NYAFF 2023: Interview With Anshul Chauhan, Director of DECEMBER

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival took place between July 14 an July 30. For more information on what you missed, click here.

Among the many great movies I watched during this years’ New York Asian Film Festival was December, an emotionally charged courtroom drama telling the story of Katsu (SHOGEN) and Sumiko (MEGUMI), a formerly married couple living in the aftermath of their daughters’ murder. Katsu, a walking wound of a man, refuses to let go of his anger, threatening Sumikos’ hard-won sense of stability and balance. Try as she might to move on, she finds herself inexorably trapped in old cycles of pain as an obsessive Katsu does everything in his power to make sure the murderer of their daughter, a young girl named Kana (RYO MATSUURA), stays behind bars. It is a gripping, well-acted story of guilt, grief, repentance, and acceptance, and I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a brief interview with the films’ director, Anshul Chauhan.

Mild spoilers may follow.

What attracted you to this script?

You know, the story is about a retrial drama. When I first received the initial draft from my friend Rand Colter, I saw it mainly as a courtroom drama. I thought it might not be suitable for me, or it could be too challenging to find funding for such a project. However, during the Covid, I revisited the script and looked at it with a fresh perspective. I discovered that it also has a significant human drama aspect, which caught my attention. Instead of focusing solely on the court procedures, I decided to emphasize the human elements in the story, and that’s what made me interested in the script. The most attractive part for me was finding characters with both good and bad sides.

There was a credit for “Japanese dialogues”; what was the reason for that and what was process of collaborating with Mina Moteki? 

Mina plays a significant role in my filmmaking because I’m not a native Japanese speaker. Sometimes, I struggle to understand the deeper meaning of certain scenes. That’s where Mina comes in to help. She translates the script from English to Japanese, but it’s not just a simple translation. We work together to do research and understand the context and character behaviors etc. For example, when we were working on DECEMBER, we visited real high court sessions in Tokyo multiple times. We took notes and then worked on the script. Translating the Japanese dialogues was particularly challenging in DECEMBER because the courtroom has its own language style. Mina consulted with lawyers and studied how they speak in court to accurately translate the script. In addition to her translation work, Mina is also one of the producers, along with Takahiro Yamashita. We both run Kowatanda Films together since 2016. 

Kana is a very layered, very complicated character that is key to everything that happens in the film, and Ryo Matsuura does an excellent job. Was it difficult finding the right actress to play such a complex role?

It wasn’t difficult at all. I actually met Ryo during the screening of my second film, KONTORA, in March 2021. She came to watch the film, and we met outside the theater. I was really impressed by her appearance, especially her eyes. Six months later, when I started reworking on the script, I couldn’t stop thinking about her for the role of KANA. Since she mainly works as a model, I was unsure about her acting skills. So, I auditioned her along with ten other girls. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied, so I auditioned her two more times to be sure she was the right fit. One day, Mina and I took her out for coffee, and she finally opened up, and we had detailed discussions about her life. In the final audition, she nailed it, and we offered her the role. But what surprised me even more was when I saw her acting on the set on the first day. She was extremely well-prepared and had the fewest retakes on any scene.

What was the thinking in making Naoki also have a lost child in his past?

The main reason was to establish a connection between Sumiko and Naoki and give them a shared background of suffering. As mentioned in the film, they both met in the grief support group for the lost kids, which was the best choice for the script. Both characters experience similar pain, but one is able to move on while the other remains stuck in the past. This basically creates a good drama with conflicts and tensions.

Was there a particular reason that Katsu’s old job was as a novelist?

I suppose it was just so I can have a stronger connection with the character, given my background in writing. Although I’m not a novelist myself, I do write extensively. Additionally, I have some friends who are novelists, and I know they enjoy their fair share of drinking, haha.

We get glimpses of Emi in Kana’s flashbacks and in the later scenes with Katsu. But was there ever any thought given to having Emi be more of a presence throughout the film?

During the shooting, I considered it, but ultimately, I decided against it. My main focus was on the three central characters. If the film had centered around the first trial, which was more evidence-based, I would have undoubtedly given more attention to Emi’s character.

What scene in the film proved the most difficult to film?

