It’s never easy chasing your dreams, especially when it involves moving to a new country. But in the early 2000s, Junga Song, a South Korean filmmaker, immigrated to Canada and graduated from Toronto Film School to pursue her dreams in the country that she has since made her home. Along this journey Junga met Olga Korsak, a Latvian competitive skater-turned actress and singer who has been pursuing dreams of her own since coming to Canada in 2009. United by their talents, passion for cinema and shared experiences, Junga and Olga have since undertaken a number of projects together.
With impending release of their latest collaborative effort, The Petrichor, I recently caught up with Junga and Olga to get some insight into their backgrounds, the creative process and what brought them together, amongst other things.
So, Junga, before you began a career in film you studied marine science in your home country of South Korea. What made you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in film, and what steps did you take to make that happen?
Junga: Yeah, it has just been my dream. It was hard to do in Korea. Now it’s easier in Korea. But back then, it was like 20 years ago, it was hard. So, I had to study to get into university, and after that I came to Canada to study film. It has just been my dream since I was young.
Many in the international community might not be totally aware, but Junga you come from a country with a strong tradition of filmmaking, with the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho being the most notable modern filmmakers that come to mind.
Junga: Well they are men, so it was easier. Because I am a woman, it was very hard. Now it is better. Korea has changed a lot. But back then, if you were a man and you say you wanted to be a film director, everybody is like ‘Oh that’s cool,’ but as a woman if you say ‘I want to be a film director’ then everybody says ‘Oh, are you kidding? You better go find something else.’ Something like that. But now it has changed.
Me: And what do you think has changed over the years that has allowed women to be more present in Korean film?
Junga: Just more equality between men and women. Korea has a better mentality. It is more equal now than it was 10 years ago, 25 years ago.
And in terms of your own influences as a filmmaker, would you say that you draw from South Korean directors, or maybe there is more of an international influence?
Junga: I think most of my influence comes from Korean movies, Korean drama. It’s been way more influential than any other country’s films. So obviously there’s Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and many other notable Korean directors. But one director where I thought ‘I wanna make movies like him’ is Stephen Daldry. He directed The Hours and Billy Elliot. Even when I was in film school, I was inspired by his films a lot. I love his directing style.
I understand Olga that you were an accomplished figure skater in your teenage years, which of course is a crucial skill for the lead in The Petrichor to have. Though it seemingly goes beyond you having the right skills for the role, as there seems to be a slight sense of art imitating life here. Did the role in The Petrichor speak to you in that sense?
Olga: Oh yeah, definitely. When I first read the script, I couldn’t believe how there were so many similarities in my own life; reflecting how determined and hard-working I am towards my acting career. It was actually really easy to play the role because of that aspect of determination and belief to achieve your goals no matter what, no matter your circumstances, no matter your agent. I started acting pretty late, I didn’t grow up as a child actor. There was a familiarity to what I was playing, and of course it helped that I skated before, though I finished my career really early because of injury and it was amazing to step back on the ice 10 years later. It was kind of like I reunited with my dream, and my second dream made that reunion happen, so it was really magical!
How did you both find shooting so many scenes on ice? Obviously, you are somewhat at home on the ice Olga, but Junga did you find it challenging to get the shots you wanted on the surface?
Olga: It was challenging in a sense because I haven’t skated in 10 years and I had to step back on the ice. We actually spent eight months prior to the movie practicing. I had a coach and a choreographer to work on my final program for the movie. So that was all a bit challenging, because even though I go to the gym and I’m in good shape, it’s not the same when you’ve had a 10-year break. So it was kind of hard to get back into that training mode, and during filming it was really hard because we’d been shooting all the skating scenes overnight because of the limitation of time in a skating rink. It was very, very cold and it was dark because it was during the night, and my body had kind of given up on me every 30 minutes [laughs]. So that aspect was very, very challenging.
Junga: It was very challenging to get an ice rink. It’s very expensive, first of all, and it was hockey high season. The ice-rink is hard to book, so we had to book overnight. And it’s not a very good ice rink, it’s like a small, private ice-rink. I was thankful to get an ice rink, but it was really cold, like -6 or -7 because it’s a hockey rink. Then Olga has to skate wearing only one tiny dress, so she was very cold, and I was worried about that. We had been practicing for like 8 months, but I was worried that she might not be able to deliver her emotion because of the cold. But she did a fantastic job. And also, it was overnight, so her body rhythm was not the same, but she did extremely well, and I got some beautiful footage.
I understand this isn’t the first time the both of you have worked together, as Olga you played a leading role in Artificial Selection, which Junga also wrote and directed. There is clearly a chemistry between the two of you, but I’m interested in knowing how you first met and recognised each other’s talents?
