“Can you mourn for a person of whom you have no memory?” Seoul-born French filmmaker Noh Young Sun asks this in her debut documentary feature Yukiko, an artistic response to the revelation that her mother was the daughter of a Japanese woman and her Korean lover in the aftermath of the Korean war. The film revisits her family history across two countries and three generations and is a poetic study of fragmented testimonies and the complicated nature of loss. We sat down with Noh Young Sun at the London Korean Film Festival to hear more about the origins of the film and how her working process took shape.
SQ: The film explores a part of your history that you only discovered eight years ago when your mother told you her story. What made you decide to make this film now?
Noh Young Sun: I started making the film five years ago. The first time I learnt of this story I was of course quite shocked. Not by the fact that my grandmother was Japanese — I mean, that’s a fact you cannot change — but by the fact that my mother had kept it secret. There was this whole part of her life that she hadn’t told me about… that was a shock. I spent several years trying to find any trace of my grandmother. I went to Tokyo where I tried to find people who knew her and I couldn’t find anyone. I spent some time trying to understand this story that had never been told.
There’s a line in the film where your mother says ‘there is no beautiful or moving story, no story from which to make the film.’ You’ve taken this incomplete information and created something rich with meaning. What did you find most challenging about making this story?
I asked myself, how do I tell a story which has many holes? The story was incomplete. I felt that the relationship between my grandmother and my mother was somehow being repeated with my mother and I. This notion of ‘non-transmission’ was very interesting to me. I started to write the voice-over for the text telling my mother’s story and at first I called her ‘the woman’. The first time my mother talked about my grandmother, she referred to her as a ‘Japanese woman’ because she had never called her ‘mother’ and in effect had never accepted her as one. It was very difficult to tell my mother’s story, because I realised I didn’t know her and that I too had not accepted her as my ‘mother’. Calling my mother ‘a woman’ allowed me to start talking about this relationship but by the middle of the film I start referring to her as ‘this mother’ and ‘my mother’. I realise now that making this film was – for me personally – a process to accept my mother and in a way, to become a daughter again.
The film is interspersed with some beautiful shots of the countryside in rural Japan and Korea. Could you tell us why you chose to structure the film in this way?
This is a story about two islands. The island was a leitmotif for me – and a kind of internal landscape. I thought that it was a good way to portray the two women – my mother on this island in Korea and my grandmother on Okinawa. There were a mother and daughter isolated from each other and attempting to reach a certain dialogue with each other. Through the island landscape I tried to talk about the emotions that couldn’t be spoken about in words. The Korean island I shot on is kind of a ‘no-man’s land’. It is close to the border to North Korea, so there were no people but I wanted to show this kind of landscape not only to represent absence but as a place full of emotions. For me It was important to talk about the present, not the past and what this landscape means to us today. It represents a lot of emotions and is full of trauma that we perhaps cannot express in words.
Sound plays a powerful role in the film, providing an immersive experience for the viewer and establishing a sense of time and place. Could you tell us more about the way you approached the sound design?
I love speaking about the sound in my film. I worked with the sound editor Bertrand Larrieu. He’s also a musician who makes electronic and experimental music and that’s the reason I chose him as our sound editor. We went through a long process to create the soundscape – for us it was important to create a sense of musicality and try to ‘musicalise’ every sound and every noise – that was important for us.
Were the sounds all recorded on location?
No, Bertrand recreated a lot of sounds like the wind and waves. Sometimes I would suggest some samples of electronic music, and then he would go away and work with it, making changes. Sometimes it would have nothing to do with my first suggestion and the opposite of what I had imagined but it worked because it matched the emotion. Also, he would not necessarily try to achieve ‘realistic’ sounds of the landscape, such as the waves for example. There’s a scene in the film towards the end of the Okinawa segment where the sound is very big and not very natural. He would subtly create music out of those natural sounds.
There are women featured in the film who appear to stand in for absent members of your family and indirectly convey your story. How did you find these women and did you work with them to develop the script?
In the case of the woman who speaks about her ancestors, she was someone I met by chance. I wanted to interview older ladies in Okinawa which was difficult and she was one of the coordinators who introduced me to them. At one point, she told me “My grandmother had often told a story like this and but she passed away several years ago. It’s a shame I couldn’t introduce you to her.” After completing all the interviews, I went back to Paris and the story that moved me the most was this woman’s story. There was of course a connection with my own because her grandmother had also lost her daughter and I was very moved by the fact that it was her granddaughter telling her story. That was very important. I heard lots of mother-and-daughter stories in Okinawa and every story was moving but her words really touched me because she had a really strong relationship with her grandmother.
