YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Night Walk
Sohn Koo-yong (Director)

Interviewer: Abe Koji

Integration with space

Abe Koji (AK): Night Walk is a unique film with an attractively indifferent appearance. It evokes an atmosphere of someone who has trouble sleeping walking down the street like a sleepwalker. It superimposes classical verses on colorless images that give off the feeling of a city at night. Pop paintings or hand drawn pictures are projected on a row of trees swaying in the wind, traditional houses or buildings like arbors. Even the movements of the wind are at times depicted, resulting in slightly cartoonish scenes. And the film is silent. I would be happy if you could tell us why you wanted to make such a short composition, such a film.

Sohn Koo-yong (SK): My filmmaking style has continued from my previous film, Afternoon Landscape (2020, YIDFF 2021) for which I researched many places, notably rivers which flow from the Hongiecheon into the Hangang. I shot the film as I was traveling around quite a variety of places. By contrast I focused on a single place for Night Walk. I consciously tried to have a profound time in a single place; I self-consciously took an approach in which I attempted to integrate myself with the place and time, as if I had actually lived in the space, in a way that my body became an integral part of the landscape with the former fusing into the latter. As for night time, night has unique vibes. Lingering in a space or at night alone, that feeling, at once spiritual and physical, is, I think, very important.

AK: Why did you choose black and white?

SK: The color is not exactly black and white but I used a blue filter. Editing software has many color filters. I personally felt that the color of the night, the full moon, and the clear night sky was blue, so I tried to reproduce that blue in the film.

AK: I felt that I was watching our very inability to see color at night. Who drew the pictures and how?

SK: I drew the pictures by hand, which I scanned and edited on Photoshop. As I find the image of an object photographed by a camera very cold, if I dare say it, not very human, I took care to reflect my human feelings. So, what I drew by actually moving my hand in an organic way is important for me.

Image reminiscent of ink painting

AK: Drawing the movement of the wind, an arbor, or the murmuring of a stream left with me the impression of classical forms of painting like bunjinga or ink wash painting.

SK: I think I have been much inspired by ink paintings in East Asia; a poetic text is written on a very poetic picture in the background. I have been inspired by the world in which these two elements co-exist in the same space. The poetic text can be an excerpt of a long poem; I’m sure there are a multiplicity of patterns here; in many cases it has something to do with landscape, which inspires me a lot. When you compare the West with the East, an Oriental painter does not draw an object in front physically as it is, but expresses its spirit behind, its inner world or its poetic world. In a sense, I have tried to express such an inner world in East Asia with Night Walk.

AK: In Japanese we say bunjinga or ink wash painting for works where amateur literati or poets draw pictures or compose verses. Have you composed the verses as well?

SK: Though I wrote down the poems by hand for the film, I got them from a poetic database in which they have been transcribed into hangul.

AK: You quoted poems by Kim Seong-il or passages from the Complete Works of King Jeongjo. Why did you build your film on works by literati under the Yi dynasty?

SK: Not all are from the Yi dynasty. I actually did use poems from around that dynasty and in fact King Jeongjo of Joseon greatly respected culture, and the age might be compared to the Renaissance in how it cherished culture.

Initially, I wrote poems myself but I was discontented with the mismatch between the images I filmed and the poems I wrote. At the same time I read poems and books from that age as reference works. In doing so, I also read ancient Chinese poems about the moon, which moved me. One night, I was taking a walk alone without filming. I stood by a rock to look at a stream on which the moon was reflected. All of a sudden the moon, the stream, and myself were integrated with the space or so I felt. At this moment the feeling of blue of which I talked earlier was born and I realized that this unspeakably emotional or artistic feeling can be translated into poems from the Yi dynasty which I had been reading as reference works.

AK: Absolutely, as in the phrase “clouds pass over the moon,” your film beautifully captures the moon over which clouds were passing. Are Korean viewers generally familiar with this sort of poetic sensibility?

SK: I don’t know. I’ll give you an interesting example. When this film was shown in Jeonju (Jeonju International Film Festival), the audience’s reaction wasn’t too good. But when I showed it in Rotterdam (International Film Festival Rotterdam), there was a big response. Perhaps landscape with the moon is in a sense universal even in the West.

