Ahn Sunkyoung Interview – Director of ‘At the End of the Film’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase

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What happens at the end of the film? For Korean filmmaker Ahn Sunkyoung, everything. It’s the most vital puzzle piece in any movie, as well as the most difficult to figure out. “To go through all that detail and tie it up in a satisfying way requires more thought and care than you’d think,” Ahn says. 

In Ahn’s latest feature, At the End of the Film, a struggling director (played by Park Jong-hwan) takes a painstaking and often painful journey through Korea’s tough film industry just to get his movie made. It takes him 10 years to finally get the ball rolling, but with every obstacle he faces—including forced rewrites, disappearing producers, and a haunting muse—it seems more unlikely that he’ll ever reach the end. 

It’s a meta take on filmmaking, considering the arduous process At the End of the Film went through before premiering at this year’s Busan International Film Festival. But it’s a process Ahn doesn’t seem to regret, difficulties and all. In this interview, we sat down with Ahn to discuss her anti-love-letter to cinema, the worrying state of Korean indie movies, and more optimistically, her pet cat Luka, who makes an unforgettable cameo in the film. 

This interview has been edited for publication.

How much of At the End of the Film is based on personal experience? Did it also take you 10 years to complete this movie? 

It didn’t take me 10 years, but it’s a well-known fact in Korea that it can take up to a decade, if not longer, to create a film. The struggle is so common that we’ve made a saying out of the 10-year timeframe, that’s why it always comes up in the movie. 

But, yes, a lot of the other details are inspired by my experiences in this field. Like [the main character] Si-won, I was also offered a directing role, only to be ghosted by the producer. I also chased after potential investors and rewrote my script multiple times to appease studios. I’ve also received a call or two about needing to change settings or storylines because of the impossibility of shooting at a certain place. In fact, the heated scene where Si-won insists on shooting on location, that was inspired by a real call I had. 

Did you have to make a lot of changes to the original idea of this film?

Yes, I did. When I first wrote the script, not a single investor was interested, and I couldn’t fund it at all. So I had to make some changes to the location, concept, and characters. I was making so many compromises that it almost felt like I was creating a new film each time. I was weaving new movies along the way. 

With the success of Korean films like Parasite, Decision to Leave, and Burning, you’d think studios would take more chances on unique storytellers. Why do you think it’s so hard for indie cinema to thrive? 

You’re right, Korean movies are doing so well around the world. But I don’t think it has anything to do with the indie scene. It was difficult to make indie movies back then, it’s still difficult to make them now. There hasn’t been much of a change in this part of the industry, it’s just always been hard. 

I think a possible reason is that film investment has gotten even more conservative in recent years, so studios only want to fund big mega commercial movies that rake in millions of money and viewers. There used to be a category for middle-sized budget movies, but that’s disappeared now that everyone wants to go big. The film scene now, at least in Korea, is very polarized. Movies are either very big blockbuster types or very small indie types. What’s healthy is to have an in-between category so that the indie space isn’t overcrowded like it is now. 

I love how in an era when directors are making love letters to cinema, you refuse to romanticize it. Your realistic assessment is an anti-love letter, in a way. 

A lot of people are interested in movies, but not so much in what a director’s life looks like in real life. We hold the film together, and yet not much is known about our insights and feelings. It’s easy to think of a movie as a separate entity crafted by a mysterious organization, but it’s just me behind the movie, just us. It can be tough for us too, so even though I was told by investors that this story wasn’t very interesting or entertaining, I still felt like it should be told. 

“A lot of people are interested in movies, but not so much in what a director’s life looks like in real life. We hold the film together, and yet not much is known about our insights and feelings.”

The characters hold a cynical outlook for the most part, but one of them says a hopeful line that goes, “I can never erase the time I was raptured by cinema.” Do you have that one moment in your life that made you fall in love with movies?

I might be a little different than most filmmakers in that I didn’t grow up watching movies, so I never really dreamt of becoming a director and believed in the “power of cinema.” My roots are in theater, and I just happened to transition into film, so I only began watching movies when I started making them myself. There’s enough distance for me to be objective about it. 

But I will say, since I’ve been making films for the past 20 years, I now have these moments of nostalgia. When I’m in a certain mood or when I’m feeling sad, it’s almost like I can smell a particular memory, and there’s a scent that comes crawling up to me that makes me feel melancholic. I ache for a time I’ve associated with a particular film. 

What makes a good ending? 

I do believe the ending is the most important part of a movie. It’s so easy to start a story and keep you hooked, but to go through all that detail and tie it up in a satisfying way that makes sense requires more thought and care than you’d think. 

Obviously, there are stories that are just purely for fun and entertainment, but I still think that at the end of the film, we owe the audience a reason as to why we led them through this particular journey. That’s the purpose of the ending, to answer the big “why.” A good ending is one that can take responsibility for the rest of the film. It’s important, but it’s just as difficult to get right. 

I noticed that cats play a big role in a lot of your movies. Here, Luka the cat is the sole being that can make Si-won smile. I wonder if you own a cat yourself?

Yes, that’s true, and yes, I do I have a lot of cats—four to be exact, Luka being one of them. He’s the eldest in the family. We used to have five, but one of them died earlier this year. And a lot of people comment on Luka’s size, but you should see the others, they’re much bigger. Did you enjoy Si-won’s song for Luka? 

Oh, I love it. It’s adorable. 

The actor actually improvised that song. [Laughs] I’ll make sure to tell him you loved it. 

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Jongmin Lee for Ohmystar. 

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