NYAFF 2021: Carolyn Talks ‘Ten Months’ with Writer and Director Namkoong Sun

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Ten Months - But Why Tho

Having its international premiere in the Uncaged Competition category at the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival, Ten Months is a film any woman from mid-20s to mid-40s can relate to. Written and directed first-time feature director Namkoong Sun, the film revolves around the very unexpected pregnancy of 29-year-old Mi-rae (Choi Seung-eun), who finds herself having shocking experiences and learning unsettling truths about pregnancy, South Korea’s legal and cultural views on them, and how she sees herself as a woman and potential mother in a patriarchal society.

For Carolyn Talks…, I interviewed Namkoong Sun about the relatability of her main character, the way pregnancy changes a woman’s outlook on the world around her, and the way the world changes the way it views her. As well as the progress South Korea has been making with recognizing women’s rights and abortion.

Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email, with the Namkoong Sun’s answers translated from Korean to English.

Carolyn Hinds: Ten Months is your debut feature film as a writer and director, and I’d like to commend you on making a film that boldly tackles the struggles women still have to contend with in a world that doesn’t seem to value, or even really want us. Could you tell me why this story was the first one you wanted to show audiences?

Namkoong Sun: Actually, this was totally not the story I first wanted to show audiences. [laugh] I had been writing a poetic post-apocalypse arthouse film when I myself got pregnant, and also had a script about ambitious young adults running away with a bag of gold bars from someone’s parent’s vault. So, a common pregnancy story was probably the least exciting project I would have ever imagined for a film debut.

But things change. After experiencing my own pregnancy back in 2014, it just didn’t make sense that this big an experience in so many women’s lives had never been the center of a proper, dare I say ‘common’ coming-of-age film. And that bothered me a lot. Even though my pregnancy was fairly an expected one than Mi-rae’s, I still think I wasn’t ready for the way the world around me would so abruptly change. It felt almost as if the world didn’t want me to exist the way I thought was basic to all human beings. Simple and basic things like being able to work and pursue the career I’ve always known I would pursue suddenly felt like a matter of debate.

This was before #MeToo broke. Feminists were still fighting for the right to not have kids and not feel bad about it, and it felt like I had suddenly fell into a blind spot with many contradicting emotions I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be having. And I thought, where are all these real emotions on the screen? Every pregnant woman on TV or film seemed wise and smart enough to know what she was doing, especially about if she wanted to be a mother or not. If not, it would be ‘the tough journey to abortion’ film, if so, it would be the ‘tough journey to childbirth’ film. Most of the time, it just seemed that pregnant women only came into a film to get other people to grow up and get real.

As a filmmaker I wanted to see a real, conflicted person go through that experience on film, just to show that the ambitious girl type character and hardened mother type character aren’t born that way, that they might be just be the same person on a timeline. I remember getting really scared that maybe creative women don’t get pregnant at all, or the ones who do get pregnant lose their voices and never get to tell the story. So, I decided rather grimly that I had to tell this story myself, or there might never be one. (Of course, I was wrong; women around the world were probably all thinking the same thing, and now I see all these books and TV series and films exploring this subject.)

CH: Before we get into how the film discusses pregnancy and abortion, I’d like to talk a bit about Mi-rae, played by Choi Seung-eun. She 29-years-old, smart, has a career as a game developer and doesn’t have her life as together as she’d like. To me, she’s extremely relatable because any woman in her early to mid-twenties, 30s, or even 40s can see themselves in her. Was this an intentional decision you while developing the character?

NKS: Yes, it was very intentional. I wanted her to have all the flaws that young people generally have. There’s that over-confidence you have in youth when you haven’t been really hurt yet. She really believes that her start-up is going to be a big success and that she would never, never get into her parent’s shoes. I think that’s the way young people are. They just don’t see their world related to ‘old world’ rules, especially in Asia, because so much has changed culturally in the past few decades.

Mi-rae gets herself into some really bad decisions, too. She might be smart as a developer, but still stupid enough in life to be naïve about relationships and society in general. Life is full of contradictions and missteps. I feel that somehow young women don’t get portrayed this way enough, especially pregnant women. I mean if Mi-rae was smart and wise and did all the right things, this wouldn’t be a film, right? It was important to me that this girl did all the wrong things and gets hurt, and it really wasn’t her fault that she did so, because that’s what we relate to.

CH: How did this play into your casting of Choi Seung-eun to play Mi-rae. What was it about her that made you believe she was the right person to play this character?

