Meet the Filmmakers Behind 'Children of Light,’ the Thesis Film Sweeping the Festival Circuit
Children of Light, a thesis film directed by Minkyu Kang ’22, has received numerous awards and recognition since its festival debut. In addition to directing, Kang also served as the writer and editor of the film, and produced alongside fellow Columbia filmmaker Bofan Zhang ’21.
Supported by a Katharina Otto-Bernstein ’92 (’86 CC) Production Grant, Children of Light follows a 16-year-old Korean boy in the 1960s who has been kidnapped and placed at a juvenile center on a remote island. After he is assaulted, he must escape with his rival in order to survive.
A 2023 National Board of Review Student Grant Winner, Children of Light was named a Jury Select at the 2023 Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF) and has gone on to garner incredible recognition, including being awarded the Focus Features Award for Social and Cultural Impact as well as the inaugural Norman Strauss Prize, which is awarded by the National Board of Review and conferred on a film with a particular focus on historical subjects. Kang also received a DGA Student Film Award in recognition of his work, and the film was also named a BAFTA Student Awards Shortlist: Live Action Semifinalist and is also currently in the running as a finalist for the 50th Student Academy Awards.
We were able to talk with Kang and Zhang about the project, their collaboration, and their plans for the future.
Minkyu, what first inspired you to tell this story?
Minkyu Kang [MK]: Thirteen years ago, I saw a man shouting about unrecorded history in modern Korea regarding detention centers. This man’s story got people’s attention for a few days, but it was then forgotten. Ten years passed, and I met the same person again. He was still talking about the same story, and yet it felt that nobody cared about him anymore. I started investigating the historical events that he had mentioned and found the surviving victims’ testimonies, proving many detention centers existed before and after World War II in modern Korea. Further research showed that those detention centers violated fundamental human rights, destroying many innocent souls. I immediately became emotional when I visited some of the remaining detention centers. It was the moment that I was fully connected with the victims and felt their grief.
Were there any professors at Columbia who helped you develop the story for the short?
MK: Professor Eric Mendelsohn, my thesis advisor, helped me enormously from the script development stage to the end of the editing process. When I first presented my script in our thesis class, I had a lot of worries about my story, especially its clarity. I wasn’t convinced I should continue working on the script, but I kept writing and thinking about Eric’s notes.
After weeks of revision, I shared my second draft with the class, and Eric read the script aloud. I became more nervous every time he turned the page. When the reading ended, I thought that my script was hopeless. But while I felt defeated and exhausted, I found Eric with tears in his eyes. Even though the story was still rough, he understood the story and glimpsed its truth. Eric genuinely motivated me to keep writing, and it allowed me to focus on developing the story with confidence. This special feeling, with Eric's filmmaking lessons, gave me the strength to finish the film.
Bofan, how did you become involved in the project?
Bofan Zhang [BZ]: Minkyu was both my classmate and also a collaborator I've been working with for a while before this. We teamed up for projects in our first and second years here at Columbia. When he pitched me the story for Children of Light, I was immediately drawn to the idea of bringing this story to the screen. I'm grateful to him for bringing the story to me. I've always had a soft spot for films rooted in real events, and the fact that this story sheds light on a brutal history that must not fade from the world's memory only added to my enthusiasm.
Our collaboration kicked off right from the first draft of the script. We went through multiple iterations, and the script just kept getting better and better. We have a great working chemistry that continued from pre-production through filming and beyond.
The film has been having incredible success, including nominations from BAFTA, the Student Academy Awards, and the DGA Student Film Awards! What has that felt like?
MK: Making Children of Light was a long journey to find the hidden truth of forbidden Korean history. Knowing and accepting what really happened in our shared history is how our individual consciousness and society overall can evolve. I am honored to be recognized for our team’s strenuous efforts to tell the right story. We never compromised and always told the truth of this story, and I am so proud of our achievements being recognized by these awards.
BZ: Winning an award is a real nod to us as filmmakers, and I truly appreciate it. Yet, getting an award is about that rush and celebration in the moment. Once it's done, it's done. It’s important to stay down-to-earth and be humble. For me, it means facing the next set of tasks in my work, managing my life, and, if luck is on my side, diving into the next project that excites me.
Are there any memorable moments from filming you can tell us about?
MK: I remember every moment of filming the Children of Light, because every second of it was challenging. In particular, I would like to sincerely thank my lead actors (Hyoje Kim and Jungchul Kim) for their work filming the last scene at the mudflat. We filmed in the fall, and the area was cold at night. Our actors had to bear the cold while focusing emotionally on the scene, while also physically exerting themselves and performing stunt work. Even though our lead actors were highly professional and experienced, the environment was not easy for anybody. However, Hyoje and Jungchul fought against all the challenges and finished the shot in one take. I was so thankful to the lead actors who went through the journey safely.
BZ: Our collaboration kicked off right from the first draft of the script. During the development phase, Professor Mendelsohn provided a ton of patient and creative support to shape the draft. We went through multiple iterations, and the script just kept getting better and better.
I recall during the prep period, we faced quite a challenge in finding the right local crew. And on top of that, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic made things even tougher. I knew a Chinese actor who often works in the South Korean film industry, Yang Fan. I asked Yang to help us find a reliable local team. But because of the language barrier, Minkyu took charge of coordinating the more intricate details with the local team. Gradually, things fell into place. Fortunately, we crossed paths with nice people. The entire production wrapped up safely, and this film is the result of everyone's collective efforts.
What’s next for you both?
MK: I’m currently developing feature scripts related to South Korea and the United States, and also I am looking for collaborating opportunities with amazing filmmakers.
BZ: I'm currently working on a documentary feature film about the life of a single Chinese CEO who, despite societal expectations, started her pursuit of motherhood by purchasing sperm overseas. The idea of the feature originated from a proof of concept shot many years ago. This initiative garnered significant attention and became a trending topic across major social media platforms in China. It sparked a lot of discussion online about women's inherent right to conceive and become pregnant.
I also really hope that Children of Light can reach a broader audience. This story carries a deep meaning as it narrates a forgotten history about many South Korean child victims of World War II, who are now in their old age. Making this story more accessible to people was my original intention in producing this short film.
Minkyu Kang is an award-winning director, screenwriter, and editor based in the United States and South Korea. He received his BA in Film and TV Production at the University of Southern California in 2012 and a Film MFA degree at Columbia University in 2022. After two years of military service in South Korea, he worked in the local film and advertising industry. During this time, he directed/wrote/edited short films, TV commercials, documentaries, and art videos, which have been selected and screened at 50+ international film festivals. He is a freelance filmmaker in Los Angeles developing feature-length film projects.
Bofan Zhang is a bilingual film producer based in Los Angeles who holds an MFA in Creative Producing from Columbia University. She specializes in producing films, documentaries, and commercial videos across the US, China, and South Korea. Her films have achieved international recognition, with screenings at Oscar and BAFTA-qualifying film festivals, and the honor of winning many prestigious awards. She is the Associate Producer of the feature film SÉANCE (in post) and the award-winning feature doc Go through the Dark (DOC NYC International Competition), lead-produced by the Emmy Award-winning editor Jean Tsien (76 Days). Through these works, she has been recognized as a BAFTA Newcomer talent, and received accolades such as the Katharina Otto- Bernstein Production Grant and the GiGadgets Creative Foundation Award. Her goal in filmmaking is not only to entertain people but to engage social consciousness and impact communities through entertainment as well.