Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Interview with Mahbub Alam

One Korean movie that generated a lot of buzz last year is Bandhobi, which was one of the first major Korean film that dealt with immigrants into Korea from poorer Asian countries. The star of the movie, Mahbub Alam from Bangladesh, recently gave a very interesting interview with Dong-A Ilbo. Below is the translation.

*                    *                    *

"An Earthling Living in Korea" -- Mahbub Alam's "Love in Korea"

Star of the movie Bandhobi, depicting the realities of migrant laborers
Wants to make feature length movies and a charter school in Bangladesh

He is called the Denzel Washington of Korean independent movies. Mahbub Alam, 33-year-old former migrant laborer from Bangladesh, made his name in the world through Bandhobi, a movie depicting the friendship between a Korean girl and a young Bangladeshi migrant worker. He also starred in 5-6 independent movies including Where is Ronny and The City of Crane, and produced independent documentaries such as People Driven Away and Returnee. He was also in a radio station for migrant workers, served twice as the chief organizer of Immigrant Foreigner Movie Festival that he established five years ago and published a book titled, I am an Earthling.

In the book, he calmly describes his 30-odd years of life, living as an "Earthling" who brought down the walls of race, religion and class as a young immigrant living in Korea. Currently, he finished filming and editing his third documentary Love in Korea and in the middle of finalizing it.

Q:  You have done a lot of different things, and are doing a lot of different things right now. How do you introduce yourself?

A:  I don't know, that's kind of difficult (laugh). "Movie personality" would be correct, to give a short one, because I appear in movies and I am making movies.

Q:  Bandhobi was not your first movie, right?

A:  Right. Totally by accident, I appeared in a short film called "Dream of Revenge" in 2005. At first when I was offered a part, I was very curious. I was in an acting club in Bangladesh, so I still had some thoughts about seriously acting. The movie was also about migrant workers, so I figured let's give it a shot. But it was awkward to see my face on a huge screen for the first time. (Laugh.)

Q:  Then you kept working in movies?

A:  I actually held a camera even before that.  I was working in a factory, then learned about the "Media Movement" as I was protesting against the Employment Permission Act [TK: law regarding migrant workers] in early 2000s. I began making films since 2002, and made some migrant laborer-related programs for RTV, a citizen-sponsored television station afterwards. Now I don't really do any more broadcasting work other than appearing on personal documentaries once in a while.

Q:  You must have a different perspective on Korean media as an immigrant. There is an increase in programs about multiculturalism on network television. What are your thoughts?

A:  I have been speaking a little too much about this... (laugh). I want the media to have more different stories. That's why I started broadcasting also. Existing network TV has two perspectives on immigrants -- really sad, or funny. Recently it changed a little, but it is still frustrating. For example they might watch Love in Asia and shed some emotional tears, but there is story about why they live such sad lives. At one point whenever I walk on the street, children would tease, "Bad manager!" because of a skit in a comedy program. They see me only as a sad factory laberor who of course has to work under a bad manager because I am an immigrant with dark skin. Always the sense of looking down from up high, always seen as someone who needs help -- from my point of view it has to be unpleasant. Those are the programs that either make me appear sad or funny.

Q:  But isn't it true that many multicultural families do require assistance? If they do not appear to be people who need help, wouldn't people question why assistance is necessary?

That's correct. It is true that many immigrant and multicultural families need assistance. But the means of assistance is a problem. You can rely on assistance to a degree, but you can't receive public assistance all your life. But places like migrant centers only tries to give assistance. From the recipient's point of view, he only would only think of himself as someone to be helped; there will be no growth. This type of assistance is being repeated over and over again.  This is a matter of perspective. Of course "Global Beauty Talk" in a good entertainment program in this respect. But there, only the well-off people come out, which is opposite of Love in Asia. I am not saying those two are problems; the problem is that there are only those two. Also there needs to be some thought over the many immigrants who come for reasons other than international marriage and forming a multicultural family. Korea seems to only have discussions revolving around marriage immigrants.


