New York Asian 2019 Interview: 5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Director Moon Sung-ho and Producer Endo Hiroshi on What a Life is Worth

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New York Asian 2019 Interview: 5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Director Moon Sung-ho and Producer Endo Hiroshi on What a Life is Worth
In his feature debut, director Moon Sung-ho ponders the value of a human life. 5 Million Dollar Life is a unique road trip / coming-of-age story of one Japanese teenager’s bumpy journey toward self-discovery.  
 
At the New York Asian Film Festival, accompanied by producer Endo Hiroshi, Moon spoke exclusively with LMD about his underlying positive message, casting “cute,” and losing his “feature film virginity.”
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  This is such a unique film.  First, where did you get the film’s premise that every life was worth 5 million dollars?  Is that a real study?
 
Moon Sung-ho:  It did come from an actual study, but the amount is 2 million for a Japanese person’s average life.  For the screenwriter, Hiruta Naomi, what was interesting for her was that the difference between the income and output that remains after what was spent is only $20,000.  And so, I thought that, combined with this kid who gets a heart transplant would be interesting.
 
LMD:  Was that what made you decide to make it your feature debut?
 
MSh:  When I was starting interviews with press in Japan, this was something that came up a lot; that this was my debut film, my first feature.  It seemed to me that this is more important to other people.  I didn’t realise when I was making it -- I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was giving my feature film virginity to this film.  
 
So, I think I hadn’t thought that this would be my debut, and so I’m kind of regretting it now, and thinking that I should’ve maybe thought further about who to give this feature virginity to. {Laughs} I’ve lost the virginity, it’s too late. {Laughs}
 
Endo Hiroshi: The starting point was the fact that director Moon entered this contest, where filmmakers pitched ideas for development for their project to be produced, and this project won the grand prize.
 
LMD:  5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE is the story of Mirai, who underwent heart surgery as a toddler, and how his life was televised to encourage donations toward his life-saving operation.  Every year since, a television crew does a special report on Mirai, where he must portray an image of a perfect teenager.
 
At the start of the film, Mirai’s teacher mentions that he felt so by Mirai on TV as a baby, that he donated.  The teacher, and so many of his neighbours always talk about raising the money to save Mirai’s life.  Did they know they were making him feel burdened? 
 
MSh:  I don’t think a lot of people had awareness of the burden that has been placed on him in the film, but his mother was aware.  But while she was aware, she was someone who couldn’t say to her son, “You don’t have to feel pressure about this,” but I think she was aware.
 
LMD:  The mother is a fascinating character.  You can feel the weight she’s under at all times; being under constant surveillance by her neighbors, who all feel literally invested in her son, raising Mirai as a single parent, because his father abandoned them, and not really being able to communicate with Mirai.  Of course, there’s only so much time to any film, but was there any consideration to delve more deeply into her character?
 
MSh:  I do think the mother’s story is very important, but the main character is Mirai, and the mom doesn’t have a lot of scenes.  But, through those scenes we were hoping that the pressure that she had been under would be felt, and we worked really hard to achieve that with the proportion that we ended up with.  Her story is very important, but we tried to get a good balance of her story versus the main character, Mirai’s story.
 
As for the backstory of the mother, we discussed the idea that for the mom, 5 million dollars is nothing compared to the life of her son.  If she had it, she would spend 10 million, or 100 million.  She couldn’t see that there was a struggle -- that she would spend all that money, but she doesn’t have that money.  So, that was something that I spoke to about with Nishida Naomi, who played the mother, to kind of have this feeling within her, throughout.
 
LMD:  There’s something kind of alien about Mirai.  Something a little bit distant, or a little separate, kind of like The Little Prince, or The Man Who Fell To Earth.
 
MSh:  I’ve actually never heard that, yet; that he has an alienlike quality, but if I’m analysing, maybe it comes from the fact that we were really aware of making sure that he would not be disliked by viewers.  That he would be a likable character.  But also maybe it has to do with the way the actor, himself, looks.  I don’t know how he came across to you.  I’m curious if you could tell me?
 
LMD:  I think Mochizuki Ayumu was perfect as Mirai.  What I think reads is kind of alien to me might be this quality of perfect innocence that he radiates.  Also, the character feels like he’s lived in a bubble all his life.  He’s very protected and sheltered, with everyone watching him and having expectations he never signed up for.  It felt like he had lived in a box, and then when he decides to run away, he is completely free, facing the open world for the first time.
 