NKS: It was quite difficult to find the lead, partly because our production was truly what you’d call an independent film, on such a tight budget and schedule. Mi-rae was a character that came with a whole range of expressions, comically hot-headed in some scenes and deeply emotional in others. At first, I thought I’d cast someone who you can just look at her face and know what she’s thinking. Seong-eun was the exact opposite when she came in, you just couldn’t see what on earth she was thinking behind that face. But you could see that she had a ton of energy just boiling inside her petite frame and big eyes, waiting to spill out like a volcano. She really didn’t look a particular age, as well. She could be sixteen, she could be twenty-two, she could be thirty-three years old. That made sense for Mi-rae.

Seong-eun really has a strong thirst to go to places she hasn’t been to before. Although it was her very first time in a feature film role, Seong-eun made the pain and fury believable.

CH: Perhaps it’s a result of her work in the gaming industry, but I found Mi-rae’s penchant for mentioning white people interesting because it seemed to point towards South Korea’s seeming fascination with Western culture – particularly America. Would that be a correct interpretation?

NKS: I never thought of her as particularly fascinated with Western culture, to be honest. She is fascinated with the new ‘tech’ world she believes to be a part of. She thinks her chance of success is better inside that model. Maybe that’s Western culture, I don’t know. At least her father is thinking in old-school Korean ways because he thinks a job at a big organization will last long enough to make a stable living. Many parents push their kids to get the safest jobs in Korea, and many young kids study for civil service job exams like Mi-rae’s brother in the film.

CH: What I found particularly interesting about this, is how in the dinner scene with the family, Mi-rae is the only person that doesn’t seem to support her father starting a chicken franchise. She seemed to look down on her father for doing this, after earlier expressing admiration for Mark Zuckerberg.

This was ironic to me considering her interest in Americans, because North Americans love entrepreneurship, and people like Zuckerberg are praised for starting their own companies, not to mention we love fast food, with fried chicken at the top of the list. Many people would jump at the opportunity to own their own franchise. Perhaps it was just my own reading of that scene, but could you tell me about the intent of that scene in particular?

NKS: A chicken franchise is kind of a running joke in Korea because there are so many of them. It’s tough competition. Opening a chicken franchise store is one of the very common destinations for retirees searching for late-life job changes. There are so many of these people that some franchises profit from taking advantage of them, sucking up retirement money in royalties and exclusive contracts. Mi-rae’s father is probably investing in an ill-fated business, and Mi-rae knows this. She doesn’t want to take advice from her parents who are making poor decisions themselves, so she is grumpy and self-defensive when her father grills her for investing her career in an unstable job. In her mind, she’s the one who will ultimately come out laughing.

It’s sad that her father was actually right because if she stayed at her previous job at a big company, she probably would have been granted the right to take maternity leave and not get fired from her job.

CH: One thing about Mi-rae I wasn’t expecting was her apparent naiveté about sex and her own body. The pregnancy took her by complete surprise for multiple reasons, but the one that I found amusing and slightly odd was she didn’t even seem to understand the signs of pregnancy like morning sickness, and the absence of her period. She was also quite horrified to learn that women still died during childbirth in our modern and medically advanced times.

During your research and development of the script did you find this to be a common occurrence among young Korean women? Is it perhaps a failing in the educational system due to how conservative the country is?

NKS: I think that most contemporary Korean women would be quite aware of birth control and sex, at least most of the time. But there are always episodes where people get really drunk. Also, condoms don’t always work, and periods aren’t always clock-like regular for some women. A lot of people are overworked here, and there’s a drinking culture that’s seen as an extension of work, so sometimes people are just too busy to notice small things. I put Mi-rae in that situation just to make clear that these things can happen.

What’s not uncommon is noticing a pregnancy well after 8 to 10 weeks. One would think grown women would notice these things. I find it funny and tragic that at least three women close to me had no idea they were pregnant well into their 8th week of pregnancy. Really, one of them thought she had developed an acid reflux or something related to her stomach and one of them thought she was having a hangover for too long. Both of them went to the pharmacy because they thought they needed medicine for something else. It’s funny how the mind can really just go blank on some possibilities when you don’t expect them.

The part about modern maternal deaths was actually a shock to me as well when I was researching for the script. I didn’t know as much about these medical emergencies before. There was a report that maternal deaths are actually increasing because many doctors in Korea don’t want to open obstetrics clinics in smaller cities and rural areas where they don’t make enough money, leaving some mothers vulnerable to emergencies. I think ‘possible death’ is not really a part you think of when you sign up for childbirth, however small the chances may be.

CH: This may just be me being a bit to critical or analytical, but I noticed the maternity book Mi-rae read had white women in it. I wasn’t expecting that there wouldn’t be ethnically Korean/Asian women used as models in a book meant to be teaching Korean women about the changes their bodies would go through during pregnancy. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t surprised because many of the biology study materials used in Barbados where’s I’m from, feature white people.