Mahbub Alam first came to Korea in 1999. Majored in accounting in college, he at one point planned to study abroad in Helsinki, Finland, but chose Korea where his brother was living in order to pay for his mother's hospital bill. He initially intended to leave after two or three years, but now he has been living in Korea for 11 years. He married a Korean woman in the meantime, and is currently preparing to naturalize.

Since his immigration 11 years ago, Alam has been consistently active in the indie movie field.

Q:  At first you came to Korea for a simple reason -- to earn money for your mother's hospital bill. But now it seems like it got more complicated.

A:  No, it's simpler than people think. (Laugh.) At first I had a goal to earn money quickly and go home because my mother was sick and having a hard time. But she passed away six months after I came to Korea. The person I wanted to go back and see disappeared. So my goal disappeared. Afterward I met my wife here, and developed other relationships. So I ended up staying in Korea longer.

Q:  Do you not miss Bangladesh, the place itself, as your hometown?

A:  Obviously my mother was the most important part for me, but I do have places and people I miss. But now that I see them again in Bangladesh, I do feel that both us changed a lot. For example, I surprise myself when I feel frustrated with the way my Bangladeshi friends live. And when I got lost on the streets -- I never get lost in Seoul -- I think to myself, "Oh, I have become Korean." Hometown... it's about memories. If I leave Korea and settle in still another country, I will have that kind of feelings about Korea also. Hometown is not so much about the roots or the people, but more about family, friends ... that's what comes first for me.

Q:  It seems like you must have had many difficulties while living in Korea.

A:  I experienced the same difficulties that many immigrants face. It's been nearly 12 years since I came to Korea, but every day I hear questions about which country I am from, how long I have been here. That's stressful. But there are more good things, and that's why I live in Korea. I consider myself a Korean. I live in Korea, I do a lot of things in Korea, and have a lot of friends. So I consider myself a Korean, and consider Korea's inequality issue as my problem. Instead of blaming it wholesale, I think we should try to think about it together and resolve it.


I met Mahbub Alam through a different reporting assignment. I contacted him to write an article about multicultural family in relation to couples of Third-World country men and Korean women, but he courteously declined, saying, "I am ok with it, but it is diffcult to put my wife in the spotlight," adding, "We received a lot of guff on that topic." The movie Bandhobi announced him to the world, but he paid the price.

Mahbub Alam dreams of living as a Korean and destroying Koreans' prejudice.

Q:  How did you get to star in Bandhobi?

A:  I knew Director Shin Dong-Il from starring in My Friend, His Wife. Afterward he asked for my help making Bandhobi. I thought it was interested because the concept was the story of immigrant laborers of Bangladeshi background. I ended up interfering a lot because I was giving advice about things that made no sense in Muslim culture in the screenplay. Then the director and I had to cast the main character, but that was pretty difficult. The guy has to be good-looking, should be legal, should be able to speak Korean -- it was hard to find that kind of person around us. So I suggested, "How about I do it?" (Laugh.) The director was surprised at first, but let me do it with a condition because I persisted. The condition was to quit all my jobs to concentrate on the movie, and lose weight. I was not a professional actor, but I wanted to do a good job. So I quit everything I was doing -- including all my broadcasting work -- and even got acting lessons. I also dropped 12 kg. Obviously I gained it all back after the movie. (Laugh.)

Q:  People must recognize you after Bandhobi.

A:  There are people who recognize me sometimes. It was a low-budget movie and did not have much viewers, but there are people who do. Especially at movie festivals -- people coming toward me saying, "Bandhobi." It's pretty fun.

Q:  On the other hand, I heard you also received threatening phone calls.

A:  Bandhobi was liked by a lot of people and it was a new attempt, but personally it was a movie aimed to make people think about the problems of Korean society. People who hated it ganged up on me to attack. Really negative comments on the Internet, threatening or protesting calls to my job or friends ...

Q:  Protest?

A:  Telling me to keep quiet, why I would make a movie like that. I don't know how they found out, but one of them called me to tell he will murder me. There was not much substance to it. He was just saying why a dark foreigner was dating a Korean woman. I was just acting in a movie, and the whole thing was really about the director, but the protests were only aimed toward me.

