In recent years the Korean documentary has taken a new direction, moving toward a much more diverse expression. New independent docs have entered the scene. They are still primarily targeted at the local population, but also aim for global appeal.

Chris Berry
Chris Berry was Visiting Professor at the Korean National University of Arts during the fall semester of 1999. He teaches in the Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

When young Korean documentarian Kim Do-ryoung asked how he could improve his film Grandmother, I suggested an opening title for foreigners explaining the general situation: how many families were separated between North and South in the war nearly fifty years ago and this film is about one such family. In other words, you cannot underestimate the ignorance of foreigners. Kim grasped my point in a way I had not anticipated. He not only gave me the purist direct-cinema line against such interventions by the filmmaker, but also a long lecture on pre-modern Korean culture and how his film related to it. Local Korean communities used to hold festivals in which people shared by telling their stories to each other. He sees video documentaries like his film about his own family as an extension of this, and also as resistance to the modern control of communication and culture by large media corporations. In his own hometown there are already numerous small groups of all ages engaged in this activity.

Grandmother (Halmoni)

His words moved me. But there was a certain irony. For we were talking in the restaurant of the Seoul International Press Center on the eighteenth floor of an office tower overlooking downtown, and his international sales agent was translating for us. Grandmother (Halmoni) had also been featured in the local documentary section of the 1999 Pusan International Film Festival, an event designed in part to showcase Korean films for export. What was he doing here, I wondered, if he was so determined to stay local and resist big business media and the global?

Grandmother seems to sum up the Korean documentary scene. First, it is part of a growing diversification of topics, themes and styles. Second, it is based in a strong and vibrant local documentary culture, most of it not dependent on television but low-budget and community-based. Third, increasing numbers of these documentary filmmakers want to get their work out to the world, but many of them find themselves caught in a tension between the local and the global.

But to begin with the positive, the Korean documentary scene continues to burgeon. When I spoke to Nam In-Young, Visiting Professor at Chungang University, columnist for the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper and herself a former member of the Seoul Video Collective documentary group, she emphasized diversification. “I love that these young filmmakers are making so many different kinds of documentaries now,” she told me. “That wasn’t the case before.”

Indeed, when I first started paying serious attention to Korean documentary a few years ago, there were only two kinds of film. One group consisted of television documentaries made by television stations. The other kind were called “independent” films. But in Korea then, “independent” meant oppositional filmmaking in which the filmmakers were part of the movement the film was about and totally committed to the cause. Democracy only came to South Korean this decade, so there was no space for any other kind of “independent” film before. But now, as Nam noted, there seems to be a new younger generation of filmmakers who are widening the range of possibilities.

Grandmother is an example of that new trend. Although it is certainly about an important social and political topic, it is not made as part of any particular movement. And it deploys the interview-based direct cinema style, even if grandma does get sick of her grandson following her everywhere with his video camera. Other examples of non-movement independent films I have seen this year include Park Ki-bok’s diary film about homeless children and runaways in Seoul, Leave Us Alone (Nepduo), and Chong Ho Hyon’s Extremely Ordinary (Pyongpomhaji Anhun Pyongpom), a film in which she reveals what it means to be a young woman in Seoul today by hanging out with a few of her best friends.

However, both Park Ki-bok and Chong Ho Hyon’s origins lie in the older political activist documentary filmmaking, and that continues to be the core of Korea’s independent documentary cinema. Both the films that shared the local documentary prize at the 1999 Pusan International Film Festival come from that background, and in both cases the filmmakers hope to reach both a local and a wider audience. However, I think that while one film does reach out, the other film, like Grandmother, is caught in a tension between the local and the global.

breathing1
Byun Joungjoo’s My Own Breathing

The first film is Byun Joungjoo’s My Own Breathing, the third film in her trilogy about the former so-called “comfort women’ who were forced to become sex slaves to the Japanese army during the Pacific War. From the very beginning of this series, Byun has sought to take this story, that is both locally distinctive and something anyone can empathize with, to as wide an audience as possible. Quite rightly, Nam In-young speaks of this as “Byun’s aesthetics of sharing.” I wrote about Byun’s last film on the topic, Habitual Sadness, in this magazine two years ago (see DOX 14).

