Shinsuke Fujimoto makes his mark in the Korean film industry

by Alex Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Shinsuke Fujimoto is a rarity in the booming South Korean film industry. Despite having no connections in the local movie scene, the Ishikawa Prefecture native flew to Seoul straight after graduating college and has managed to make a living working on various film sets for over a decade.

His experience earned him a reputation as the go-to person for Korean productions looking to film in Japan or collaborate with their Japanese counterparts.

“I can’t think of any other Japanese who’s been working in Korean cinema for this long,” the 37-year-old says.

Last year saw Fujimoto’s career reach a new stage when he served as an assistant director in renowned director Park Chan-wook’s latest film, “The Handmaiden.” The erotic thriller, based on Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” but set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule instead of Victorian era Britain, was selected to compete in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

During the filming of “The Handmaiden,” Fujimoto overlooked part of the shooting that took place in Mie Prefecture and closely worked on art direction, language supervision and other production-related tasks with Park, director of internationally acclaimed films such as the 2003 cult thriller “Oldboy,” which received a Hollywood remake by Spike Lee in 2013.

Working with a star director helped boost Fujimoto’s profile, attracting some media interest in the lone Japanese working in the Korean film scene. It was a welcome change after a dozen years toiling — some times unpaid — in a highly volatile industry.

Fujimoto’s interest in South Korea began through friendships he forged with a group of South Korean exchange students he met while attending the University of Toyama. That led to him signing up to study at Seoul’s Kookmin University for a year starting late 2001. With already enough credits to graduate, he did what many exchange students do — have fun.

He made new Korean friends, toured the city and went bar hopping. During his spare time, he watched Korean films at the university library. That got him hooked to the genre.

“I couldn’t understand everything I watched, but still there were many films I really enjoyed,” he says. He found the cinema culture to be different from Japan. Movie tickets were cheaper and South Koreans visited the theaters more frequently than people did back home.

It was also a relatively stable time for Japan-Korea relations, before historical tensions were rekindled and territorial disputes soured ties. 2002 was the year South Korea and Japan jointly hosted the FIFA World Cup, and there was a general sense of camaraderie. For Fujimoto, it was the first time living abroad, and he was having the time of his life.

Upon returning to Japan, he wrote his thesis on Korean cinema and pondered on his next move. Most of his fellow students had been job-hunting and some had already received unofficial offers. He was late in the game to go that route.

He vaguely had the desire to work in the film industry, but didn’t know where to start. Tokyo would have been the natural destination if he were to pursue a career in Japanese cinema, but he also missed the time he spent in Seoul.

“So I put the two together, and decided to fly back to South Korea and see what I can do there,” Fujimoto says. “It was a gut-driven decision — those crazy moves you can only make when you’re young.”

With a limited budget, he spent the initial months living in friends’ homes.

Four months into his stay he landed a job as a junior staff in the production of a new film. It was mostly odd jobs such as cleaning and running simple chores, but he was glad to have finally landed something. That didn’t last long — two months later the project flopped.

Nothing turned up during the next six months, and Fujimoto began living in a miniscule apartment with no windows that charged 170,000 South Korean won (¥17,000) a month. He could barely stretch out his hands in his tiny room and started having serious doubts about his future. He had joined a movie company around that time but it wasn’t paying him a dime and the film it was working on also failed to materialize. Nothing seemed to be going anywhere.

Then things started to change.

By chance, in September 2004 Fujimoto landed a job helping the production of the teen drama “The Aggressives” by director Jeong Jae-eun. With one film under his belt, he soon got an offer to work on “Running Wild,” a 2006 action flick directed by Kim Sung-soo with the musical score written by Kenji Kawai, a veteran Japanese composer known for making music for Mamoru Oshii’s films, including “Ghost in the Shell.”

Those years saw an increasing number of Korean films using Japanese actors, and Fujimoto’s fluency in Japanese became a strong asset.

During the shooting of Kim Ki-duk’s 2008 film, “Dream,” Fujimoto worked as an interpreter for Japanese actor Joe Odagiri who played the protagonist. He was part of the South Korean production team shooting the 2009 Japan-South Korean film “Boat,” which starred Japanese actor Satoshi Tsumabuki and Korean actor Ha Jung-woo in the leading roles.

Fujimoto’s unique position gave him an opportunity to observe differences in style between Japanese and South Koreans when it came to producing films.

Japanese meticulously prepared for shootings with long meetings, but were slow to react when unexpected events forced them to divert from original plans. South Koreans, on the other hand, didn’t spend that much time preparing, but were flexible and quick to react when on-location shoots didn’t go according to schedule. These attributes sometimes complemented each other during shoots for joint-production films.

Fujimoto, who lives in Seoul and is near-fluent in Korean, has worked on nearly 20 movies so far. Now he’s ready to take his career to the next step and direct his own film. This year he plans to concentrate on finishing his script, which he is writing in Korean.

“I’ve started my career in South Korea, and that’s given me an edge. I probably wouldn’t have come this far if I stayed in Japan,” Fujimoto says. “I want to leave my mark in this country.”


Name: Shinsuke Fujimoto

Industry: Film

Hometown: Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Adopted country: South Korea

Education: University of Toyama

Age: 37

Key moments in career:

2001— Leaves Japan to study in South Korea

2004 — Works on the set of Jeong Jae-eun’s “The Aggressives”

2016 — Serves as an assistant director in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden”

Words to live by: “You have nothing to lose.”

Things I miss about Japan: A bowl of thick tonkotsu (pig bone broth) ramen