A Matter of Life and Death: Lee Isaac Chung and Abigail Harm
We all require friendship, companionship. In the three films Lee Isaac Chung (known as Isaac) has made, he observes assorted relationships in vastly different milieu: in Munyurangabo (2007), the bustling central market of Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda, and that country’s verdant countryside and poor isolated villages; a beach house smacking of privilege on the southeastern coast of the U.S. in Lucky Life (2010); and, in his latest, the mysterious, inventive Abigail Harm (2013), a large but charmless apartment on a depressing, sparsely populated edge of New York City. The dramatic emphases, however, are less on bonding than on the ruptures that threaten to dissemble it.
In Chung’s world, camaraderie is mutable, its boundaries flexible. In Munyurangabo, a splendid example of humanist drama, it would never dawn on two close teen pals, a Hutu and a Tutsi who perform menial labor together in the city, to evaluate their friendship in terms of the horrid genocide that marked the nadir of their tribes’ historical conflict — until one guy’s rural parents make a pejorative distinction. The longtime college chums in the Christian-inflected Lucky Life try hard to maintain their youthful intimacy but a hopeless diagnosis and untimely demise of one man throws a major kink in the plan.
In Abigail Harm, Chung daringly ventures into the realm of spiritual fantasy. A woman approaching middle age, whose father is in the last stages of an unnamed illness, finds her soul mate in a young, otherworldly and angelic wild child. In all of the works, death is a supporting character — almost at odds with the vibrancy and vitality of textures and architecture he captures so brilliantly with a handheld camera, whether or not he serves as his own d.p.
The title character is played by Amanda Plummer, for whom this lower-than-low-budget film is an unintended showcase for the wide range and enormous talent we’ve seen in such works as Pulp Fiction and Butterfly Kiss. In this contemporary adaptation — revision is a more appropriate term — of the Korean folk tale “The Woodcutter and the Nymph,” Chung and regular co-screenwriter Samuel Gray Anderson reverse the characters’ genders. A loner whose only contact with others is a job going apartment to apartment reading books to the blind — one is Alice in Wonderland, the plot of which is echoed in the film’s storyline — Abigail is the needy party. Androgynous Japanese actor Tetsuo Kuramochi plays The Companion, object of desire and unconditional lover who magically appears after she follows the instructions of the odd, mysterious Narrator (Will Patton).
Abigail lacks communication skills; she can not even muster the energy to visit her dying father. Plummer uses her arms, clicks of the mouth, and large eyes to reach out to her new partner, who barely speaks. Most actors would flail too strongly and overdo facial expressions and sounds, but Plummer, like a life-sized, malleable rubber doll, seamlessly shifts from one to another. Chung affords her an abundance of free space in which to act, pursuing more than guiding her. This could be the finest performance of the year, but the lead in an ultra-inexpensive indie movie has little chance of being so honored. Balancing Abigail’s nervous tics and mania is Kuramochi’s underacting, just right for someone whose only purpose is to console just with his presence.
Because he plays a blind character, veteran actor Burt Young borrows alternative tactics from the thespian handbook, just enough this side of chewing up the scenery to function effectively. Playing in more of a monochromatic mode, Patton, who speaks gobbledygook, is a perfect Narrator. For a film with a relatively linear storyline, Abigail Harm has complex layers of narration — for example, Patton’s voiceover narrates Abigail’s activities, even while she recounts high and low points of her life to the Companion. These meld nicely with a score by Bryan Senti that conveys Abigail’s shifting moods.
Deconstructing the narrative strategies would be a mighty task. The best person to elaborate on this highly original film is Chung himself — a handsome, 34-year-old Arkansas native who grew up on a pear farm and, via Yale, currently resides in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, with wife Valerie Chu, an art therapist and production designer on Abigail Harm, and eight-week-old daughter Livia.
Filmmaker: How did you get the project off the ground?