In My Own Breathing, she take us past the usual media clichés so that we can witness these women telling us their moving stories while they still can. Interestingly, for all but the last third of the film, she lets one of the women interview the others. Only with Kim Yun-shim does Byun do the interviewing herself. But ironically, where the former comfort woman interviewer leads her friends, it is Byun who allows the situation to unfold.  She is able to reach across the differences to connect with her subjects, and in so doing, enables us to do so as well. Sitting next to her mother, Kim’s mute daughter reveals on camera that she has read her mother’s journal, that she knows her story, and that she knows she herself is mute because of an illness her mother contracted while a “comfort woman.” Kim Yun-shim is clearly devastated, but a further interview with her reveals both that Byun did not just grab the scoop and run, and that Kim trusts Byun not to abuse the revelation. It is a most moving moment and a fitting culmination to this powerful series.

By rights, Mindullae, which means “Dandelion” and refers to a song in the film, should be equally powerful. It focuses on the parents of young people who died in the late eighties struggle for democracy, and on the organization they have set up to fight to get their children recognized. Like the topic of My Own Breathing– and of Grandmother – this is both distinctively local and has the potential to communicate to audiences everywhere. But while there is no doubt that filmmakers Choi-ha Dongha and Lee Kyeongsoon have made a great tribute to their subjects, I somehow found that the film does not have the same “aesthetics of sharing” that Byun’s film has.

Byun Joungjoo’s My Own Breathing

For example, there are two groups of parents involved. One group’s children were definitely killed or committed suicide in the struggle, and they are fighting to have a law passed so that their children will be recognized as martyrs. The other group’s children died mysteriously, and they want proper investigations into their deaths carried out. But I never really understood why these two very different situations were combined, nor did I understand why children who had committed suicide in the struggle were viewed in the same way as those who were killed by the dictatorship. Also, I did not get a clear understanding of the laws they were fighting for until I interviewed Choi-ha and Lee. And finally, there were so many parents included in the coverage that I never felt I really got close enough to them or a deeper understanding of what the situation really meant to them.

Nam In-Young, and most of the other Korean friends working in film with whom I talked, liked Mindullae very much. So it clearly speaks very strongly to a local audience and especially to those who were students in the 1980s. When I raised my concerns to Nam, she explained that the original version of the film had been longer, gone into more detail, and spent more time with individual parents, allowing us to know them better. Choi-ha and Lee said they had started out intending to focus on only one parent, so that we could get to know her as well as Kim Do-ryoung allows us to know his grandma or Byun Youngjoo allows us to know the women she interviews. However, as they got closer to the parents in the movement they felt she alone could not represent the range of circumstances and feelings.

Maybe it is just my problem, but in the end I feel that Mindullae is a movement film, or a film for insiders rather than a film that shares. If you already know about the situation of these parents, if you are part of the group that they have organized, then there is no doubt it is both profoundly moving and also a very effective tool for mobilization. In one scene in the film, we watch participants in the film watching themselves on video. They are animated, excited and mobilized. But is the same true for outsiders who know less about the situation, be they foreign or Korean? Does this film reach out to them in the same way that Byun’s does?

Maybe the movement film is too deeply grounded in the production of the inside group to reach out in this way. This may also be the source of the tension between the global and the local that I have been trying to pinpoint. To try and explain, I want to finish by honouring Korea’s outstanding exponent of this kind of local, involved documentary filmmaking, Kim Dong-won. Kim also had his latest film showing at Pusan this year. Another World We Are Making: Haengdang-Dong People 2 (To Hanaeui – Haengdang Dong Saramdul 2) continues a project he has been involved for some years now. It follows a group of people in one of the many areas of Seoul that has been redeveloped, and their struggle for access to affordable housing in the wake of that redevelopment. There is no question that Kim’s main purpose is to use the filmmaking process to help the residents mobilize themselves and become self-aware. It is a sort of consciousness-raising tool. The legal issues are complex and the situation is very particular, but because Kim is not trying to reach out to a larger audience, this is less important. Like the late Ogawa Shinsuke, it is nice for Kim if outsiders want to watch the films, but it is not crucial. And again, to deliberately make the film for outsiders would probably make it less effective for locals.

I believe it is the powerful hold of this honourable and important tradition that produces the tension between the local and global that bedevils so much of Korean documentary film today. For at the same time as many younger filmmakers do want to find wider audiences, they still want the in-group feel of the movement film. I think this is what Kim Do-ryoung was trying to tell me in the Seoul International Press Center that day. For filmmakers dealing with a topic like the one in Mindullae, it may be hard to resolve that tension. However, Byun Youngjoo’s trilogy has shown that it is possible to share with outsiders as well as in-group members, and so I hope that soon the young Korean filmmakers who are now experimenting with a diverse range of styles, themes and documentary techniques, will soon put them all together in ways that really do let us all share the powerful stories they have to tell.

Chris Berry was Visiting Professor at the Korean National University of Arts during the fall semester of 1999. He teaches in the Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.


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