Interview: Joon Bai (Writer/Producer – ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’)

During the Korean War, a young nurse in the small town of Chunamri, North Korea, saves a wounded soldier who has been left behind during battle. Brought together by the unfortunate circumstance of war, theirs is a fateful meeting. His identity is unknown to her until he must return to South Korea. With the promise to return, the nurse waits a lifetime for him. Separated by war and countries between them, the young man tries everything to get back to the North but diplomatic relations between countries made it impossible for their reunion. As the years go by and their youth slips away from them, he finally gets an unexpected opportunity to fulfill his wish and return to her. But reunions are not easy and after years apart, they are met with more tragedy.

The Other Side of the Mountain‘ is the first feature film co-produced between a U.S. company and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The film took six years to complete under extremely difficult circumstances. The collaboration with the North Korean film industry has been a delicate yet fruitful relationship. With the consent of the Department of Culture of North Korean Government, the American producer was granted access to produce this feature film with North Koreans. The film was shot entirely on location in North Korea. The cast and crew involved in the production of this film are North Korean, who received rations from the government for working on the film like any other job. The soundtrack features an orchestra and original songs composed by North Korean musicians. This was also the first instance of sync sound for a film made in North Korea. The sound equipment was brought over to Pyongyang and used for the first time in their film history. Never having produced a film of this scope, the nation is proud to present the film to the rest of the world.

The Other Side of the Mountain‘ closes the 2013 Korean American Film Festival on Sunday, October 26 @ Village East Cinema.  Antcipatng the films screening we spoke with Producer Mr. Joon Bai about the conditions making the film, as well as the impressions audiences around the world should take away from it

Find Tickets & Information on ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’ Screening of the 2013 Korean American Film FestivalHERE

When did you first realize you wanted to tell this story?
I had been doing humanitarian aide to North Eastern North Korea for the last 16 years.  In 1997, I heard on the news that the North Korean people were dying of starvation.  It was not easy, but I made it a point to go there.  I told them that I wanted to visit some of the places from my life, including the town I was born.  When I went, I visited orphanages and saw that the situation was very bad.  They lacked many things, as well as having extreme malnutrition and disease; the water was not purified. I started to do the aide work and sent meal powder, corn, diapers to them.  Everything that I would think my grandchildren needed.  After that I thought I should expand my aide than just giving to the orphanages.

I began to work with the local farmers.  I know about agriculture and how to enhance the grain.  I realized they needed stronger seeds, fertilizers, greenhouses, pesticides and the know-how to produce the farm product to the best it could be.  We had very successful results, like rice production at 6 metric ton per hector.  Doing this for a few years I got to know the farmers, ate with them, drank with them, and began to find out there was a lot of sadness on their minds.  These are non political, non military citizens.  I realized this had to be told to someone else.  Someone had to speak for them.  I realised that I am the only one allowed to be in that part of the country, since I had done all the work independently and was not associated with United Nations, charity or church.  They recognized that I am giving unconditionally and saw I had general interest in them.  This gave me tremendous freedom, more so than anyone on Earth (even Dennis Rodman or Bill Clinton).

As I was doing this I started writing a diary and the diary led to a book.  Then I thought why not to make a film.  In my own mind I began to write a screenplay.  I am not a writer or a filmmaker, I am just an ordinary person writing my experiences.  I went to the Ministry of Art of North Korea and showed the screenplay.  They were very hesitant at first, but then thought to use it as propaganda.  Agreeing on the screenplay was the most difficult thing I had encountered.  We met 13 times over 2 years just to do so. They said that there is no way a North Korean girl would fall in love with a military soldier.  Can you imagine what kind of a situation I was in?  Also, they said there is no eternal life, but I wanted to throw in some Christian influence.

Also, I wanted to say that love will conquer everything.  If you want to do anything at all, when the family is separated and country separated, all one needs is love.  The breakthrough for me was when I mentioned the film as a tool for the reunification of the country.

The Other Side of the MountainDid you draw any influence from other films when making ‘The Other Side of the Mountain?
The film is all based on true events, except the two main characters fates at the end.  In terms of the story, particularly the second half, that is all my own experiences.  I did not want to make a film that was distasteful to some people,.  I wanted everyone to be able to watch it.

In terms of making the film itself, I am a very avid movie watcher.  I have seen more than 40,000 films, going back to my childhood.  I am a student of filmmaking in terms of being a fan.  I think those things obsessed in my mind and I wanted to bring something I was impressed by into our film.  I did not have any crazy ideas in the screenplay instead of writing our own story.  If I wanted to take any credit for the screenplay, I wanted to show what it is like to love someone.  I wanted to show ultimate love and how much a person can suffer, yearning for love.  This ties in with the people of North and South Korea.  I know my Uncle left without his wife and child and every night he would walk outside to look at the stars and would think of them I thought that there is no more misery in life than being separated from your loved ones.  I could starve for three days but missing that love is a greater pain.

Was there any point during the production that actually ran smoother than you thought?
After the screenplay, it is an amazingly expensive undertaking.  This film was shot on one camera.  This camera was a sync sound camera and was the first sync sound movie that North Korean has produced.  They don’t have recording, makeup, lighting or anything.  If you saw the film and knew it was produced under these conditions I think you would be surprised.

There is a scene where the rat comes in to eat and I mentioned how we need to keep this scene.  We caught a rat, but it was not going to eat the food.  When I got back on set the rat had starved for 5 days and when we let it out it died.  That tells me that the rat will die if it does not eat for 5 days.  Then we did it for 4 days.  It did not quite die but could barely move.  To shoot this scene of the rat eating took so much effort since their was no animal training.

Also, with the dog.  We had picked a German Shephard but when I came on set there was a small dog.  They told me it was the grandson of the dog of South Korean president when visiting Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

Another example,was makeup.  Since we had no makeup we could not show the characters as two different ages so we had to cut the script down and made them younger.

The Other Side of the MountainI wanted to say one thing though.  North Korean filmmakers have love and passion. They wanted to speak their mind throughout this film.  They had gone through some very difficult times.  They do not get paid; Director, Actress, Assistant Cameraman do not get a penny from us for doing this.  Most the film was shot in the winter in the mountains so there is no hotel.  What we did is, we all went to farmers houses and slept their.  The farmers in the mountains of North Korea do not have toilets inside, for example.  They do not have heat.  They barely have rice, but the next mornings everyone would come out with something. Someone came with sweet potatoes; someone came with corn; everyone came with something.  That is how we ate.  We drank by cracking the ice on the stream.  That is how the film was made.  The passion these people had under extreme circumstances is very unique.  I don’t know if in the history of movie making has a film been made under such conditions.

What would you like American audiences to take away after watching ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’?
My mission is that of peace on Earth.  Many Koreans, whether from North or South, may now forget their history and not appreciate where they come from and the history of their countries.  We have people all around the world, from Tahir square to Damascus shouting, but it is peace that should be given to those whose voice is most limited.  Also, I would like people to know that we have no commercial reasons for making this film and distributing it.  If we do make any profits it all goes to the film staff and to the orphanages in North Korea.

About Joon Bai
Joon Bai was born in Hae Ryong, North Korea in 1937. He experienced the ending of World War II in 1945 and was taken to South Korea as a refugee during the Korean War in 1950. He emigrated to the United States as an exchange student and earned a B.S.M.E. degree in 1956 at the University of Missouri and has grown his manufacturing business since then. He has been actively aiding North Korean orphanages since 1997. He realized the tremendous need for reunification of South and North Korea and began to write this script to support the cause. He is the producer of “The Other Side of the Mountain,” which is his first feature film.





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