We Heard the Voice of a Generation: An Interview with Jangsangotmae Film Collective

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Below is an excerpt of the interview that was originally published in Cine21’s 1203rd issue. Text credit: Hwajung Lee (‘CINE21’ Reporter) 

WE HEARD THE VOICE OF A GENERATION 

CINE21: The first film produced by the Jangsangotmae collective, Oh! Dream Land (1989) was a portrayal of the Gwangju Democratisation Movement, while your second work, The Night Before the Strike (1990), dealt with the labour movement's fight against the government administration. From the production process right through to the screenings you came across various difficulties; how was the feeling within the collective at the time? 

KONG SU-CHANG: For our second film, the decision to portray the labour movement was one that came to our group naturally. We were all young students at the time, and on top of this none of us had experience of working in a factory, so we struggled with how to integrate this subject and turn it into a film. So the Jangsangotmae members went out and spent around a year gathering material. We went to the sites where the workers were striking and listened to their stories; as inexperienced as we were, everything that we learnt culminated to become a film. Our research was perhaps the biggest achievement of The Night Before the Strike. Though we should have gathered and made a record of our research in a more systematic way – it’s a real shame that we didn’t do that. 

LEE YONG-BAE: I feel like we were moving with the times. The workers’ voices were becoming louder, and we too felt their power. We too woke up and gathered every morning to study sociology. The majority of film groups and clubs were interested in making video documentaries about issues such as the Sechang Mulsan Labour Movement, and the problems faced by women workers. As Director Kong said, the fact that these movements were later unable to maintain their momentum was a result of the times. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a chain of events led to huge changes within the atmosphere of society as a whole. 

CINE21: At the time, law enforcement was sent into universities across the whole country to shut down screenings, and, ironically, because of this the film became more and more legendary. The Night Before the Strike, itself born out of the oppression of the period, was perhaps its most significant work. 

KSC: It was exactly as though the film was standing at the front lines of Korean society. It thus came to a head-on collision with the government. The impact was large enough to be the second story covered on the ‘prime-time’ news at the time; government forces had to be brought out to crack down on the screenings, and were perhaps in over their heads. Having collided on the front lines, in order to shut down the screening at Chonnam University, the government seemed to go into full mobilisation, even bringing in the helicopters. 

KIM DONG-BEOM: ...because if you screen a film once, people gather in their thousands, just like a swarm of bees. People were saying that socialism had already collapsed, and that the age of ideology was over, but when the film was screened, the atmosphere was completely different. Concerns were thus felt even within the government, which was prepared to take any measures necessary. 

KSC: It was at a time before the Internet, so that’s why this kind of mass gathering was possible; the only way to see the film was to come to the screening location itself. At every screening we’d hear that someone was coming after us, so we’d often have to make a run for it. When Director Lee was wanted by the authorities, I held the fort in case of emergencies. One time while they were holding a sit-down strike in the office of the Korean People’s Federation of Artists, I received an unexpected phone call, saying that they were connected with the prosecution, but they wanted to watch the film. There were rumours going around that prosecutors were trying to gain entry into the screenings in order to shut them down, so we checked the ID cards of the audience members. We, who had fought for freedom of speech, were checking the ID cards of the people who’d come to see the film; it was a truly ironic situation. 

LYB: I was a wanted man, so I even cut off contact with my family. Even then I was always near the screening site. I was constantly exchanging phone calls with Director Kong, but I knew that if his identity was revealed he would be in danger, so I nervously avoided him. For example, one time I’d arranged to meet Director Kong at the entrance of Dongguk University, so I stood for a while by one of the pillars, and then had to move several times in order to lose the person who was following me. We would meet, he’d pass on money to me, and I would continue as I had been. I’d even read books covering ‘The Basics of Camouflage’, and would move just as was instructed in the book. When I was staying at an acquaintance’s house I’d have to move on after two days. The identity of the people who’d put me up could also be leaked, so I had to keep where I was a secret. From Ssangmun-dong to the main gate of Ewha Womans University, I was moving about between all sorts of places. 

KDB: At the time every screening was a battle. 

KSC: It was after we’d finished making the film, and we were holding a preview screening at the Hanmadang Theatre at the Hyehwa-dong intersection. The police appeared under a search-and-seizure warrant. However, as we had known that the police would come, we came with a plan to give them a different film, if and when they turned up. We were reluctant to lose an actual reel, so we made a fake one out of bamboo. We imagined that no matter how little they knew about film, they would work out it was a fake, but to our surprise they took it. [Laughs] Actually, that day I burst into tears. I was planning to stop the police, but I was so nervous I’d get arrested that I didn’t have the courage. All sorts of feelings culminated together, and I started crying. 

