Filmmaker explores meaning of freedom in 'Haebangchon'

Kahlid Tapia (centre) appears as Q in "Haebangchon: Chapter 1."

A drug crime movie set in Haebangchon might sound like the tawdry imaginings of a xenophobic campaign group, but the plot in "Haebangchon: Chapter 1" seems to have more to do with the area's Korean-influenced nickname - Liberation Village.

"Each individual person in this film needs to find their own individual freedom. That's what the film is really about. That's what the premise is, to be able to be free," said director James Williams III by phone from the United States.

The film, to get its Seoul premiere next week, centres around Q, played by Kahlid Tapia, a martial arts student who is coerced into selling marijuana for Ji, a drug connect working off a debt to a gangster named Yu.

After Q loses his marijuana, he faces a struggle to come up with a way to satisfy the Yu clan.

The film weaves in the stories of more characters, including a South African socialite and Yu's overly protected daughter. The common theme, Williams explains, is that they each have to liberate themselves from something.

Williams has been cutting his teeth in filmmaking for years, with his skills first honed in 2003 when he was working for AFKN while stationed in Korea. When he returned, he found a budding filmmaking community among expats here through the 48-hour Film Festival in 2009.

After several short films, others began making feature-length movies, and Williams felt that it was time for him to step up too, and started writing "Haebangchon" in 2012. Thirteen drafts and a summer's worth of filming later, he came up with a film he is pleased with.

Williams said he wanted to avoid what he saw as the usual subject of English teachers and their love lives, and look at crime instead. He concedes that Korean gangsters are not violent on the scale of drug lords elsewhere, "but it seemed like Korean society had this fascination with gangsters."

"I purposely wanted to do something that no one else was doing at the time," he said. "And still I don't think anyone has made a film, in our community, about recreational drug use and gangsters."

This may be because the issue of drugs and foreigners in Korea - particularly English teachers - is a touchy issue for many expats. But Williams says that isn't the reason not to broach the topic.

"Honestly there is some truth to it, whether it's a stigma or not," he said. "I mean, I'm not shying away from the truth and nor am I shying away from fiction when I wrote this film.

"If (someone is) too much of a goody two shoes to think that a story just can't be told, I would question some of the basic liberties we have as far as freedom of speech and freedom of expression go."

The end result, Williams says, is a film that looks better than its US$50,000 ($65,000) budget, which he raised himself in stages.

He has high expectations for the film, having already submitted it to eight independent film festivals.

Williams hopes to use the film to raise funds for his next movie, to be made after he graduates with his M.A. in screenwriting. That film might be the second part of "Haebangchon," which he says looks at another section of stories already touched on in the first film.

"'Haebangchon' is told in a certain amount of time," he said.

"And it is strictly about each character getting their freedom. Once that happens, it's over. You can clearly see there is more to the story, but it could be the start of a different chapter. So it's a bit of a cliffhanger at the end but the ending is satisfying."

The film will get its debut screening at Seoul Cinema in Jongno at 8.30 pm on Nov 28. Williams will return to Korea for the screening and there will be a question-and-answer session after the movie.

For more information, visit the "Screening: Haebangchon - Chapter I" Facebook page.