“Jiseul” reminded me that I did not know much about the Jeju uprising, which was one of the most tragic incidents in the modern Korean history but a merely small fact in my high school history textbook. Although it is neither informative nor revealing, this South Korean independent film closely focuses on the ill-fated people who happened to be swirled into the massive tragedy without fully grasping its scale, and the result is a tribute both mournful and respectful to the nameless victims of the unjust massacre.
Let me explain a bit about the historical background of the story. In 1948, Korea had already been divided into North and South Korea due to the Cold War conflict between Soviet Russia and US, and the tension around the Korean peninsula was rising as North Korea government held their own election and South Korea government was also planning to hold the election as a counteract. On April 3rd, the local police in the Jeju Island, a big island off the south coast of South Korea, fired on the demonstration for commemorating the Korean struggle against Japanese rule. The angered people attacked 12 police stations in response, and that was the beginning of the revolt which eventually caused the death of at least 30,000 people and destroyed 70% of the villages in the island.
While this revolt was indeed supported and led by the members of Workers Party of South Korea, a leftist party known to be associated with North Korea government at that time, the oppressive response from the South Korean government was quite ruthless to say the least. While the communist rebels also did many terrible things to their enemies, lots of villages were pillaged and many people were executed by South Korean soldiers and the additional paramilitary force as a part of the operation, and it was especially harsh around the winter of 1948. The order was issued from the South Korean government and US military government that all people living more than 5 Km off the coast line would be labeled as the communist mobs, which was more or less than death sentence, and the soldiers were ready to scorch the island for purging every rebel and collaborator from the island.
The movie focuses on the two groups of the people somewhere in the island. We see a bunch of inland village people desperately looking for some cave where they can hide for a while. They think their plight will be over within days, but, even though they are temporarily safe in the cave later, that dreadful feeling of doom slowly descends upon them in the darkness. They have little food to sustain themselves, and they have only one rifle for their protection, and the soldiers keep looking for them outside.
We also observe the soldiers doing their duty in the deserted village. Some soldiers are pretty mean and vicious, and they have no qualms about the atrocities like beating and rape because of their personal grudge toward communists. The other soldiers gradually come to feel that they are not doing right things, but they know they have no choice in their circumstance no matter what they think about their mission; if they do not kill any rebel, they may not be fed as a punishment.
All these human matters and the landscapes of Jeju Island encompassing them are beautifully shown through the terrific black and white cinematography by Yang Jeong-hoon, which effectively evokes the style and ambience of traditional ink paintings. With the eerie feelings generated from smokes and lights and shadows, the movie looks like an uncanny chronicle of the haunted memories from lost souls, and its narrative structure reflects this aspect through the chapters following the procedure of the Confucian memorial service for the dead, which usually ends with the burning of the names written in Chinese letters on Korean paper as shown during the finale sequence.
Handling his story with such formal austerity, the director/screenplay writer O. Meul, who is a Jeju native, does not lose the human dimensions inside the story. Even when they are under the dire circumstance, silly but human humor comes along with the village people’s hopeless plight, and I was amused by the scene which shows them coming into a big hole one by one while the hole becoming more crowded. There is also a wonderful moment in which the camera steadily moves across in front of the village people in the dark, oppressing cave, and I was impressed to learn later that they really shot the scenes at a real cave; despite the technical difficulties, the result looks as smooth and poetic as a low-budget film can possibly be.
While admiring the film, I also noticed several notable problems. The screenplay is a little too murky and opaque to follow, and, maybe because of its austere approach, there is always a certain distant feeling in the movie which distracted me at times during my viewing. I appreciated that none of the performers in the film stand out in their earnest performances(the production was fully supported by the local government and the village people in the movie was mostly played by the local people), but the characterization mostly feels flat; their characters are not easy to distinguish from each other, and I had some difficulty with following their actions and stories at times.
None the less, despite its flaws, “Jiseul”, which means potato in Jeju dialect, is still an admirable movie with strong points. Its slow-burning anger toward its subject is calmly conveyed through the competent direction, and its low-key finale is sad and haunting in its appropriate restraint. The movie has received several film festival awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, and it certainly deserves them for its impressive artistic/technical achievement.
It had been forbidden to mention anything about the Jeju uprising for almost 50 years in the South Korean society, but the truth was eventually revealed and recognized around the 1990s, and the South Korean government made the official apology in 2006 while the US government has not yet made any apology for their indirect involvement or blatant ignorance at that time. Like many of those ‘slow’ films, “Jiseul” requires a certain amount of patience and background knowledge, but it memorably presents you a small hidden painful chapter of the modern Korean history, and its sad, harrowing elegy may linger on your mind after you watch it.
Sidenote: Although this is a South Korean film, the Jeju dialect in the dialogues is frequently hard to understand to even the Korean audiences including me. Thank God for the subtitle.