Zhang Lv and His Quiet Dream

We interviewed renowned film director Zhang Lv at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. We talked with him about the film A Quiet Dream, which opened the festival, as well as the filmmaking environment in South Korea.

The Busan International Film Festival, which opened on October 6th, was plagued by setbacks. The first was the friction between the film industry and the Busan municipal government several months prior, which threatened the whole event. Then, the city was hit by a typhoon. Fortunately, with support from various sectors, the festival was successfully concluded on October 15th. What matters most for a film festival is high quality films. A host of fine pictures emerged at Busan this year, including the opener – A Quiet Dream.

It is the work of ethnic Korean director Zhang Lv, who is well known both in his native China and abroad. Mr. Zhang has always kept a low profile, but agreed to some interviews at Busan this year. In the afternoon of October 10th, we sat down with him in an open-air café near the Busan Cinema Center – the festival’s main venue.

Although Zhang didn’t major in filmmaking, his first short film, Eleven, was shown at many major festivals. His second film, Grain in Ear, was shortlisted in the Out of Competition section at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, he attended the 57th Locarno International Film Festival with the film Tang Poetry, and the public began to pay attention to his work. Later he produced movies such as Desert Dream, Chongqing, and Dooman River. His films present the contemporary history of the Korean Peninsula from a unique perspective, involving the war between South Korea and North Korea, immigration, and division. His films have been screened at over 50 international film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. In April, 2015, he was shortlisted as the Best Director of the 51 Baek Sang Art Awards with the film Gyeongju.

A Quiet Dream is Zhang’s 10th feature film. It depicts the romance between a female pub owner and three men. The new matching of actress Han Ye-ri with actor and director Yang Ik-june, as well as Park Jung-bum and Yoon Jong-bin attracted attention from the start. On the poster, the main actors and actress stand on the top of a building near Susaek Station. Facing the high-tech zone and Digital Media City (DMC), the architecture around the station retains its original appearance. At the top of the building, while Yang Ik-june, Park Jung-bum, and Yoon Jong-bin look at the high-rise clusters of DMC not far away, the heroine turns around and looks the other way. There are the words, “I had a strange dream.” The film was released in South Korea on October 13th. By October 19th, the ratings were as follows: average audience, 8.70/10; reporters and critics, 6.91/10; Internet users, 8.41/10. It clearly deserved to be the opening film of the Busan International Film Festival.

When asked why he chose black-and-white instead of the more common colored film, Zhang answers, “I didn’t do it on purpose. The reason the audience finds it special is that mainstream films are all colored. Every film has its own style. Some fit color while others suit black-and-white. I just feel that this film is better in black-and-white. That’s why I adopted the style.”

The three main actors are also directors themselves. Zhang explains, “We are very good friends. Although they started as directors, they all had previous acting experience and they are excellent actors. That’s why I chose them. Another reason was limited budget. Due to lack of funds, I had to turn to my friends for help. I really appreciate that they acted in the film for free.”

Zhang Lv is a third generation ethnic Korean born in the city of Yanbian in Jilin Province. Formerly a professor in the Department of Chinese at Yanbian University, he had no professional training in film directing. As well as teaching, he wrote novels. It was not until he was 40 years old that he made his first film. When asked how he managed to achieve so much in the film industry, he says, “It is due to my love of images. Young directors must not give up their careers. Conditions are much better now. As long as you can afford a DV, you can make a film. Therefore, as long as you are sensitive to images, have your own understanding, and love filmmaking, you should persist. One day you will succeed.”

Since Zhang is a Chinese Korean director, it is inevitable that national characteristics often crop up in his films, such as Dooman River. The Korean nationality is widely seen in films made by South Korean directors, for example New World directed by Park Hoon-jung, and The Yellow Sea directed by Na Hong-jin. Zhang Lv says, “I think they are very good films. The Korean nationality or Yanbian might seem different in different films, but that’s only due to different perspectives and film techniques.”

With the rise of the film industry, all types and genres of films bloom in South Korea. Filmmaking there is deeply influenced by Asian culture. As a result, the storytelling strategy adopted by directors is often subtle yet rich in emotions, fitting the value expression of Asian culture. After making several films in South Korea, Zhang Lv has acquired experience and ideas about filmmaking. He says, “There are some differences in terms of the attitude towards films from the government and the film industry. There are funds and other resources available at the state level, for example from the Korean Film Council, as well as related activities.”

Zhang believes that filmmaking techniques, funding, and distribution differ between independent film and commercial film. In practice, funding for independent films is limited in South Korea, and so are the audiences. Many art house films are financed by funding from the government or by the directors themselves. Unlike the Chinese film industry, in South Korea there are long-term theater chains for independent films, which offer a lot of support for the development of the genre. According to Zhang Lv, “High quality art house films can be shown in commercial theater chains, but in no way can commercial films be shown at theater chains for art house films. Moreover, there are many film festivals in South Korea, which offers opportunities to young directors. It also facilitates the development of genre films and the introduction of the system of independent films.”

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