As a reviewer, there’s only so many, there is a constant cloud hanging over my head questioning whether or not I am just deluding myself into thinking I can about a film. I’m always asking myself if I have the knowledge or the context or even the ability to write something worth a damn. When I first started started writing about Korean films at NYAFF 2011, the answer to all three of those questions was a resounding “No.” While that third question is still kind of up in the air, I like to believe that I’ve made some pretty significant gains in those first two areas.
Which is why I found Behind the Camera: Why Mr. E Went to Hollywood to be extremely gratifying. It’s a pseudo-documentary where everybody plays themselves, and though I didn’t recognize every face or name, more often than not I found myself thinking “There is a photo of me with him on the internet!” or “Hey, I reviewed that movie!” or “She was naked that one time. What is she talking about she wouldn’t be in a swimsuit?”
Good for me.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Behind the Camera: Why Mr. E Went to Hollywood (Dwitdamhwa, Gamdokyi Micheotseoyo | 뒷담화, 감독이 미쳤어요)
Director: E. J-Yong
Country: South Korea
Behind the Camera is a very different type of documentary. Not quite a mockumentary, it is reminiscent of director E. J-Yong’s 2009 film Actresses. In that film, six actresses were cast as themselves and put on set together for a Vogue Korea photoshoot. From then on, improvisation takes hold and all of the main actors received writing credits for the film. The situations were faked, but what happened within them was not, at least not entirely. In Behind the Camera, the situation is real, but he’s not just documenting an experience: most of the people on set know what he’s doing, so some of the emotions and reactions are staged/played up a bit to give it more compelling narratives. Thing is, I didn’t even know that it was true. For that reason, this review might be full of logical flaws and contradictions. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s exactly what the filmmaker had in mind.
This is the reality: Samsung wanted E. J-Yong to make them a short film using their fancy new Android phones. He agreed, but decided that he could take what was already a relatively weird idea (though Park Chan-Wook used an iPhone to shoot the bizarre Night Fishing) and make it even weirder: he would direct it from Los Angeles while his cast and crew worked in Seoul. The short, called How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes, told the story of a film director who decided to film a romantic comedy from Hawaii while his cast worked in Korea. This short, much like the film that depicts its production, goes back and forth between the romantic comedy narrative and the ridiculousness going on behind the scenes.
Confused? Yeah, me too.
I could never tell if I was watching an elaborate fake or a real thing. In How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes, the director is actually hiding in an apartment not far from the set. In reality, E. J-Yong was in LA, but there are scenes all throughout where actors and crew members are convinced he wasn’t. At least, I think they were convinced that. I don’t really know. It wasn’t until E. J-Yong came out after the film for a Q&A that any of my questions were really answered, and even then we only learned so much. The important thing we learned is that YES, he was gone. YES, he actually directed a short film from another continent. YES, it is a documentary. NO, nothing was completely staged.
Behind the Camera purports to take place over two days, but in reality the filming took place over three. That is the most overt lie, but when I say nothing was staged, I mean it: all of the footage from Behind the Camera comes from those three days. There were eleven different cameras (which is absolutely crazy, for those who don’t know) around the set at any given time filming actors, crew, or anything else that seemed interesting. These cameramen worked almost autonomously, and E. J-Yong had no idea what was really going on until after the fact. Three days of shooting was followed by eight months of editing. It is truly a film created in the editing room. Hundreds of hours of footage were cut in order to create an 83 minute film, and undoubtedly there was some worthwhile material in all of that, but if the film were any longer, it would really start to grate.
As it is, it feels a bit too long, but knowing that it’s true makes the length feel more justified. When the credits rolled, I had enjoyed myself quite a bit, but I felt as if the joke had overstayed its welcome. When a director is working by Skype, there are only so many ways communication can break down that keep things new and interesting, and they have all really taken place by the sixty minute mark. Believing that I was watching a ruse, I just wanted him to show up on set with some fake American memorabilia (much like the director does in How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes) and finish everything off right. But he didn’t show up, because he was actually in Los Angeles the entire time. So what I thought was a faltering joke wasn’t a joke at all. What was and was not falsified none of us will ever know, but the broad concept upon which the film is based is sound, and undoubtedly much of the events onscreen were as well.
What is important is that these were conversations that actually took place. Whether E. J-Yong had any influence over them doesn’t really matter. The discussion about bathing suits and Hong Sang-Soo was almost certainly real, as were the discussions of a prank the entire cast pulled on the director (which he admitted in the Q&A to having been completely fooled by). On a moment to moment basis, even if Kim Ok-Vin (who worked with E. J-Yong on Actresses) made it sound like she was more annoyed than she was, there weren’t 83 pages of script handed around to everyone before shooting started. Maybe there were five or ten, maybe there were some basic scenarios written out as they had been in Actresses, or maybe it was completely and entirely improvised/natural action and conversation. E. J-Yong won’t say, but so what?
Behind the Camera is the document of a truly bizarre act of filmmaking, one that really could have never taken place even five years ago. Sure, Skype has been around for nearly a decade, but internet connections capable of both keeping Skype calls running and putting live feeds from cameras across the Pacific Ocean certainly weren’t. Neither were cell phones that could act as semi-decent replacements for actual equipment. I don’t know if this will be the first and only time that a director decides to put together a film from nearly 6000 miles away or if it’s just the beginning of some kind of revolution, but I know that right now there is nothing else like it.
E. J-Yong can now claim to be a Hollywood director, and even if it’s by some bizarre technicality, Behind the Camera is undoubtedly one of the most original ideas to come from Hollywood in the past few years. And for that, the film (and its creator) should be celebrated.