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[Herald Interview] Portrait of two underdogs and their vain dreams

Rookie director’s debut piece a potent brew of drugs, defectors and crime

"Dreamer" (Third Eye Video)

With methamphetamine worth 2 billion won ($1.6 million), the vain dreams of a young man to stay in South Korea and another young man to flee the country start. The portrayal of how the two hopeless young men try to fly but ultimately fall in the film “Dreamer” is so dry and realistic that it feels too cruel on the characters and the many dreamers they resemble.

The film features two dreamers: North Korean defector Geun-soo who has just arrived in the South and is trying to settle in the unwelcoming capitalist society, and South Korean lowlife Ji-hyuk, who struggles to live as a Chinese restaurant delivery man and seeks ways to make money to move to Australia. The two characters team up after a bagful of methamphetamine comes into Geun-soo’s hands and Ji-hyuk persuades the young defector to sell the lot together.

A North Korean defector and crime are unlikely elements to be dealt with by a rookie director, as Cho Sung-bin makes his feature debut with just such story.

For the raw illustration of drug trafficking involving North Korean defectors, Cho interviewed narcotics officers as well as actual traffickers.

“I approached numerous drug suppliers in South Korea as if trying to buy drugs, but when I revealed that I was making a film, they cut off the conversation,” Cho said.

“As I was just about to give up, this one supplier I contacted through social media sent me a long message of the A-to-Zs of the drug trade in Korea. He told me how the drugs are imported, distributed and even consumed. With further research and double-checking, I confirmed most of what he told me was true.”

Director Cho Sung-bin (Third Eye Video)
Director Cho Sung-bin (Third Eye Video)

Not only Cho, the two lead actors -- Hong Geun-taek and Cha Ji-hyun, playing Geun-soo and Ji-hyuk, respectively -- also spent a long time investigating. While Cha actually worked at a Chinese restaurant for two months, Hong interviewed defectors, Cho said.

Although the film may come as a shock to many viewers, Cho learned that drug trafficking, especially involving North Koreans here, was not such a hidden truth.

“The drug dealer who I spoke with even told me that drugs manufactured in North Korea was one of the top-selling in the world and that he himself sells drugs from the North,” Cho said.

Portraying such a reality, Geun-soo in the film says, “They (drugs) are more common than alcohol and cigarettes in the North.”

There are no complicated relationships and few long of dialogue; only feelings of hopelessness and the frequent running of characters maintain the tension throughout the 85-minute movie.

"Dreamer" (Third Eye Video)

Cho, who says he was inspired by English filmmaker Danny Boyle’s 1996 film “Trainspotting,” explained that he does not offer any lessons to the viewers, but just portrays a part of society that exists but is unseen by many.

“The film doesn’t hold any messages and I don’t intend to enlighten anyone with it. I just wanted to show that there are people who live like this and, possibly, meet an unfortunate ending. It pictures people who live unstable lives, eventually crumbling,” Cho said.

The film is Cho’s Cheongju University graduation project, made with fellow students Hong and Cha. Shot in 2016 and completed in 2018, the film premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2018, where it was previewed by The Korea Herald and won the CGV Arthouse Award.

As it can be difficult for independent films to gain multiplex distribution, it has taken nearly two years for the director make it the big screen nationwide. The movie opens in local theaters on Thursday.

“It’s a very lucky film. It’s not often the case that one’s graduation project gets screened at multiplexes,” Cho said. “We expected around 40 screens at first, but as of now, the film will be getting about 180 screens. It’s enjoying many favorable situations as an independent film and I’m curious what kind of ending the film will meet at the end of its long journey.”

By Choi Ji-won (