Is this a concern you yourself think about with regards to the representation of Korean women in educational media, especially for young girls who’ll be reading these books in school?

NKS: That book is a Korean bestselling informational maternity guide that most women purchase when they get pregnant here. It is kind of a textbook for pregnant women, but I doubt any young girl would read that much information before they plan pregnancy. Yes, I had noticed the naked woman was white and thought it felt kind of weird, but I didn’t put particular meaning to it. Now that you ask me about it, I don’t think the image of a naked Korean (or Asian) pregnant woman would be comfortable for Korean audiences. It strikes me right now that any image of nudity that has a sexual context in it (pregnant bodies included) is more comfortably portrayed here in a ‘white’ body because it makes it easier to detach the image as something ‘conceptual’ and ‘acceptable’. It just makes me realize how restricted Asian women are in terms of displaying their bodies. Many people might feel that the same image of a naked pregnant Asian body seem, I don’t know, obscene? Which says a lot.

CH: As the title indicates, the ten months a woman is pregnant, in this case, Mi-rae, is the central plot of the story, and I love how you showed the different obstacles and worries Mir-rae faces, in conjunction to the progression of the pregnancy. How did you choose the particular plot elements like Mi-rae losing her job, her interactions with Kang-mi and her boyfriend Lee Yoon-ho played by Seo Young-joo, during story development, and did any of them change from what you initially intended?

NKS: The first draft was much wackier and yet much more realistic in a way. Mi-rae was an aspiring novelist trying to finish her first novel and Yoon-ho was the responsible one with a normal job who wanted to settle down. Mi-rae would be the last girl you’d imagine as one of the motherly mothers who shuttle their kids to tutoring classes after school here in Korea, and her struggle was more of an existential dilemma to her because everybody else thought her settling down would be a good thing for her. Yoon-ho was more of a very nice guy, but a nice guy who didn’t fully understand Mi-rae’s struggles. All of Mi-rae’s friends were hipster artist types, the real ones who really didn’t have much business in the marriage and having children department. Kang-mi was the only ‘practical’ model Mi-rae could look to.

It probably was more like my own experience, and it would have made more fun and sophisticated film, but after some feedback, I ultimately thought a lot of people in the broader Korean audience would have a hard time relating to that version of Mi-rae’s settings. With so much sensitivity and judgment being thrown around the subject, it turned out to be extremely difficult to go in to all the subtleties in the tone and manner I originally wanted.

So, I decided I had to make the story simpler and straightforward, and maybe reflect more general conditions in here Korea. I call it the ‘immature version’ because every character is more immature and prone to missteps. Mi-rae is now the programmer whose logic gets jammed in real life and Yoon-ho is so desperate to get out of his father’s grip he becomes a pretty lousy boyfriend on the way. Eerily enough the ‘immature version’ looked a lot closer to the general family dynamics we see a lot here. As in many Asian cultures, family values are much stronger here and sometimes create a lot of dysfunction in ‘normal’ patriarchal families. Also, there is an old but real tradition of the concept of hierarchy that a woman ‘marries into’ a husband’s family. Naturally, no modern woman likes this, but eventually, I knew I’d be lying if I didn’t put that angle in the film. It’s just very stressful to see on screen, so I lightened up the tone a bit, hopefully focusing on the general absurdity of it all.

CH: During a visit with Kang-mi, Mi-rae becomes emotional when Kang-mi reveals the fear that she’ll forget and lose herself, the way she’s forgotten the dreams she had for herself before becoming pregnant because she’s putting everything she has into the baby, both physically and emotionally. Two things about this scene really stood out to me. The first being the clear signs of depression – possibly post-partum depression – Kang-mi was experiencing. Usually, in films when memory loss as it relates to pregnancy is mentioned, it’s in reference to the occasional forgetfulness due to the change in hormones, but you actually put an emotional component to the memory loss, making this one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

As both director and writer, what was it like working through that moment with Kwon Ah-rum who plays Kang-mi, as it was a complete reversal to how her character was feeling when we were first introduced to her?

NKS: The scene with the baby was a hard one to act for Ah-rum, because she was holding an actual three-month-old baby in her arms. Really, it’s hard to do just an emotional scene by itself. Add a delicate baby in there and the whole production is focused on keeping the baby safe and protected, instead of the actress who has to focus on her acting. Because of the baby, she really felt the constant distraction and physical weight that most parents are left to tackle all day, every day.