Q:  The director did not receive any protest?

A:  Strangely, no. It's his movie! (Laugh.) So I thought about it. There is a lot of international marriage in Korea, but it was not a problem if a Korean man dates or loves a woman from another country, and only the opposite is the problem. I actually felt that way as a person who married internationally; if Bandhobi was about a Bangladeshi woman and a Korean man, there would be no talks.


Since Bandhobi of last year, he has been active as a film personality. While he is making his own movie, he appears in wherever that requires his acting, regardless of genre. He starred in television dramas such as Queen Seondeok, and played the main character in The City of Crane, which opened last May.

Q:  Even considering The City of Crane was a low-budget film, its opening was not even very much publicized.

A:  It is one of five works in "Meet Korea" series sponsored by Arirang TV, but maybe they did not have enough budget for marketing. Personally I was a bit disappointed. At least it showed in a few movie festivals abroad, and it keeps showing somewhere.

Q:  You seem happy with your work.

A:  I don't know about other works, but I really liked it in The City of Crane. Director Moon Seung-Wook has a lot in common with me. He once said he was a stranger in Korea too; he was studying abroad for 10 years, and felt difficulties when he returned to Korea. This movie was a mockumentary, and had no screenplay. I was really satisfied with excessive reality. What I felt lacking in Bandhobi or Where is Ronny was, like I said earlier, they cannot get away from the feel in Love in Asia. This nice, naive immigrant laborer doesn't receive his salary or gets fired arbitrarily ... a character eliciting sympathy. The movie might need one, but as an actor it did not feel enough for me to play only that. But in The City of Crane, the Korean woman is more like an immigrant and my character acts all big. (Laugh.)

Q:  What movies do you like?

A:  Recently I really enjoyed The Poem.  I like movies by Lee Chang-Dong. I watch a lot of Korean movies, and I love them. Korea really knows how to make movies. The problem is, actually making them is so hard. So obviously I worry about it -- whether I will have any future in this.

Q:  What are your plans for the future?

A:  Right now I am in a project to discover immigrant artist, sponsored by one regional cultrual foundation. I am planning a camp that discovers immigrant artists, in which they talk about how to communicate and strengthen their network. Personally, a cable TV offered me a part in a sitcom. That will start shooting in November, but nothing specific yet. And right now I am finalizing Love in Korea, the movie.

Q:  What is Love in Korea about?

A:  It's also a documentary, all based on real stories. There were nine people who came from Bangladesh to shoot a movie, and six of them -- including the director -- disappeared. The director produced 22 commercial films, but he just disappeared like that. So as I visit them, the movie talks about why they migrated. It is nearly done, and it will open this year if I'm lucky.

Q:  What are your dreams now?

A:  I want to make a feature length movie. And really far into the future, I want to build a charter school in Bangladesh. I want to teach children with media, culture and art education. I would invite Korean artists as guest lecturers to teach the children.

'한국에서 사는 지구인' 마붑 알엄의 '러브 인 코리아' [Dong-A Ilbo]

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  1. I'll have to watch all of these movies sometime. Thanks for posting this interview!

  2. I actually read about "Bandhobi" a few months ago on Matt's "Gusts of Popular Feeling" blog. I've been wanting to find out if a DVD is available of the film.

    I had no idea Mr. Alam was still living here and so active. It's very encouraging to see a foreigner make such a good life for himself here...especially a non-Western foreigner.

    Curiously, in the four years I've lived here, a lot of Koreans (way more than I expected) have asked me about dating or marrying a Korean woman, and a handful have even offered to set me up on blind dates. As an African-American I have no problem with a relationship with a Korean, although I sometimes wonder about some of the things that Mr. Alam may have experienced.

    Great article, Korean. Thanks for posting.

  3. If you guys wanna watch Bandohbi, check out

  4. i saw the movie bandhobi, its a great im an indian we dont watch korean movies but bandhobi and Where is Ronny made as watch more korean movies....


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