October 21, 2006

Busan Dispatch. 5.

An invaluable retrospective, a documentary and an intriguing story feature in Koreanfilm.org contributor Adam Hartzell's final dispatch from the Pusan International Film Festival.

Pusan International Film Festival "Japanese imperialism stuck a knife in old Korea and twisted it, and that wound has gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since. That is the fundamental reason why so little modern history is written: and that is what so dignifies those few Koreans and Japanese who have stood outside this death urge toward silence and written good history anyway." (Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun, p.140).

Korea's Place in the Sun This year's retrospective on older South Korean films at PIFF focused on films from the Japanese Colonial Period (1905-1945). Before 1989, there were believed to be no extant films from this period, but some vault-digging still needed to be done. The Japanese company Toho Film provided the Korean Film Archives with three films from this period in 1989, whereas the Russian National Film Archives Gosfilmofond provided another one in 1998. But in 2003, that extant number was almost tripled when seven were unearthed from the Chinese National Film Archives. Of the eleven films available from this time in Korea's cinematic history, the following were shown at PIFF: Sweet Dream (Yang Joo-nam, 1936, the oldest Korean film in existence and a sort of pre-Madame Freedom about a woman who begins to appreciate the opportunities emerging for women at the time), Military Train (Suh Kwang-je, 1938, a film produced by the Japanese colonial government to encourage greater train security), Anchor Light (Ahn Chul-young, 1939, about a country girl being taken advantage of in Seoul), Angels on the Street (Choi In-gyu, 1941, about boys at an orphanage), Spring of Korean Peninsula (Lee Byung-il, 1941, a self-reflexive film on the film industry of the time), Volunteer (Ahn Sug-young, 1941, about a Korean soldier anxious to be allowed to enlist in the Japanese army) and Straits of Chosun (Park Ki-chae, 1943, about a soldier enlisting to prove his manhood). What the re-discovery of these films offers scholars of film and multiple other fields is truly priceless.

I was able to catch three of these films, Anchor Light, Volunteer and Straits of Chosun. Although it could be explained as the effect of seeing over 20 films at PIFF, I still had trouble differentiating what happened in the latter two when reflecting back on my experience with them before re-checking my notes. However, released in the early 40s as the Japanese colonial government began to exert more and more control over the populace, it makes sense that I'd have trouble discerning differences between the two because the intent the Japanese colonial government had with them was the same: Get Koreans in a locked mindset to fight for the Japanese empire. Cho Young-jung, program coordinator at PIFF, noted in the program produced along with the retrospective, The Time of Change and Choice: Discovery of films from Japanese colonial period, "While watching films from the Japanese colonial period, Koreans instinctively try to look for traces of national resistance." At first glance of these two latter films, however, one sees only a lockstep view. I recall no character stepping up against the mass mindset imposed by the film that everyone from Korea would aspire to fight for the Japanese empire; even mothers are proud to send their children off. We don't even have a character who expresses doubt or disagreement in order to provide symbolic punishment. Everyone is of one mind in Volunteer and Straits of Chosun because if they weren't, those associated with the film would have a deadly price to pay from the Japanese colonizers.

Anchor Light

Anchor Light, produced much earlier, is a very different film that actually never mentions the military, let alone the Japanese as far as I could tell. Part of its immense value to scholars are the depictions of life in Seoul at the time and documentary footage of bus systems and other bits of street life, demonstrating how film is so much more than just narrative and how writing about film is so much more than upward or downward thumbs.

The only intended documentary I saw while at PIFF was Hwang Yun's One Day on the Road. If you think it's all been done before in the world of cinema, how 'bout a film about roadkill? Seen that? Well Hwang applies a deeper focus than you realized could be spent on roadkill, such a ubiquitous sight on our roads that we begin to ignore its everyday presence. Hwang seeks to see what this snapshot of these everydays says about us.

We follow three men who have been commissioned by the South Korean government to study the roadkill on three roads, part of a nexus that surrounds the Jiri Mountains to the point of making this region a literal island for the ecosystem that resides within the manmade borders. The documentary does a good job of answering the questions that might be forming in our heads, such as, "Um, how do birds become roadkill? Can't they fly away?" Hwang and her subjects show us how speeding, big trucks can suck away the flight paths of birds and how the ignored roadkill of important insect species entices the birds to stop on the road for a nibble, much to their peril. (And then the insects return to these carnages, which they then join as roadkill, and the unending cycle goes on.) We see the carnage grow each day as more than little bits of data on a computer-generated map. What the film concludes is that there is no pattern. The tiny red dots that represent the findings of roadkill along the roads become the road itself. Roadkill happens because of roads. It's that simple.

