South Korean director Sung-Hyung Cho on making documentaries, her fresh perspectives on German society and the idea of home

Documentary film director Sung-Hyung Cho who draws her raw material from the many stories of real life, was in Chennai earlier this month, as a guest of the Goethe-Institut. “You don't need to have big talent to have a story to share, and you don't need to draw on big fantasies to make a film,” says the young South-Korean cineaste. “Every life is very interesting, everyone has a story to tell.”

Searching for identity

Her German documentary film “Home from Home” (“Endstation der Sehnsüchte”, 2009), showcased during the Samsung India and the InKo Centre's third Women's International Film Festival, records the stories of several such lives. Three South Korean women who served as ‘guest-workers' in 1970s Germany, return home with their ‘long-nosed' German husbands after an absence of thirty years, to spend the remaining part of their lives in what is known as the German Village, in Namhae, South Korea. With this as a starting point for Cho's film, the sensitive themes of identity and outsider-ness inevitably hover throughout. But what could easily have slipped into contemplative droning is instead handled with effortless ease and endearment that can only come from being a good listener. “Making a good documentary film is like a religion. You need to have huge tolerance, understanding, and empathy. I like who I become when I make these films, which is why I chose to tell the stories of other people,” explains the documentarian. “The other reason of course, is that I don't have any stories of my own!” she adds with a laugh.

Au contraire, Sung-Hyung Cho's variegated life would make for a worthy narrative in its own right. “As a university student in Seoul in the 1980s, I was drawn to the writings of German philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which I read in my language,” she shares. “In those days, there were constant police riots and student demonstrations, and it was difficult to study in common peace. That's why I decided to leave South Korea, and go to Germany.”

Correcting prejudices

She pursued art history, media studies and philosophy at Marburg, and her experiences within her own home from home gave her fresh perspectives on German society. “At first, I thought that the Germans would be arrogant. But I realised that they are in fact a little shy,” says Cho. “I made a short documentary film titled ‘Shouting without Pain', in which I try to correct the prejudices that foreigners have about Germans. I had to — they are so open-minded, so humorous.” With her award-winning feature-length film “Full Metal Village” (2007) also grounded in German reality, her personal and professional links with the country appear permanently rooted. “I haven't faced any obstacles as a foreign director in Germany,” she affirms. “I think I would've suffered as a female director in South Korea, but not in Germany.”

Now living near Frankfurt with her German husband, Cho admits to having a “double feeling” whenever she visits South Korea. One is curious to ask if her relationship with one home has taken predominance over the other. “I still hate the weather in Germany,” she confesses with a laugh. “But I have lived there since 1990. I have to have both. I cannot choose.”

Multiple identities, ambivalent questions of ‘home', and long-nosed husbands are just a few things that bind Sung-Hyung Cho with the female protagonists of her film. But apart from the two distinct generations to which they belong, how does she see herself as different from them? “These women did not try and accept Germany as their home. They always considered South Korea as home, and preserved a fixed mental image of a South Korea that no longer exists. I learned through the film, that the idea of home is never fixed. It is a dynamic term, you always have to make the ‘here and now' your home.”

Sung-Hyung Cho's “Full Metal Village” will be screened today at the South India Film Chamber. For details contact 2833 2343 or 2436 1224.