An embittered old musician embarks upon a journey which becomes the outward manifestation of his inner landscape.
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Forest Ian Etsler, Sébastien Simon
Main image: Lead actor Hachi Kasuga (sitting) and co-star Tetsu Kono (standing) journeying aboard the film's main prop, which is meant to evoke the Greek myth of Charon ferrying the souls of the dead on the Styx river.
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Sébastien: The Troubled Troubadour was the opportunity to expand the fruitful collaboration that Forest and I started with our previous shorts, especially the fiction One-minded, but to go in completely opposite directions creatively. One-minded was an almost all-indoor, very controllable shooting in Forest’s place in Seoul, while the Troubadour was almost all on location in another Korean city (Busan) with a crew composed of locals, Seoulites and foreigners from various countries… Narratively and logistically, it was just more ambitious and on a more epic scale. Carrying our boat around, we saw this project as our miniature Fitzcarraldo.
Forest: The timing was such that The Troubled Troubadour got made as my MFA thesis film from Dongkuk Univ. (Seoul, South Korea). I reckon that along with this academic pretext, the mild success of our previous film, One-minded, and the discovery of this film’s location afflicted Sébastien and me so much—and filled us with so much unfounded courage—that we engaged in the work of this film like a mission, of sorts.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Sébastien: How many other spiritual road movies disguised as an allegorical fable and veering towards the fantasy, musical and western genres have you watched recently?
Forest: Hmmm… The Troubled Troubadour is a film for anyone who wants a full-immersive cinematic experience. We had always planned for it to be properly viewed on the big screen with the professional sound system. Tremendous.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Sébastien: In March 2015, I took a stroll with my girlfriend and we bumped into these abandoned train tracks in the Haeundae district in Busan city (they have now become a big touristic landmark), and I immediately took pictures of this unique place to send to Forest. The Troubled Troubadour tells the story of a wandering, struggling, foreign artist in Korea, where Forest and I have been living for years (but coming in and out of regularly), trying to call our home, developing our film projects, falling in love… In terms of personal themes, it’s almost on the nose. But, right from the start, our goal with this movie was really to weave various local and foreign myths, legends and ritualistic elements together in order to imbue the film with a sense of universality and timelessness.
Forest: I reckon that personal and universal themes in The Troubled Troubadour work like the film's DNA. Personally, I put a lot of my own experiences like witnessing my grandfather’s death and the abrupt loss of my father. But, we would benefit from adding another pair of words to consider: punctual and infinite. To be honest, all that is really at work in this film is the dance between those core elements of personal/punctual and universal/infinite, and the synthesis of said dance (however awkward it might be)—both by the filmmakers for the audience and by the audience for themselves. We made the grand compromise of relying on the film’s cinematic, hyper-reality to maintain the audiences’ suspension of disbelief, and from there we employed various genre motifs before setting forth and making a fairly unconventional-looking film using a strange grab-bag of rather conventional cinematic components. The ultimate goal was to create a film that had a heart and soul and could be counted on to ensure a transcendental experience for each and every viewer, view after view, year after year, ad nauseam.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
Sébastien: Following the discovery of these train tracks, Forest and I spent an entire week-end feverishly exchanging ideas, taking notes and writing drafts of scenes, while keeping one constant in mind: whatever we will end up shooting must fit the existing location. If memory serves, the bulk of the story (an old musician on his ultimate road trip) and the main concepts (mixing genres and myths), stemmed out of that first session, and later on we followed the general course set during that week-end - simply refining each scene as more ideas came to us. In the writing stage, I would say that thinking of an actual boat as the means of transport for the main characters crystallized the project and firmly gave it its fantastical tone.
But one scene involving a shamanistic exorcism was always the hardest to write right and, for us, the most critical to the integrity of the movie. We actually shot it last, comfortably in studio in Seoul, weeks after the main shooting in Busan. And only when we finally inserted it in the rough cut did the whole start to coalesce and satisfy us. Eventually, our director of cinematography, Choi Seongho, suggested that we even switch to black-and-white for that scene, and that was literally the final decision we took before validating the edit. Alas, sound mixing and visual effects took another long months of hard work!
Forest: Yikes, hard to answer. Well, the script really stopped developing when we had reached a point where we had acquired a more than sufficient amount of totally cinematic locations. Really, we wrote the script based on the locations. We never intended this movie to make some grand statement or have an over-arching message for every viewer to take home. Rather, we fully trusted that the location and the components we would add to that locale would be suitable foundation.
We wanted to get as much input and creative ownership out of every staff and crew member, as possible. So, that was an ongoing development, even down to the different colorings of takes for one shot. But after coming to our personal and production limits, I don’t recall much change. As for the evolution of the film, I think we were so far in under our heads (from the production side) that rather than ‘evolution’ of the film we were more concerned with salvaging our core and focusing all our and our crews’ efforts and ideas towards ensuring a healthy birth of a film that may, by the graces of the movie gods, become animated on the screen and affecting enough to be taken home by viewers like you all.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Sébastien: The Troubadour has been a late bloomer in festivals. After our world premiere at the 42nd Seoul Independent Film Festival in December 2016, we had no selections for months, which felt disheartening. It all changed after July 2017, and since then we’ve had monthly (sometimes weekly!) selections, which has been great. And January 2018, with two selections in Küstendorf International Film & Music Festival (Emir Kusturica’s film festival in Serbia) and in Slamdance Film Festival, promises to be amazing! In terms of audience feedback, I have yet to hear someone disliking the movie. Generally, it seems to be an enjoyable, evocative and unpredictable ride for everyone who sees it, which is exactly what we set out to do.
