Jinseok Cho on Colonel Panics

Colonel Panics was by far one of the wildest films I've seen this year. A unique, international collaboration helmed by first-time director Jinseok Cho. It's a film that baffled and amazed, so I was more than delighted when I got to ask Cho some questions directly. He answered candidly, talking about the challenges of working with a small budget, the many different themes present in his film and why the unflinching harshness of some of the scenes was a necessity.

Jinseok Cho on Colonel Panics

Niels Matthijs: Looking at your background and studies, you almost appear to be a classic homo universalis. Interestingly enough, you didn't seem to have any prior experience in film. What made you decide you wanted to make a feature film?

Jinseok Cho: I did actually have some background in film, primarily film festivals, which allowed me to watch a lot of films from around the world and get exposure to a wide array of filmmaking styles and genres. Essentially though, making a film was a good way to express some feelings I had and I personally like sculpting emotions and ideas using music and imagery. I did a little bit of visual arts in the past but I never get the same emotional satisfaction from taking a photo or painting on a canvas like I did from fusing image and sound in the film medium.

Even though a lot of different nationalities were involved in making Colonel Panics, it still feels like a film you'd expect to come out of Japan. Did you model Colonel Panics to be more Japanese, was it the environment you worked in or it is just a lucky coincidence?

I think it's funny you should say this because some people in Japan who I worked with on the film said what we made was very un-Japanese, both in terms of aesthetics and subject matter - they thought a Japanese director would never make the stylistic choices I did - I think there's probably some truth to that. Another critic I know said the film was perhaps more "Japanese" in its exploration of Japanese subject matter than a normal Japanese indie film could ever be - maybe he's right...

I wanted the film to be rooted in a Japanese socio-political context but be very reflective of the international perspectives shaping the production (Korean, Australian, American, French, etc). I always wanted to ensure that what was in the story was essentially of concern with Japanese politics and culture but those watching would understand that this was an outsider's perspective on those issues.

I'm not an expert on South-Korean cinema, but I never quite found the indie/genrefilm scene there. Do you think it would've been possible to make the same film in South-Korea and do you have some tips for people who want to explore the less commercial side of South-Korean cinema?

I've never made a film in Korea so I cannot speak to whether you could replicate what we did in the indie scene over there but I'm pretty sure you could make a violent, sexually-charged film in Korea as many others have done so. I love Korean cinema, from the older masters like Kim Kiyoung, Shin Sangok, Im Kwon-taek right through to the great directors working today like Kim Kyung-mook or Hong Sang-soo. If you want to explore interesting Korean indie cinema then I would probably look at what Tony Rayns has programmed since the mid-2000s at the Vancouver Film Festival for some inspiration - there are dozens of classics from the Korean indie scene and genre cinema he has brought attention to. Or you can look at what has been screened at Rotterdam or Pusan film festivals over the past decade - some interesting work from Korea's less commercial world has been shown which you should catch up on.

While the plot revolves around a VR experience, you touched upon a much broader variety of themes (for example Korean comfort women). Why did you choose to include so many different themes in one single film?

For me there is one central concern of the film: our relationship with reality and how we reconcile fiction/fantasy within our daily lives. This concern is the lens through which other things in the film are then explored such as wartime history, misogyny, student ambition turning to professional mediocrity, our obsession with video games. It was important to start with this central concern and then see how much of our lives (especially in the Japanese context) is caught up in this dilemma and so I wanted to see in the story just how much of our lives can be channeled through this one concern; evidently a lot if you are a medicore right-wing Japanese male. The issue of Korean comfort women, which you mentioned, comes down to an issue of how we reconcile the reality of historical wartime atrocities: do we confront the ugliness of what happened or do we deny and obfuscate the truth.

There is a film by Chris Marker called Level Five, I drew some inspiration from that work and we also called our game within the film Level Four which was a homage to his film. If you look at Marker's film there are probably some thematic similarities.

A lot of scifi these days is centered around tech doom. The idea that one technological breakthrough will come to dominate our lives and diminuish our quality of living. Why do you think people love to focus on the bad so much, even though there's little proof in humanity's history that would indicate such a thing actually happening.

I think people like to dwell on the negative because it makes great drama and we'd rather see a Terminator running amok because of our own lust for dramatic content than we would seeing a love story between a man and a robot maid or something like that. That is a basic answer in terms of our love of visceral entertainment.

But I think also it is a way of us expressing our own fears about losing control, ultimately these concerns are about our fragile egos and what happens if we lose dominion as the dominant species. We have had a long run of controlling everything - the planet's natural resources and animals - but if technology starts to control us that is a monumental shift in how we've come to see ourselves - we will go from Gods to serfs. That is terrifying for the ego, and we are a very ego-driven world right now.

Colonel Panics talks about the strange connection that art and technology are sharing these days. The idea of AI creating art using its own feedback loops is something that is directly referenced in the beginning of the film. Is that something you'd like to try out for real?

I'd love to try that, I'm not sure whether the results would be very compelling but I'm sure it would give us a glimpse into a very dark void which we should probably not shy away from.

