Q&A: Noh Young-seok


In an industry often associated with a lack of attention and hopelessness, the independent filmmaker Noh Young-seok has brought a quiet revolution in Korean cinema. With the self-funded budget of 10 million won ($7,000) and 13 days of shooting, Noh's debuting feature "Daytime Drinking" has garnered ticket sales of 235,000 -- a result that has shocked the typical local independent filmmaker, who normally gets less than 1,000. The film dips into the eventful journey of Hyuk-jin, a naive college graduate who goes on a spontaneous trip alone in the desolate countryside on the morning after a male booze-bonding with his friends. The days and nights of endless drinking and accidental unions with strangers on the road quickly turn into a mundane tragedy. Before "Daytime Drinking" made its way into the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Asia Digital Competition Section, Noh chatted with THR Korea correspondent Soo-mee Park.

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The Hollywood Reporter: This is your first film. You never even shot a short film, and you didn't go to film school. What was going on with your life before you wrote the script of "Daytime Drinking"?

Noh Young-seok: Eventually I wanted to shoot a film, but I wanted to explore myself a little bit. I went to an art school, and I made some music, but I learned I didn't have much talent (in those areas). So I turned to filmmaking earlier than I had planned, and I started working on my script. At first, things weren't turning out so well. I applied for open calls for grants and different productions, but I slipped every time. Like so many aspiring directors, I had this grand ambition of debuting with a brilliant crime fiction like "The Usual Suspects," with a genius twist that turns around everything near the end. But after writing a few unsuccessful scripts, I got anxious. So I decided to write something that could be made into a film even if I didn't get any funding. That's when I wrote "Daytime Drinking." I borrowed 10 million won ($7,100) from my mother to shoot this film. To fit the budget, I stuck to as much natural lighting as possible. Then after a screening at the Jeonju International Film Festival, I got funding from the Korean Film Council to promote the film.

THR: What kind of films did you watch growing up?

Noh: I read a lot of Korean comic books when I was in middle school. As I grew older, I turned to Japanese animation, which I thought was Korean at the time, like "Gundam" and "Laputa." Japanese films were banned in Korea. So basically I got these illegal videotapes in the city's black markets. Then I watched "Akira" one day, and I was shocked. Then there are films like "Blade Runner," "Taxi Driver" and "Once Upon a Time in America" that I grew up watching and listening to their great soundtracks, thinking I wanted to make films like those one day.

THR: "Daytime Drinking" is laced with lots of dark humor, but overall, there's a sense of frustration and melancholy. How would you describe the sentiment of this film?

Noh: I wanted it to be light and funny. I wanted to capture the stupidity of male desire and the humors stemming from moments when those desires get discouraged. Hyuk-jin clearly doesn't get it, and there is an old Korean expression that daytime drinking won't even let you recognize your own parents. I made the title after finishing the film, but that was the kind of connection I wanted to make. I like the nuance of daytime drinking a lot. I enjoy daytime drinking, especially during winter.

THR: The film is deeply Korean in many ways -- like the scenery and eating a cup of noodles on a winter beach.

Noh: When I went to Locarno, a festival director there recalled how Koreans love the phase "one shot" (bottoms up) when they drink. Some people in Korea saw the film in relation to the "880,000 Won Generation" (a popular book about the desperation faced by the younger generation of well-educated South Koreans who have a hard time finding jobs they desire). Though I didn't have them in my mind, I have a lot of friends who are exactly that. They don't know what they want to do with their lives; they help out their parents' businesses and have lots of free time to just wander around the country. The landscape of Gangwon province also is very Korean.

THR: Gangwon is also noted for being beautiful and romantic. But in this film, the scenery represented was rather dry.

Noh: I originally wanted the scenery to look beautiful. But when I went there for shooting, it was quite bleak. Normally those locations in the film are pure white with snow in that season. But in a way, to shoot them as they were was more real, cinematically speaking.

THR: Let's talk about the characters. You can't really tell whether Hyuk-jin is naive or dull. He doesn't seem to know what'll happen next when everyone else (even the audience) does. Ran-hee, on the other hand, is a very revealing character.

Noh: Hyuk-jin is a bit indecisive. I needed a character like him mainly to keep the film going. That was really the whole point. If he were quick enough to get it, he would end his trip and head home right there. In a way, I wanted the audience to wonder what they would do if they were in Hyuk-jin's situation. He hesitates but still goes on. Ran-hee is a not an attractive woman from a man's point of view, and she has had issues with men in the past. So she tries to appeal to men with a sense of charm, but it doesn't work, and she sees that from Hyuk-jin. That's when she gets defensive.

THR: The film is included in the Asia Digital Competition Section at HKIFF. Do you think you will continue working in digital?

Noh: I certainly have regrets about the film's technical quality. The film is out of focus, and the graphic work to restore it would cost more than the actual production budget. So I'm just going to have to move on. Actually, it was a tricky filming process. I attached a special lens in front of my camera and zoomed in 20 times over to create a shallow depth. I thought everything had gone well. I had a tiny monitor on my digital camera to check the screen. When I came home and saw the film on my computer, I thought I had to shoot all over again. I can't compare the quality of a HD camera and a film, but I'll work with digital for a while since I'm familiar with the medium.

THR: Have you seen the film in a theater?

Noh: Only in film festivals. I'm too nervous to see it in a regular theater. I'll freak out when people don't laugh at scenes that they are supposed to.

THR: What do you have in mind for your next film?

Noh: All I know about my next film is that it's going to be low-budget. I want to be able to create a system on my own through a low-budget scale. I want to explore more. Roughly I have two ideas. One is going to be a love story about an old couple looking back at their past. The other one is going to be a black comedy, maybe a crime movie -- something that always fascinated me.