Meet Minkyu Kang, winner of the Focus Features Award for Social and Cultural Impact

A Q&A with the writer, director, and producer of Children of Light

Recently, Minkyu Kang’s short film Children of Light was awarded the Focus Features Award for Social and Cultural Impact and a DGA Student Film Award. 

His film sheds light on a dark moment in South Korean history. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government opened a series of detention centers for street children which were in effect child labor camps. Children of Light tells the haunting tale of a 16-year-old boy incarcerated in such a camp who must befriend his main rival in order to escape.

Kang, who has worked in all forms of film production in Korea, received a BA in Film and TV Production from the University of Southern California in 2012 and an MFA degree from Columbia University in 2022.

We asked Kang about the history that inspired his film, working with child actors, and his plans for the future.

Follow him on Instagram: @minkyu_han

Children of Light filmmaker Minkyu Kang

When did you first learn about these government detention centers in Korea? And why did you want to make a film about them?

About three years ago, I started investigating the historical events related to the victims of these camps. Through the victims’ testimonies, I realized many detention centers existed before and after World War II. It was an upsetting experience since those detention centers violated basic human rights, destroying many innocent souls. When I visited some of those detention centers, I became immediately emotional. I fully connected to the victims and felt their grief, which eventually led me to create the story in the film.

How has the film been received among your fellow film students and audiences?

I was worried about showing the first cut to my colleagues because the production had been so difficult. I still remember the tension in the editing room before the first rough-cut screening. I wanted to deliver the right emotional impact but was not fully convinced that I could from the first rough cut. I knew I didn’t have much footage. When I showed my first cut, my worries disappeared. People liked it. My colleagues understood what I intended. All those amazing reactions led me to find the best final cut.

What was the production like?

I wanted to do all the shooting in an actual location. Unfortunately, many of the original camp locations have lost their original appearance, having been demolished or turned into private property. I started looking for buildings built in the 1940s, similar to the 1960s detention centers. After a long search, I found a closed military facility with the architectural style of the 1960s. Our production team worked closely with city hall, gaining permission to shoot there. The art and costume team also designed props and wardrobes based on archival photos from the 1960s.

Only a few salt farms were open when we shot. I visited them and found the one that best preserved the old look. The farm was surrounded by sea and mountains, which gave the impression of an isolated island. Some modern buildings in the background we erased in post-production.

Children of Light 

What was it like working with such young actors on such a serious and complex story?

Working with minors proved challenging. The boys ran and played without listening to anyone, including their parents. Since all the scenes involving young actors had to be shot on the first day, I was worried we might have a crisis. There were about 100 people on set, including the children's parents, staff, and agents. I asked them to focus since filming was about to begin. When we started shooting, the children surprisingly began to pay attention. It wasn’t perfect, but the children’s efforts and dedication deeply moved the crew. Filming was sometimes delayed, but the actors’ passion and sacrifice motivated the entire team, eventually leading to a great first day.

Can you talk about your use of light and darkness in the film?

Before filming, I discussed the use of darkness with the cinematographer. Children of Light is a film about finding light in the dark. It was important for us to put the darkness in the film in a way that would make the light stand out. We set the main light source first and discussed how to cut the light creatively. For example, I wanted to see two boys walking under the moonlight without any production light. Only the moonlight would illuminate the actors until matches are lit which reveal their innocent faces. To achieve this goal, we installed lights high on the crane to create moonlight and minimize the use of other lights. When the exposure was insufficient, we tried to enhance the dramatic effect by using props such as matches, flashlights, and gunpowder to show the characters’ desperate emotions.

The film won a DGA Student Film Award and the Focus Features Award for Social and Cultural Impact. What does that acclaim mean to you?

Making Children of Light was a long journey to find the hidden truth of forbidden Korean history. It taught me the importance of finding the correct history. Furthermore, I learned the responsibility of a filmmaker to deliver the correct information. I am honored that the DGA and the Focus Features recognized our team’s hard work. I am also excited to have more opportunities to share this story with global audiences.

Children of Light

When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?

When I was 18, I came to the United States to study biology. However, learning a new language in a new environment was challenging. To relax, I spent most of my time at the movies. Most of the films didn’t have subtitles. With my weak English, I had to guess the story by looking at the pictures. As time passed, my English improved, and I could understand all the lines naturally. I realized, however, that something more than the dialogue attracted me to watching films. It was the images, not the words. Of course, dialogue and sound play a significant role in a movie, but what I truly appreciated was how the montage of visual images created a specific emotion that could not be expressed in words. This particular experience helped me to understand my passion as a filmmaker, which eventually led me to dig deep into the power of images and greatly influenced my directing style.

Who are your biggest influences as a filmmaker?

I love the stories of courageous heroes who, even in desperate circumstances, do not turn away from those in trouble. In Steven Spielberg's films, I always find many great stories like that. I also enjoy watching Lee Chang-dong's films for the same reason. The vision of great filmmakers provides a resonant story without distorting reality.

Are you developing a feature?

I am currently developing Children of Light into a feature screenplay. After World War II, many detention centers existed in various places, traumatizing many people’s lives. I am intrigued by some of the victims’ stories and writing about them. I'm also developing another period action film with a unique storytelling style.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.