'Project Cheonan Ship' Filmmakers Spill Secrets Behind the Controversial Doc

Project Cheonan Ship - H 2013
Courtesy of Jeonju International Film Festival

Produced by Chung Ji-young, Baek Seung-woo’s feature film debut challenges the South Korean government’s claim that the North is accountable for the 2010 sinking of a navy vessel that left 46 seamen dead.

JEONJU, North Jeolla Province -- The biggest headline-making movie at the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival was, as expected, a documentary that casts a doubt on the South Korean government’s claim that Pyongyang was responsible for the sinking of a navy ship that left 46 dead.

On March 26, 2010, Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship carrying 104 crewmen, sank off the country’s west coast. A government-led investigation involving experts not only from South Korea but also the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Sweden concluded that same year in May that the warship had been hit by a North Korean torpedo -- though Pyongyang denied the charges.

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The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack but without identifying the attacker, while the Chinese dismissed the credibility of the report and a Russian navy investigation yielded contradicting results.

In his feature film debut, Project Cheonan Ship, Baek Seung-woo, an independent filmmaker who has directed several shorts, such as 2011's Wooden Goose, offers a thoroughly analytical documentary of the incident. “Contrary to the expectation that this will be a story that is argumentative and provocative, Project Cheonan Ship gives the impression of a science documentary made by a scholar because of its consistent calmness and analysis of the story,” says JIFF executive programmer Kim Youngjin.

In addition to the film’s inherently controversial subject matter, Project Cheonan Ship was produced by none other than Chung Ji-young -- the auteur of such politically charged films as Unbowed, a sleeper hit that vehemently attacks the Korean supreme court, and National Security (Namyeong-dong 1985), a crowd-funded project about the 1985 torture of a democracy activist by the national police.

The latter in particular caused great media hype when it premiered at last year's Busan Film Festival, as Chung openly told reporters that he hoped the film, with its strong leftist slant, would influence the Korean presidential election that was to take place two months later.

“I feel a little bad because people usually congratulate you when you make your feature film debut, but no one cheered for Baek Seung-woo -- everyone asked, why of all things, Cheonan?” Chung said during JIFF’s “open talk event” Sunday for festival-goers.

When asked about the sensationalism surrounding film, Chung said, “After seeing the audience’s passionate reaction during the first public screening last night, the controversy, I feel, is really worth it.”

Baek, on the other hand, had yet to feel the hullabaloo skin-deep. “I don’t know about the controversy yet, but when I was done editing the film Mr. Chung asked me how it was. When I said it was fun, he told me, ‘It’s not over yet -- you have to face the audience.’ I didn’t really know what that meant until last night’s screening. I was really able to feel the audience’s pulse, if you will. It was extremely enjoyable,” he said.

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Creating the film, however, was no easy process as investors pulled out midway and left Chung solely responsible for the budget.

Asked if he felt satisfied with the result as a producer, Chung said he was right to trust the younger director, whom he had hired as an editor for a film after seeing one of his shorts.

“When I attended the first shooting of the film, I saw how Baek paid a lot of attention to the production values by providing a well-lit space for interviewees. I had imagined something more rough around the edges, and suggested it, but he pushed on with his own style. But I think this is one of the things that made the film work for audiences, because it shows that it’s a very serious, sincere project.”

Though Baek immediately took Chung’s offer to make Project Cheonan Ship, he said he felt a lot of pressure throughout the filmmaking process.

“From the beginning it was a big burden since the Cheonan sinking is an incident that anyone in Korea knows about, not one anyone can easily understand. I wanted to explain it in the easiest way possible but the more I researched the more difficult it was for me. I just followed through, half doubting it and half making myself believe I was right.”

He reminded the audience that the aim of his documentary was not to provide answers but to share a sentiment. “When the incident first occurred I felt a lot of frustration over how it was being dealt by the government and media,” he said.

“I feel like two types of people would criticize my film, those who are extremely right-wing politically and those who know the incident very well [since the film talks about things they already know]. But my movie is not about finding the offender, but to share this sense of frustration.”