July 21st, 2011, marked the beginning of the 3rd annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto. Co-programmed by the J-Film Pow-Wow’s Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye’s Jasper Sharp, the event was originally conceived to help spread North American awareness and exposure to Japanese independent films. Despite sweltering conditions brought about by a heat wave that, at that point, was overstaying its welcome in the city, the impressive Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, which has served as the festival’s venue since its first run in 2009, nonetheless attracted a number of distinguished guests who were there to represent their efforts. Joining director and comedian Devi Kobayashi (Mariko Rose the Spook, Hikari), fifteen year-old filmmaker Ryugo Nakamura (The Catcher on the Shore), his film’s producer Yuichi Ide and Gen Takahashi, whose Confessions of a Dog was one of the highlights of last year’s festival, was actress and producer Kiki Sugino, accompanying the opening night film Hospitalité.
Hospitalité (2010), written, edited and directed by Koji Fukada, focuses on a family whose small home also holds the print shop that keeps them afloat. Within the dwelling lives the proprietor Kobayashi, his wife Natsuki (Sugino), his young daughter from a previous marriage and his sister. Shortly after posting a flyer for their lost parakeet, their peace is thrown off-balance by the arrival of self-designated slacker Kagawa, who gets himself a job working at the press and shortly thereafter brings his Caucasian wife into the household. The newcomer soon proves to be an uncomfortable presence as he pries into his hosts’ personal affairs and takes it upon himself to bring even more strangers into the press and home, prompting a consideration of such topics as family relationships, the working class and cross-cultural interaction in contemporary Japanese society.
Having worked on a number of film productions, Sugino has also served as an actress and producer on the short film Exhalation (2010), directed by Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo, in which she plays a young woman who reunites with an old school friend and travels back to her former hometown in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, for a classmate’s funeral. Based in Tokyo, Yeo has steadily been establishing himself as a significant figure in the Asian film scene, having served as a producer and editor for Woo Ming Jin’s features Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009) and The Tiger Factory (2010), which he also co-wrote, and directed such other lyrical short films as Love Suicides (2009), Kingyo (2009), The White Flower (2010) and Inhalation (2010).
Shortly before Sugino ended her visit to Canada, I was able to sit down with her to discuss her experiences as an actress and producer, cultural identity as a Zainichi Korean born in Japan, collaborations with Fukada and Yeo and plans for the future.
You work in the Asian film community as both an actress and a producer. Which area did you first decide to pursue?
In 2005, I debuted as an actress in a Korean film called One Shining Day, and at that point, I didn’t think about producing. In 2006, I returned to Japan and was acting in a few films. I wasn’t very interested in the Japanese movies that were in production at the time, so it actually came to a point that I wanted to create a movie I would want to be involved in as an actress, and that came about in 2008.
One of the very first films you acted in was Kim Ki-duk’s Time from 2006. Was this a valuable experience for you at this early stage of your career?
I’ve been heavily influenced by Kim Ki-duk’s films, and I think that those films will always have a great impact on me. He may be my favorite director, actually, and I occasionally exchange e-mails with him, asking him whether something is a good idea or not. At the Munich International Film Festival, he saw Hospitalité and commented that it was very interesting, and he wanted people around the world to see it.
What initially attracted you to Hospitalité?
In 2009, Koji Fukada passed me a short script for me to read, and it left a huge impression on me. It wasn’t as if its main idea was imposed on me – it was an idea that naturally made an impression. I wanted to make it into a full-length movie, because it basically was a script for a 30-minute short film, but short films don’t often get much screen time in Japan. So, I wanted to make it longer, and to get it distributed as widely as possible. For that, I actually suggested to him to lengthen it and make it into a full-length movie.
How was your relationship with Koji Fukada while making Hospitalité? Could you describe how he works as a director?
He was very humble, intelligent, and very kind. There are many directors in the business who can be violent, verbally abusive and sometimes resort to acts of sexual harassment even. They abuse their power. But he had the policy of not doing any of those things. While having a core of values that he would not move away from, he was very flexible in any other respect. He was extremely easy to work with, and we were extremely communicative during the entire production process. This is what I thought as a producer. As an actress, I felt that his direction was not imposing in any way, and he didn’t use adjectives – he used verbs. He didn’t use words that would provoke an emotional response. So, he left it to the actors to rely upon their own imaginations and their own abilities to express what the script held.