From a technical perspective, shooting most of the scenes was quite challenging due to limited time and budget. Courtroom dramas usually have multiple cameras, but we managed with just one. Our team was small, with only six people, and everyone had to handle multiple tasks. Despite these difficulties, the shoot was enjoyable overall.

One thing I had to be careful about was capturing the first meetings between Kana and her parents. They hadn’t looked at each other before in the film or on set, so we kept them in separate rooms while shooting and made sure to get the first take right.

The school bullying scenes were also tough because we wanted to depict them authentically, and the actors got very serious, Kanon who played Emi was really bullying Ryo and both got into serious fights many times.

The hardest shot was the one with blood and fist with Katsu. Getting the blood out of the fist on the right time and place was the most difficult shot I guess. And the glass piece in the river was a challenge due to the intense sunlight, so we ended up using VFX for that particular shot. 

Given the subject matter of the movie, there was a strong potential for it to be a more sensationalistic type of film, but it always stays very grounded. How difficult was it to find the right tone with which to tell this story?

As I mentioned earlier, my main focus was on the human drama outside the courtroom in the story. This decision helped the film to feel more real and connected to everyday life. If I had focused more on the trial and prison system, the film would have turned out differently.

During the shooting, I often deviated from the script, except for the court scenes. I made changes based on the performances of the actors and the locations we found. This creative process helped shape the story into what it is today. I removed anything that didn’t feel genuine while shooting and stayed true to the characters.

I receive many questions about why I didn’t show more about the first trial or add media perspective etc. But I believe that by staying authentic to the characters and their journey and only focusing on the retrial drama, the film became more compelling. In the editing process, I also removed some scenes that we had shot, as they would have taken the film in a different direction.

Expanding on that last question, I wonder if you could describe how you figured out the structure of the film in terms of when in the story to reveal certain plot elements? 

Since I do my own editing and enjoy it a lot, I like to try different things and be experimental. When I edit, I approach it with an open mind and don’t think about the plot or structure right away. Editing is like writing the final version of the script for me.

I did many tests and experiments with different editing styles and perspectives to see what works best for the film. Eventually, through these tests, I found the final version of the film. I don’t follow the script order while editing; instead, I rediscover the characters and follow their body language to shape the story. Just a joke but at one point Sato looked like the main character from the way I was editing, he still has more screen time than Kana actually but it doesn’t feel like that, just because of the way he was placed in the final edit. 

I faced some challenges with the flashback scenes because they were improvised during the shooting and not written in the script. Placing them properly in the film was a big challenge. We actually had a lot of footage and coverage from the shoot, which gave me the freedom to experiment and shape the story the way It is today.

I’m interested in the performance of Toru Kizu as Sato, because sometimes it was difficult to tell what his intentions were in taking this case and it wasn’t always clear whether or not he was being intentionally manipulative, which lent an interesting ambiguity to his character. Was Kizus’ interpretation of the character different from what was on the page, and if so, how?

Every lawyer wants to win the case, and Sato was no different. However, he did have some inner conflict at times because he felt a connection to Kana and was pushing her hard to confess. We had discussions about his interpretation of the character, but it mostly had to do with the difference in acting styles between senior Japanese actors and newer ones. It can be challenging to manage or control their style on set. Personally, I find it difficult to ask them to change their style or to encourage experimentation and improvisation which Ryo wanted to do.

Despite any misunderstandings about his intentions, he is a fantastic actor, and I enjoyed working with him. If you or the audience didn’t fully grasp his character’s intentions, I take responsibility for the way I presented him in the film.

Did you know how the judge was ultimately going to rule when you started writing, or did that decision come later in the process?

The decision was made during the writing stage and remained unchanged since Rand first wrote the script. However, we did make some adjustments to the language used in the Japanese court scenes, as parole works a bit differently in Japan. In Japanese, it’s not exactly the same as what you read in the subtitles. In Japan, juvenile parolees are assigned special probation officers, and the legally prescribed maximum period of supervision is until the probationer’s twentieth birthday or at least two years from the date of the decision by the family court, whichever is longer. In Kana’s case, she was seventeen, so it was three years. I hope this makes sense.

Our thanks to Anshul Chauhan for joining us for an interview!

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