Olga: In terms of how I got casted for the first movie, I wasn’t auditioning or anything. The producer of the movie called me three days before the shoot. There was a complication with the lead actress, and she basically called me and said ‘there is this movie maybe you would consider the lead role.’ She told me the plot of the movie and I really, really liked it, as I haven’t played an A.I. robot, so it was so fascinating, and I was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to see the script, when is it shooting?’ And then she told me it was shooting in three days, which was interesting. Yeah, they had problems with the lead actress, and they had to switch actresses last minute, and, I don’t know why, probably because of the love of filmmaking, but I jumped onboard quickly.
I basically got the script in the evening, and in two days I was already on set and learning my lines and trying to dive in last minute. It was very interesting and challenging, but I am very happy I accepted this challenge because I learned a lot about last minute preparation and feeling and understanding the role last minute. It was kind of like going to school, it was amazing. So, yeah, we worked on that, it went really well and Junga was happy with my work, and then I told her a little bit about my skating background and how I had a dream to play figure skating role, and I believe Junga already had the script for about 8 years.
Junga: Yeah, I wrote the script 8 years ago, but it didn’t happen at the time. Me and my producer tried everything, but it didn’t happen. But after I met Olga and I realised she could be skate, like the main character, I pulled out the script again and I changed the story to create a little bit of similarity with Olga’s life story, and then everything started happening.
Me: Wow, I guess you could almost call it fate?
Junga: Yeah it was almost like it was destiny for Olga and I to make the movie. I mean 8 years ago I was not ready, and she was not ready, but after 8 years it suddenly seemed like everything was ready to go. So, the funding kicked in, and then we cast a very famous Russian actor, as well as the famous skater Evgenia Medvedeva.
That actually brings me to my next question, which is about that famous Russian actor you mentioned, Aleksei Serebryakov, who is one of the best-known Russian actors in the world at the moment, especially after the widely acclaimed Leviathan garnered him vast international recognition. What was it like, Junga, to direct such an accomplished actor? And what was it like for you, Olga, to be sharing the screen with him?
Junga: Oh, it was like…in the beginning I didn’t know him well, because I’m not Russian. But before we meet I search about him and read about him and then I realise how big he is. Compared to his experience, I’m like a baby director, so I was scared the first day on set and I tried not to say anything, but then I followed and tried to learn, my attitude toward him was that I was going to learn from him. His English is not 100 percent, so it was a little challenging communicating with him, but he is a very, very, very experience actor, and after he read the script, he just knew what to do. So probably the easiest actor I have ever worked with. He was very fast, he nailed it every take, so it left less work for me to do, and I could focus on other stuff. It was amazing.
Olga: It was incredible for me to work with him as well because I also never worked with such a big calibre actor and realised how easy it is to work with a very strong co-star. It was so easy, and I think I learned so much from this movie just by working together with him. It was incredible. Definitely the best actor I have ever worked with.
I understand, Olga, that you attended improv comedy school The Second City, which has a long-storied history that acted as a launching pad for the likes of John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. What do you think is the most important thing you learned there? And did you apply anything you learned to The Petrichor?
Olga: Not necessarily with The Petrichor, but the school gave me a good foundation, it gave me freedom because I was very hesitant with my accent when I was starting out and what helped me in that school is I realised that you can be who you are and be unique, and that’s actually amazing. So, it surprisingly linked my self and my love towards acting together and taught me to stop thinking about what other people think because there was so much room for mistakes and making fun of yourself. It gave me tremendous freedom and confidence to be who I am, be proud of my story and that I came from Russia. I immigrated here 10 years ago, and I didn’t know any English, or anyone, and it helped me reunite with the story and be okay with the fact that I’m different and that I’m not fitting in. All my classmates were amazing in that they showed me I can be funny, I can be free, I can be who I am and I don’t need to try to be like everybody else because I was desperate to connect and try to be Canadian, but in the end I embraced who I am. It gave me a sense of freedom I would say, and it helped me a lot moving forward with auditions and booking roles. I got that confidence I never had and I’m very grateful to that school.
Amongst your many skills, Olga, you are also a singer, and even wrote and recorded an original song for The Petrichor. Junga, do you think you’ll put this particular skill of Olga’s to use in a future project?
Junga: We are actually preparing for the next feature film, which is called Safety City. It’s an action sci-fi. I don’t think she’ll need her skating or singing skills for the movie, but she’s learning martial arts, because she will be the main lead. She is a female fighter in a very different world. Olga is very athletic and very hard-working, so I was happy to work with her in The Petrichor and Artificial Selection too. This movie will take Olga to a different level acting-wise.
I also read somewhere, Junga, that one of your films is to be released on Netflix. Tell me more about that. How did it come about?
Junga: It’s actually Artificial Selection, but it’s not released yet. Netflix are very interested in buying it, but it’s not finished yet, because we shot it in the green studio. We made the green studio on our own, but after the movie needs a lot of fixing, a lot of post [production] work. It’s still in post, but I made one short opening and some screenshots, and when I visited Korea, I presented the movie and they were blown away by the look and everything. So, they are waiting for it to be finished.
Olga’s Instagram: @livvamusic