Interview with Ulrike Ottinger

"To find the new in the old - and vice versa" 

A Korean wedding chest is a very mysterious object. But why did it receive the honor of the title of your new film?

When a wedding chest opens, a whole world opens. A wedding chest is more than an archive box. It is something very much alive and at the same time completely traditional. People in Korea have very clear ideas of what belongs in these very massive wedding chests. The fi lm describes the individual elements and their signifi cance in detail, along with the production and origin of the objects, their colors, how they are placed, and how they are packed. All these rituals are precisely determined and have become incredibly differentiated over the course of time; but they trace back to archaic models. At the same time we also associate a chest with "Pandora's box," whose opening decides fates in one way or another. I did a lot of thinking about the title. Opening a chest like this at the beginning of the fi lm is reminiscent of "letting the genie out of the bottle" and thus makes use of an ancient dramaturgical form.

When the film began, it wasn't clear to me at all what you intended with this initial packing of the wedding chest. I liked this unpredictability, the surprising curves, stations, and switches that the story goes through from there. What kind of a narrative or dramaturgical route did you have in mind when you shot this film?
It was like this: when the offer came to make this film, I had not yet been in Korea. But I had read a lot about the country and delved deeply into its shamanism, art, music and theater. So one day I arrived in Seoul and took a look at everything. I drove and walked around and looked at everything. And that's exactly how I fi lmed; at first I didn't have the slightest idea how it would all come together later in the fi nished fi lm. I collected things with the camera that struck me. That sounds awfully arbitrary, but I have worked a lot in other Asian countries, so some things were familiar and known. Despite all the differences, there are also many things in common among the Asian cultures. The fi rst thing I noticed in Seoul was that the streets there - like our streets a long time ago - were arranged in terms of the residents' occupations. The second thing that struck me was the great number of shops specializing in weddings. I made that my starting point. Weddings are quite frequent in your earlier fi lms, as well… …because I fi nd them extremely interesting and revealing. They show so much about a society. At a wedding, every area of societal life is activated: the arts, music, religious ideas, cultural and ritual practices. Add to that the clothing, the food, the phases of a wedding, the preparations and cleanup. When two families join together, usually there are many political and economic interests on both sides. I would even say that one could defi ne various cultures or cultural ideas solely on the basis of weddings. Weddings are a very special kind of challenge for people: they provoke everyone involved to show themselves and thereby to show something about themselves.

But Seoul is defi nitely a modern city. How or where in this very urban environment did you discover the traditions and the "old ways"?
At fi rst glance, Seoul and its architecture are indeed very modern. In contrast to our cities, where you can often follow the traces of history back to the Middle Ages, the oldest settlements in Seoul are from the 1950s. But there are also these wonderful, very old temples and palaces that seem like islands in this extremely modern and very pragmatic city. They exist in isolation, seemingly without relationship to their immediate surroundings. I tried to develop something out of this discrepancy - because on second glance, Seoul isn't modern at all. That was what was exciting, that was the fascinating challenge in this fi lm: I wanted to show something that is not visible at fi rst glance. Film is ultimately always about making something visible. And so I came up with the weddings, because here I could fi nd the old in the new - and vice versa. Besides, weddings are very present in Seoul. I estimate that in this city of 14 million residents, three million are in the wedding business, directly or indirectly. It's gigantic.

A crucial area that is given plenty of scope in your film is wedding photography and its staging. What is important in wedding photography?
In Korea, as in China and Mongolia, photography is tremendously important. Old, ritual functions are fulfi lled in a new way in photography. At a wedding, photos are especially important; every Korean family has at least four huge photo albums that precisely capture all the important stages in their lives. Without these photos, you probably couldn't prove that you were married. It is such a must that you get the impression the entire ceremony is held just for these captured moments. And that gives the images something almost sculptural. Photographing verges on obsession at Korean weddings; you get the impression people have to prove something. I wondered what that could be. For example, there are these extremely important assistants who are always picking at everyone - in the middle of the most ceremonious moments. These assistants act like the assistants in Asian theater who operate the puppets and are not actually seen; only the fi gures are seen. The assistants are, so to speak, "seen away." For us it is unbelievable, for example, how the "visible" father of the bride is lifted up by a "seen-away" assistant so that his pants and jacket can be straightened. Perhaps this all happens because the point is not to capture "the whole thing," but only to produce individual pictures of it. The moment is important, and it has to be perfect. I haven't yet fi gured out exactly what is behind this desire for perfection or if that is the only way the ritual can be fulfilled.