Kang-mi is a narcissistic, success-driven woman and probably thought that having a baby was another achievement to check off the list. She may have even thought of it as the ultimate accessory. Still, I like Kang-mi because she is shameless in her pursuit of power. That’s exactly why she would be the type to fall into a deep post-partum depression because she feels powerless for the first time over her own physical state and over her love for the baby. I wrote the scene in a much funnier tone, because when you don’t get enough sleep your brain really does get caught in a fog, making a kind of lapse in response. But Ah-rum really took it in, and made it feel serious and real. For Mi-rae, that’s about as scary as it gets. The most confident and well-off peer she knew has just totally lost it!

CH: Though we never saw Kang-mi’s husband, I saw Yoon-ho and his father as representatives of patriarchy. Both men are oppressive, demanding, and selfish in their own way. Yoon-ho in particular shows how those with a patriarchal mindset equate being a mother with women having to give up their goals and individuality. It’s so ingrained in them, they don’t even realize how selfish they’re being and even if they do, they see nothing wrong with it. Did you receive any criticism about this from people?

NKS: They aren’t much of a threat until Mi-rae gets pregnant and conflict arises. It’s terrible because they don’t really act that way until Mi-rae gets in the way of what they want. I think most humans can be selfish in times of conflict. It’s usually how much they can get away with that dictates how bad they behave. So, these men demand what they think they can get away from within the social norm, while Mi-rae is deeply constrained by the social norm. Most male audiences who watched this film understood what’s being told here. Of course, I heard about one or two men who were comically furious after reading the script, claiming it was unfair that every single male in the script is portrayed in the worst manner possible. A male friend and I laughed about that because we disagreed. They are not being the worst, they are trying their best in their own minds to fix things. And besides, there’s the doctor, who is at least, not terrible.

As a director, I always try and make sure I have empathy for all my characters, because there’s no way I can properly work with actors if I don’t understand the characters. I can see that these men in the film, the boyfriend, the fathers, the CEO, all had their own logic for their emotions and are cluelessly blind to how it might feel on the other side. I feel bad for Yoon-ho, because a lot of my male friends didn’t like him that much. Women, on the other hand, seemed to have at least more pity for him. He is just very immature, not unlike Mi-rae at the beginning, but Mi-rae is forced to grow, while Yoon-ho sort of runs into a black hole in the other direction. Hopefully, he will emerge out of there in his own story, with his own growth, but this is not his story.

CH: In society women and men are always encouraged to have children because family ‘is the most important thing’, as though that’s the sole purpose of forming a relationship, but then the husbands are allowed to be absent -using work as one excuse as in Kang-mi’s case.  There’s nothing equal about it or the responsibility shared, but the men still take pride in being fathers. Do you think society has in any way begun to expect more from men?

NKS: It definitely has shifted a lot, especially among young couples themselves, but the major atmosphere still seems far from equal. There are a lot of assumptions and social pressure all around. I don’t think people of my generation thought we’d fall into the same dynamic when we grew up. I have quite a few male friends who do in fact take the role of primary caregiver for their children, but it just blows my mind when I take my kid to the playground after school on weekdays, and every single parent there is either the mother or some other designated caregiver, but almost never the father. How could the adult population in our playground be so homogeneous? How is it that every couple with their kid on that playground decided it was the father who couldn’t take time off whatever he is doing right now? It might seem like individual choices for each family, but it sure doesn’t look like that in the scenery.

What I see more is that younger generations here really understand the concept that these parenting roles should be more equal. That’s a good thing, although it seems like many of them are deciding to just wholly avoid parenthood itself as a solution.

CH: What were the opinions of women who’ve had pregnancies, and given birth when they saw the movie?

NKS: Many of them said they cried while watching the film because they had been through a lot of unnamed emotions themselves. But that’s in my circle, and for people who come to watch these kinds of films. Generally, both men and women who are young and don’t have kids yet seem to relate more to Mi-rae and her ‘rightful’ frustrations in the film. After a certain stage of life, I can see that there are conflicted reactions. Men who have children have more of a guilt response and some women who are proud of their motherhood seem to have a knee-jerk uncomfortable reaction to the idea that Mi-rae even feels negative about her pregnancy. Then there are (mostly single) women who say they can’t understand why Mi-rae doesn’t just get an abortion. Our own producer Dala said she felt that Mi-rae was being too self-centered for lashing out on everyone, including the CEO who fired her for being pregnant. It’s so interesting that everyone has such different opinions.

I think that kind of concept leaves a lot of natural human emotions in the dark, unvalidated. You feel guilty you’re not strong enough to be an independent woman, or you feel guilty you’re not the perfect mother you thought you’d be. I think that kind of guilt is bad for your health, and I also think it’s designed to keep you down. I hope navigating the middle ground in this film eases that a little, to know there are a lot of people out there who just feel like they are living inside a difficult math problem with no answers to it.