One Day on the Road

An added extra of this documentary is that it was the first one I've seen chronicling animal species indigenous to South Korea, making this even more of a perfect film for your environmental film festivals out there. Although I could do without the cutesy displays of anthropomorphizing, I know I have friends who would love that very aspect of the film and this does allow Hwang to underscore her points. Such is the challenge of documentary. Do you go for beauty and subtlety or do you insure the information is conveyed to the audience however clumsy and lacking in subtlety? To Hwang's credit, she left me with the thoughts and feelings with which she intended me to leave. She even had me empathizing with snakes!

Strangely enough, it is a Belgian, Canadian and French co-production that provides the best note of closure on the 11th edition of PIFF for me, Congorama, helmed by Quebecois Philippe Falardeau. Michel (Olivier Gourmet) is a failed inventor and failed man who lives in the light of the success of his father. Discovering he's adopted, he heads to the barn of his birth in Sainte-Cecile, Quebec on a whim to find anyone still connected to his birth family. Finding this search more challenging than he's up for, he heads home but not before he becomes part of an incident from which he won't be able to completely run away. While in Sainte-Cecile, Michel meets Louis (Paul Ahmarani), and his story is intertwined in this larger story about colonialism, intellectual property, family, nationality and all the history connecting the in-betweens.


Congorama had me thinking about the intersubjectivity of all knowledge. It underscored for me the need to credit my sources and to remember that all I wrote here is due to the visible and invisible talent that makes all these festivals happen, from the volunteers who humor my weak attempts to transact in Korean, to the cars racing around corners that didn't run me over in the crosswalk, to the availability of kim bab franchises that provide a healthier alternative to fast food in burrito-like form, to all the film laborers who keep providing fascinating and not so fascinating films to sift through. I am not an island on this peninsula. I am a product of all the histories that rush passed barely noticed, walk up briefly to try their English, and to stay imprinted within my head and heart for years to come over conversations late into the night accompanied by the score of the seashore. I'll come back for all that and more.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 21, 2006 3:31 PM


These reports have been great, Adam. The Japanese Colonial-era films sound kind of fascinating, especially ANCHOR LIGHT. Apart from its narrative-as-documentary aspects, was it any good?

Posted by: Brian at October 21, 2006 4:07 PM

Hey Brian,

Thanks much for your comments, Brian. They weren't pleasurable in the sense of enjoying a good story. But of the three, ANCHOR LIGHT is the most enjoyable, following the usual country girl makes mistakes in the big city theme. I can't remember if it was VOLUNTEER or STRAITS OF CHOSUN,(as I said, because of forced theme, they kind of blend into each other), but one of them had an unintentionally hilarious birth scene of which the crowd laughed at the absurdity, so it had its bad-its-good moments, but not many.

Posted by: Adam Hartzell at October 21, 2006 5:51 PM


I was also at the fest and am in the process of writing my thoughts on the films I saw. I don't have a blog - I was just thinking of sending it out to my film friends - but if you have any interest in putting it up on the site, let me know. I only caught three Korean films (though one, "Arch of Chastity," was a recently discovered historical film that the fest was heavily promoting), but also two world premieres that I thought were fine films that may never get any press, "Life is About Friends" and "The White Silk Dress." The latter got a good writeup in Variety (http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117931863.html?categoryid=31&cs=1), but I don't think anyone's written about the former. Here's what I saw:

Life Is All About Friends (directed by Murali Nair)
The Optimists (Goran Paskaljevic)
Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Flanders (Bruno Dumont)
Arch of Chastity (Shin Sang-ok)
Bloody Tie (Choi Ho)
In Between Days (Kim So-yeong)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)
White Silk Dress (Huynh Luu)
Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

Almost all had merits, and only one I truly loathed (Hamaca Paraguaya). The very last film I saw, the new Hong Sang-soo, was the film of the fest for me.

Posted by: Kris at October 22, 2006 6:34 PM