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[Herald Interview] ‘Beyond the Mountain’ looks at childhood of late Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan

A scene from “Beyond the Mountain” (Little Big Pictures)
A scene from “Beyond the Mountain” (Little Big Pictures)

Of all the remarkable moments in the life of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, South Korea’s first Roman Catholic cardinal, the film “Beyond the Mountain” focuses on his childhood, as it is perhaps the most essential part of Kim’s life, according to director Choi Jong-tae.

“It’s not a religious film. Cardinal Kim has always said he was ‘an ordinary person,’ and this is essentially where his greatness comes from,” Choi told The Korea Herald during an interview in Seoul on Monday.

“Apart from a few special features -- including his strong mother and his innocent and humble heart -- he was like a child throughout his life. Without glorifying his life, the film naturally became just an ordinary family film to which anyone could relate.”

The film is based on the book of the same title by a children's book author Jeong Chae-bong, who had compiled his conversations with the cardinal in 1993 in the form of an essay.

Kim was born in Daegu in 1922 to a devout Catholic family. His grandfather was a religious martyr, and both his parents were members of the Catholic community during the Japanese colonial rule, when Catholics were persecuted.

Veteran actor Ahn Nae-sang takes up the role of Kim’s father while another established actor, Lee Hang-na, plays his mother. Rookie actor Lee Kyung-hoon, 10, grabbed the role of the young cardinal through an audition. 

A scene from “Beyond the Mountain” (Little Big Pictures)
A scene from “Beyond the Mountain” (Little Big Pictures)
The film portrays the special relationship between the young cardinal and his mother, Seo Jung-hwa, who played an essential role in Kim’s decision to become a priest. Seo wanted all eight of her children to become members of the clergy, but only the cardinal and his older brother Dong-hwan were ordained.

“Although Cardinal Kim said becoming a priest was the best decision of his life, the journey that followed was not all smooth. As a child, he had truly wanted to become a ginseng trader and that’s why he didn’t comply with his mother’s wishes at first. Even after enrolling at a theological school, Cardinal Kim went through several periods of resistance (to becoming a priest),” Choi said.

Throughout the film the young boy often sits inside a large ceramic pot, wondering what kind of seed God has planted in his heart.

According to the director, the pottery symbolizes the Catholics of the time. Many Catholics, including Kim’s father, worked as potters during the period of persecution.

(Left) Late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (KH DB) / Director Choi Jong-tae (Little Big Pictures)
(Left) Late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (KH DB) / Director Choi Jong-tae (Little Big Pictures)

“Although a potter was one of the lowliest occupations back then, it was a job that protected Catholic believers as they made a living. They built kilns up in the mountains where they could hide from oppressive forces. As they traveled around the country selling their ware, they communicated with each other and strengthened their faith together,” Choi explained.

“Pottery’s use lies in its empty space, and likewise, we all have an empty spot in our heart that can only be filled with the love of God,” Choi recalled Kim saying. He lived his life practicing this love, not only as a religious person, but as a social activist.

It may come as a surprise that it was a Buddhist architect who funded the film’s total production budget of 4 billion won ($3.26 million). When no filmmakers were interested in the seemingly religious film, Nam Sang-won, the CEO of real estate company ID Planning Group Inc., committed to the film after reading the original book.

Coincidentally, the film opens on Buddha’s Birthday, which falls Thursday and which also marks the anniversary of Kim’s investiture as a cardinal by Pope Paul VI on April 30, 1969. Cardinal Kim, then 47, was the youngest of the 136 cardinals around the world at the time.

Even amid the coronavirus outbreak when theaters stand largely empty, the film is sweeping the box office with more than 7,000 tickets sold as of 1 p.m. Tuesday.

“We’re grateful that a film about the late cardinal’s life could be of help to our society in this difficult time for everyone, and it feels like we’re carrying on his values with the film,” Choi said.

By Choi Ji-won (