Members of the Funeral is an inventive, clever film from first-time South Korean director Baek Seung-bin, which screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. Constructing the narrative around the funeral of a teenage boy named Hee-joon, the director uses flashbacks to trace the individual relationships that three family members – father, mother and daughter – had with the deceased 17-year-old, an aspiring writer whose debut novel mirrors the lives of the complex and intriguing family.
Electric Sheep‘s Sarah Cronin asks Baek Seung-bin about funerals and storytelling.
Sarah Cronin: What was your inspiration for the story?
Baek Seung-bin:When I lost one of my family members a few years ago, the bereaved endured the period of mourning in silence. But at some point, silence seems to become a way of life, not just a way of mourning. It seems to me that we, the bereaved, are the dead, not the one whose ashes have already scattered in the air a long time ago. That was the time when I had the idea for this story.
SC: The narrative situation also recalls Pasolini’s Theorem. Was that an influence on the film?
BS:Theorem is my favourite Pasolini film, so possibly, yes. But I didn’t think of the film intentionally while I was writing the script.
SC: Why did you choose to structure the story around a series of deaths and funerals, with Hee-joon’s at the centre?
BS: This film is about people being affected by death and loss. So I put the funeral at the centre of the film, and made all the characters gather around it. Whose funeral it is was the most important thing in this context. I needed someone who can trigger memories of death and loss buried in each character’s mind, and he is Hee-joon. Hee-joon should be the central figure because he is the only one who can give the feeling of being a member of a family to the other characters, and make them meet up altogether.
SC: The film is built around a number of echoes, not just the various funerals, but also the novel that mirrors the film, and the repetition of words and attitudes in the different relationships. What was the idea behind this?
BS: The original scenario had even more echoes and counterpoints. You may have heard of a music terminology, canon. I wanted to apply canon structure into film. I tried to make a structure of variation, for example, the second chapter becomes a repetition or variation of the first chapter. Although I couldn’t 100% embody that, I was seeking the most relevant structure to describe the various characters’ influence on each other, to give hints of what had happened to them through the novel.
SC: Jeong-hee, the mother, treats her students in the same horrible way that she was treated by her grandfather. Are you suggesting that people can only perpetuate the same behaviour that they’ve experienced in the past?
BS: I was trying to show that no one can be 100% freed from trauma, rather than suggesting people can only perpetuate that behaviour.
SC: The dead boy is passive in some ways, and by just letting the mother, the father (and the daughter to a certain extent) impose certain kinds of relationships on him, he reveals the secret vulnerabilities of each of the characters. Is that his role in the story?
BS: The boy must be the most vague, fuzzy, unrecognisable figure. Hence, he never appears on screen by himself. He is there to reveal the complexities and hurts of each family member. So his vulnerabilities are also part of his plan, in this respect.
SC:The boy remains an enigma and an absence at the heart of the story. Is he meant to represent the author of the film in some way?
BS: Hee-joon doesn’t look like a real person, flesh and blood. It is because he does represent the author of the film. But this story cannot be completed without him.
SC: The father, Joon-ki, is a very complex figure. What is more important to him – the physical contact with Hee-joon or the idea of being a father to him?
BS: Joon-ki’s father has been ill for almost half of his life. So young Joon-ki wanted to obey to, moreover, be in love with his coach, who seems to be a strong and healthy man. But it turns out that the coach was not the powerful man, the father figure he was looking for. What would happen when this traumatised boy becomes an adult, a father? I thought he would want to find a son, and be in love with him under the mask of a father.
SC: Ah-mi, the daughter, seems to have embraced death from an early age after she loses her cat and her best friend, and as a result seems like a happier person than her parents. Why?
BS: It sounds interesting to me that you thought Ah-mi is happier than her parents. I agree with you to some extent, but I don’t think she is ‘less unhappy’ than her parents. She is indifferent towards trauma and loss, but she doesn’t embrace them. It is also an unhappy result in a way. She seems relatively happy because she found a peace of mind with Jin-goo (the undertaker) in her own world. I hope she can find happiness eventually, so I put the scene where she burst into tears after seeing the corpse of Hee-joon at the end of the film.
SC: In the last shot you show Hee-joon at his own funeral. Are you suggesting that everything that has happened before is a work of fiction, that he’s arranged everything?
BS: It would be better to let audiences interpret the ending, probably. But talking about the scene of Hee-joon present at his own funeral, I wasn’t intending to tell the audience that what they have seen was all fiction from the beginning. Precisely speaking, I didn’t present Hee-joon the dead, but introduced the narrator who has been reading the story of ‘Members of the funeral’ for the first time.
SC: In the last few years Korean cinema has gone from strength to strength – what do you think is responsible for the growing success and popularity of the country’s cinema?
BS: I think it is because many young, passionate filmmakers are coming out in Korea. Digital media encourages them and helps to set up a new paradigm of independent production. But above all, the Korean film industry is full of passion and vibrancy. That is behind all those wonderful films, I think.
Interview by Sarah Cronin