The film begins and ends with a fairytale that you wrote yourself and that refers equally to "the old" and "the new."
As text, this fairytale contrasts with the images of train stations and other hyper-modern cityscapes, while its story - which has a lot in common with Siberian, Mongolian, and northern Chinese fairytales, by the way - is oriented toward religious ideas and myths of origin. These ideas are very powerful for people; for Koreans, the family is still the most important thing in life. Of course there are many young people in Korea who want to live differently and with greater freedom, but I think it is very diffi cult in this country. Many innovations are accepted, but all deviations, sexual or otherwise, must remain within the family. Korea is quite liberal, but the ideas about family are not liberal; at the same time, those ideas form the supreme value system. The family is a very sensitive area within which the greatest possible degree of individuality is made possible, precisely because "cutting oneself off," turning away from the family, is still considered taboo. That's why divorces, which of course exist, are often kept secret in Korea. All of this perhaps has to do with very old experiences, for example that earlier it was not possible to exist outside of the family; if you were alone, you were practically sentenced to death. We can't really claim that we are so far away from such ideas in our country, either. I remember very clearly what dramas played out in the 1950s when, for example, Protestant and Catholic or Jewish and gentile partners wanted to marry.

How did people in Korea react to your project? After all, when shooting, you intruded into the interior of the family, so to speak.
With incredible generosity. Actually, that's how it has been with all my films. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I am truly interested in people. They feel it - and they respond very generously to it. On my many travels, I have gathered experience that allows me to have a different gaze when making a fi lm: I have learned not to impose myself, but at the same time to always show that I am open and interested. It is also very important to note when you have to withdraw and let things run their course, without acting as if your feelings are hurt. Over time, you develop a feeling for this. A sense of tact without timorousness is important. On the other hand, with this kind of shooting, you need people who introduce you and open doors for you. In this case, Ms. Kim was very helpful for me - she runs the wedding shop in which we fi lmed, and which has been in her family for four generations. It was a matter of luck that one of her employees got married just as we were making the fi lm. But there were other very lucky coincidences that helped me a lot with this fi lm. One example is when I fi rst visited the temple I defi nitely wanted to show in the fi lm. I thought how beautiful it would be to show the temple in the snow; and as a matter of fact, it snowed so much the night before we shot that we had diffi culty reaching it.

To conclude, I'd like to ask you how the project came about. This fi lm came to you, in a certain way, in the form of an invitation from the International Women's Film Festival of Seoul.
One day I received an e-mail asking if I would like to make a fi lm in Korea. I was delighted - I had never been there before, and to be honest I regretted a little that I hadn't traveled there before. Originally, I was asked to send an exposé, but I refused, because that's not how I work. Instead, I answered, "I come, I look, and I do." The theme was connected with the festival's 10-year anniversary: "Seoul. Women. Happiness." Then for a long time nothing happened. There were diffi culties with the funding for the 10 fi lms originally planned. At some point the organizer wrote that the theme was now "Seoul. Women. No Happiness," because instead of 10 fi lms only six could be made. In the end, I was the only non-Korean invited to make one of these birthday fi lms. That's how my 15-minute fi lm Seoul Women Happiness came about. I made this fi lm entirely in Seoul, and it turned out very nicely. But I had shot so much footage that it was impossible to use all the material in a short fi lm. Rituals demand a certain amount of time. At the editing table and especially at night, I kept thinking about what I could do with all this wonderful material. When I edited the short fi lm, I didn't even touch many of the scenes; some of them already exist as rough cuts, but were not used, for dramaturgical or time reasons. After completing Seoul Women Happiness, I showed this material to the women from the festival and suggested they let me keep it to use as the basis for a long film.

Interview: Dorothee Wenner, Berlin, January 2009