LYB: What was even more nerve-wracking was that shortly after, a phone call came from the police. They said they’d finished with the investigation of the seized item and told us to come and pick it up. When we went to get it, they’d been so careless with it that the whole thing was all crumpled up. [Laughs] I’d never expected that. 

KSC: It’s hilarious thinking back on it now. 

LYB: After that they did their research – laws related to film, copyright, things like that. To catch us they now knew they had to learn about film – they couldn’t manage it just by using the methods they were used to. 

CHANG DONG-HONG: Whether it was the reel or the film, we knew that these things could put a bullet in us. If the police got hold of them it would be a disaster, so we had to guard them with our lives. Even when the screening had finished we wouldn’t switch on the lights of the cinema – it was only after we’d safely removed the film that we’d turn them on. 

LYB: Each of us took a reel with us, to ensure that even if someone got caught, we’d only lose one of the reels. 

CDH: Once we’d decided a screening date, the night before we’d go into the university. We couldn’t let the film get taken, so we’d leave it in a cabinet the previous evening. At the Korea University screening, after storing the film in the cabinet, we couldn’t find the person who’d taken the key, so we even had to call out a locksmith. However, when we opened it, it was empty. [Laughs] We later found out that although the head of the student council had told us he’d hidden it there, he’d actually moved it somewhere else as a diversion tactic to ensure its safety. When that guy came back with the reels we were able to carry out the screening. We can only laugh. 

LYB: Despite all that, thinking back on that day, the audience made no complaints, and everyone just sat waiting - all the while singing. 

OPPRESSION UPON OPPRESSION 

CINE21: The government’s move to shut-down The Night Before the Strike was not to be a one-time occurrence; it is arguable that it was from this point that disciplinary action against Jangsangotmae began to really intensify. You already had a track record from your previous film Oh! Dream Land, so I imagine the oppression must have been felt right from the production process. 

LYB: There were a number of regulations that made helping the strikes a crime – it was a violation of the ‘Prohibition of Third Party Interference’ clause, an infringement of National Security Law, and so on. The government made us into an enemy, and were the first ones to up the ante. As we were being chased, those regulations put even greater pressure on us. 

CDH: When we were filming Oh! Dream Land in Bosan-dong in Dongducheon, the National Security Planning Department confiscated the script. At that time the department had enormous power, and so we were desperately debating whether or not to withdraw. One of the lighting technicians got scared and ran away, so we weren’t even able to film. After these events, the authorities would have had a list gathered of who made Oh! Dream Land, and who was working on The Night Before the Strike, and what kind of people they were. Director Lee was one of the central figures, so they must have had all sorts of information on him. 

LYB: When it came to my turn at the trial, they claimed that I was in possession of obscene video material, and so I was classed as a petty offender. Instead of charging me with violation of the Motion Picture Law, they punished me as they would someone who had produced obscene material. KDB: Everything that we did resulted in further oppression. I remember that at that time, we thought we might not have enough money to rent a recording studio, so to save money we all lived together in Gwacheon, and to get all the recording done in one go we did a huge amount of practice. 

KSC: The place where we’d usually done our recording refused us. Would a printing company have refused to print a book after it had seen its contents? That’s what it was like. 

CDH: We weren’t able to process our films at Sebang Processing Laboratory anymore, so we went to Seoul Processing Laboratory in Yongsan. At the time we had all our films processed at smaller laboratories. 

LYB: At the time of The Night Before the Strike there was still a place that would lend us their recording studio, but by the time of Opening the Closed School Gates (1992), it was blocked off to us. Our enemy had studied film. They knew if they blocked our access to the recording studios, we wouldn’t be able to finish, so they contacted the studios in advance and made sure we couldn’t use them. As we were no longer able to process our films in laboratories in Korea, we did the final work for Opening the Closed School Gates in processing laboratories in Japan. 

KSC: It was through the oppression that growth was possible, for both the oppressors and the oppressed. We did the preview screening in the main auditorium of Hanyang University, but we hadn’t done the recording, so we had to screen it like a silent film with dubbing. While the video was being projected, the actors read the script on the stage. I wonder why we didn’t film it. If we’d uploaded it onto YouTube I wonder how many thousands of views we could have got. [Laughs] It’s funny thinking back on it now, but at the time it was an urgent and desperate situation. 

