrew Heskins, in his interview with E J-yong, Lee Joon-ik was there to pick up the pieces on the commissioned short film in case everything went wrong. [↩]
- Stoker, The Last Stand and Snowpiercer respectively. [↩]