AK: Cinematically speaking, you used a method in which you filmed only shots with a stationary camera and cut them together. If I may say so, conversely, I felt cinematic brilliance rather than literary or visually artistic in the sense of painting. Since you shot with a fixed camera in a single place—the Segeomjeong Pavilion in the suburbs of Seoul—how did you structure the film in editing?

SK: The shooting period was about five to six months in which I shot various images, most of which in fact filmed the same objects from multiple angles; for the passage of time didn’t matter at all for this film; rather I wanted to express a fixed time, a fixed space as much as possible as a nightly event in the space. I integrated time, space and everything as an inner expression of the unique feeling brought by night. Of course, I’ve also inserted the scenes of the moon and others where time passes. What is most important for me is not, however, time but the feeling of integration and its space.

Rhythm and editing

AK: I am wondering if the seasons change a little though you do not seem to follow the seasons chronologically. How did you determine it in editing? Did you decide it based on places for example? In what order did you make editing decisions?

SK: I did not use any sound for this film in the first place. If you ask me what the criterion for editing is, I would answer that rhythm was very important. There is no rule or pattern whatsoever. When I think of rhythm, if, for example, there is a static shot where nothing moves, the next shot will include something that moves; or a frame in medium shot will be followed by a long shot. In short, I think I edited the film with poetic or intuitive rhythm in mind. And cuts and editing. Since this film has neither dialogue nor sound, where to cut or where to put them together was rather important. I had no special rules or logic for that. I was keenly aware of rhythm.

AK: There are no humans in the film. Instead, a cat, for example, appears. It makes the charm of the film, I guess. Did you aim for it?

SK: As I said before, in the sense of rhythm, a cat appears as what moves. Actually, two dogs also appear.

AK: I wanted to ask you just that earlier. This film has not been shown much yet in either Korea or Japan. How do you see the difference between the audience reaction in the East and in Europe or the States?

SK: Well, I can’t think of any special difference between Asian audiences and the Western counterparts. What is interesting is that every time I show this film, the first question is always why I chose to make it silent. But I haven’t felt any difference between them. As I tend to get nervous easily, I am often too nervous at Q&As to remember it well.

AK: You might not like this question, but in a global situation where you have to stay home due to the impact of COVID-19, you can either look back over sort of bygone culture or draw what appears to me pop (sorry, this is my impression) pictures instead of nostalgic drawings as someone who lives in this very age. Could you please comment on this?

SK: As you pointed out, I was filming this work exactly amidst the pandemic and everyone wore face masks, which I had no intention of filming. Maybe that’s why I chose night. You just reminded me of that. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of it, there was some sort of the influence of COVID because of which perhaps I focused on the limited space in my neighborhood.

AK: When I first saw Night Walk, I very much empathized with it as it coincided with my experience of making discoveries reading old books or watching old films on video or DVD while I stayed home due to COVID-19.

Thank you very much for making such a wonderful film. I think your next project is already running. Could you tell us about it?

SK: As a matter of fact, I finished filming before I came to Yamagata. I am planning to edit it when I get back. My next film will be a feature. In the sense that it continues the major trend of my works so far, it has not changed; but I want to try out a completely different approach from the previous ones. Night Walk evinces the feeling of being integrated in the scenery, space while, by contrast, the next project will try to erase myself as much as possible. The moment I see something through the camera, I inevitably enter the picture. To what extent can I exclude my perspective, the camera’s perspective or the human perspective? That’s one of the subjects that I am trying to pursue to the furthest limit. It’s a bit like the ink painting I mentioned earlier. It’s not as if the artist draws what they want to express, but that the images are born from the scenery and nature itself. This will probably be a big theme of my next film.

AK: It sounds like a very challenging theme, which I also find to be a very interesting project. I look forward to it.

Compiled by Abe Koji
Translated by Yamamoto Kumiko

Photography: Murakami Yuki / Video: Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Tanimoto Hiroyuki / 2023-10-08

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Abe Koji
Member of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Board. Abe received a BA from Tohoku University and left the advanced PhD course at the Graduate School of Tohoku University before graduating. He specializes in 20th century French literature, esp. Marcel Proust, and theoretical studies on documentary films. He authored Proust: Kyori no shigaku (Heibonsha, 1993) and co-translated into Japanese La Vérité en peinture by Jacques Derrida (Hosei UP, 2012).