This month Xfinity On Demand boasts the anticipated Cinema Asian America presention of “Fetish,” the feature debut of New York based director, Soopum Sohn. Starring celebrated Korean actress Song Hye-kyo in her first American film, Fetish is a supernatural thriller that made its premiere at the Pusan Film Festival and has screened worldwide.
Korean American Peter (Rob Yang) returns to suburban New York with a new bride Sookhy (Song) and his overbearing, Christian mother, who brokered their arranged marriage. Amidst the bucolic, all-American setting, discord and hidden secrets begin to reveal themselves; a shamanistic curse that has followed them from Korea, Sookhy’s unusual fascination with the blond woman who lives next door and her trophy husband (Arno Frisch), and the clash of cultures and pressures of assimilation. What emerges, amidst the calmly eerie atmosphere constructed by Sohn is a twisted and shocking voyage into the heart of what makes one desire to be like an other, and in Sookhy’s case, to literally, become another person.
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This was your first feature film and quite impressively, you were able to build an extremely talented cast, including the Austrian actor Arno Frisch, who has worked with directors like Michael Haneke, the American actor Rob Yang, and most importantly, the Korean actress Hye-kyo Song, in her first American film. Can you talk about how you were able to assemble this cast?
SS: As I was auditioning for the role of John (in which Arno Frisch was cast), I found that actors were over-simplifying the character – he is neither a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ man. In frustration, I began thinking about performances that I had enjoyed in which actors played complicated and nuanced roles and Arno’s character from Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’ came to my mind. I sent the script to Austria, where I thought Arno was, but ultimately we found him in Berlin. I remember that I was browsing around a hardware store in Brooklyn when Arno called me. He had read the script and understood everything. We were both impressed and I flew to Berlin to meet him. He played Leonard Cohen song “First we take Manhattan (then we take Berlin)” on vinyl. And he beat me at chess. I could not resist working with him.
Rob was very subtle in the audition. I had been casting for hours and seen hundreds of actors and my senses were dulled. My casting director felt that Rob didn’t make much adjustment following my direction and felt we should move on. But after he walked out of the room, I realized that the change he made to his performance was very subtle and that’s what I wanted. I chased after him and asked him to come back to the room. On the set he keeps himself to himself and is very focused – I respect that.
The script was delivered to Hye-kyo by another casting director. She read it and became interested. When we skyped, Hye-kyo asked me many intelligent questions about the character. I imagine she was attracted by the challenge of the role. Later she told me I thought I was skyping with her in my office, but it was actually my living room. We didn’t have an office because every penny we had went on the production.
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What drew you to working in the suspense/thriller genre?
SS: I don’t write to formula, so I didn’t think of the film in terms of genre. What I knew was that the meeting of two very different cultures can create interesting tensions. When people ask me what the film is about, I answer ‘It’s about a Korean woman who becomes an American woman.’ They expect to see, I think, a straight drama or even comedy exploring Asian American identity. But it’s really not that at all. I wanted to use genre to follow the narrative not dictate it. I found it liberating to progressively move from drama to thriller as a way of showing Sookhy’s transformation from innocent Korean bride to femme fatale. I’m most comfortable communicating through images and this approach was how the story unfolded for me.
Much of the film’s narrative is built around a Korean shamanistic curse which has followed your characters from Korea to the US. What kinds of texts and mythologies did you draw upon to write the film?
SS: It was actually not texts and mythologies that I drew on, rather something I noticed when comparing Korean culture at home and in the US. After WWII, Koreans embraced Western ideas and religions and traditional shamanism was considered superstition and banned by the military government. This was at the same time as the major wave of immigration of Koreans to the US. These first generation Korean Americans are very often Christians and hold onto the dislike and distrust of Shamanism that pervaded the 1970s. But in Korea itself, Shamanism is now studied and explored – it’s no longer something to fight against but is seen as an important part of our heritage. I was interested in the fact that in Korea itself, you often find people have more ‘modern’ ideas and attitudes than those who now live in the West. This is what interested me and what drew me to use the idea of a shamanistic curse.
Without giving away too much about the film’s shocking ending, you seem to be making a very pointed, critical critique of race and assimilation in the US. You yourself were born in Korea, but have lived in the US for a number of years; can you elaborate more on these ideas and what you were saying through this film?
SS: In retrospect, perhaps, it looks like that. But I don’t think that that was my motivation for writing. It was much simpler – I drew on things I have noticed or experienced. And we often develop a fetish for something we don’t fully understand. Thinking about it, I feel that I’m walking on a wire with a long balance bar – at one end is Seoul and at the other end New York. All my stories come out of how I balance and walk forward. It’s sometimes shaky and it seems that audiences enjoy the shaking more than the moments of stability.
What are you working on now?
SS: I’m working on an adaptation of a short story written by a Korean American writer, which I hope to direct next year. I’m also in pre-production on another film as a director of photography. The writer/directror was one of my first students when I started teaching at Long Island University. I’m excited to work with him, and if he makes a good film, he’s proof that my teaching method has worked. That would be a relief!
See all Cinema Asian America interviews here.