Josh Kim, 34, is a Korean-American director with a degree in finance from Trinity University. He went to Hong Kong Film Academy for three months before dropping out to pursue his passion for filmmaking. Notably, he directed controversial gay film My Hero (How to Win at Checkers––Every Time), which received rave reviews at the Berlin International Film Festival 2015. Premiered in Thailand on Jul 16, the film depicts the story of Oat, who looks back on his childhood with his brother, on the morning of his own military draft day. Here, BK talks to the director about the inspiration behind his production.
Watch the trailer for My Hero (How to Win at Checkers––Every Time:
How did you discover Rattawaut Lapcharoensap’s collection of short stories Sightseeing and decide to weave some of them into a movie?
I initially heard about the author on National Public Radio in 2007 when he read an excerpt from the book. His writing was very visual. After I read it, I felt as if I had just watched a movie. The stories were very different from other English language novels about Thailand I had read, which usually depicted a world of crime, sex, drugs and poisonous snakes. In Sightseeing, the characters felt real to me. Even though I didn’t grow up in Thailand I felt as if I knew the characters, so I decided to make a movie based on two of the short stories––At the Cafe Lovely and Draft Day.
Did you do any further research before filming it?
It took quite a few years to realize the film. I moved to Thailand three years ago to learn the language and start research for the script. Back then, I had never been to a draft before and didn’t feel comfortable writing about those scenes. I would ask friends what the process was for ka-toey on a draft day and everyone gave me different answers. So I felt like I needed to see it for myself. I followed two transgender girls on the day of their draft and made a short 10-minute documentary called Draft Day. After I made the documentary, I then knew what was real and was not. I felt I had the poetic license to write what was best for the story. In making the documentary, I went to more than seven different draft lotteries across Thailand. I probably have been to more drafts than many Thais.
What was the most difficult thing about making the film?
Initially, I was too concerned about keeping true to the book even though Rattawut gave me permission to adapt his stories any way I wanted. I would show people drafts of the screenplay and they couldn’t understand some scenes or characters. I would explain, “Well, in the book—” and they would cut me off, “Look, I didn’t read the book, so I don’t know.” That was when I realized I needed to put the book away and make the screenplay stand on its own. I finally started to feel like this film was my own. And now, even though some scenes are different from the book, many people have said that the film is actually more true to the book than if I had religiously shot it scene-by-scene. The most difficult part of the shoot, though, was when we had to recreate the draft scenes. There were over 200 extras and we had so many scenes to get through. I remember asking myself at that time, “Why am I doing this?”
You’re Korean-American. Rattawut is Thai-American. How important is that to the movie, to your art, to your interest in this story?
Both Rattawut and I have roots outside of Thailand. In the U.S., military service is voluntary; in Korea it is mandatory. Thailand is somewhere in the middle. I found the process very interesting. It’s like a lottery but instead of winning a good fortune, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to serve your country. I felt the draft lottery was a good example of the world at large today: a world where people who have more money have more choices. We’re taught that as long as we work hard and get a good education, we can succeed. This is not always the case, however.
Thailand is often described as very permissive or tolerant with regards to LGBTs. What’s your take on that?
Thailand is more open to LGBT people than other countries in the region. However, many of my gay friends have not come out to their parents. The country, as well as the rest of the world, still has a long ways to go. There’s this Nigerian quote saying, “Until the lions have their own storytellers, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” When I watch some films or TV shows that have gay characters, I feel like I don’t know these people. I thought this was my chance to depict gay characters that feel more human and realistic, like the gay people I know in my life.
How has making this film affected you personally?
Three years ago when I decided to make this movie, I sold my cameras and any expensive possessions I owned. Some people said it was like the author of Eat Pray Love, but instead of going on a spiritual journey, I spent three years making this movie. I now have great friends and memories and feel that Thailand is my second home. In Berlin, a German woman in her 50s came up to me and said that she initially refused to see the film because it had gay characters. But after watching it, she was really happy and said that she felt it was a film anyone could watch. I was happy to hear that the film also works for non-gay audiences as well.