(by Fabien Schneider)
MKC is co-presenting Jiseul as part of this year's CAAMFest. Film screens on March 15th & 19th. Click here for more details.
Film watched at the 19th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema
As soon as the moving silhouettes detaching themselves from the ambient darkness begin to raise their voices, the fire that provided their scant comfort peters out. Suddenly, all of them realize that they are now trapped in the black under a few meters of rock. They do not know how many days they have lurked there like hibernating animals, but one thing is certain, they still need to wait one more day. And then another. Who knows when this nightmare will come to an end? With little historical context, the young director O Muel ruthlessly immerses us into one of the darkest episodes of the Cold War. One that is seldom documented in South Korea, and that the U.S. has preferred to ignore. With a careful, solemn aesthetic, the director tackles the process of remembrance, one equal to that of the dramatic event. Though it will surely be appreciated by the local population as the outlet that they expected for so long, the film remains too hermetic to allow a foreign audience to understand the true value of its drama. Spectators have to make due with a simple introductory text, insufficient and somewhat dubious from a historical perspective.
Before proceeding further, it is perhaps important to return to this humanitarian disaster that doesn’t even figure as an anecdote in history books. In April 1948, the USSR had already organized their own elections in their Korean territory as retaliation for the provisional government headed by Rhee Syngman that the U.S. set up three years before. The South part of the peninsula was expecting in the following month its own elections, whose expected result was already seen as the coup de grace that would confirm the division of the country. In memory of the resistance to Japanese colonial rule, but also to affirm the will of a Korea united and independent from foreign powers, a demonstration was planned on April 3 by the local Workers Party on the island of Jeju. Events escalated; the crowd attacked the authorities, accused of having collaborated with the Japanese; and the police fired into the crowd.
This massacre marked the beginning of a revolt that would later extend into the south-west of the peninsula (the context in which Im Kwon-taek's The Taebaek Mountains takes place) and the newly elected President Rhee Syngman only succeeded in stifling the revolt with extreme violence, sending soldiers and paramilitary militias to track down communists among the populace. Most of the villages of the island were burned. War and anti-communism led that this event becoming a legend of which the Jeju people no longer dared speak of, until the discovery in 1992 of a cave sheltering skeletons finally allowed historians to assert the veracity of these atrocities. But the few who talked about it were charged with a criminal offense and a few more years were necessary until the government finally acknowledged its mistakes and apologized publicly. And now here we are with the first film dedicated to these persecutions, produced in 2012 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the cave.
It is thus to events that occurred around and within this cave that O Muel decided to dedicate his third film. Faced with almost non-existent written sources, he had to rely solely on oral testimony and fill the gaps with his own imagination to create the fifteen characters colliding in his script. It may not seems so given his low budget, but there were many people behind the project. In fact, the whole of Jeju Island is involved, including the vital participation of the regional government, but also of the population, since the project benefited from numerous donations. One can imagine the pressure that O Muel must have felt to have to meet the many expectations from his native country to which he is very attached (his previous two films were also staged in Jeju). He had to both honor the victims and providing an awareness of the tragedy beyond the island. This is a laudable objective, of which the title is a good metaphor: Jiseul is a unfamiliar Korean word beyond the island that means potato in Jeju dialect. Its challenge has already partly been accomplished due to its presence at Sundance, but the real challenge for the director will be to cross the symbolic number of 30,000 spectators in Jeju's few theaters, the purported total number of victims.
What strikes the viewer immediately is undoubtedly the formalism of this work, which coudl be accused of being hermetic but I think the problem lies elsewhere. Instead, the low level of production is partially offset by beautiful compositions, and above all a conception of the different levels of lighting that commands respect. The scenes that take place underground are examples of formal mastery: all the characters are grouped at the bottom of the frame, visually overwhelmed by heavy rock that occupies the rest of the screen. A powerful image that shows at the same time the constrained complicity of the survivors and the constant threat hanging over their heads.
O Muel wanted to break from Jeju's tourist image through his decision to remove all color from the film. For this, he trusted cinematographer Yang Jeong-hoon to draw inspiration from the subtle shades of gray of traditional painting. The texture effects are particularly striking with the meadow finely covered with snow or the minerality of rock walls, and actually seems to justify the use of black and white despite my initial skepticism. This gives to the whole work a ceremonious tone, which is quite relevant as the story is divided into four parts along with titles, which correspond to the different phases of the Confucian cult ceremony of the dead. The spirits are summoned progressively during the narration, and then symbolically released at the end by showing talismans burning in the names of the victims.
But is the film really trying to move us with this historical episode? I don't want to seem inhumane but the film attracts little empathy for the victims, because of writing that only scratches the skin of the characters. Each could be summarized in a single line, and some seem to exist only to be used for a single purpose in a dramatic scene. The only surviving girl is not particularly defined as she is already captured and turned into the prototype of the rape victim, a symbol that haunts Korean cinema. Fault could be laid on account of the image aestheticization, as the black and white photography doesn’t help to clearly identify among the ten women and men in the dimly lit cave. Or maybe it's the fault of the story's minimalism, full of ellipses, which does not help to navigate through the multitude of characters. However, the Chinese film Devils on the Doorstep (2000) adopted the same format without affecting its characterizations, because it took the time needed to introduce each character. Where it gets annoying is the impression of distance and coldness, reinforced by the visual formalism, which goes against the intentions of the director.
The other flagrant problem is the lack of information given on an event that is unknown by the public. I was fortunate in that I knew about the revolt in Jeju ahead of time, but this was clearly not the case for the vast majority of the European public that was present at this screening. I understand that this is primarily a decision of mise-en-scène. To find oneself directly in the heart of events gives a striking effect that highlights the absurdity of violence. But the problem is the informative texts that appear at the beginning and end of the film only provide incomplete knowledge. The worst is that the little information given to us is also questionable. I do not ask that each data source should be accompanied by a reference, but remember what I wrote earlier: there is no official written source, and the government has long denied these events. Apart from the testimony of the inhabitants, the most reliable sources are reports by a U.S. captain in an observation mission and a few newspaper articles. However, the film does not hesitate to accuse the U.S. specifically for having issued an absurd. It has never been proven that the U.S. military have taken an active role in this drama. Responsibility is never put on Syngman Rhee's government or the officers of the South Korean army. These are represented either driven by a thirst for promotion or turned to psychopathic killers. All seem victims of this order to shoot on sight.
Jiseul is a work that seems to have had difficulty choosing whether it is a film about the memory of the victims, a work made to raise awareness, or an art film aimed for festivals, and in the end loses its balance. Of course, this was always going to be a difficult exercise, with so many ambitions to fill for the director and so many expectations from the many partners. This film is sure to raise many questions, and in this sense it has fully accomplished its goal. But I cannot help but notice design flaws that were bound to happen when a young filmmaker tackles a work of this magnitude. Jiseul is proof that an average scenario can be saved by bold post-production. Despite weak writing, it is nevertheless an aesthetically rich work made with good intentions, and for these reasons alone deserves at least to be seen by a large audience.
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