In Conversation: Nils Clauss

Our everyday speech is something that is so often taken for granted. We forget how much meaning and history hide behind a word. Every language has new word additions that can stem from pop culture to cultural and industrial advancements and Korea is no different. Nils Clauss takes a deeper look into what prompted the birth of certain Korean words during the 70s and 80s where Korea was changing rapidly and was proving itself to be an industrialized nation. Take a look at the video and get an inside look at the process and motivations behind the project.


Bikini Words from Nils Clauss on Vimeo.

Linguistic development in Korea is a topic not explored enough. How did the idea for this video arise?
BIKINI WORDS is a video I made for Geumcheon District Office. Geumcheon is an urban district of Seoul, South Korea. I was initially approached for this job by Hongsung Kim, the founder of Design Studio Kerb, and Jinbok Wee, the head of Urban Intensity Architects. Both of them were aware that I work with a strong focus on space and architectural related topics and therefore thought that I was the right person for this job.

At the same time Hongsung and Jinbook had been in the middle of preparing a big exhibition platform for Geumcheon District Office, which will be shown at Gasan Digital Complex Subway station for 5 years starting in the beginning of 2016. Jinbok is the curator and main architect of the exhibition and Hongsung the art director. By utilising architecture, design, photography and film, the exhibition shapes an overall picture on how Geumcheon District has been shaped during the “miracle years” of  South Korea’s rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s all the way up to the mid 1990s.

The exhibition is also based on an index of 99 words, which dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. I immediately got hooked on that. This index, compiled by researcher Haeyeon Yoo of the Soongsil School of Architecture, is titled G-index. The letter “G” relates to G-Valley, an area in Seoul which includes the districts Geumcheon, Guro and Gasan. This area was well known for it’s industrial activities in textile manufacturing, dressmaking and other labour-intensive industries during the 1970s and 1980s.


How did you end up with those particular word choices that end up in the video? Did some of them resonate more with you than others?
Together with my producer Kuiock Park we went through the list of words and tried to build some of them into a theme that made sense and create a narrative for the film. With the words we came up with, I felt we created an insight into various aspects of a workers’ life in a way that would be clear to an international audience to help them understand what was going on in Korea at that time. The eight words we chose are a mixture of new Korean and Konglish words, which neither make sense to native English-speakers nor in the Korean language context. This also explains the title BIKINI WORDS, a Konglish expression made up for this film emphasizing the linguistic focus of the film, but also referencing one of the key expressions in the film: Bikini Closet.

The video makes me want to learn more about the workers because it’s shot in a very intimate way but only given a cursory collective history. How much time did you spend with the workers and what were they like?
Due to a very short deadline and a few other projects Kuiock and I were involved in, we were not able to spend much time with the workers and we only met with most of them for a second time when we did the shoot. I think I was lucky, as everyone seemed to know what I tried to communicate.


I feel like this could be a sensitive topic for some people, did you face a lot of resistance when recruiting people to feature on the film? Or maybe they were completely open to it?
When Kuiock and I started scouting Geumcheon area, we approached people on the street. We wanted to meet people who have worked in factories during that period. The area today has completely changed. Actually, a lot of Chinese immigrants are now living in this area and most Korean factory workers from that time moved to other areas of Seoul. But the first two older women we approached had actually worked in the textile industry in Geumcheon during that time (the woman in the video who is studying and the women who hides in the bikini closet).

We started out lucky, but after that it was actually really hard to find other workers. Most people were not interested in participating, as the media creates the same stories about the factory workers over and over again and a lot of clichéd stories appeared on Korean TV. We really had to gain their trust and convince them that we are working on something else and different. Luckily, the lady who speaks the voice-over, who is also the “puppet boss” in the film, had a lot of connections and was really helpful in gathering workers from that time.

The “puppet boss” lady actually was a strong workers activist during that time and without people like her working conditions would have been even more terrible. She really knew what she was talking about. We interviewed various people for the voice-over, but her answers for the word definitions were so spot on that I dropped the initial idea of using a variety of voices in order to make it more representative for all the many factory workers of that time.

The idea of being “stripped” seems to be a common motif. The title itself along with the word “Bikini Closet” give way to the meaning of being stripped and being left with bare bones. The locations themselves are stripped of any life. I get a sense of abandonment. Was this intentional?
In the real original spaces, the camera floats through space and takes the audience on a tour. I wanted it to feel like a walk through, so that the audience can feel and imagine what those spaces might have looked like back in the days with people working, living or spending their free time in there. Those images are supposed to take the audience on an imaginary trip back in time. Therefore it was really important that there are no people in the footage, so the audience can fill in the blanks.

The definition of the word “Bikini closet” to me is one of the key explanations of the film. It is funny, but also resonates well with what Korea used to be like during that time. Therefore it made sense that in some way it was incorporated into the title.

How do you balance educational and artistic expression?
I am a cinematographer by trade and also with my background in photography I am definitely very interested in composition, lighting, color, movement – basically everything that shapes an image. Although I think we agree that this by itself is not what makes a film. Story is extremely important and in the end mostly what will potentially drive an audience.

In BIKINI WORDS I definitely wanted the footage of the empty spaces to look beautiful, but they still all rely on the given narration and the additional footage with the factory worker in order to shape this into a film.

As a filmmaker I feel it is extremely important to communicate something. I am not saying that it necessarily has to be educational. Not at all. But I don’t think that a collage of beautiful images will do the job in creating a message for the audience to take home.


What about living in Korea inspires you?
Since the end of the Korean war the country has developed with tremendous speed – left aside whether for better or worse. Furthermore, the constitutional revision that officially ended the military rule in South Korea in 1987 is not even 30 years old. So obviously Korea’s democracy is still young and with recent political developments we also see how much it has been struggling. Economically speaking, the society is breaking apart more than ever and what is left is a very non-homogenous society with no stable middle-class. This against the backdrop of the country’s historical past, has lead to extreme social developments, which recently seem to cause a vivid debate in Korean society. Therefore I find it very inspiring to live and work here as a filmmaker and photographer. Despite that I recently find Seoul too big of a place to comfortably live in (hahahaha).

Have you seen any notable progressions in the creative scene in Seoul throughout the years?
The rising creative scene in Seoul has caused a lot of international hype and recognition. Before I moved from Berlin to Seoul end of 2005, everyone seemed very skeptical about me making that move to a place noonereally had a connection to in the West. When I went to visit Berlin a couple of years later, suddenly everyone was talking about Korea, everyone was eating Korean food and Korean art and artists were suddenly promoted internationally.

Personally, I think this is not something which just started to emerge in the past couple years. It is only the international creative industry which eventually caught up with a lot of Korean talent. Looking at Korean film for example, I always thought that the 1990s was the best time in Korean cinema. By the time the West started marketing the Korean New Wave after the change of the century, Korean cinema was already “dead” and interesting films were really hard to find. This is when I moved here.

What makes good cinema?
Always story, I believe! Story is always king. As much as I enjoy beautifully crafted films, in the end it is a great story which the audience is fascinated by and takes home. Unfortunately, I feel that all the (great) technical developments in filmmaking over the past decade has drawn too many young filmmaker’s attention to gadgets instead of investing real thought into the story they want to tell. I especially felt that during my time at film school.

As a cinematography major, I might have had a rain check to follow all the recent technical developments. But I never quite understood why all the directing students around me, seemed to be merely concerned about what camera to shoot on or what gear to buy. At that time I did cinematography for quite a few short films for fellow directing students, which were based on really undeveloped scripts. That growing dissatisfaction was the time when I also started directing myself.

Watch some of other Nils’ work on his website.

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