MSh:  I think children, when they’re born, are a bit alienlike, and I think Mirai was someone that was very carefully raised.  Then he became a high school student with a great lack of experience in various parts of his life, so maybe that contributed to that coming across as alien.
 
LMD:  I wondered why he had no friends his age?
 
MSh:  I think maybe he was this kind of untouchable presence for everyone.  Kind of like seeing someone alienlike, or a bit different.
 
This was a scene that didn’t end up making it into the film: but originally in the script there was a scene where a classmate bumps into Mirai.  And that exchange, for the classmate, is like ‘Oh, my God, he might break.  If I touch Mirai, he’s so fragile, he is this weak person who had this heart transplant.’  So, that might’ve contributed to this sense of untouchableness.
 
LMD:  As we’ve touched a little bit on the performance, would you please talk a little bit about Mochizuki-san?
 
MSh:  I found Ayumu through auditions.  And of course, whether he could act or not was important, but overall, he was just so cute.  He really made me want to donate.  That felt really important.
 
LMD:  Was Mirai’s interaction with the suicidal Chiharu what set him off on his journey? 
 
MSh:  I think Chiharu as a character, reaffirmed his reality for him.  That is to say, because she came up to him, saying, “You were so close to death, so you must know what it’s like?”  So, I think that made him really see his truth a bit more.  But for me, I really do think the trigger for this journey he goes on is this Kiyomaru figure that reaches out to him via Twitter.
 
EH:  In Japan, there is this term that is derived from the English words, “mental health,” though it’s a bit different, that refers to people, who, as a way of getting more attention or love from parents or friends, might make attempts at self-harm; whether it’s cutting wrists, or something like that, as a way to feel more seen, or more valued.  So, for Chiharu, Mirai was getting all this attention, so I think that she was jealous of all that attention he was getting, that she sought.
 
LMD:  As we know, Japan has a terrible suicide rate.  How important was addressing the subject of suicide, and particularly teen suicide?
 
MSh:  Yes, it definitely did have that intention.  In my past work, the themes of life and death wasn’t something really I explored, and making this project, it was something I really thought about, and about what it is to live.  
 
The conclusion I kind of came to was that is something you can answer when you’re about to die: Looking back on it, then you would know what it is to live.  So, to explore that through Mirai, who doesn’t have that answer, but has to go on this journey to find out, and in doing so, I hoped to kind of have a positive message through that.
 
LMD:  I’m fascinated by your artist’s journey.  You are born and raised in Japan, but chose to attend film school in South Korea.  Why did you go there?  What did you feel you could learn differently? 
 
MSh:  My entire family, including my parents, are Korean.  So, for them, they had a strong desire for me to go to Korea.  They told me, “You can do whatever you want to do in the future, that’s up to you; but go to Korea.”  
 
Also, at the same time, when I was in high school, Korean movies were starting to get popular in Japan, and so that was good for me, and then also good for my parents for me to go to Korea.  So, when I told them I was interested in going to film school in Korea, they said, “Please go.”
 
I actually couldn’t speak Korean before I went to school there, so, for my parents, now I can speak it, and I think they are really happy about that.  Once I learned better Korean at school, I could understand how dirty some of the things my parents were saying were. {Laughs} The F word, the F word. {Laughs}
 
As for whether there is something different, and how I am as a creator because I studied in Korea, compared to other Japanese filmmakers, who studied filmmaking in Japan -- I’m not aware of any differences.  That is something you would have to ask other producers.
 
LMD:  Producer Endo, is there any difference?
 
EH:  I don’t think there’s a difference. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  What would you like for audiences to take away from 5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE?
 
MSh:  The message of the film, I think, as I was saying earlier, is that if you’re living with this weight, with this pressure, maybe if you change your perspective, the world would lighten up.  That’s the message, I would hope, but honestly, when I was making this film, I really was intending it thinking about the domestic audience in Japan; I wasn’t really thinking about a foreign audience.  I’m really looking forward to finding out how people are going to react.
 
EH:  I think this concept of this movie, 5 Million Dollar Life, is actually quite Japanese -- the situation of it.  So, I am really looking forward to finding out what the reaction of the audience here will be.  I think for the character of Mirai, such a good kid is rare, even for Japanese people, so I am curious to know whether and how it will be accepted by this audience.  A story about money, or a story about life is something that is universal, so I think something will be connected to the audience.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Endo HiroshiInterviewJapanese CinemaMochizuki AyumuMoon Sung-hoNew York Asian Film FestivalNYAFF