Park Chan-kyong: Night Fishing Screening and Conversation
Asia Art Archive in America
May 7, 2016
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Moderated by Sohl Lee
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Chan-kyong, thank you very much for letting us screen Night Fishing (2011) here tonight. That was a fascinating film. And thank you, Sohl, for your introduction. Now that we have had a little break, we’d like to open the floor to questions.
Audience Member: I am a curator based in San Francisco. I have two questions. What inspired you to make this film, and how did you decide on the sequence of your scenes?
Park Chan-Kyong (PCK, translated by Sohl Lee): The original idea for the film was to feature a North Korean spy, not a female shaman, and the spy was to enter into South Korean territory by way of a river and then change clothes to infiltrate into the South Korean everyday. However, the sponsor of the film, Korean Telecommunications (KT), was not able to approve it. Initially the sponsorship came with a total freedom, but the notion of artistic freedom does not apply in South Korea when it comes to the subject of North Korea. And at that time I was already thinking of the notion of shamanism as an artistic trope and preparing for a feature film Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits which would be released in 2014. So I thought maybe I could do something similar for Night Fishing, and bring in the shaman—or, replace a North Korean spy narrative with a shaman one.
Audience Member: So how did you decide on the sequence of the scenes? To me, your film starts with something ironic, but later on it becomes a lot more serious and philosophical.
PCK: We, the two directors [Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook], didn’t want this to be a serious film. We wanted it to be an easy introductory film into the world of shamanism for the general public.
JD: So the primary audience for this film was a local Korean audience?
PCK: Yes, but KT wanted to send this film to international film festivals. They were ambitious. They wanted this film to be in part a promotion for iPhone, because they had the exclusive right to provide mobile service for the iPhone in Korea at that time.
Audience Member: When you were creating the film, did you think about whether it would be understandable, reference-wise, to non-Korean audiences?
PCK: Whether the audience is Korean or non-Korean, it is all the same to me, because Korean audiences are not really acquainted with shamanism either, so it’s exotic to them too. Maybe less so, but still exotic.
Audience Member: I’m a curator, focusing on photography, here in New York. I am not an expert on Korean culture but I have traveled often enough to Korea to know that in the Korean art world there is an extraordinary fascination with the shamanist tradition and it plays a very interesting role, which was clear two years ago when Dooeun Choi and I went to the opening of the Media City Seoul Biennale which had a whole section devoted to the intersection of shamanism and contemporary art in Korea.
Sohl Lee (SL): Park Chan-kyong curated that Biennale!
Audience Member: Oh. That’s interesting. I think for those present this evening who are not familiar with the extraordinary interesting role that the shamanist tradition has come to play within Korean contemporary art, perhaps just a little information and background would be helpful in understanding the tone and the mood in your wonderful work.
PCK: The 2014 Media City Seoul Biennale was entitled ‘Ghost, Spies and Grandmothers.’ The opening performance featured a shaman from Seoul, but the shaman in my film Manshin is originally from the North; she is a North Korean traditional shaman. The Seoul shaman at the opening was quite unusual. She was quite good at dancing, almost like a yangban (aristocratic class) shaman.
SL: The essay Chan-kyong wrote in Korean (and later published on e-flux in English) explains the background of the film Sindoan made several years earlier, in 2008, and released in different versions, both as a multi-channel video installation and as a single channel film. Sindoan was Chan-kyong’s first film about shamanism and it was in part inspired by the ubiquity of female shamans, as opposed to male shamans.
PCK: In the Media City Seoul exhibition, there weren’t many works about shamanism per se, although shamans offer a strong metaphor of summoning, calling back those subjects that have been erased from history in East Asia—for example, grandmothers.
Audience Member: I direct cultural exchange programs here in New York, and what I wanted to ask was about the primacy or relevance of shamans in everyday Korean life. I have a good friend, Laurel Kendall, who is an anthropologist who spent her life studying and writing about shamanism in Korea. I don’t know as much about Korea as I should and what I know about it is from Laurel, but I have this image that shamans are incredibly central to life. However, what I hear you saying is that most people don’t think shamanism is important. In terms of everyday or spiritual life in Korea, what role do you think shamans play?
PCK: If you go to Christian church in Korea, you can see ‘shamans’ there. And just think about Moonism, which I think is a Christian cult. When the leader’s son died, he asked shamans to come to his house to perform a ritual.
