DIVING BELL: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL
April 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang
Almost exactly 2 years after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry off the coast of Donggeochado Island, South Korea, the Film Committee screened Diving Bell: The Truth Shall not Sink with Sewol, the first documentary completed in the aftermath of the disaster. Although we generally host sneak previews of brand-new films only, showing them just before their theatrical releases, there are a number of mitigating circumstances that have kept this 2014 film at the top of the headlines.
Chief among them is the unresolved nature of the Korean tragedy: Since the overloaded ferry capsized and took down 304 passengers — mostly high school students — with it, there has been no real closure. The South Korean government has been roundly criticized for its ineffectual disaster response and attempts to downplay culpability; the media has been blamed for toeing the government line; the ferry operator, captain and crew, who abandoned ship, have been charged with criminal behavior.
Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang
But of equal newsworthiness is the position of Diving Bell in a still-unfolding battle for freedom of speech and the future of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). When the film’s title was included in the BIFF 2014 lineup, pressure was immediately applied by the Busan City Council to withdraw it. BIFF Director Yong-kwan Lee rightly rejected the government’s interference, inviting demands for his resignation. Asian film authority Tony Rayns termed it “a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices.”
Lee stood firm, the film was screened as planned in October 2014, and the national government immediately slashed its subsidies to the festival, which is considered to be Asia’s largest and most vital. The Busan City Council then stepped up pressure. Throughout 2015, thousands of supporters around the globe signed petitions and sent messages of solidarity for Lee and BIFF. Ignoring the international outrage, Busan Mayor Byung-soo Suh allowed the festival director’s contract to expire in February 2016. Korean filmmakers soon announced they would boycott BIFF 2016 if city authorities do not allow it to operate freely. Five other Korean film festivals also publicly admitted that they had also had problems with government interference.
Finally, just two days before the FCCJ screening of Diving Bell, an association of Korea’s top film bodies announced they would encourage all members to boycott BIFF 2016, reducing even further its chances of being held as normal.
Ahn, has a long relationship with Japan, and made all his remarks in fluent Japanese.
Making the timing of FCCJ’s screening seem even more prescient, on April 19, Reporters Without Borders announced its 2016 Freedom of the Press rankings, and warned of “a new era of propaganda.” To no one’s surprise, South Korea had tumbled 10 places, down to #70. But of greater impact was this: Japan’s ranking plummeted 11 places, putting it even lower than South Korea, at #72.
Clearly, Diving Bell is now in the unenviable position of being the Korean bellwether of that most insidious journalistic trend, press “self-censorship,” as well as the issue of film festival censorship, either from within or without.
As one FCCJ member reminded the audience, just weeks ago, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York was forced to pull the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, due to a public outcry over its “discredited” claims that MMR vaccines cause autism. Festival head Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic son, criticized the uproar that forced the film from the lineup.
Hwang describes the film's reception on its limited theatrical release in Korea. ©Koichi Mori
As for the city’s pressure to withdraw Diving Bell from the BIFF 2014 lineup, director Hae-ryong Ahn said he came to realize “It was not really the content of the film itself that was a problem. The issue was not the safety of the people of Korea but the safety of the government, and that’s what motivated the effort to quash the film.” But he also admitted feeling that “I was the cause of the problems that the festival is facing now, and I feel responsible for that.”
The BIFF controversy did have the unintended effect of boosting the film’s public profile. Producer Hei-rim Hwang explained, “The film did not get distributed in the major multiplexes, but it was shown [in limited screenings] in 25 smaller theaters and community halls, with attendance topping 50,000. Considering the limited release, this was quite good. Also there was good word-of-mouth, and we had Q&A sessions with the families of the victims. Most people came thinking they would see what they’d already seen on mainstream media, but they realized it was only one side of the story. What we were trying to do was ask ‘Why not listen to the other side of the story as well?’ We’re not saying that this is the truth, but that there is another side to the story. We wanted to open the door to a debate about what really happened.”
