February 25, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Youngmin Kim

The Director of Room 731 Sits with SCA

When Youngmin Kim received his M.F.A. in Film Production in 2014, he took his thesis film, Room 731, to festivals around the world. The film, inspired by true events of the Japanese concentration camp known as Unit 731 during World War II, follows an amnesiac girl as she travels through an abandoned prison filled with tortured spirits who mean her harm. In this interview, Youngmin talks about the rigors of taking a film from conception to the screen, how he approached melding historical fact with an artistic vision, and what it was like presenting his film at festivals around the world.

How would you describe Room 731? Room 731 is a mystery and horror film based on historical facts.  The film revolves around the infamous Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. 

Youngmin Kim

A young Chinese girl wakes up alone with no memory in an abandoned factory. She meets a doctor and a mysterious woman who both seem to want to help her. As her memory returns, she realizes the place is Unit 731, a Japanese concentration camp in World War II.  She encounters horror upon horror as she tries to discover the truth about who she is and why she’s been chosen as its next victim.  

This film is inspired by true events. How did you approach the research for the film? And afterwards, how did you approach the material from an artistic perspective? Were there any aspects of it that you knew you wanted to cover or new perspectives that you wanted people to be able to take away from this film?Most Korean and Chinese people know about Unit 731, but only a few people in Western societies are aware of the tragedy, whereas everyone knows about the Holocaust in Germany during WW II. So I’d like to shed light on the historical tragedy of Unit 731 to western people and want to open a door to discussion. 

There are not many books about Unit 731. I had read most books and Internet sources for six months before I started to make a treatment for the film. I chose to develop a fiction film about the subject to connect the audience through the universal themes of humanism, ethics, moral issues, and aimless paternalism in WW II.  I believe it should be shared with our future generations. 

My goal was first to entertain the audience through the tropes of the mystery and horror genres but then to bring them deeper into a subject that has largely been hidden from the Western world. I originally developed a treatment to consider a feature film through the Advanced Producing class. Later I decided to make it my thesis. Through the Thesis Prep class I wrote a script but I realized there are too many plots for a short film. So I contacted my friend, Christie, who studied at USC. She rewrote a script and helped me focus on the subject. The co-writing process helped clarify my intentions for the story.  

From an artist’s perspective I tried to blend Japanese and American horror styles to have a bold cinematic story telling style.  I worked with the cinematographer Adam Goral very closely to combine the psychologically disturbing documentary style of Japanese horror including long single takes in a close-up and the fast-paced style of American horror.  I focused more on the psychological struggles of my characters than on simple scare tactics.  I relied heavily on production design to create disturbing environments.  Though much of the film is shrouded in mystery, every set design and character makeup design is connected to the source of the horror, the tragedy of Unit 731.  

What were some of the influences and inspirations behind this project? I was inspired by the horror of American filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick for The Shining and influenced by Japanese horror films like The Ring (aka Ringu).  I was also influenced by The Exorcist to involve a female protagonist in my film.  

The books Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II by Laurence Rees, Mengele: The Complete Story by Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, and Factories of Death by Sheldon H. Harris all served to bring me inside the world of Unit 731.  

What were some of the most challenging aspects to putting this project together? (For example, assembling the cast, production issues, budgeting issues, etc).I was extremely happy to work with a multi-national cast that was professional and of some re-known including Yoojung Kim, my talented protagonist who traveled from Korea to work on the film and Tim Kang who took time from his work on The Mentalist to participate in the film.  The biggest challenges I had were my limited budget, acquired through extensive campaigning for donations and the limited number of days I could shoot.  To work around the schedules of my actors and crew we could only shoot on weekends.  The prohibitive costs of locations and the limited time that Yoojung would be in America were also factors in having only a six-day shooting schedule.  Because of the professionalism and dedication of my crew members and cast I was able to achieve what I wanted in a very short amount of time.  I had to make some hard decisions on set about cutting scenes and shots when we fell behind but the cast and crew were able to keep up with all the changes. We began production without being fully funded for post-production so it was a challenge to be fund-raising again while also finishing the film.  

How has the festival experience been so far for you? Have you made any new discoveries along the way?I attended the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. It’s really friendly and hospitable film festival. Especially the festival director Rob Buscher took great care of me and even introduced me to a Japanese American distributor. The distributor praised all aspects of my film and encouraged me a lot towards my goal.  He also offered a feature project. Though the screening of my film I had Q&A with over 500 audience members. It was really great moment for me to share my feelings and intentions of the film to the audience directly. Many audience members asked great questions and encouraged discussion. Through attending the PAAFF, I definitely gained confidence in my work and was inspired a lot from other films.

I'll attend the Sedona International Film Festival between Feb 23 to March 1. They offered me a full access pass for the festival, which is amazing since the costs of attending festivals in general is quite high when you factor in travel and accommodations. Finally, Room 731 has it's Los Angeles premiere screening on March 27 and April 22.I’m so excited and can’t wait to attend more film festivals to meet new audiences and continue to make a great network with filmmakers.

 Below is a list of festivals that Room 731 has already been recognized in

The 68th Festival De Cannes, Short Film Corner, May 2015, France

New York Festivals World’s Best TV Programs & Films Awards, Finalists, now enters the Medal Round, April 2015, USA

The 31st Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Official Selection, April 2015, USA

The 16th Annual Bare Bones International Independent Film, Arts & Music Festival, Official Selection, April 2015, USA

Maryland International Film Festival Hagerstown, Official Selection, March 2105, USA

Asians on Film Festival, Nominations: Best Director, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, March 2015, USA

Sedona International Film Festival, Official Selection, February 2105, USA

Jozi Film Festival, Film Nomination, February 2015, Johannesburg, South Africa

Jaipur International Film Festival (JIFF), Film Nomination, February 2015, Jaipur, India

Philip K Dick Film Festival, Official Selection, January 2105, New York, USA

2014 Asians On Film Festival

Winner - Best Director (Young Min Kim)

Winner - Best Supporting Actress (Mariko Denda)

Honorable Mention - Best Drama

Honorable Mention - Best Actor (Tim Kang)

Honorable Mention - Best Cinematographer (Adam Goral)

Honorable Mention - Best Original Score (JJ Lee & Chris Lord)

The 7th Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) Official Selection, USA

55th Annual Brno Sixteen international film festival, Official Selection

2014The Best Shorts Competition Winner - Award of Excellence  

2014 International Movie Awards Winner - Platinum Award

2014 International Film Competition Festival (IFCOM) Winner - Silver Award