The Film Reporter interviewed Joon Bai regarding his film "The Other Side of the Mountain"
Q: What was your overall role?
A: My overall role was producer, executive producer as well as writer. Because of the sensitive and precarious nature of the film, I had to be hands on in the overall production, development and post while traveling numerous times to North Korea.
Q: Did you always want to be in the film Industry?
A: No, I've been a business man and always appreciated movies since my childhood, but didn't think that I would be pursuing a filmmaking tradition until this opportunity to work with the DPRK film industry naturally presented itself during my sixteen years of aid work there.
Q: Tell us how The Other Side of the Mountain (TOSM) evolved.
This film has been a labor of love from the beginning. I was actively involved in humanitarian work in North Korea for over sixteen years helping the orphanages and developing the agricultural sector when I realized a great need and impact for a film for and from the people of North Korea to bridge a love and understanding of the widely misconstrued or unknown citizens of the country. So I began to write a script, which took years of patience of rewriting and making compromises to reach an agreement with the North Korean ministry of culture to come to a mutually satisfying script. And with the collaboration of their film group, the wonderful actors and actresses, musicians, director and all the other local crew and staff involved in making the film, it came to be a truly unique and meaningful experience as well as a film with all our collective hearts and souls poured into it.
Q: Did you have any unusual difficulties during filming?
Aside from the traditional difficulties of making a movie and with all the problems and things that can go wrong, add to it that this was my first film, on top of working with North Korea's film group from the U.S., the lack of technology and open communication with the country, countless flights that take days just to get there, and to top it off hours and days of flight delays and being stuck in the hotels there, this film was a feat to just get it completed!
Q: Will winning awards help promote the film? How so?
Yes, it would help raise awareness on our cause, bring attention to the film and most importantly, get more people to watch the film.
Q: How long did it take to make the film?
The film took over eight years to finish from the screenwriting phase to the final edit. It took such a long time due to the nature of the international production and going back and forth between the countries with delayed communication, story compromises and production setbacks, technical delays, and scheduling. Everything needs to be approved and clear to be scrutinized carefully and that took a vast amount of time, energy and patience.
Q: How much money did it cost?
I provided new and old equipment (camera, sound, lighting, etc.) and passion so it's hard to say exactly how much value to price it.
Q: Where were the locations?
The film was shot entirely in North Korea in the cities of Pyongyang, Gaesung, Shiniju and other small, rural mountain towns in the surrounding areas. We did some post production work in China due to limited resources to finish and color the film.
Q: To what audience is TOSM suited?
Though it gets much support with the older Korean population and older generations who know more about the history of the Korean war or those interested in North Korea, the film has resonated with a wide range of audiences and youth as a particular love story. Originally, the film was made for the North and South Korean people to further the cause of union with this story of painstaking love, since Korea is still divided and millions still suffer from this separation and not being able to reunite with their families and loved ones. So it's been popular and a success in North Korea, but has reached many audiences in the U.S. and other countries because of its truly special story behind the film as well the peace mission behind it all.
Q: Any interest yet from distributors?
We have not yet reached out to distributors.
Q: What was it like working with various actors? How did you go about choosing your actors?
The casting process was interesting because the system in North Korea is very different. For our auditions, we had the top actors come in for each role to cast them. Everyone was so excited, humbled and happy to be there. There were numerous times when I had to change directors, actors, and cinematographers during the course of production.
All the actors, crew and staff receive the same rations of food and a small amount of money from the government
so there is no individual payment or contracts. All our actors were cast in this way in North Korea with North Korean actors. They were wonderful to work with and have so much heart and love. It was a pleasure to work with such nice people.
Q: What has the feedback been so far?
As mentioned above, the film has been well received and people have responded to it very favorably. There have been many people from the audience who were touched by the film and have come up to me crying after the screening to share their connections with the film, which is the best thing a film can do! Every festival screening has been sold out so far and I believe that is a good indication of the audience's appreciation of the film.
Q: Are you working on any new projects?
No, not at the moment. For now, I'm trying to focus on this project and seeing it through to many more festivals and trying to organize public screenings to share with more people.
Q: Tell us about your own background. Where you were born? Where did you study film? What was your first movie? What was your previous job? Are you a full-time filmmaker?
I was born in North Korea and experienced the end of World War II in 1945 and then was taken to the South as a refugee when I was a child in 1950. I immigrated to the U.S. as an exchange student and earned a B.S.M.E. degree in 1965 at the University of Missouri and have been a business man since. I am not a filmmaker nor from a film background. I've been able to make this film because it was a passion project. I am still currently overseeing and operating my own business in manufacturing with 500 employees and three manufacturing locations in US and China.
Q: what was your first award? And how did you feel at that time?
