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2022 NYAFF Festivals Interviews

On the power of pure rage: A conversation on the makings of ‘The Girl on a Bulldozer’

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Tedious chores moonlight as signifiers for a young adult’s coming of age. Paying taxes, doing your own laundry, learning how to cook. During my college days, I often winced and skimped as much as I could on the “essentials,” hoarding weeks of dirty clothes to save on trips to the dormitory wash-and-dry machines. So goes the story of a low-income child of immigrants, who shares an innate and intimate understanding of frugality as if inherited and handed down through their genes. 

And although we share no tangible ties through both ancestry and the fact that she is a fictitious character, I found a sibling in Gu Hye-yeong (played by Kim Hye-Yoon), director Park Ri-woong’s leading lady in his feature film debut The Girl on a Bulldozer. What plights I often experienced as someone first-gen, I saw reflected in her struggle with her own relationships and more often than not, her pure, unadulterated rage. Hye-yeong’s story begins with a chore that she takes on for her dad, filling out insurance forms when he is injured at work. Soon after she files for a new policy to cover his injuries, her dad vanishes in a mysterious accident. The universal experience of taking on menial tasks for your parents aside, in Hye-yeong, I saw my own struggles as a daughter and sibling laid out bare before me. 

Whatever she does, it is laced with a burning rage. When Hye-yeong speaks, it is through gritted teeth to a father who is too debt-ridden to properly parent. When Hye-yeong loves, it is unconditionally to a brother whom she loves too deeply and fiercely to abandon. When Hye-yeong fights, it is with a head held up high and fists blazing against a world that is too unfair to people living on the fringes of society. She is all the angst and agony that is much too familiar to those forced to grow up too quickly. She is the brainchild of Park Ri-woong, who before this project had won awards for his short films Let Us Go (2007) and Good Yeonhwa (2008). 

At the New York Asian Film Festival where the film made its North American premiere, I spoke with director Park Ri-woong and actress Kim Hye-Yoon about the film’s inception, their time on set, and what’s next for the two.

Still from Girl on a Bulldozer, dir. Park Ri-woong.

From the Intercom: What was the inspiration for The Girl on a Bulldozer

Park Ri-woong: The inspiration actually came from a photo I saw in a video arcade. The photo, to give you a description, there was a girl on a motorcycle, and the girl had a baby on her back, and to me, it looked as if she was running away. The inspiration came from there, where I was thinking it would be interesting to make a story with this character as the starting point.

FTI: [To Hye-Yoon] This is a very different role than what you’ve done in the past with stuff like Sky Castle and Extraordinary You. What was the transition process for this character and how did you prepare to take on this role?

Director Park Ri-woong. Photo sourced from HanCinema.

Kim Hye-Yoon: I agree, it was probably one of the most intense and strongest characters I’ve ever played because she holds a lot of rage in herself. I really worked out a lot because it really required a lot of physical stamina just to get through the process.

FTI: I saw that in other interviews you said that you had done stunts by yourself, how did you learn the stunts? Did you actually learn how to drive a bulldozer?

Kim Hye-Yoon: I will say the one scene where the bulldozers are on the street and it’s surrounded by police cars, where she’s like driving it on the street, that was the scene I couldn’t drive it, but the other scenes I did drive the bulldozer, which took me about a month or two to get the hang of. I will say it was a scary but also fun experience. The physical fights that you see in the film were also done by me, and that required me to actually go to a stage fight choreography school to actually learn the moves to shoot.

FTI: I know you were asked by the director to take on this role. Did you already make the decision when he asked you, or did you take the time to read the script to decide? What was the leading aspect going into the decision to take the role?

Kim Hye-Yoon: I received the script first. I had multiple meetings and conversations with the director concerning the film and so that’s how it came about. I think I decided to take on the role because most of the time when I read a script I’m able to picture myself as the character on the screen, but with this one, I really had no idea how I would be in this project, and I think there was a sense of curiosity that really drew me to the role.

Kim Hye-Yoon in The Girl on the Bulldozer.

FTI: With this character, I understand that it was difficult because of her constant anger. How did you channel this character, what did you see as her motivations, her reasons for her actions?

Kim Hye-Yoon: I think some of the elements of her sort of anger-filled personality come from her childhood. I think every one of us as human beings has a certain red button, like a trigger. I think, especially for Hye-young, that is when someone invades your personal space and your personal territory. I think when that happens, that’s what triggers her rage. The reason her rage becomes a lot more inflamed is that she is trying to protect her family, namely Hye-Jeok [her brother], and she is forced to become stronger and forced to express this in a more intense way.

FTI: [To Park Ri-Woong] There were moments in the film that pointed to her intelligence, suggesting that there were better professions more worth her time. Her mom suggests that she takes the civil service exam. What is the reason that she doesn’t pursue another path?

Park Ri-woong: I wouldn’t say she’s smart. She’s like an ordinary, everyday person, but to a parent, she probably feels smarter than an ordinary person. Even though we think of her as a smart person, I think one of the facets of her character is that she’s a very impatient person and I think that gets the better of her sometimes. I’m not trying to paint her as an idiot, but I think there is sort of a recklessness that accompanies the character that prevents her from searching out these other types of paths.

Still from The Girl on the Bulldozer.

FTI: [To Park Ri-woong]: How did you decide that Hye-Yoon was a good fit for this character?

Park Ri-woong: I actually really solidified my decision with going with Hye-yoon was after I met her for the first time. Before that, I wasn’t really sure, I had some doubts. But after meeting her, I felt that she was the right one because of the presence that she has, and she has a good face for film. That’s what my friend said when he came to visit on set, and said, ‘oh I’ve seen her on TV dramas but I feel like her presence and her mask works so well, I feel like she’s actually better suited for cinema rather than TV.’ 