Audience Member: So you are suggesting Moonism may be an updated 20th century version of shamanism? In your film, what you see is a traditional ritual that you might organize for or with your grandmother, but is the Christian mega-church really just the 20th century incarnation of shamanism?
PCK: If we consider shamanism as a belief in a higher spirit, we can probably understand the very rapid proliferation of Christianity in Korea. In fact, Christianity in Korea adapted some of the ritualistic habits of the Korean people. The operation of shamans is based on a belief of a direct connection with the spirits, and [I would suggest that] many priests act like shamans in a way.
JD: I lived in Taiwan in the 1970s and there were aspects of this film that felt very familiar to me. You are from Taiwan. I was wondering what your reaction was?
Audience Member: When I was watching this film I was reminded of the Taiwanese video artist Su Yu-Hsien.
PCK: He was featured in the edition of Media City Seoul I curated.
JD: In Taiwan in the 1970s, even in Taipei City, one felt the presence of ghosts, the presence of people who had pre-deceased you and with whom you could communicate. In fact, these spirits sometimes needed to be controlled, and from time to time shepherded back to the nether world. The funeral scene in your film reminded me of one I witnessed in Taipei. In fact, this particular funeral ritual lasted 49 days and took place in a tofu shop right next to my home. I am not sure whether funerals like this take place in Taiwan now, or as you said, they would seem exotic to the younger generation there too.
Audience Member: I actually saw rituals like [the one in your film] as a child. I grew up with my grandparents when my parents were living in Tokyo. My grandmother was originally from Pyongyang, North Korea but she moved to Seoul. Shamanism was very present in our house.
SL: What year was she born?
Audience Member: I forget the year she was born, but when I was young, I actually witnessed rituals like this. I think shamanism is very relevant to modern times because even if it’s exotic to the young generation in Korea right now, it is still a memory and has a place in the popular imagination. For example, when corporations open their headquarters, they still invite shamans to perform rituals, expressing a desire to communicate with a higher spirit. This desire to communicate with a higher spirit is universal, I think, and needed in contemporary culture.
SL: I think that’s what Laurel Kendall says in her genealogy of shamanism. As Korean culture evolves in the wake of the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis and other crises, one needs shamans more than ever!
Audience Member: My feeling is that shamanism has a very close relationship with contemporary art. As a media art curator, we openly collaborate with shamans. Nam Jun Paik brought shamans into his performances.
Another Audience Member: When you see shamans perform, they become possessed. They are literally in another world. And for artists, performers, and musicians, that’s when real art comes about, when they’re possessed, when they are really into their work. That’s the connection for me.
PCK: Rather than an object of exoticism, for the younger generation, I think shamanism is an object of fear. Shamans are actually reappearing in the horror films that are being made today. Shamans appeared a lot in the horror films made in Korea in the 1960s, and in TV dramas in the 1970s, but that stopped. That wasn’t the case for a long time in Korea. Only recently have shamans reappeared as a trope in films, perhaps due to my influence. (laugh) I would like to argue that shamans inspire fear — they are an object of fear — but they also attract people; they are also admired. So they are actually very amenable to commercialization. There are two sides to shamanism: it instills fear but it is also very seductive, like a spy.
Audience Member: I’m a curator from Seoul but I’ve been based here for six years in New York, mostly working on media art. I’ve followed what you have created as an artist and curator. And it’s not just shamanism that inspires fear, but it’s also the modernism of post-war Korea, and the dependency on Japan. Shamanism was never a subject of elite culture; it was always behind. I grew up with this kind of culture so I was lucky, but a lot of my peers don’t know about this. Christianity is more powerful [than shamanism] in Korea, strangely.
SL: Not strangely, if we think of the American occupation.
PCK: As I said before, it’s sometimes difficult to think about shamanism as something that was oppressed. That’s true. But shamanism actually floats and survives in different manifestations. I consider Protestant Christianity in Korea as one of the ways shamanism can survive. Shamanism survives in other ways too, and these can be very sneaky ways.
SL: Like a spy!
Audience Member: I’m a film critic and an officer at a grant-making organization here in New York, focusing on film. I had a question about representation. The film starts with telling us that the film was made with an iPhone and it ends with a very different type of representational technology: a painting. And in the film itself, if you think about shamanism as a form of representation, shamanism was a way to represent the other. I was curious about that idea of representation, if that was a larger idea that you were playing with in the film.
