Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, director Je-yong Lee’s Behind The Camera is best described as the Korean version of Tom DiCillo’s Living In Oblivion (1995), his brilliantly witty account of the perils of filmmaking and, better yet, the subjectivity of shared experience.
Here is the premise, as far as I understand it. Director E. J-Young was hired by Samsung to direct a short film promoting their latest android technology. In this short, titled How To Fall In Love In 10 Minutes, a director attempts to shoot his Korea-set rom-com from Hawaii via Skype – this ad aired, and Behind The Camera is a (faux)documentary(?) about J-Young’s process. His three-day shoot (two in the fiction) finds him directing a Korean crew from L.A., though he is actually hiding out in a house in Seoul, and the eleven on-set cameras capture the production as it spirals out of control.
This canny setup is forever playing tricks with our imagination, and it soon becomes impossible to distinguish reality from fiction – as cameras slip from the periphery of the frame to the centre, any one shot could contain a further three shots, whether reflecting the image of another camera or J-Young’s laptop screen. When we hear “Action!” and “Cut!” it is never clear which film is beginning and which is ending, so what we are watching is both a film and its making-of documentary (both of which could be fake). Much head scratching ensues.
Honestly, how much of Behind The Camera is documentary or fiction, who is cast or crew, or cast playing crew and vice versa, remains unknowable – and appearances by real directors including Joon-ik Lee and Kim Jee-woon, who reference their own contemporary reality (“Arnold’s almost done“) are either a conscious reinforcement of the fake reality or evidence of actual reality. Are they – like the focus puller and key grip – just actors hired for the film-within-a-film, or directors genuinely stopping by the set?
But is it the point to unravel this mystery? The film is bookended by quotes from Mike Figgis and Akira Kurosawa, but a middle quote, from Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, best sums up proceedings – “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” J-Young’s authorship becomes challenged as Joon-ik presents himself as a more viable choice of director, and a mid-film prank finds J-Young sweating the possibility of usurpation, and panicking the sanctity of his vision – though he seems to be more concerned with reinforcing to his cast that he is indeed in L.A., and by extension is “making it“.
Meanwhile, the actors natter away about working conditions in Korea, and veteran actress Yeo-jeong Yoon muses candidly and amusingly about her time with the Sang-soo’s (Hong and Im), and especially recent work on In Another Country, Hong’s collaboration with Isabelle Huppert. Throughout, despite the technical and temporal freedoms seemingly afforded this crew, we get nothing but a sense of the Korean film industry as a confine, a coop to be broken out of, and the narrative promised by the film’s subtitle – Why Mr. E Went To Hollywood – never transpires (this makes the cameo by Jee-woon, just returned from filming The Last Stand in Hollywood, all the more interesting).
Unfortunately, Behind The Camera proves to be an intellectual one trick pony, its trick defined by the opening Figgis quote – “There’s nothing quite like the idea of failing spectacularly to excite a filmmaker.” As it never becomes clear how much of what we are watching is fiction or reality, it’s hard to invest in these characters as human beings (or these human beings as characters), and whatever J-Young has to say about the Korean film industry’s aspirations toward the mainstream is said succinctly and shallowly. By the end we are simply watching variations on the same scene, and it may well be that J-Young is excited by the possibility of making two, perhaps three films at the same time, and crafting the outcome in post-production (the film took eight months to edit) but after a point the possibilities offered by “Action!” and “Cut!” become less tantalizing and more tedious. Fun while it lasts, Behind The Camera is undone by blind-sighted commitment to its own realism/artifice.
Director: Je-yong Lee
Stars: Yuh-Jung Youn, Ok-bin Kim, Min-hie Kim
Runtime: 85 min
Country: South Korea