The BIFF controversy brought far wider recognition to the film. ©Koichi Mori
Diving Bell follows investigative journalist Lee Sang-ho (a charismatic, Michael Moore-style truth-seeker) as he rushes to the coast of Donggeochado on April 16, 2014, shortly after the Sewol has sunk. To his dismay, he discovers he is one of the few reporters on site, and that the rescue work by Korea’s Coast Guard has stalled. The failure to save a single passenger during the “golden time” of the first 72 hours, when it is critical to reach and rescue trapped victims, is blamed on strong currents and poor visibility. Yet when news reports begin airing, they claim that all 476 passengers have been safely rescued. Lee stays on site as the tragedy unfolds over the ensuing weeks, talking with grieving parents and witnessing the government’s failure to organize a competent search-and-rescue operation. But it is the vilification of one potential hero, Lee Jong-in, who brings a diving bell at his own expense, knowing that it could greatly hasten the discovery process, which gives the film its reverberating bite.
The you-are-there immediacy of Diving Bell still feels bruising, two years after the event. Like many a story whose ending we already know, it unfolds like a nail-biting thriller, with unforeseen twists and turns that are so improbable, they can only be true. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2015 Fukuoka Asian Film Festival, the documentary offers a dramatic eyewitness vision of the horrifically botched rescue effort, the unresolved controversies over the diving bell, and the still-ongoing media distortion that cloaked the realities of the event. In the film’s final moments, journalist Lee Sang-ho talks with a grieving father who blames himself for his son’s death aboard the Sewol. “What do you want?” he asks. “People deserve the truth,” sobs the father.
Ahn joined audience members after the screening, and there was spirited discussion. ©Koichi Mori
Is there renewed hope about the truth following the April 13 elections, in which South Korean President Geun-hye Park’s party was stripped of its majority in Parliament? “The election has already changed things,” said Ahn. “There was even an article in [a conservative newspaper] saying that film is entertainment, and politicians shouldn’t get involved in [censorship attempts.] It’s possible that this will allow the media to be more aggressive in their reporting about the powers that be. In Busan itself, five opposition-party members were elected, and this may cause a shift in the overall thrust of the city government.”
Other documentarians have been doing follow-up research and filming on the Sewol, and perhaps, just perhaps, BIFF 2016 will include one of the sequels in its lineup.
— Photos by FCCJ except where noted.
I AM A HERO
April 11, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shinsuke Sato and star Yo Oizumi
The Film Committee usually shies away from screening what are derisively termed “genre” films, since we worry that our audience would be put off by intense bouts of blood and gore.
But these films — running the gamut from horror, splatter and fantasy to monster, swordplay action and erotica — continue to be among Japan’s greatest strengths at the global box office, both enduringly popular and profitable.
First reader to send us an appropriate caption for this photo
wins a free seat at our next sneak preview. ©Mance Thompson
While most local films do not get distributed overseas, there are always audiences for genre films — especially when they’re done as well as I Am a Hero, this country’s first major zombie flick, based on a blockbuster manga series. (If you thought zombies were passé by now, think again: a recent article on the genre estimated that it is worth over $5 billion to the US economy alone.)
Even those with walking-dead fatigue will find much to admire in the latest film by hitmaker Shinsuke Sato, and the proof is in the pudding: I Am a Hero has already swept the awards at the three most important fantastic film festivals. On its world premiere at the 2015 Sitges (Spain) Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Best Special Effects Award; at the FantaSporto Festival in Portugal, it took home the Orient Express Special Award and another Audience Award; and finally, the very day of the FCCJ sneak preview, it snagged the Golden Crow Award (aka Grand Prix) at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.
Zombie fighter Yo Oizumi and his director Shinsuke Sato shared an easy rapport. ©Mance Thompson
Asked to comment about the accolades, Sato noted, “We’d already received several Audience Awards, which I was surprised about. In a way, I feel those are the best awards you can get for an entertainment film, and I was really happy about getting them. Then I received the news about the Grand Prix, and I think this is the greatest applause we can get. I’m really thankful.”
In inimitable style, star Yo Oizumi insisted that he’d known the film could travel successfully overseas: “I expected it would win the awards in Spain, Portugal and Brussels,” he half-joked, “But I heard the news at 4 am this morning, and even though I was confident we would win, I have to admit I was a bit nervous.” He added, “As you all know, Brussels was the site of a recent tragedy, and I praise the festival’s courage in going forward with it as planned. To win an award at such a special moment in time, at such a respected festival, is very gratifying for me.”
Sato, who is known for his CG prowess and big budgets — he’s the mastermind behind recent megahit series Gantz and Library Wars, and is helming the much-anticipated Death Note 2016 — admitted that his latest film was also costly. One reason, his star couldn’t help suggesting, is that “[Sato] never compromises. He’s a perfectionist, and we had to do so many takes that we often wound up working really late hours. We all wanted to quit, but he never let us quit. To make matters worse, he was working with his usual cinematographer, who also has ideas about what he wants, so after we finished with the director’s shots, we had to do [the cinematographer’s], and it was endless.”