I also found it interesting that it seems that she has sort of a distrust of the institutions around her that forces her to take matters into her own hands. What’s the reason for this?

Park Ri-woong: Rather than having an explicit message that I wanted to portray through that, I think it’s my perspective on society that naturally comes through in film. Especially for me, I feel like a lot of mainstream organizations are particularly negligent and careless when it comes to people on the margins of society, especially when it comes to reporters, police, and hospitals. As you see in the film, they don’t really engage a lot with people in the film, and even when they give out information, they give out wrong information. I feel that that initial experience for the character Hye-young actually primes her mistrust, and breeds her mistrust so that even when she does hear from someone that, you know, ‘you need to report it to the police,’ she doesn’t do so because that mistrust has come from her initial experience and it wouldn’t be right for her character to actually report to the police.

FTI: [To Kim Hye-Yoon]: Is there anything that you learned from this role? 

Kim Hye-Yoon: I learned that I have range, my range was definitely widened thanks to this role. It was a really informative and good experience in that sense. I think when it comes to acting, my self-esteem is on the lower side, so I will pick apart every scene and think, oh that needed to be different. 

Still from The Girl on the Bulldozer.

FTI: As a perfectionist how do you overcome these issues?

Kim Hye-Yoon: I will say, I really prepare a lot for my roles and I really like to plan out things for myself and know that that’s what I’ll be able to rely on.

FTI: [To both]: In the end, we find out that the main character comes across a lot of money. What she ends up doing with the money is left ambiguous. If it were up to you, what would she do with it?

Park Ri-woong: If it were me, I’d put it in my bank account of course, but I don’t think Hye-young is the type of person who’d just leave money in her account, but I haven’t really thought about this, so I can’t really say at this moment. 

Kim Hye-Yoon: I’m not sure either. 

Park Ri-woong: Buy a house?

Kim Hye-Yoon: Yeah, I think buying a house is my wish for her, but maybe not her actual desire. 

FTI: [To Park Ri-woong]: What would you say is the best artistic choice you made for the film?

Park Ri-woong: In the post-production, I got some feedback where people would say the size of the character is too big for this film, but I want to articulate that that was intentional for myself because in this film, the focus is on the character of Hye-young for the entirety of this film, so I really wanted to express everything through her expressions, her face, and her emotions. I think the best artistic choice was to actually keep the distance that I had between the camera and the actress Hye-yoon, and not to get too close because that would become much too TV drama-like, but also going not too far, where a lot of films would utilize shooting from a further distance but really calibrating just the right distance that would express what I needed to express in the film.

After we shot the film and after we were getting reviews for the film, and some of the reviews were, ‘we can only see the actor and not the director’s influence in the background, or anywhere for that matter,’ but I want to say that it was very intentional because this was a film that was carried by the actor and by the character. It would actually be a disservice to the film if I were to intrude into that space. 

Still from The Girl on the Bulldozer.

FTI: [To both] Working on the film, did you confront any challenges? What was the hardest challenge?

Kim Hye-yoon: I think the hardest thing for me was expressing that rage continuously throughout the film, it really took a toll on my physical stamina. I was actually thinking, oh my gosh, people with so much anger, I really respect them because it takes such a physical toll, that takes so much energy. That was the hardest part for me.

Park Ri-woong: From the start of the project, I had a very clear vision that I wanted to bring to life, but as we all know, external factors such as time and money are always coming into the picture, and just having to deal with those. For me, it was daily, making the choice of what to keep and what to not keep, and what is the degree on which I insist on a scene, doing more takes or doing less takes. I think it was just a continual process of trying to make the right choice, while trying to maintain a certain quality of the film.

FTI: How has the reception to this film been at home, in Korea?

Park Ri-woong: I think the response was very divided, in terms of, it was split between people who loved it or hated it. There was a very clear, love-hate relationship going on. Some people have said they cried throughout the entire film, and some people have said, ‘WTF. What is this?’ from the beginning to end, not knowing what they were watching, so I think it was divided.

I also want to add on that separately from audience response where they either enjoyed or did not enjoy the film, there was also another part of the audience who really thought that this was an unacceptable film. Just in terms of, just the fact that the film comes from a young woman cursing freely, and a young woman who is speaking informally. If you know Korean, it has two forms of speech, which is a formal speech, used towards elders, and another informal speech. But in this film, even to the adults, she’s speaking informally, and I think some people really take offense to that, and some of them are very opposed to the idea that a woman who commits such violence, and illegal crimes, is portrayed as a protagonist in this film. To me, that sort of signals a bit of a narrow-mindedness, a parochial sensitivity, I think, when it comes to watching films, but that was definitely something that I noted.

FTI: [To both] Are you working on anything at the moment? What are your future plans, either with this film, or other projects?

Park Ri-woong: Right now, I’m preparing for a film that’s about to go into shooting in November of this year. It’s about a grandfather who’s living in an oceanside village and starts to get involved in insurance fraud. If it doesn’t go into production in November, we’ll probably start shooting next spring.

You really like films about insurance fraud.

Park Ri-woong: [Laughs] Because it’s easier to commit fraud with insurance.

Kim Hye-Yoon: Nothing concrete as of yet.

This interview was conducted by Nancy Jiang, in-person at New York Asian Film Festival on July 25.

The Girl on a Bulldozer is out now on Amazon Prime Video and Viki. Photos courtesy of GOZIP Studio.

Film links: IMDb | NYAFF

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