Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).
Perhaps because of his long-term struggle with leukaemia, highly influential film theorist Andre Bazin based a lot of his ideas around the concept of death. More specifically, he argued that film could be seen as a way to embalm time, capture time and allow people to linger in the memories of others following their death, just as portraits, or embalming, had done in the past. As technology progresses at an astonishing rate, the moving image, and with it the photographic image, has become ever present in society, capturing almost anything and everything in our world.
However, Lee Hyunjung’s Virgin Forest looks at things in a different way. The film takes place following the death of her grandmother, and Lee decides to record her actions and experiences while looking after her grandmother’s house, as well as the funeral itself. Lee’s act of recording here seems to completely undermine Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image; it records what is left behind rather than capture something, or someone, whilst they were alive. Lee’s grandmother appears in only one shot of the film, looking into a digital camera screen at pictures of her family.
The camera is both ever present and intentionally ignored throughout the film. There are many scenes in which Lee and her younger brother engage in discussions about various things, for the most part her brother is just eager to leave and shows little respect to their grandmother’s passing. This makes a clear statement about the changing nature of society in South Korea, where the younger generation is increasingly distant, almost detached from not only the lifestyle of the elder generations, but also the traditions and rituals of the past. However, the film features a far more interesting discussion about the camera itself.
Despite most of the dialogue scenes between Lee and her brother being shot in an incredibly realist way – handheld, natural lighting and with audio seemingly captured through the camera – the film forces us to truly question the reality of what we’re seeing. In fact, Virgin Forest blurs the lines between reality and fiction to such a degree that the camera becomes an active part of understanding how to interpret such scenes. The film never really makes the cameraman known, but it causes us to recognise and understand the camera being present at the scene. In other words, the very act of recording these dialogue scenes through a camera transforms them into something between fiction and reality. Lee furthers this idea by using quick cut to new shots, once again highlighting the very fundamental processes of putting together a film; capturing footage, and then editing it.
The camera also has part to play in the other main strand of discussion throughout Virgin Forest: the tension between technology and tradition. In one key scene, Lee records footage of her grandmother’s house whilst her brother sits and watches porn on his smartphone. There is a clear disconnection between the respectful actions of Lee, and the highly disrespectful and ignorant actions of her brother. Such tensions arise again when a digger is used to create the burial mound at the funeral. Lee’s camera observes this with a degree of sorrow, showing the very act of creating the mound has been replaced by a quick and efficient mechanised process. Such technologies obviously remove us further from our origins; further from the concept of human bonds.
In the final third of the film, Lee rejects narrative cinema completely for an intense visual focus, and uses a large variation of visual techniques to provide an almost transcendental experience. The effects used range from in-camera effects such as depth of field, through to digitally altering colour hues and adding glowing balls of light to various shots in post-production. It’s a bold decision which brings the tensions between technology and nature to the forefront of the film. With her grandma’s funeral over, Lee explores the concept of tradition before engaging in a series of shots which grow consistently more abstract. From traditional to the technological future, Lee leaves us unsure of where humanity will go from here. However, there is a clear call to recognise and reconsider the consequences of our progression.
Virgin Forest is a thoroughly interesting work which manages to explore a range of ideas in the span of 73 minutes. Its main downfall lies in the overt dialogue and actions of the younger brother which come across as overly forced in a film which does an otherwise great job of balancing its commentary and its style. Its scope and commitment to delivering an alternative experience make it a film well worth watching.
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