Sato transformed Oizumi into an unwilling but thoroughly convincing action hero. ©Mance Thompson
Perhaps the overtime was worth it. Based on the blockbuster manga series of the same name by Kengo Hanazawa, I Am a Hero is that rare big-budget commodity that manages to be gruesomely frightening, darkly funny and hair-raisingly realistic. And it’s anchored by an astoundingly committed star turn from Oizumi. The everyman character he plays, Hideo Suzuki, is a lowly manga artist’s assistant at the age of 35, but he tells everyone his name is spelled with the characters for “hero,” and he nurses big dreams. Then one day, a mysterious virus, dubbed ZQN (pronounced “zokyun,” perhaps playing off the onomatopoeic expression for “goosebumps;” or perhaps echoing the 2-Channel slang dokyun, or DQN, meaning dumbass ), makes men bite dogs and turns his girlfriend into a drooling, double-jointed freak. With doomsday scenarios playing out across Japan, Hideo escapes the general carnage in a runaway taxi with schoolgirl Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura) in tow, and they start climbing Mt. Fuji in hopes the virus can’t survive that high. But it turns out Hiromi has been infected, too, yet she only partially turns. They seek refuge with other survivors on the roof of the Fuji Outlet Mall, and meet former nurse Tsugumi (Masami Nagasawa). Suzuki is soon bullied into giving up his shotgun — an amateur skeet shooter, his crack-shot skills will come in very handy later — while Hiromi’s secret threatens to be spilled, and meanwhile, there’s one zombie whose backflips are getting him dangerously close to the roof’s safe zone.
Will there be a much-wanted sequel? Sato's keeping mum. ©Mance Thompson (Sato)
Surprisingly, the film’s pivotal outlet mall scenes proved impossible to shoot in Japan, and the production eventually wound up staging them at an abandoned mall in Korea. “We did things that we’d never done before,” the director said. “We wanted to do things that we’d never done before. It was a challenge for me, my crew and the actors, but it was a very rewarding experience and we’re all glad we could have it.”
Both men were clearly impressed with their Korean counterparts. Sato lauded their resourcefulness and their frequent creative input: “They went out of their way to realize my vision… and the shoot in Korea was a wonderful experience for me.” For Oizumi, “The difference between Japanese and Korean crews is that the Japanese will always wait to eat if the shoot runs long. Even if they get hungry, they’ll keep on working without complaining. The Korean crew members get angry.” A beat. “I’m with the Koreans.”
A partnership we hope to see continue. ©Koichi Mori
But Oizumi also fondly recalled how relaxing it was to be in a place where he and his two famous female costars went unrecognized. “There was this convenience store across from our hotel, with tables and chairs in the front where you could sit. We used to go there after shooting and buy some drinks and food, and we’d just hang out with the crew, chatting and eating. That’s unthinkable in Japan. It was a lot of fun.”
The casting of Oizumi, a ubiquitous presence in Japan on stage, screen and TV who is especially known for comical roles, was an unusual choice. Sato had worked with him previously, and explained it this way: “You could say that Mr. Oizumi is just about the opposite of the character he plays. In my mind, he’s so cool, he’s like a real hero. And the role is a guy who doesn’t seem heroic at all. But I knew he would bring all of his acting talent to the character. Also, I really felt like the combination of Mr. Oizumi and zombies would be the best match in Japan. No one else can make as many expressions as he can when he’s surprised — it’s a Guinness record-breaking number.”
Oizumi was eager to join the project since he knew the studio, Toho, would put all their might behind it, and “I thought that if a really handsome actor took the role, people wouldn’t like Hideo or be able to relate to him. So I figured my funny face would fit the part perfectly, and add reality to the character.”
By the end of the evening, it was clear that FCCJ’s audience was not as genre-averse as imagined. It remains to be seen whether the film does as well at home as it’s doing abroad (foreign sales are coming as fast and furious as a zombie attack), but as one seasoned film critic put it during the Q&A session, “I’ve sat through a lot of big-budget Japanese movies, and been disappointed most of the time. I’ve been waiting for a film that would prove my expectations wrong. I’m very happy to say that this was that film.”
— Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
©2015 “I AM A HERO” Production Committee
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