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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: GYEONGJU, Not Just a Place But an Idea


By Rex Baylon

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

- Thomas Wolfe

For those who do chose to leave the familiar trappings of their hometown or home country this quote from Thomas Wolfe will resonate in a way that even the author could never fully understand. Wolfe's novel 'You Can't Go Home Again' dealt with the explosive migration of men and women leaving the relative comforts of the rural countryside for the economic opportunities of American metropolises and the ensuing disillusionment of the newly transplanted with the quaintness of their previous small town life, illustrating a now antiquated notion of urban space and rural space being diametrically opposed to one another. Nowadays though, with information technology bridging the gap between time, space and cultures, the modern-day expat and traveler inhabits a space which marks them as neither foreigner or native, urban sophisticate or country bumpkin; instead we are all strangers in a strange land. 
 

In Zhang Lu's feature Gyeongju, the themes of loss, physical displacement and general melancholia permeate every frame. Set primarily in the city of Gyeongju, Lu casts Park Hae-il as Choi-hyun, a Korean expat professor that has lived in China for seven years working in Beijing University and is so assimilated into Chinese culture that he has a Chinese wife and speaks fluent Mandarin. Park's performance as Choi is so unadorned that it's almost as if he was just told to be himself when the camera started rolling. His deadpan delivery and matter-of-fact acting makes his interactions with the other characters far more charged since many of them, after only a cursory meeting with him, instantly label Choi as strange, weird and criminal even though the character does nothing to warrant such extreme. These interpretations could be seen as a commentary on Korean people's extremely conservative notions of what it means to be Korean.

Choi aimlessly wanders around Gyeongju searching for nothing in particular. He meets familiar faces and visits familiar sites, but exactly what he is after is never made clear in the film. The character just meanders through the sites until finally he accidentally or maybe not-so accidentally comes upon a teahouse that he once visited with friends several years ago. The proprietor, Yoon-hee, played by Shin Min-a, is at first a bit put-off by Choi's peculiar interest in an obscene painting that once adorned the teahouse's walls, but after Choi returns to the teahouse and lingers there quietly ruminating she has a change of heart. Seeing another lost soul, Yoon-hee seems to be attracted to Choi or at least drawn to his unspoken trauma.


The film's plotless narrative can at times be infuriating as the story builds to several possible narrative crescendoes but then abandons them for something more subdued. Being that Gyeongju is the setting for the majority of the film's runtime, it's not such a stretch to state that the place itself bears a great influence on the story. As Lu and his director of photography, Jo Young-jik, illustrate through the film's gorgeous but understated cinematography, the city of Gyeongju is a place haunted by the past; shown through temples, burial mounds, etc. It is an area that existed long before the birth of Korea and like Choi it has many secrets buried deep inside it.

The idea of home being a literal physical space that one can return to and identify with exists only as a concept now, a nostalgic memory from a past that those old enough have almost forgotten and those coming up only understand through third party media. We no longer belong to a country or a hometown, we instead live in a global village with no sense of center and a population constantly searching for somewhere to belong to. With seven films under his belt now Lu Zhang might very well be the only Korean director working in the industry today who has built a career on dissecting this very modern idea of physical displacement. As the influx of people entering the country and it's citizen's traveling abroad exponentially grows, this sense of loss will only be all too common until finally the physical boundaries that separate nation-states disappears, and we are all homeless.

★★


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