Chung: Production started in late September of 2011 for 24 days. We filmed on an ultra-low budget. I had finished my second film, Lucky Life, and had some money left over from it. I asked the financiers if I could shoot another film with it. We got a couple of grants to fill out the budget. It helped to have a relationship with an actor like Amanda to bring on other actors like Will and Burt.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the Korean folktale and your approach to adapting it to a contemporary setting.
Chung: My parents bought a set of Korean folktales for me when I was about seven years old. They were children’s books, and each page had illustrations and text in both Korean and English. The idea for the series was that Korean-American kids could read these books and learn Korean and Korean culture at the same time. I think I read the story “The Woodcutter and the Nymph” more than the others because there were drawings of a woodcutter hiding in the bushes to spy on naked, bathing nymphs. Aside from that, the entire story was unsettling to me, but I was too young to think about the reasons why.
Amanda and I were introduced a few years ago after she had seen my first film, Munyurangabo, and wanted to meet me. This was a great surprise to me, both that she was enough of a cinephile to know about my tiny film and also that she had enjoyed it enough to want to meet. We talked about working together and tossed around a number of ideas. I wanted to write a love story for her, and when I asked her some actors she might consider playing opposite her as the lover, she mentioned a few younger Japanese actors. She laughed when she noticed that I wasn’t expecting this as a suggestion and said something dismissive about her whims. This moment of self-awareness that I saw in her stayed with me.
From here, the folktale came to mind. In the longer story, after the woodcutter captures a nymph on earth by stealing her robe, he and the nymph have children and live together for a few years. The woodcutter returns her robe, thinking that she would stay on earth because she wouldn’t leave her family. Instead, she puts on the robe, takes her two children in her arms, and flies to heaven while telling her husband that she’s sorry. After some time, the woodcutter finds a way to heaven, and once there, he desires to return to earth to say goodbye to his mother.
He’s given a horse to ride back to earth, but as he says goodbye to his mother, he falls off of it, and it flies away without him. He spends the rest of his life on earth suffering and calling to heaven for his family. Among other things, this original story seems to be about the Buddhist principle of balance (ecstasy is balanced with extreme suffering, and if one person, the woodcutter, gains the ideal, another, the nymph, loses it), and it also shows the folly of desire. At the very end, the man, in his foolishness for calling to heaven every day, turns into a rooster.
To me, this is very closely related to our nature of engaging in fantasy, and perhaps this is why the story came to mind when Amanda mentioned the names of various Japanese actors — it seemed like she was speaking in terms of fantasy. I thought we could make a love story that follows this idea.
Conceptually, I wanted to adapt the story to take place in a fictionalized New York, at a time that exists sometime in the future when the city is emptying out and all relationships are more or less defined by monetary exchange. Some of this is in the story now, perhaps more as atmosphere, because I wanted to let various concepts behind the film become less overt than they were in the script and put more emphasis on the emotional story of this character chasing and loving a fantasy until she must let it go.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your way of working with Plummer. She appears to have almost free rein.
Chung: During the writing phase, Sam Anderson and I had a lot of discussions with Amanda because we wanted her to have a lot of input in creating the character. We thought the film would be better if it came out of a very tight collaboration. I had never directed actors who have had as much experience as Amanda (most of the actors I have cast for previous films were nonprofessionals), so I knew I had a lot to learn.
Amanda is a master of working intuitively, and I wanted to give her freedom to do this and try to keep up with her. She used to exercise and run racehorses before she started acting. Working with her is a little bit like that. Often we cleared the set, and the boom operator would work behind me. We’d follow Amanda because I wanted the camera to be taken on a ride.
Filmmaker: The concept of the “male gaze” has been overused. Here we have only a female gaze: All the clients are blind, and she stares at the nearly oblivious Companion. She is a voyeur without reciprocity.
Chung: Yes, she’s really the only female character we see in the film, and she’s the one who seems to have control in all of her interactions because of her gaze. But I don’t intend to make any statements on gender relations here, perhaps beyond the idea that it’s possible to fashion a leading character who is played by a woman and isn’t defined by any exterior definitions of what it means to be a woman. She can very much be the subject who commands the film and not the object of a gaze.