PCK: In the beginning of the film you see the main character touching flowers on the ground and that is a flower held by a young female character in the shamanic painting at the end. When we were brainstorming for the film, we saw the painting first and were inspired by the figure in the painting holding flowers. That’s why we feature the painting at the end. The first half of the film is about a world that is beyond us, before or after us. The second half is also perhaps in the head of the shaman. And we wanted to make a colorful film…
Audience Member: So it’s a film that touches high art and low art, and current events and past history, and the dialectics, the juxtaposition between the two.
PCK: Color was important, and this film contains a lot of different colors. The shamanist painting [that we featured] points to how to make the whole film very aloktalok [an onomatopoeic adjective that refers to a variegated jumble of colors or even things in general].
JD: I’ve seen the film twice now, and it’s even more interesting the second time around, because I started to see the structure, the interplay between the beginning and the end. For example, how the film begins and ends with the band, and I realized the second time around that the song that the band is playing in the beginning relates to the family issues that we encounter at the end of the film. But what I also saw more clearly, the second time around, was your use of color. You go from color to black and white. And then there are moments of partial color before the film returns to full color again. Especially interesting to me also was the night scene. As I was watching the film, Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives came to mind. In his films there’s also this magical element, of connecting with local spirits and traditions, and inter-weaving them with the everyday – this going back and forth between everyday reality and the dream. And he also goes back and forth, if I remember correctly, between dark and light. I don’t know if you have any relationship with Apichatpong, but I’d like to hear more about your use of color and the day and night scenes.
PCK: Did he use black and white?
JD: There are night scenes in Uncle Boonmee – when the monkey returns [to join the family dinner] and in the forest when his red eyes light up. I might be imagining this, but these night scenes have a sense of infra-red, as if they were taken with an infra-red camera. Your night scenes also have a sense of infra-red, like they were taken with a surveillance camera.
PCK: Originally when we started the film we were not thinking of filming in black and white. But when we shot the night scene with the iPhone it came out so badly that I thought it was really horrible. So we tried it in black and white, and we found it wonderful. It looked like a B-grade movie.
JD: Yes. It’s very grainy.
PCK: We added even more grain in post-production. I’ve always liked Apichatpong’s films. My favorite is Tropical Malady. Even though I haven’t been looking at films in an analytical way since 2007, I’ve been interested in what can be referred to as ‘Asian Gothic.’ This term does not refer to Gothic architecture, but rather to neo-Gothic novels, like Frankenstein. You can see this kind of aesthetic in Japanese films and also in films from China and Hong Kong, such as kung fu films. Apichatpong is another version, a Thai version, and of course a more artistic one. We share a lot in that sense. I want to develop this more. The new term I use these days is ‘colonial unheimlich.’ But it depends on the country in East Asia, because Thailand was never colonized and they still retain very strong living traditions. Compared to Thailand, the traditional customs in Korea are more remote. The Japanese have a unique sense of Asian Gothic; it’s more a part of mass culture than in Korea. So we can see this cultural phenomenon differently in different cultural regions, but we also share something.
Audience Member: I am an artist and my question is a practical one. You said that this film was made on an iPhone 4 that was lauded as a new technology. You also made this short film, collaborating with your brother who has been making feature films. I am interested in this collaboration and that this experimentation with new technologies is not coming from the underground, or from a new generation of very young artists, but rather from a merging of an [established] art figure and a very active film figure. Experimentation of this kind requires collaboration with craftsmen, cameramen, lighting experts, etc. It’s not just about using an iPhone. There were a lot of other things that went into making this film. I was wondering if it was difficult to entice all of these professionals to collaborate on this short film project?
PCK: It was not difficult for me, because I asked my brother to find them! [Jokingly]
Audience Member: Then, for artists like me, is this kind of experimentation even possible, if you don’t have this kind of back-up, these kinds of connections, and you don’t have a sponsor?
PCK: In the beginning I was an artist who always held my own camera, who always edited my own film, so it was very difficult for me to let go of these multiple roles and allow these professional people to take them on. Professionals always follow the conventions of their genre, which in this case is commercial film. In Korea we don’t have a long and deep history of art cinema. I don’t know about Apichatpong’s case in Thai cinema, but for me it was hard to find professionals who are both fluent in an artistic language and a filmic language. In the case of Night Fishing, because it was following a genre of comedy/horror films, it was not that difficult. But regarding my other work, including my next project, I am still finding it difficult to find staff. What I do is have long meetings before filming and during these meetings I share all the details up front. In Night Fishing there’s the [band] performance scene and I wanted the cameraman to put the camera under the hat. He was very confused by this. That kind of thing happens a lot.