Something that most people might not be aware of is your Zainichi Korean background. Because of this aspect of your identity, did you find yourself connecting more closely to Hospitalité’s story material – particularly the issue of people from other cultures merging into Japanese society?
The reason why I decided to take on this movie was that I wanted to open up the closed nature of Japanese culture myself, and I wanted to break apart the values entrenched in Japanese society. That had a lot to do with the fact that I am Zainichi Korean. I spent a year studying in Korea, and in that time, I really thought about where I should live. That question was present in my mind the entire time. And after a while, I realized that it didn’t matter, that I should really just live where I feel I should live. There’s a character called Kagawa in the movie, and people can see him as maybe a bad person, or possibly a good person, but we didn’t look at him in those ways. We saw him as a revolutionary figure bringing about revolutionary change. The idea of Kagawa as a person, and whether he’s good or evil and even his last words in the movie – these things will bring about some reactions and ways of thinking from the people in the audience. The reactions will reflect the people watching the movie, and that sort of amplifies the movie according to each person. The effect of the movie becomes larger because of each person’s individual reaction to it.
You’ve also recently been involved as an actress and producer on another film project – Edmund Yeo’s short film Exhalation, which was shot in Japan in Fujino, Kanagawa Prefecture and Shibuya, Tokyo. Could you describe how you first met and began to work with him?
I met Edmund through Woo Ming Jin at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2009; I met Woo Ming Jin in 2008 at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Edmund’s a really funny guy – I really love his character, and I really, truly believe that he wouldn’t be out of place as an actor. We met in October in 2009, and by December we had already created a short film. We chatted, exchanged e-mails and were asking each other what we wanted to do and what kind of story we wanted, and all of a sudden it just became a reality. Maybe the reason why we got so friendly is because our birthdays are five days apart – we were born in the same year. Plus, I’m a Korean living in Japan, and he’s a Chinese-Malaysian in Japan as well, so we had that search for identity in common with each other, and I felt that we had very close values. I think it would be great if we could make more films with an international perspective.
What would you say is the big difference in directing styles between Edmund and Fukada-san?
Edmund is the type where he’s basically worrying all the way up to when the shooting starts, then he makes a split-second decision right before everything happens. He has a very strong overall vision, but he does worry about specific things like visuals, the little details – those are the things he worries about. He loves Tarkovsky, and you can probably see that in his images. In contrast, Fukada-san already has something in mind before he comes to the filming, so he doesn’t really worry about little details. He doesn’t really talk about details of the characters. He’s not imposing something on the actors – he wants to actually pull something out of them. They have very dissimilar styles.
From an acting perspective, Exhalation seems like a challenging project – it focuses on the unexpected death of a classmate and has a number of serious and contemplative scenes. Hospitalité, on the other hand, is noticeably lighter in tone, though it also has some emotionally intense moments. Which film did you find more challenging as an actress?
Both of them were challenging, of course. I don’t think anything like a simple acting role exists. When you act, you are portraying a person whose life is very different from your own. You have to look at what they like, what kind of clothes they wear – you have to take on the persona of a person who is completely different from who you are. And I think that it takes a lot of energy to do that and I should do my best when I’m taking on that kind of role. What I think is very similar between the two characters is they don’t express their feelings very much, and they don’t have much dialogue either. Also, their facial expressions aren’t highly expressive. I myself am a very emotional person – I would express any emotion I would be feeling at the time. I would say exactly what was on my mind, so for me, they are extremely different from who I am.
Are there any upcoming projects you are currently involved with?
I’m working on my next movie with Koji Fukada [currently titled La fille sans mains]. We’re thinking of filming in the fall. It’s a fairy tale about a girl with no arms. We’re going to film it as a sort of period piece in Japanese history. I’m also planning something with Nobuteru Uchida. I’m involved in both of these projects as a producer and actress. I have over five other projects in the works as well. One of them I’m preparing as director – I’m in the midst of writing the screenplay. It’s called Aioi Bridge, and I’d like to film it in Hiroshima, where I was born.
Marc Saint-Cyr is an occasional contributor to the VCinema Blog and has most recently appeared on the VCinema Podcast to participate in its three-part series on the New Taiwan Cinema. He is a staff writer for the J-Film Pow-Wow and has contributed to the first and second volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and World Film Locations: Tokyo from Intellect Ltd. as well as such publications as Midnight Eye, Row Three, Senses of Cinema and Toronto Film Scene.
Very special thanks to Maki Klotz for helping arrange this interview and Tatsu Oki for his translation services.