I think this comes naturally in working with Amanda, who in almost all of her best film roles subverts the types of characters we see depicted on screen for women. She doesn’t allow herself to be categorized in any way. She avoids all stereotypes and definitions, and this is one of the things that I found most exciting in working with her. Everyday she surprises.
Filmmaker: The Wonderland references are obvious. Are there other literary allusions?
Chung: I also thought about Don Quixote, and this is one of the reasons why books mean so much to her. Don Quixote’s obsession with books seems to be the foundation, the starting point, of his journey, his wild chase.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the New York City sites you use?
Chung: The waterfront is in Red Hook at the Erie Basin Park. For the story and logistically, I wanted all of the locations to be in Red Hook, but I found a good apartment for filming in Ditmas Park. I wanted to film the cavernous space at the Red Hook Grain Terminal, but the property manager wanted to charge us $13,000 per day, which was crazy for a production our size. We found a much better space in Manhattan at 5 Beekman Street, an abandoned space that was the first high-rise office building built in New York. It had been left unused for decades, so the paint on the walls was peeling away, and many of the old details were left unchanged. The building is now under renovation and will become a hotel, if I’m not mistaken.
The owners of the building also owned the Chelsea Hotel, and they were generous in letting us film the scene with Burt Young there, even though you don’t get any sense in the film that it’s at the hotel. For the diner scene and the scene that follows, we filmed in Jackson Heights, Queens. The short flashback of Abigail walking into her father’s apartment was also in Jackson Heights. While writing, I pictured Abigail growing up in Queens, so I looked for locations there for those scenes.
Filmmaker: Tell me about Tetsuo Kuramochi, the actor who plays the Companion. At first I thought his character was mute but he does speak some nearly robotic words, a bit unrelated to what is going on.
Chung: Tetsuo was a businessman in Japan not too long ago and started acting a couple of years before we filmed Abigail Harm. He lived a strangely reclusive existence in Japan and hadn’t experienced a lot of things that normal people his age have been through. He has a very childlike quality to him, so he seemed right for the part.
Yes, he speaks few words. Sam’s and my idea for The Companion was that he had never needed to speak where he was from, based on the idea that in an ideal place, language would not be necessary.
This is why Will’s character speaks in non-sequiturs, and Abigail’s main obstacle to saying goodbye to her father is that she doesn’t know what to say. In the diner, she speaks more at length about her problems with language. It’s only in books and reading that she seems to be able to communicate with others. This was an idea I was going to bring to completion in the ending, but we changed the ending during filming. Now, this idea serves more as an atmospheric detail to the film.
Filmmaker: Besides being an ex-alcoholic and not being able to deal with her father’s death, what do you see as Abigail’s past, and her future?
Chung: In the original script, Abigail finds a way to heaven, just as the woodcutter does in the folktale. She encounters the nymph and lives happily with him, experiencing no more pain. She’s angry that he wouldn’t have chosen to suffer with her on earth and that he has a gnawing sense of wanting to return. She thinks it will be fine if she just takes one last walk through the city, and she’s given only one rule, that she mustn’t speak or else she cannot return to heaven, but she meets a blind client and doesn’t read to him – she speaks. I don’t know if this would actually happen in the future now, but sometimes I imagine how this ending might have worked with the film. I still think the film needs to end where it does now, and perhaps it’s better to let everyone imagine her past and future.
Filmmaker: I think your films are arguably more optimistic than pessimistic, yet death is a hovering presence.
Chung: Looking back, there seems to be a lot of wrestling with despair in the last two films I made. I think it’s hard to write scripts for films set in the U.S., because it’s hard to find the urgency and possibility for new life experiences that can drive stories in other parts of the world. This is my own inexperience speaking. I’m working on new stories, set abroad again, and no one in them gives a fuck about dying!