SL: I think the last speaker may be touching upon the question of where experimentation lies—is it at the edge of high tech and only by the practitioners who are already well-known?
Audience Member: Not really. As an artist, I am actually interested in the labor issues, because a lot of time in the commercial film world, the pay is specified, and it is relatively high. If you want to pull technicians out of that world, it is very difficult. Short films or experimental films are not a genre that pays off. While it’s very noble to try to make these kinds of films, they usually don’t pay off.
PCK: The budget was about $300,000. If I were to make it alone I could’ve made it with just $50,000. But when I work with my brother I have to work with industry people, so expenses are high. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay professionals. They should get an adequate salary, but sometimes due to budgetary restraints, low pay is inevitable. The people who join my team are aware of this difficulty. My feature length film Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits, had a $300,000 budget, the same as Night Fishing, a 30-minute short film. It’s getting more and more difficult to get discounted labor, even in Korea, but I think that’s a good sign.
Audience Member: Can you talk a little bit about the music, because I think the film relies a lot on music. Where did your inspiration come from? How did you choose the song, in the beginning? It sounded a bit like Philip Glass so I was wondering where that idea came from?
PCK: I believe that most elements of film music are decided when the director chooses a composer. Because this is a film about shamanic ritual, we thought it was appropriate to select a contemporary composer who is familiar with shamanic ritual and Korean traditional music, but also someone who is offbeat. So we selected Jang Young-Kyoo. He has multiple bands under his belt; one of them does Korean contemporary music.
JD: Is the composer in the band that we saw in the film?
PCK: Yes, he’s the bass guitarist.
JD: And he does both traditional and contemporary music?
PCK: I think in English it’s called ‘world music’; the band is quite well known for playing Korean world music.
Audience Member: I found it interesting that in chanting the chord again and again, a pattern of repetition was created that I associate with Glass.
JD: We have a number of colleagues from Mainland China here tonight. I’d be very interested in their views on shamanistic rituals.
Audience Member: I feel there is a very strong nostalgia for similar kinds of practice in China that now only exists in rural areas. There is a general concern that communism killed all of the traditional ritual practice in China, and I think this is basically true. Because I travel quite a bit to Taiwan and Hong Kong, I have realized that these practices still exist there, especially during funerals. But in Mainland China, very sadly, they only exist in rural areas, but not in urban areas. The younger generation in urban areas in China has no clue what these rituals are about, and there doesn’t seem to be a sign of them coming back. It’s interesting to hear that in Korea it might be coming back.
JD: Or let’s say, it seems there’s a fascination with shamanism in Korea. Returning to the issue of universality or universal intelligibility: is the use of shamans exotic or exoticizing? Is it playing with Koreaness and exoticizing it? Or are these rituals somehow universal? Do they create connections, offering people who don’t know anything about Korea, ways to engage? I was on a panel this morning at a gallery in SoHo, and people were talking about how marvelous it is that young mainland Chinese artists are now so global that they are unrecognizably Chinese, that if someone walked into this gallery they would never know the cultural origin of the artists whose work was hanging on the wall. Of course, that’s fine. Whatever artists choose to do, as long as they are deeply committed to their practice, is fine, but in Chan-kyong’s case we have a work that clearly signals something other than Euro-America. And perhaps you could say it plays with a certain exoticism. Is this right or wrong? Is exoticization a concern? Or in emphasizing a particular Korean traditional practice—shamanism—does the film offer a certain universality that everyone can engage in? I’m only putting it out there, because these are things that people are talking about.
PCK: I think that of course I’m exoticizing Korean culture, because I’m not Korean, you see, in the sense that I don’t know what Korean culture is. Given this situation I have to exoticize it, unconsciously probably.
Audience Member: I am a writer and critic, and I think that’s a really interesting question because I was taught Hamlet in high school as a universal story, but to me it was an incredibly weird Western ghost story. I would never have thought of going to Denmark and saying, ‘Well, is this real? Do people believe in this?’ I think that we need to challenge this question of what is universal, and if there is a desire for universality, is that really a good thing, and is it ever possible? Another way into this is the more particular you get, the more weird and personal and imaginative you get, the more universal it becomes. I think we all actually want to tap into this wider sense of creativity and ghostliness. These are the kinds of universal narratives that bind us to our families and connect us with our ancestors.
