[INTERVIEW] 'The Bad Man' zooms in on child soldier in Myanmar

[INTERVIEW] 'The Bad Man' zooms in on child soldier in Myanmar

A scene from the film, “The Bad Man” / Courtesy of Lee Yong Chao

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Myanmar has one of the world’s longest-running civil wars and is estimated to have one of the largest numbers of child soldiers in the world. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a non-state armed group most vehemently opposed to the ruling military junta, is infamous for forcibly recruiting children to serve in the armed forces.

Director Lee Yong Chao’s documentary, “The Bad Man,” examines the aftermath of Myanmar’s decades-long civil war and how it shaped the life of a boy, who was taken by the KIA while working at a gold mine.

Making 30 dollars a month, the protagonist, whose name is not given in the film, was raised to be a killing machine. It was after losing his leg to a landmine that he came back to his senses and felt responsible for the atrocities. Realizing his mistakes, he enters a rehabilitation center to wipe out traumatic memories and become a pastor.

Director Lee, who was born in Myanmar and educated in Taiwan, said making his latest documentary was the most painful experience, because he was the victim of a similar incident in the past.

“This happened to me when I was little, seven or eight years old. It was very late in the night when the KIA soldiers came to my house and tried to take me by force. My parents tried to stop them by offering wine and goods, and they left,” he said in a recent Zoom interview with The Korea Times.

“After that incident, I couldn’t stop thinking whether I would have turned out like him if I was forcibly recruited to join the KIA. If I became a soldier, I would perceive killing as a normal thing and probably got used to it.”

Asked why he doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s name in the film, Lee said, “I wasn’t trying to hide it on purpose. When I was post-editing, I realized that nobody really mentions his name in the film. I felt it was fine that way.”

It took him two years to shoot this documentary, between 2019 and 2020. Although “The Bad Man” is banned in Myanmar, it was invited to the Locarno Film Festival and DMZ Documentary Film Festival.

“When I choose to film something, it has to touch my mind first and resonate with me. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to film minorities. This film is not allowed to screen in Myanmar, but I want to do a little something to change the society,” he said.

Below is an excerpt of The Korea Times interview with Lee on his new film. It has been edited for clarity and readability.

[INTERVIEW] 'The Bad Man' zooms in on child soldier in Myanmar

Filmmaker Lee Yong Chao / Courtesy of Lee Yong Chao

Q. How did you come up with “The Bad Man”?

At first, I was at the rehab center filming other people (who are trying to overcome addictions to drugs, alcohol and deal with the trauma of war). After one or two months, the protagonist of the documentary entered the rehab center. I talked to him and realized he was captured when he was little to become a soldier. It was a surprise because back then, I was also planning to shoot a short film about a soldier who lost his leg in the war. When I met this boy, I realized that I could shoot a real life story instead of a fictional film.

Q. The protagonist murmurs, “I was dangerous in every way,” and talks about rape and killings as a solider, domestic abuse toward his family and intense alcoholism. Were you shocked listening to him?

I think the difficult part of making a documentary is that it’s really difficult to get into someone’s heart. During the first year of filming, I was lingering outside of his world. When I took the long interview near the end, he talked to me about killing people and all his violent deeds. The more I listened to his story, the more scared I got. I avoided editing during the night and instead tried to get it done during the day.

Q. The protagonist looks like a proud man who likes to brag about himself. Did you ever feel that he was exaggerating or lying about his past actions?

When I was post-editing, I excluded things that didn’t convince me. For example, he told me how many people he had killed. I think there was some exaggeration. Regardless of that, I believe that he really killed some people and did bad things. I could feel it from the way he talked about it.

[INTERVIEW] 'The Bad Man' zooms in on child soldier in Myanmar

A scene from the film, “The Bad Man” / Courtesy of Lee Yong Chao

Q. What is your opinion of him? In some parts, it felt like you pity this guy, especially where you ask the protagonist, “Do you forgive yourself?”

I wouldn’t say that I pitied him. But I felt sorry for the things that he went through, because I believe it was the environment that made him a soldier. I think he didn’t want to be a bad person before he became a soldier. But because of his identity (being raised like an orphan) and the country where he was born, he had no choice. The environment completely changed him.

Q. Whether what he did in the past should be forgiven is a contradictory subject. This may be seen as giving voice to the perpetrator.

While editing, I kept thinking, “Should I include this?” or “Should I reveal this information?” I realized that I could not include only the bright side because it’s not real. It’s not multi-dimensional. So I decided to keep both the bad and the good sides of him.

I didn’t include the names of the victims, and I think that was a form of protection for them. Regarding why the protagonist was willing to tell me that story (about rape) is that he wanted to share and help others avoid making the same mistake.

Q. Following the 2021 Myanmar coup, international filmmakers, including Korean film festival organizers and actors, expressed their support for Myanmar protesters. What’s the situation in Myanmar now for filmmakers?

We got a lot of support from international filmmakers and I know they are advocating those who have been arrested. Sometimes I feel like their effect is limited, but I still think support from international society is necessary. I greatly appreciate it.

If you try to film the protest or include things regarding the coup, it’s a suicidal act. It’s really dangerous. I believe filmmakers are trying to shoot films secretly without revealing it to the world. They need to be really careful in sharing them even on social media.

[INTERVIEW] 'The Bad Man' zooms in on child soldier in Myanmar

A scene from the film, “The Bad Man” / Courtesy of Lee Yong Chao

Because of the pandemic and political situation, Lee said he won’t be able to go back to Myanmar for the next few years. However, he hinted that his next project will be about people who moved from Myanmar to Taiwan.

Lee also shared that he has another film that will participate in Korea’s film festival this year. “I cannot reveal more details about it, but I’ve been invited to another film festival in Korea this year,” he said.

“I’m really grateful that I’ve been supported by the film festivals in Korea. I really feel like Korea is a place that brings me luck.”

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