An interview with Kelvin Kyung Kun Park on 'Army'

For many, growing up means finding a job or starting a family. However, for many Singaporean males, growing up means shaving your head and joining the fellows to carry arms and serve. National Service pulls us away from the safety of our homes and the many luxuries of a first-world country. For many, it is the first violent shake into independence, and a big step into adulthood. 

Considering how significant it is, the National Service experience in Singapore has never been particularly well-documented. While we do have Ah Boys to Men and Army Daze, they are not exactly accurate representations, with liberties taken for storytelling. But in light of the numerous deaths of our servicemen, documentation is starting to seem necessary to reveal what goes on behind the fences. That is exactly what happens in Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s illuminating documentary, Army, which centres on a young South Korean man called Woochul who his serving his military conscription. 

Although national service is a big part of Singapore’s culture, it is by no means solely specific to Singaporeans. Since 1957, almost all South Korean males are conscripted into military service for close to two years. Park follows his subject, Woochul, as he goes through his years in service, capturing fascinating moments and touching on intimate subjects. In a rather peculiar scene where the recruits attend a church concert performed by a k-pop group, the camera fixates on how the recruits' cheers slowly grow into unison. The film does not shy away from the darker moments either, as Park recounts an experience in the military when he was severely bullied by his superior, and explicitly informs the viewer of Woochul’s depression. 

Despite a busy schedule, Director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park had taken the time to answer a few questions about his upcoming film, Army, that will premiere in Singapore on 1 March at Objectifs. 
The screening will be followed by a post dialogue session with the director and Singapore Artist Loo Zihan. For more details, please click here.

SINdie: What inspired you to make a film about military conscription in South Korea? 
Kelvin Kyung Kun Park: Serving in the military was a traumatic and difficult experience during my youth and I wanted to revisit the military to better understand what I went through. I had many questions about my experiences that were not answered. 

Army follows Woochul’s life throughout his 21 months in service. What were some of the challenges you faced with shooting for such a long period of time? Were there any moments during the film’s making that you felt were too private to shoot or put into the film? 
I had an internal struggle. As much as I wanted to revisit the military base to film, I dreaded going there. It was like revisiting a nightmare. A kind of discipline was necessary for me to revisit the base regularly to shoot, otherwise, I would have procrastinated or easily given up. There was an incident in the base that I was not able to capture on camera, so I had to figure out how to describe it without describing it. I think the limitation helped me to avoid making the film a reportage.  

Although the film focused on Woochul's time in the army, I've noticed that there were quite a few moments where you used voice-overs to share your thoughts and experiences in national service. It had a very peculiar feeling, as if your thoughts and Woochul’s were the same, even though in the voice-overs, you have clearly stated that they were not. Could you share your intentions behind this device and how it came to be in the film? 
At first, I wanted to avoid voice-over narration because I thought the film should be about Woochul. However, later I discovered that the film was about my relationship with Woochul and our shared experiences. That realisation helped me to be a little bit freer formally. My challenge was to shoot a person's subjective point of view who is not so subjective nor a complete 'character'. The key was exposing my relationship with Woodchul and talking about how I felt about him. So I laid down the fact that I actually do not know what my character is feeling. The narrator is very unstable, always doubting how he feels about his subject.  

In 2016, you made a short film called Army: 600,000 Portraits. How did that evolve into a feature film? Were there any differences in artistic intention between Army: 600,000 Portraits and the feature-length Army?
I think my heart is closer to the short video installation work because images speak for themselves. Somehow, a longer feature film requires a longer explanation. My practice of doing both art and film developed as a way of survival. In South Korea, film infrastructure is relatively more advanced than the art world. So I utilised the film world in order to make my art. 

Considering how Army touches on the sensitive topic of military conscription in South Korea, how has the public reception been? 
I am not sure about the public reception. There have been a few reviews both positive and negative. Positive reviews seem to pay attention to my formal experiments and the negative tends to focus on the military subject matter. I think people might have expected a more politically charged film because of the subject matter, but I clearly knew that I didn't want to make that kind of a film. So public reception has always been just my guess...

Army has won the Mecenat Award at the Busan International Film Festival and will premiere in Singapore at Objectifs on 1st March. The screening will be followed by a post dialogue session with Kelvin and Singapore Artist Loo Zihan.

The interview with Kelvin has been edited for clarity. 

Written by Timothy Ong

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