PCK: I always believed that in every ‘good art’ there is, inherently, a degree of universality. When I think of the most universal works of art, The Dance by Matisse comes to mind. In fact, my attraction to this work—as an image I saw in a textbook—tells us more about my personal culture than shamanism per se. As a person who is part of Korean culture, I also think of Ganggangsullae—a Korean collective dance ritual for women under the full moon—when I think of The Dance. I don’t know how many people in Korea think of Ganggangsullae when they see Matisse’s painting, but that’s what I do. We often think about the movement wherein particularity transcends into the universal realm, but in fact the universal can also be translated through a particular lens. So in that sense there is no absolute universality nor absolute locality. They are always in a process. And this process requires our effort and time. Maybe we don’t need much time when we’re looking at Western culture—to understand it, etc.—since we’re so used to it. But when you think about it the other way around, we need a lot more time.
Audience Member: That brings me to the question, how much did you think about the audience when you were making this film? You said because the sponsor (KT) wanted the film to go into an international competition, you needed to change the character of the spy. Did KT’s aspiration change the way you thought about audience? Did you think about whether it was going to be a Korean or a foreign audience?
PCK: We actually didn’t think about the foreign audience when we made this film; we thought more about the Korean audience.
JD: When it opened in the theaters, what was the reception?
PCK: It was only in previews; it wasn’t distributed in the cinemas in Korea. It was only shown on YouTube, and on iPhones, and in film festivals on big screens.
Audience Member: The actress is very famous, and she’s a huge pop star.
PCK: The main actress, Lee Jung-hyun, is a big figure. The original idea for the film for the actress was not her, but rather Moon So-ri who is also quite famous and is featured in my later film Manshin. She has appeared a lot in Hong Sang-soo’s films and Lee Chang-dong’s films, but the day before shooting she found out she was pregnant. My brother came up with the idea of inviting Lee Jung-hyun, because she performed a crazy girl in this film A Petal.
SL: A Petal is the first feature film to represent the civilian uprising of May, 1980, during which a state troop took an estimated 3,000 lives of Gwangju. Lee Jung-hyun plays a victimized, almost mute girl who doesn’t remember much of what happened to her and her brother and mother during the massacre. She actually debuted as an actress playing this traumatized character in A Petal and then made her name as a pop singer.
PCK: There’s a really nice scene of singing at the end of that film. So we thought she might be the best for this and in fact she was. She didn’t do any practice in advance. She just arrived, and we started filming the same day.
SL: In a recent interview Lee Jung-hyun said that when she acted in Night Fishing, it was during a down period in her career. Then after this film, her career as an actress picked up again, so she was very grateful.
PCK: The only practice or training she had was for the song at the end. Old people who know about traditional Korean shaman songs or pansori traditional songs will recognize this song and may not think it is well done; it was sung in a more modern style.
JD: Well, I think we need to stop here. Chan-kyong, this has been a tremendous evening – both the opportunity to watch your film and to ask you all these questions. So thank you very much, and thank you Sohl for the introduction and interpretation. We look forward to continuing to follow your work.
Park Chang-kyong (b. 1965) is an artist and a filmmaker based in Seoul. His subjects have extended from the Cold War to traditional Korean religious culture, from ‘media -oriented memory’ to ‘regional utopian imaginations.’ He is currently working as an artistic director of MediaCity Seoul 2014 (International Media Art Biennale). He has produced media based works such as Sets (2000), Power Passage (2004), Flying (2005), Sindoan (2008), Radiance (2010), Anyang Paradise City (2011), Night Fishing (2011, co-directed with Park Chan-wook) and Manshin (2013). His works have been exhibited in international venues, such as Gwangju Biennale in Korea, De Appel in Amsterdam, RedCat Gallery in Los Angeles, Kunstverein in Frankfurt and many others. He has won various prizes including Hermès Korea Misulsang (2004), the Golden Bear Prize for short films of the Berlin International Film Festival (2011), and Best Korean Film of the Jeonju International Film Festival (2011).
Sohl Lee, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in contemporary East Asian art and visual culture at Stony Brook University, New York, and her interdisciplinary research interests include aesthetics of politics, activist art, vernacular modernism, postcolonial theory, historiography, and curatorial practice.