At first, I interviewed her in a conventional manner and then I suggested that she tell her story in the form of a first-person narrative. But telling a story this way is a bit strange for us because in the Japanese and Korean language we can tell a story without using the pronoun ‘I’. We can create a sentence without the subject. When you watch the film with subtitles the meaning is very clear, but for Japanese people, at first there is a doubt and it’s not immediately clear who is speaking. I asked her to recount her grandmother’s experience, not imitating her, but as if she had gone through it herself. I wanted to catch the moment she tried to find her own voice. I told her I didn’t want to interview her just because her grandmother wasn’t there. I wanted to capture her story through her own body and in her own voice. This was really important to me.
There’s a beautiful scene in the film, where the voice-over tells us that your mother followed a shaman praying for 99 days at 99 mountains. The camera swings back and forth as we hear the words ‘one night, two nights…’. What you were looking to communicate in this scene?
This scene was shot by chance actually. I didn’t decide in advance that I was going to shoot in that way. I was not very proud about the fact that my mother had done gone to a shaman. It is not a rational thing – so I think it’s generally viewed badly in society. For a long time I was very ashamed of this – the fact she had done this. I added that line ‘one night, two nights…’ because somehow I was attempting to convey the fact that although it was not rational, my mother tried to do everything for her daughter. So it was a way for me to accept her again, to say yes, what she did was for me.
This is a highly personal story and one that your mother carried alone for many years till she chose to share it with you. How did your mother feel about the film and was there any reluctance on her part to participate in the film at first?
It took me a long time to ask her if I could make a film about her mother. I think she felt ‘I can’t say no because you want to make a film about your grandmother’. I think that if I lived with my mother in Seoul I never would have had the courage to make this film. I live in Paris and have a physical distance from her, and this allowed my mother and I to talk about the story. Also, she was very happy that I came back to Korea to make this film. She was just happy to see me again!
The camera follows your mother at home: cooking and watching television and we hear her story and words through the voice-over. It occurred to me later that we never actually hear your mother herself speak. Why did you choose to approach these scenes in this manner?
Initially, I interviewed her in a conventional way, but it was very difficult for her to tell her story in front of the camera. I think perhaps it wasn’t obvious to viewers, but you hear one voice early in the film that belongs to my mother. She says ‘there is a beautiful sunset.’ I don’t anyone would recognise her but I think it was important to put even that one sentence in the voice of my mother. Otherwise it would be her mother’s story instead of her own.
It reminds me of another lovely moment in the film that takes place at the care home on Okinawa island where one of the residents addresses the camera and says ‘bye bye.’
This wasn’t the nursing home where my grandmother lived. I looked at various homes and found this place and found it very moving and everyone was so welcoming to me. That lady was more than a hundred years old at the time and passed away last year. Sometimes I felt that although I interviewed a lot of the elderly ladies, it was difficult for me to have an intimate experience with them. But I still wanted to show them, to show viewers, they could walk even if they are a hundred years old and that they are still alive. The woman in that scene was conscious of my presence behind the camera and I was very touched by this gesture. All these ladies went through the Okinawa war. It was one of the most tragic wars in Asia and a quarter of the population was killed so these ladies are survivors.
There’s a line in the film where you say ‘it is difficult to understand this woman, this mother’. Has the process of making this film deepened your understanding of her as a person and perhaps opened up a new line of communication?
NYS: I don’t think our relationship changed the day we finished making the film. I think it changes every day – from the moment I started shooting her to when I showed her the finished film and again when she watched it with a public audience. I like to sometimes say that I ‘cut the cord’ between mother and baby. In the past, I had always wanted to move far away from my mother but now I feel more independent because I have accepted her. So, I still have that physical distance but in other ways, I feel closer to her too.
Yukiko screened at the London Korean Film Festival on November 11th
by Anjana Janardhan
Anjana Janardhan is a designer and writer based in London. She writes about film and visual culture for publications including Wilma Journal, BFI, Sight & Sound and Port magazine. Her favourite films include Three Colours Blue, You Were Never Really Here and Hiroshima Mon Amour. She has a particular interest in artists’ moving image, sound design in cinema, character studies and observational documentaries. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and see more of her work here.