Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review: BAMSEOM PIRATES SEOUL INFERNO, Incendiary and Essential Viewing

By Pierce Conran

Four years after his sensational debut Non-Fiction Diary, director Jung Yoon-suk proves not only that he’s no fluke, but that he’s among the most exciting and visionary documentary filmmakers working in Asia today. An exhilarating exploration of the underground rock scene in Seoul while also a melancholic meditation on painful disillusionment in an arch-conservative Korean society, his latest work Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno is a music documentary unlike any you’ve seen before.

Drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon are the cacophonous brains behind Bamseom Pirates, a two-man outfit that has been shrieking its way through basements and soon-to-be-demolished relics in Seoul since 2010. Somewhere between punk and metal, their music allows them to let loose as they bash away on their instruments and scream lyrics that slyly reference all manner of politics and history without ever taking a clear political stance. The celebratory 'Hail Kim Jong-il', accompanied by graphic design that falls somewhere between Andy Warhol and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, is a standout.

No matter your musical preference, Yong-man and Sung-geon make a winning pair on screen, sharing a anarchic repartee both in their private moments and in their musical act, especially when they set up among dense crowds of curious onlookers during the constant demonstrations that take place in Central Seoul over the course of the documentary, which takes place over several years.

On the strength of such engaging characters alone, not to mention several other interesting figures from the scene, there would be enough for a compelling documentary, but the most compelling voice in the film is the one that goes unheard. Unlike Choi Seung-ho, the confrontational investigative journalist at the front and center of Criminal Conspiracy, a film released during the same month that also provides an eye-opening examination of recent censorship in a powerful way, Jung hides himself completely from his film. His camera watches these characters for us or drifts off to catch curious moments of disquieting stillness which he has stitched together with an innate sense of tone and a knack for surprising juxtaposition, much like he did in his debut, though he achieves a new kind of effect here.

One Korean critic called Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno this generation’s March of the Fools. Ha Gil-jong’s 1975 masterpiece, which was heavily censored at the time of its release, also features two energetic youths who throw themselves against the authoritarian system without ever quite seeming sure of where the path they’ve embarked on will lead them. Given that March of the Fools is seen as one of the greatest classics of Korean cinema that may seem like a lofty claim, but it’s an apt comparison as Jung’s work does feel like its spiritual descendent. The film at times seems care-free but, just like his protagonists, Jung’s lens is more probing and cunning than his irreverent style lets on.

If Non-Fiction Diary was Jung’s treatise on the deep-seated malaise and vulnerability of a recently-democratized 90s Korea, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno is a quiet revolt voicing the indignation of today’s youth, unable to comprehend the country’s slide back into the censorship and oppression that the previous generation had fought so hard to eradicate. The film debuted at the International Film Festival Rotterdam at the beginning of the year, shortly after the National Assembly voted for the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Though surely too much on the fringe to ever be considered a call to arms, it's almost a shame that the film is being released now, in an era of relative stability.


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