Emmanuel Moon Chil Park Interview
By: Joanna Hioe
We carry our childhood memories inside of us, long into adulthood. Filmmaker Emmanuel Moon Chil Park turns his memories of his family's journey between the two worlds of Canada and South Korea into a visual love letter to his family. His film My Place captures how, through narrative and the love of others, one can lay claim to a space one can call one's own.
This multiple award-winning documentary has captured the hearts of audiences in Korea and Canada alike. It has won the Seoul Independent Documentary Film Festival Audience Award, the Jeonju International Film Festival Audience Critics' Prize, and the Seoul Independent Film Festival's Jury Prize. It was also part of the official selection for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Read the unmissable interview with BW
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
“Bruno and Boots” series by Gordon Korman.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Kindle and Beer.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Clumsy little day-dreamer.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
In this documentary, you give an intimate portrayal of your family - almost a love letter to them. What was their response to the process of making the film and your final product?
I think it was a chance for my family to look back and reassess how relocating to Korea affected our lives. What would have otherwise been shoved under the rug was brought back into the light; it was a process of re-discovery for me and likewise for my family. I think they found it cathartic to retell their side of the story through interviews and said they were able to learn about other family members’ inner thoughts through the end product. I like to think of it as a dialogue within the family, mediated by the film. They were obviously anxious at first, but after seeing the film with an audience and witnessing their warm response, eventually came around to appreciate the film.
I understand that you have 11 different versions of your film. What influenced your choices to include or remove parts of the narrative?
The major issue was figuring out what the story was about. I initially thought it would be my sister’s journey of going through single-motherhood. But I came to realize that my sister’s decision to become a single mom could not be severed from her painful experience of reverse-migration (to South Korea). I decided to expand the scope of the film to our entire family, because I could see that migrating back to our supposed ‘home’ country affected all of us, one way or another. So that’s how the last version of the film, the one people can see now, took its form. This choice personally felt right for me too, because I realized, in the end, this was an issue I needed to sort out as well, both as a filmmaker trying to find his own creative voice and as a person figuring out his ‘place’ in this world.
Could you share more about your experience growing up in Toronto?
I was a just young kid trying to enjoy myself. It was a peaceful time and I don’t remember having any serious issues to deal with - I probably was just too young. I don’t remember being treated differently because of my skin color, but I do remember being quite self-conscious of my surroundings and other people’s perception of me. I knew I was different from my predominantly white-Jewish friends, not only in skin color, but in that I didn’t share the common cultural norms that they did. It was just the little things - like the somewhat different sandwich or snack my mother would pack me, or the ‘Korean’ decorations in our house that I hoped friends who came over wouldn’t notice. Although there wasn’t any major conflict, I guess it made me a boy who is keen on noticing these differences and who yearned to fit in; after many failed attempts, I have now learned to care less about what others think of me, though.
In moving to South Korea as a boy, what were the most memorable (good and bad) parts of your transition?
I remember dreading the times when kids would constantly ask me to speak English whenever they found out I came from Canada. I wanted to keep a low profile and be invisible, if possible, but whenever a new school year would start, somebody would mention that I had come from Canada, and it would start all over again.
How does being "in between" cultures shape your perception of both societies?
I believe it gives me an objective view of both societies. I am influenced less by the media or state propaganda, and this allows me to form a more critical view of events. For example, when I first came to Korea, many kids believed the anti-communist, anti-North Korean propaganda that schools were promoting; to me, this all seemed like a fear mongering campaign played by the government to keep its people in place. On the other hand, many progressive Koreans nowadays consider South Korea to be the worst country on earth, while idealizing Western welfare states such as Canada; I am more aware of the ills and shortcomings of the Canadian society. I believe this comparative perspective helps me see both the pros and cons of each society and helps me identify where and how actual social change can come about.
Why did you choose to make films and what attracts you to the "factual" and visual medium of documentary?
Well, telling true stories through film obviously can be quite powerful and persuasive. This is all the more so for personal documentaries. Since you are putting yourself at stake, the audience tends to appreciate how brave you are in revealing intimate parts of your life. But aside from these obvious effects of the genre, there is also a cathartic element in telling your own story. Of course, it can be nerve racking at times, but I surprisingly found it quite relieving and refreshing to reveal inner feelings and insecurities I had struggled with over the years.
Also, although I don’t limit my scope to documentaries, nowadays, this genre is playing a central role in expanding the language of cinema, which makes it all the more interesting to be in this field and medium at the present day.
Both you and your sister are very artistically inclined (you to film, she to music). How are stories of your family heritage passed on, and how have they informed the way you tell stories today?
Our family has realized, early on, the importance of documenting important events and passing them on to the next generation. This tradition has started with my great-grandmother (on my mother’s side) who had a picture perfect memory and would constantly tell other family members about past events. Her family had moved to the northeastern part of China, at the turn of the century, and was involved in educating and mobilizing the Korean people to fight for independence. With the division of the two Koreas, this part of our history had been largely forgotten, so my great-grandmother felt the need to revive this part of Korea’s modern history. Her stories were tape-recorded by family members and later published by her granddaughters as a book. I don’t know if this tradition of documenting family history had any direct influence on my filmmaking, but the importance of telling both socially and historically relevant stories surely did.
What have you learnt - about yourself, your family history, Korea, Canada, and filmmaking through this movie?
The biggest reward of this film, for me, is that I have found a sense of belonging – in Korea and in film. I’ve always had trouble in telling people my background of reverse migration. Coming from a first world country was always considered a privilege in Korea, so when I first released the film, I was worried that the audience might not relate to my family’s particular story. However, the overwhelming response I received from the audience in Korea took away such anxiety; I felt accepted and finally comfortable in sharing my story. This also led to a boost in my confidence as a filmmaker. I now know that I am capable of telling a truthful and compelling story, and that the audience will respond when I do so.
Your film included previously marginalized individuals on a few levels - dignifying single mothers, the family, the Korean-Canadian experience, and migration. What audiences did it connect with, both in the East and West?
Because there were two strong female characters dealing with single-motherhood in the film – my sister, the courageous single-mom and my understanding mother – the film resonated with women of all ages in Korea. Since the issue of single-motherhood is still strongly taboo, many Koreans were glad to see a family that tried to overcome the societal pressures. The film also spoke to people who related to the experience of migration and the struggle to find one’s place in this world – the Korean Diaspora, overseas students, Korean adoptees, foreigners living in Korea, third culture kids, etc. Though the issue of single-motherhood is less of an issue for the Western audience, it seemed to be well received as a story of a family overcoming past trauma and differences. It was truly rewarding to see how universal the film’s theme of family and belonging could be, as it transcended physical boarders and cultural boundaries.
In your future family, how would you do things differently? And what advice would you give to other third culture kids around the world, and how can others connect with you?
I wish I had a clear and definitive answer, but what I’ve learnt through this film is that there is no magical answer to life. And no matter how much you prepare for life’s obstacles, something is bound to go wrong. With increasing global mobility, it will be more and more difficult to raise children in a mono-cultural environment; I realize that, if I have children of my own, they will, like me, most likely have to face the troubles of negotiating cultural differences. What I can say, for now, is that I intend to do my best in understanding what my child is going through and show unconditional support. I hope my life experiences of migration will turn out to be helpful in connecting with my child.
To the third culture kids out there, I would like to stress that finding a community to belong to takes a lifelong effort. There is no automatic match. It takes hard work and time to create the close relationships you need - even for people who have lived in one culture their whole lives. I would also like to advise people to find a medium that they can use to channel out their emotions. Whether it is film, writing, or posting youtube videos online, I’m sure it will help them through life’s hurdles. BW
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