KDB: I wonder if there will ever be a group like us again, if there could ever be a group to work with the same enthusiasm. For a great cause, we made films in a short time and in inadequate conditions, but at the time they didn’t feel inadequate. Someday maybe we should make a film about how we made The Night Before the Strike. There would be plenty of material for a story in just that. 

CINE21: Though on the one hand The Night Before the Strike had attracted a huge amount of attention for Jangsangotmae from the outside, internally it had caused the group concerns regarding its quality as a film. 

CDH: At the time of Oh! Dream Land, people had made their own short films and gathered together, and we mechanically divided these up into 20 scenes to make a script. Is there any way you can make a film like that? It was through this process of trial and error we learnt that if the quality of the final product is lacking, the audience won’t be convinced. So we decided that next time we should take a more responsible approach to directing, and that we should develop more effective directing methods like they used in Chungmuro. Oh! Dream Land was the first time we had made a feature-length film, so our skills and abilities were all at different levels, but by the time of The Night Before the Strike we had the experience from our previous work, and because we all pulled together we were able to make a better film.

LYB: We had to shoot the film within a set time, but we couldn’t let this be known beyond the team, so there was a constant pressure being placed on the staff. We therefore concentrated even harder, and we were meticulous in the direction and production process. 

CINE21: It seems that the external pressures were what strengthened a previously looser production process. 

KSC: That’s right. Though the labour movement was over, the number of films and literary works tackling the movement that were of a high quality, artistically, was minimal. We were aware of this problem, and talked about trying it for ourselves; The Night Before the Strike was born out of these discussions. The reason that we spent a whole year researching was that we had all agreed that we needed to build up our skills. 

CDH: We were also lucky. Thanks to the help of the Incheon Labour Union Secretary we were able to look around the factories, but as we weren’t able to rent them out to film, there was no way that we could accomplish our goal. However, just at that time we heard that a strike had broken out at the Handok Metal Factory in Incheon, one of the factories we had visited. We hadn’t even finished our script yet, but we quickly went over there to at least film some scenes of the factory. In fact, a considerable number of the supporting cast were the workers that had been on strike there. 

CDH: The electricity to the factory had been cut off, so the mechanical press stopped working. In order to restart the press, it took time and money. We brought our own power supply, and with the help of the workers, we lit the blast furnace and went around the factory filming. If those people hadn’t been there helping us, doing it together with us, we wouldn’t have been able to make the film. We cooked and shared our food with the workers on strike; we were right by their side. Through this the workers acknowledged our sincerity. We got away from the image of being students who had come out of university to the factories to simply use the workers. I can confidently say this as someone who was in the factory himself. 

KSC: It was a time when awareness had increased a great deal. Some people called us avant-garde, but we saw ourselves as a group making films for the masses. We saw the masses as key to that generation, and so we made a story which could encourage people. So, the next film that we made after The Night Before the Strike was Opening the Closed School Gates (1992), which looked at the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union. This also caused controversy and brought us rebuke, but we hadn’t made a film because we were activists; it was through making the films that we became part of the movement. It was like that at the time. The masses were longing for democratisation, and so joined the labour movement. We were making a film in the midst of this atmosphere, so it was only natural that we went along with the wave. 

CINE21: Now, looking back at the film in 2019, though it received positive reviews, there were some aspects in which it was perhaps lacking. The focus was on the male point-of-view, but there is also the matter of female workers, and how to present an honest portrayal of their circumstances, which differ from those of male workers. 

CDH: I remember a conversation I had while I was doing research, with an administrator who was heavily involved with the cultural movement. I said we were making a film about the labour movement, and they asked how we were going to make the film, and how we would portray our theme. In making a film about the issues facing the factories, we could have made a film reflecting opinions from a range of different perspectives. However, when the administrator asked what the most pressing issue at the time was, I responded saying that there were still a large number of workers who had not yet woken up, so I thought that making a film that moves these workers into action would have a huge influence, and was therefore of imminent importance. 

KSC: In regards to the film’s dramatic composition, there were a lot of concerns about whether we should come up with an alternative. There were therefore a number of discussions internally about whether we should try something more experimental. The topic of gender also came up; in response to this issue Director Byun Young-joo later worked with women’s film collective Bariteo. I can see now that there were a number of ways in which the film was lacking, such as its portrayal of women’s activism and the problems facing female workers. However, as Director Chang said, given that we weren’t able to read any well-structured scripts or watch any well-made films about labourers, there’s no way we would have been able to come up with an alternative. We couldn’t create something new out of the nothing we had. We prioritised starting from the basics first and foremost.