Lee Sang-Cheol Interview – Director of ‘Blesser’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Blesser tells the story of Sang-yeon (Kim Jae-hwa), an ambitious writer whose dreams of becoming a top news editor are seemingly dashed when she gives birth to her autistic son, Ji-woo (Bin Ju-won). On the one hand, the film is an enlightening exposé about society’s harsh treatment of persons with disabilities. On the other hand, it’s also a revealing and sensitive portrait of motherhood and the ways women are expected to “do it all,” with almost zero recognition and appreciation. 

Unsurprisingly, Blesser isn’t always easy to watch, but director Lee Sang-Cheol manages to insert pockets of hope in the film’s dire premise. In the interview below, Lee tells us that this lighthearted approach is part of his goal to normalize stories about disabled people, who are often portrayed in media in a tragic light. Blesser premiered at the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival, where it also competed at the Jiseok section.

This interview was edited for publication and translated with help from Koo Sang Beom. 

Projektor: Blesser is based on an autobiography by a real journalist, Ryu Seung-yeon. What drew you to tell her story? 

Lee Sang-Cheol: I didn’t know much about persons with disabilities, but I’ve always wanted to write a drama that was both warm and comical. I had a vague story in mind, about a developmentally disabled person struggling to throw a birthday party for his 70-year-old mother, and while researching this idea, I came across Seung-yeon’s book. It was about the daily lives of disabled families in Korea and the big and small problems they face. It all sounded fresh and new to me. 

I was particularly drawn to the book’s last chapter, “To the Woman Who Found Out About Her Child’s Disability,” which is also the Korean title of this film. I was so moved by it that I immediately imagined a new film with these words in mind. The last scene of Blesser comes from that vision and is narrated by those exact words. The problem was that the book was non-fiction, and it wasn’t organized chronologically. So in my mind, the first task was to weave a fictionalized story that resembled that of a feature film; it had to be worthy of Seung-yeon’s experience while also having the same impact on audiences as it had on me. 

I met with the author and after hearing even more of her experiences and anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book, I decided, with her permission, to include them in the screenplay.

How did you put your own spin on her story?

I would say about 80% of the events in the movie came from the book and my conversation with the author, but the rest is fiction. In particular, the scene where Sang-yeon bumps into a younger colleague in the supermarket, as well as the scene where Sang-yeon almost walks into a speeding car—both of those are my ideas. Sadly, the other tragic scenes in the movie, like the difficult childbirth and being bullied into transferring to a different school, happened in real life. 

I also wanted to cast a hopeful, lighthearted tone in the movie. Many films about disabled people only focus on the tragic, but they forget that they can be happy too. 

“Many films about disabled people only focus on the tragic, but they forget that they can be happy too.”

Were you able to cast people with disabilities in the movie? 

The main character of this film, Ji-woo, is played by a non-disabled actor. As much as I wanted to cast a disabled child for his part, I found that it was nearly impossible because of the character’s young age. However, we did hire persons with disabilities for some of the minor and older roles. The daughter of Sang-yeon’s friend from college has Down syndrome, while the employee Sang-yeon meets at the treatment center has the same condition as Ji-woo. Likewise, a symphony of disabled musicians called the Heart to Heart Orchestra provided the film’s classical music score. 

One of the biggest themes of this film is that we must move towards a world where disabled and non-disabled people live together in peace. The reality is that this is not the case in Korea. So, as much as possible, I wanted actual disabled people to participate in this film. 

In the film, the so-called disability rating causes Sang-yeon and her family a lot of grief. Can you tell me more about this Korean policy?

The disability registration system rated persons with disabilities based on how severe their illness was. The higher the score you got, the more aid you’d receive from the government. But the measurement was arbitrary and not always accurate, and it prevented a lot of families from getting the help that they needed. 

Although this system was thankfully abolished in 2019, it doesn’t feel like much has changed since then. Institutionally, discrimination is gone, but it remains in practice. There are still so many Koreans who express such blatant discomfort toward the disabled and their families. And you’ll notice that Korea’s disability welfare budget is very small compared to other developed countries. We still have a ways to go in that department. 

Kim Jae-hwa is incredible in this movie. Did you personally pick her to play Sang-yeon? What was it like directing her scenes?

Jae-hwa is a famous Korean supporting actor who is most known for playing comedic roles. But I knew she’d be perfect for Blesser after seeing her play a more serious part in this short film called Genie. She is a wonderful lead actress. She’s prepared and professional, and was so deeply immersed in her performance that she didn’t actually need any further direction.

Is this her first leading role in a feature?

Yes, I believe so.

What is your favorite scene in the movie?

I loved shooting the ending scene, when Sang-yeon is out in the park, laughing and celebrating with friends and family. I actually wrote this scene last and took it during the very last day of shooting, so it all felt very fitting. It was beautifully backlit by the setting sun, and I just was so moved by the scene’s beauty.

Another favorite is when Sang-yeon goes up to the front of the classroom and makes her big speech at the parents’ assembly. I liked the visual metaphor of these oversized adults squeezing into children’s seats. The parents were physically big but mentally small, like kids, and the silliness of ostracizing Sang-yeon and Ji-woo for simply being different made their world seem like an elementary school classroom.

I really like this line in the movie, “People like us need to keep writing in order to live.” Do you relate to that sentiment? 

I was very curious about reporters like Sang-yeon and the way they lived, always asking and writing, but I realized that writing isn’t all that different from filmmaking. In both cases, it’s very difficult to separate your work life from your personal life. I make films so I can live, but I also live so I can make more films. Those are the same to me, so yeah, I can’t imagine a reality where I’m not telling stories. 

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