The Korea Herald


[New on the Scene] Director delves into 12-year-old’s complex world

By Kim Da-sol

Published : July 17, 2023 - 15:25

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Director Lee Ji-eun (Atnine Film) Director Lee Ji-eun (Atnine Film)

We have all experienced a time when we wanted to keep a secret from our school friends -- especially if it pertained to feelings of embarrassment about our parents’ work.

Director Lee Ji-eun, who made her feature film debut with “The Hill of the Secrets” which opened Wednesday, remembers her time at elementary school when teachers would conduct surveys about the jobs of students’ parents.

“It’s a single piece of paper but it contains a complex world of social bias, preconceptions and discrimination. Something that is very Korean, but at the same time, something that can be universally understood,” director Lee told The Korea Herald in an interview in Seoul on July 11.

The film was invited to the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival in February, after winning several local awards, including the 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival last year.

“The Hill of the Secrets” follows 12-year-old Myung-eun’s story through her relationships with her family, teacher and friends. She often compares her ill-fated family to those of her friends and feels an attachment with her homeroom teacher, Ae-ran. She pours all her secrets into her writing as she participates in a city-wide writing contest.

“I was one of the students who didn't feel comfortable about the school conducting a survey on parents’ jobs. Myung-eun and I have that in common. I wished to highlight the issue for children who also don’t feel so comfortable about (this aspect of society) in a more detailed way,” Lee added.

There was one rule she had when characterizing the cast, according to Lee.

“I wanted to make all the characters, Myung-eun and her parents, teacher, friends, grandfather and uncle, show the different aspects of human strengths and weaknesses. I did not want to show a beautified human, but a real one. That’s why I focused on showing Myung-eun as a 12-year-old human, not a child,” she added.

In her film, even Ae-ran doesn’t represent the perfect image of a teacher. Ae-ran is often late to school, sometimes spaced out in the corner of the classroom. She is open about her feelings in front of her students and cares about what her fellow teachers think of her.

“Because I was also once a teacher, teaching arts to elementary school students, I know what real teachers are like. Not all of them are always on time. Many of them are untidy or impatient. They’re really quick tempered people,” Lee said, laughing.

To transparently show the 12-year-old’s thoughts and feelings living 1996 while also making it relevant to today’s audience, director Lee met with various elementary school students from 1st grade to 6th grade.

“I questioned if the audience could still relate to a character in the 1990s. So I kept meeting with elementary school students to compare what I wrote and asked them if my ideas and the way Myung-eun acts made sense,” said Lee.

Lee said the film is essentially about family.

“I believe there are many aspects to the word ‘love’ that can affect you. This movie shows those aspects, including the things that hurt Myung-eun. But after all, Myung-eun feels and learns the love of her family. For Myung-eun, love is a feeling of wanting to tell someone about what she has achieved for the first time,” said Lee.

“The Hill of the Secrets” opened in local cinemas on July 12.

A scene from “The Hill of the Secrets” (Atnine Film) A scene from “The Hill of the Secrets” (Atnine Film)
“The Hill of the Secrets” (Atnine Film) “The Hill of the Secrets” (Atnine Film)

The following article is the seventh in a series that introduces Korea’s new and emerging actors and directors. -- Ed.