It was the honorary Courage Award from the Disorient Film Festival in Oregon. It was gratifying to be acknowledged and given a special regard for our efforts.
Q: What was the best part of the project?
The best part about this project is knowing that our collective efforts of everyone involved and those who believe in its cause has already produced a great result- first in its making and being able to complete it, and even more that it is a film that has been affecting the hearts of people, especially in the North to encourage reunification and love for one country. It has also brought more interest and awareness around the world and in the U.S. which gives me a great satisfying and hopeful feeling.
Q: What was the most challenging?
One of the most challenging things was that many elements that are so accessible for filmmaking here is not available in the DPRK. Things such as aging make up, sync sound technology, high quality cameras, and digital post production facilities- it is bare bones, so in each department and process, we would have to order and ship a long way through China to deliver the products to use for the film to North Korea from the U.S. Each shipment consisted of a lot of work and hours and it would take weeks to arrives. Having such limited options made the project delay on many turns and we had to hold production several times until we could secure these things.
Q: Are you pleased with the overall outcome?
Yes, I'm proud to have a result of such a collaboration and more so that it is a classic love story that is true and close to my heart.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for the film?
It's for the reunion of the millions of separated families and the reunification of one Korea. I dream that this film will set a small fire in the hearts of our generation to yearn and strive for the peace on earth.
Q: What makes you a filmmaker?
My interest in wellbeing of mankind and to fulfill my commitment to the social responsibility; to deliver these issues and awareness to spread peace.
Q: Why is this subject important to you?
Because millions of families are still separated and suffering. It's a personal story that I relate to deeply because of my childhood and by telling this story, it sends our core message of love about the biggest human tragedy that still persists.
Q: Does this film send the message you intended?
Yes. Most importantly, it addresses the idea of eternal, everlasting love.
Q: Do most people just turn a blind eye when they hear of these issues?
I think it's hard for people to actively engage in the situation and conflict about North Korea since it is so political, but I do wish more was being done to resolve or aid the people in that country because it is one of the most urgent human rights crisis today.
Q: Why the title?
The Other Side of the Mountain is the other side of the country of Korea. Since it is divided into North and South by the 38th parallel, the other side of the mountain is where the characters long to be to be with each other. It seems close enough but they are actually mountains away.
Q: Advice to others who might like to follow in your footsteps?
Based on my story, I think the biggest lesson a young filmmaker could learn from my experience is perseverance. This project took many years to complete- almost a decade with many obstacles, but even though there were frustrations along the way, I was focused on the goal and did not give up. Sometimes when you hit road blocks, you just have to keep going. Have an honorable purpose and a passion to succeed, and you will reach and achieve your goal.
Q: is there anything in the past happened to you, that make you make this movie? If, yes, what is this?
When I was driving home one rainy day after work, I heard a shocking news program on KQED reporting about the millions of children who were dying of starvation in North Korea. It deeply affected me that so many innocent children and people were suffering and dying needlessly while we have such an abundance in the U.S. So I knew I had to do something about it to reach out and help. That is how I got involved with the orphanages and humanitarian work there, which later got me involved in developing this film.
Q: Is this a film that young people, college or high school students could benefit from?
Yes, absolutely. Not only is it an educational film about North Korea and the Korean War, it is also a love story that students can enjoy.
Q: Do you personally know anyone who inspires the movie?
Yes, two ladies: my mother and my wife.
Q: Has the film won any other awards?
The film won the honorary Courage Award at the Disorient Film Festival in 2013. It was a special distinction that the festival does not normally give.
Q: Anything new to date on the film?
The film will have be screening at the Cinema By the Bay in San Francisco this October and we expect to be screening in major cities in the US and other countries through other film festivals.
Q: Unique stories during the making of the film?
Our main actress and actor met through this film. They were playing lovers and actually fell in love during the shooting of the film! After the production, they got married and now they have a child. They've practically made me the child's grandfather.
Q: what sacrifices did you make to become a filmmaker?
The biggest sacrifice I had to make was the time I spent away from my family, especially my wife, while making the film. Because I had to travel many times to North Korea during the production, my wife spent many days alone even during the holidays. She made the biggest sacrifice to enable me to make this film and without her loving support and understanding, this film would not have been possible. This is the reason she is credited at the end of the film. So it is not my sacrifice but my loving wife Kyuhee's.
Q: what is the current condition in North and South Korea relation? Is there any hope?
There seems to be more communication lately and relations seem to have improved slightly but it is hard to tell how soon results will come. Yes, I do believe there is hope. Because without it we will never see unified Korea.
Q: How do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I will continue to promote this film, spreading the word to further this cause for Korea, and my humanitarian work for children and farmers in North Korea for the rest of my life.
© The Film Reporter 2013