Forest: Lots of feedback, mainly good-ish. The people that like it have a lot to say, and even those who didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the film still tend to maintain a curiosity towards the work. As of today, no one has reproached us for making the film. So, I guess that’s good…or maybe it isn’t.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Sébastien: Abroad, the main surprise is always that most people don’t recognize that characters in the movie keep switching between the Japanese and Korean languages, so it’s always fun to see people’s faces in the audience light up when we reveal that and explain why. The biggest surprise however was in Korea, seeing the movie get into slightly bigger festivals than we were used to so far, for instance the Mise-en-scene Short Film Festival (http://msff.or.kr/en/) which is considered in high regards by the film industry and by professionals in Korea. We even got offered by the KOFIC (Korean Film Council) that the Troubadour be included in their online database for use by festival programmers and buyers, meaning it’s considered as a Korean film. Until recently, this wasn’t necessarily how films made by foreigners in Korea were usually viewed, so it’s an interesting sign of change. Recently, hearing from Ms Yoon Nari, the main programmer of the Gosichon Short Film Festival (http://www.gosff.com/) in Seoul, that the Troubadour is her « favorite Korean short film from 2017 » was particularly touching.
Forest: After telling a dear friend and fellow Seoul-based filmmaker, Marco Tessiore, about the project, he rather nonchalantly commented that The Troubled Troubadour sounds more like a feature film. If you’re going to all this trouble, then make it into a feature. My heart sunk. I knew that he was right, and that we had neither the courage, the wherewithal, nor the resources to turn this project into a feature. As well, I felt that what he said was so truthful yet so far from reality.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Sébastien: Via your questions, simply reflecting on the journey that has been the arduous making of the Troubadour, and writing these words, has been an interesting, and rather cathartic, exercise. By the way, thank you very much for highlighting our work on your website once again! More so than our previous films, and although this is still just a short film, it challenged us, our resolve and our perseverance. Regrettably, it also put us at odds with several friends and loved ones whom we ended up vexing or wounding… It’s been quite the slice of life, for sure.
Forest: The film has had a long life, so whatever new viewership the film may gain thanks to wearemovingstories.com is a kind of bonus. I hope whomever may come to the film may enjoy the joy, questioning, and/or resonance that hopefully arises from a viewing of the film.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Sébastien: Sales agents and buyers of the world: pay heed to the songs of the Troubadour!
Forest: All the above. We hope the film finds the right audience and environment to thrive, and that from that thriving we can harness some elements that will be the fuel and fodder for future projects. So whomever comes on board to help in this process will be beneficial.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Sébastien: I really wish this film could make it to at least one fantastic film festival! I was so intent on being selected at such specific events, yet this has completely eluded us so far! More seriously, despite its flaws, I do believe that the Troubadour shows certain tonal, narrative and stylistic qualities that are rather unusual in short films, and it would be really nice if it got a bit more professional recognition for these reasons - and we as well.
Forest: I hope that people see it and like it enough to want to help us create more content.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Sébastien: What’s actually troubling the Troubadour?
Forest: How does one want their life to end? / How does one wish to die?
Would you like to add anything else?
Sébastien: On this film, we chose to work with two friends for the main roles. One, Hachi Kasuga, is a professional musician in real life. The other, Tetsu Kono, is a film-lover who has been nourishing an all-consuming passion for Korean cinema for more than ten years. This is going to seem odd but, when we started this project, we genuinely wished that it would bring them closer to some of their dreams or aspirations. We still hope it does.
Forest: I want to give a big shoutout to everyone that sacrificed so much time, energy, and effort to make this film happen. To y'all, thanks! And next time we'll have enough money to pay yas proper. I hope this project can be a stepping stone for all those involved and motivate us all to do better.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Sébastien: The Troubled Troubadour actually overwhelmed us a lot more than we anticipated but, now that it has found some success in festivals, we finally feel ready to move on to new projects… one of which being a previous project! For three years, we’ve been filming for an elusive feature documentary project centered on the aforementioned Tetsu Kono, but so far it always had to come after other projects and could never be a priority. A short film version does exist (titled Tetsu Kono’s crazy routine) but it’s way past time we dedicated ourselves to the full version.
Forest: Besides the Tetsu Kono documentary project, I am working on a fictional feature film set in a North Korea university.
Interview: January 2018
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The Troubled Troubadour
An embittered old musician embarks upon a journey which becomes the outward manifestation of his inner landscape.
Synopsis: Two middle-aged Japanese men, a hubristic musician and his stoic companion, travel aboard a wheeled canoe on abandoned train tracks along the Southern coast of Korea. They fall into an ambush set by a tribe of wild Korean children, who mistake the musician for their long-awaited Mountain God.
Length: 23 minutes
Director: Forest Ian Etsler, Sébastien Simon
Producer: Forest Ian Etsler, Sébastien Simon
Writer: Forest Ian Etsler, Sébastien Simon
About the writer, director and producer:
Born 1982 in Indiana, USA, Forest is a filmmaker and director of East-Asia programming for the Middle Coast Film Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.
Born 1982 in Alsace, France, Sébastien is a filmmaker and a programmer for several festivals in South Korea (including Busan International Short Film Festival) and in France.
Both are based in South Korea.
Key cast: Hachi Kasuga, Tetsu Kono, Lee Hwajin, Kang Saneh
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists
Made in association with: Dongguk University, Seoul
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? Küstendorf International Film & Music Festival (Serbia, January 16th-21st, 2017) and Slamdance Film Festival (USA, January 19th-25th, 2017)