For the love of filmmaking

13 Jan 2019

By Rachel Chiu

Associate Professor Chul Heo, 52, has directed more than 15 films in the past two decades.

When Associate Professor Chul Heo first arrived in the United States for his post-graduate studies in 1996, he was taken aback by the racial discrimination Asian-Americans faced.

Being of Asian descent himself, he could relate to the struggles Asian-Americans experienced, and wanted to give them a voice.

Two years later, that voice came in the form of his directorial debut Between Two Worlds, a documentary illustrating the struggles of young Asian-Americans who were caught between a traditional Asian way of life and a Western society that harboured several racial stereotypes.

Today, the 52-year-old continues to shine a spotlight on issues he is passionate about through his films. Besides directing documentaries and movies, Prof Heo is also imparting his filmmaking knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers as an Associate Professor at the School of Art, Media and Design (ADM), a role he took on last year.

Film inspirations

Prof Heo decided to pursue his filmmaking dream by enrolling in the Master of Fine Arts programme at Brooklyn College, New York in 1996, after completing his undergraduate studies in Korea University.

His interest in filmmaking was first sparked by his passion for music and the fact that music can be visualised through music videos, he said. Music videos for songs like Another Brick in the Wall by rock band Pink Floyd have been his sources of inspiration, and he originally even wanted to direct music videos, he added.

In New York, he discovered the beauty of film and realised he could continue his interest in music through filmmaking, he said.

“Film is a comprehensive medium and can include different elements like music, lighting, colour and other aesthetic elements,” he added.

In the years since his first film was released in 1998, Prof Heo has gone on to direct more than 15 films, and many of them tackle social issues.

His most recent film The Return was inspired by the 2014 Sewol Ferry Disaster that occurred in South Korea. There were over 300 fatalities, and many of the victims were high school students.

Released in 2017, the feature film tells the story of a group of characters who patronise a makgeolli (Korean traditional rice wine) shop, each waiting for a loved one to return.

They frequent the shop because of a sign hung there which reads “If you drink makgeolli here, the people you miss will return”, but some of them wait in vain.

The film was an allusion to the lack of closure that relatives of the victims received, said Prof Heo.

“I wanted to make a film based on the sentiment of parents of the victims of the incident who would do anything to bring their children back but never got a clear answer,” he added.

The movie was screened at 56 cinema theatres in South Korea for three weeks after its release. It was well-received in the film festival circuit, and won the Golden Zenith Award at the 41st Montreal World Film Festival in 2017. To Prof Heo, the award was a form of affirmation.

“This award was a very big encouragement because although commercial markets may not recognise the film, an international film festival has found it to be good,” he said.

In any case, directing a commercial hit has always been the least of his concerns.

“For me, film is purely where I can talk about social issues and present them to the audience,” he added.

A passion for teaching

Prior to joining NTU, Prof Heo taught film and television courses at San Francisco State University and his alma mater Korea University, for seven and five years respectively.

“Teaching was something my faculty advisors at Brooklyn College encouraged me to pursue,” he said.

“They felt I had intellectual curiosity about the world, and that I could learn more through teaching and filmmaking at the same time,” he added.

Last January, Prof Heo joined the ADM faculty. He chose to teach in Singapore because of its diversity, he said.

“Singapore is very multicultural and I feel very comfortable being here. I can utilise my Western education here and make Asian films at the same time,” he added.

He currently teaches courses on digital film production and the history of world cinema, and hopes to inspire his students to make films that are rooted in their culture.

“I hope my students can make films based on Southeast Asia’s context and history rather than just blindly following popular culture,” he said.

Besides sharing his knowledge, Prof Heo also sees his job as an opportunity to learn from his students.

“I regard my students as my colleagues. I get a lot of good insights from them, and I can offer them advice on mistakes that I have made before,” he said.

Looking ahead

Although Prof Heo now lectures in ADM, he is still active as a director and has a new film in the works.

His next film is Korean – its title loosely translates to Cartoon World in English, and is slated to be released in 2020.

“The film is about two North and South Korean spies who have a passion for cartoon drawing and work under a cartoonist as assistants, but it isn’t like the usual spy movies where a mission is involved,” he said.

Instead, the film highlights the hardships that artists face. Prof Heo was inspired mainly by his own struggles as an artist as well as the passion of other young Korean artists he has interacted with throughout his career.

“Even though these artists are always struggling, they do get real happiness from doing what they love,” he said, adding that he wanted to illustrate the struggle of balancing the pursuit of one’s passions with the need to have a stable job.

After over 20 years in the filmmaking industry, Prof Heo hopes that he will be able to continue to shed light on social issues in his films instead of merely providing entertainment. While there are currently no platforms for international audiences to watch his films, they are available on Internet Protocol television in South Korea.

“I believe that as filmmakers, we make films to touch people’s hearts be it through drama or documentary,” he said.

“We can use it to invite the audience to think about important social issues and question whether we are really doing our part for humankind.”