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Room 731 opens door to World War II mystery

USC alum helms a fact-based supernatural film, finding receptive audiences at film festivals

actor Tim Kang
Tim Kang (The Mentalist) in a scene from the horror film Room 731 (Photo/Joseph Munguia)

After Youngmin Kim ’14 received his MFA in Film & Television Production, he took his thesis film, Room 731, to festivals around the world.

Inspired by actual World War II events of the Japanese concentration camp known as Unit 731, the film follows an amnesiac girl who travels through an abandoned prison filled with tortured spirits that mean her harm.

The moviemaker spoke about the rigors of taking a film from conception to the screen, how he approached melding historical fact with an artistic vision and what it was like presenting his film at festivals.

How would you describe Room 731?

Room 731 is a mystery and horror film based on historical facts.

A young Chinese girl wakes up alone with no memory in an abandoned factory. As her memory returns, she realizes the place is Unit 731, a Japanese concentration camp. She encounters horror upon horror as she tries to discover the truth about who she is and why she’s been chosen as its next victim.

This film is inspired by true events. How did you approach the research for the film? And afterward, how did you approach the material from an artistic perspective? 

Most Korean and Chinese people know about Unit 731, but only a few people in Western societies are aware of the tragedy. So I’d like to shed light on Unit 731 and open a door to discussion.

There are not many books about Unit 731. I had read most books and Internet sources for six months before I started to make a treatment for the film. I chose to develop a fiction film about the subject to connect the audience through the universal themes of humanism, ethics, moral issues and aimless paternalism in World War II. I believe it should be shared with our future generations.

My goal was first to entertain the audience through the tropes of the mystery and horror genres but then to bring them deeper into a subject that has largely been hidden from the Western world.

From an artist’s perspective, I tried to blend Japanese and American horror styles to have a bold cinematic storytelling style. I worked with the cinematographer Adam Goral very closely to combine the psychologically disturbing documentary style of Japanese horror, including long single takes in a closeup and the fast-paced style of American horror. I focused more on the psychological struggles of my characters than on simple scare tactics. I relied heavily on production design to create disturbing environments. Though much of the film is shrouded in mystery, every set design and character makeup design is connected to the source of the horror, the tragedy of Unit 731.

What were some of the influences and inspirations behind this project?  

I was inspired by the horror of American filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and influenced by Japanese horror films like The Ring (aka Ringu). I was also influenced by The Exorcist to involve a female protagonist in my film.

What were some of the most challenging aspects to putting this project together?

The biggest challenges were my limited budget, acquired through extensive campaigning for donations and the limited number of days I could shoot. To work around the schedules of my actors and crew, we could only shoot on weekends. Because of the professionalism and dedication of my crew and cast, I was able to achieve what I wanted in a very short amount of time. I had to make some hard decisions on set about cutting scenes and shots when we fell behind, but the cast and crew were able to keep up with all the changes. We began production without being fully funded for postproduction, so it was a challenge to be fundraising again while also finishing the film.

How has the festival experience been for you?

I’ll attend the Sedona International Film Festival between Feb. 23 and March 1. They offered me a full-access pass for the festival, which is amazing since the costs of attending festivals in general is quite high when you factor in travel and accommodations. Room 731 has its Los Angeles premiere screening on March 27 and April 22. I’m so excited and can’t wait to attend more film festivals to meet new audiences and continue to make a great network with filmmakers.

 

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Room 731 opens door to World War II mystery

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