CH: Did you have discussions with your cast, friends, family, and maybe even your producers and investors about what they thought of abortion, and did what they have to say influence the way you approached the topic for the film?

NKS: I think most of the people around me fairly agree that abortion is a matter that the person directly involved in it should be able to choose for herself. But still, everyone has different moral parameters about it, and they never really know exactly until they face some kind of real-life decision. For me, it’s never been a question that abortion should be allowed, at least in early pregnancy, because most of the burdens of an unwanted pregnancy are going to fall disproportionately on the woman herself, which can’t be good for both lives involved in it. I think Seong-eun really felt the same way while she was playing Mi-rae as well. But I assume my mother would have a hard time imagining abortion in our family, although she is a very liberal, educated woman.

I tried not to make the debate the most central theme of the film, because it isn’t. It’s more of a film about the experience in a condition where abortion is flat out illegal in the law books. I guess there’s more space for people with different opinions in this film because Mi-rae ends up having the baby after all, although I’m not sure we can call that ‘a choice’ she fully made. I just hope it doesn’t come across as the wrong message.

CH: On December 31, 2020, the criminal code on abortion within South Korea was nullified, and the procedure decriminalized, which means at the time you wrote the script and during filming abortion was still illegal, as is shown in the film. What were your first thoughts when you found out the legislature had been changed?

NKS: It was horrifying to find out about the original criminal code on abortion, which specifies that the mother would be the one incriminated for it unless she proves there was rape, incest, or serious health issues. It wasn’t until I looked it up in 2014 during my pregnancy that I saw those actual words in the legislation. Because that legislation was so impractical, it was almost never really enforced on women. Most illegal abortions were unofficially allowed until ‘low birth rate’ turned into an issue back in the early 2010s. It was absurd and terrible to actually hear from my own doctor that it would be difficult to get an abortion at big, legitimate hospitals because of recent ‘low birth rate’ policies. I’d asked that question as research for the script, and I remember feeling shocked at how crazy the words sounded to me. Are you kidding? Low birth rate policies?

Thankfully, just four years after that, around when we started filming, furious crowds were protesting day and night calling for a constitutional appeal on the legislation. It felt like a big win when the legislation was finally deemed unconstitutional, and my first thought was, ‘Wow, my unreleased film just became a period piece.’ I thought most of the over-the-top abortion dialogue in my film would become sure history. If[only] progress was that simple. It’s been eight months since the legislature has been out of effect, and still, in 2021 we still don’t have new legislation in place of the old one, because people are still fighting over the reproductive freedom of women. Even in the U.S. I hear it’s still a legal issue that people fight over. I just hope people understand what that means for women who already have less control over their own bodies than people think they have.

CH: Has this change in legislature changed the way people speak about the film now or the topic of abortion, compared to discussions during its initial release?

NK+6S: The whole climate has changed around women’s issues since 2015, when I first started this project. Back then people would just be puzzled by why ‘a director like you’ would want to make a ‘film like that’. I never really fully understood what those words meant, but I knew making this film wouldn’t be as swift and easy as I thought it would be. Everything just seemed to fall flat on people’s faces when I explained this project about an ordinary woman’s pregnancy. Abortion laws aside, it was the tide of the new wave of feminism that came afterward that changed the way people gave feedback about it.

Now, they didn’t dismiss it but thought they’d seen enough of these stories already. And I’d ask them, where did you see it? Did you see it on screen? It wasn’t really until the film was finished through all the low-budget glory of endless labor and started screening at film festivals that empathetic discussions started coming. Unfortunately, the half-change in legislation probably didn’t change the conditions of pregnancy around here that much, but what’s different is that now we talk about these experiences more openly and candidly.

CH: What do you want audiences to understand about Korean women after watching your film?

NKS: I guess all women around the world have their basic needs, as in the need to be able to explore themselves and the world, the need to aspire after happiness, and the need to live full lives in their own terms. Korean women need these too, and they are talking about them [now] more than ever. Korean culture has been moving so fast, and the older culture is still quite harsh to women, so many women have a strong internal urge to just be polite and not create too much of a fuss. But Koreans are also known to break down longstanding oppressive norms overnight, it’s quite dynamic out here. The recent independent film and art scene here are almost bursting with women’s narratives, and it’s quite a fresh turn, to be honest. I think I can safely say, you can expect more of us coming your way.

Translation by Yujin Lee, NYAFF

Editor’s note: A previous version of this interview referred to Namkoong Sun as Nam Konng-sun, the correction was made August 29, 2021.