One of the things that surprised me the most (in a good way) was how brutal some of the scenes were, one in particular took me back to Gaspar Noé's Irréversible. Why did you feel it was necessary to show everything rather than play the less is more card?

I wanted the violence to have this tension between something (1) very unpleasant and realistic but (2) obviously artificial and excessive. This was to reflect the film's main concern (our relationship with reality). The way the story was constructed also just meant it felt natural for the violence to be the way it was - there's a tension building up in the film and it made sense for that eventual eruption to feel confronting and excessive.

I also think the violence being direct was a result of being in Japan where a lot of messed up things are managed in a manner which I find dishonest - look at their pornography which is sometimes both very "rapey" and also pixellated. I wanted things to honestly reflect the ugliness in Japanese society which is often watered down, for what is ideologically-driven reasons.

Reading up on comments online, I wasn't suprised to find mentions of misogyny. Did you ever fear the directness of the film might work against it?

Well, I knew going into making this that I was not going to win any admirers from a certain brigade of social justice warrior types who are facile and see everything as a misogynist nail upon which to hammer away. The directness has worked against the film - it has been unfairly dismissed and derided by some because of what they see as misogyny when in reality it is a deeply feminist film: the film immediately presents a strong female character talking about her work with another female and they don't just chat about a man and romantic concerns of a man, they talk about the achievements of the woman; the main character is no hero, he is a pathetic male who is misogynist because he is a failure and is jealous of a powerful woman.

But ultimately people can think what they want. I don't go through assholes to get validation for my work otherwise it would be shit - after all, the only thing that goes through assholes is shit.

I once read that the most awkward scenes onscreen are usually the most fun to shoot for cast and crew. Did the actors have fun making this film or did you have to convince them to go all the way?

I can assure you there was very little fun making this film with the budget and schedule we had. I mean, we rehearsed, we had a script, everyone knew what they were getting themselves into so there was no surprises. I think one of the few things that was a bit of a last minute decision was the moment when Tia spits on the face of Yusuuke during their sex scene. Some would find the prospect of having an attractive AV star spit in your face fun but you'd have to ask the actors whether they enjoyed that one.

Colonel Panics is a very visual experience, which is never trivial when you're working on a tight budget. How did you plan to maximize visual impact without the option to spend a lot of money? And do you think smaller budgets may actually help to increase creativity rather than work against it?

I thought a lot about how visual artists make interesting video art on tight budgets and how colour would reflect emotions. There was a lot more I wanted to film, to capture but we just didn't have the time. Having less money does force you to be creative: we got a lot of cheap materials from shops around Tokyo and built them into interesting things using spraypaint and whatnot, I remember walking past a garbage bin where someone had thrown out dozens of manga books and I took them so we could add them to a scene in the background - you have to get creative when you have very little money to work with. I really enjoyed trying to make futuristic looking things on no budget with spray paint and glue and tape.

I don't think the label "cyberpunk" fits the film 100%, but the way you handled sound and music is very reminiscent of cyberpunk cinema. Sound is not just an excuse to cover up silence, but an active way to style the film and manipulate the atmopshere. Why do you think the cyberpunk niche is one of the only genres to experiment with that so explicitly?

Good question and I don't have an answer for that. I do enjoy a lot of cyberpunk movies and novels though, I guess I haven't been paying attention enough to sound because that isn't something that really stands out for me in the genre.

As if the film wasn't international enough, the music was written by Fabrice Viel. How did you get to work with him?

We worked with an amazing French sound designer called Ugo Derouard, a supremely talented guy who got what we were trying to achieve sound-wise very quickly and really built up a sonic landscape which I still listen to and get shivers it is so great.

Well, he was friends with Fabrice and introduced me to him as he knew we needed someone who could do the soundtrack to complement the work Ugo was doing. Fabrice and I met with one of our American producers and we all got along, talked music and the types of music I liked and wanted to see in the film and the next thing you know we had the soundtrack you hear in the final film.

The film was released on DVD in Japan (with English subtitles) and on Blu-ray in France (French subtitles only). Any other releases planned or are these our final options?

I think there will be a German bluray/DVD combo released later in the year or maybe early next year. I think it may only have German subs though. Netflix has not been in contact though but happy to talk with them if they want, hahaha.

Colonel Panics was your first film. Is directing something you want to keep doing, or was it just a one-off that you needed to get out of your system?

I'd like to make another film but if Colonel Panics is it I have no regrets - I got to make a film on my own terms and focus on things I wanted.

Imagine some wild, rich fan would give you an empty cheque and carte blanche, full creative control. What kind of film would you love to make?

I would like to make 2 things:

1. A documentary about the great footballer Gabi who was the captain of Atletico Madrid. He is my favourite footballer.
2. I watched a lot of badly dubbed kung fu movies when I was younger. I would like to make a film of 2 parts: the first part would be a violent kungfu movie in the style of Lau Kar-leung and then the second part would be a love story about a man and woman who meet while doing the dubbing work for the kungfu movie from the first part. This would allow me to fulfil a dream of making a kungfu movie and a love story set in Los Angeles in the 1970s.