South Korean documentary film “I Am a Cat” is full of cats, and I enjoyed that as a longtime cat lover. Since I began to photograph those stray cats living in the campus of Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, my affection toward cats has grown for years, so I could not help but smile during my viewing, and I also came to reflect on how harsh South Korean society has been to many stray cats out there.
The documentary begins its story with one particularly cold winter in Seoul. A guy drives his motorcycle around narrow alleys during freezing nighttime for checking stray cats in his neighborhood, and then he comes across a dead cat on the one side of an alley. Life is always hard for stray cats, but winter is especially difficult for them due to not only low temperature but also the lack of food to eat, and they have to depend on the kindness of strangers like this guy whenever winter comes.
As the narrator of the documentary, who assumes the role of the representative of stray cats in South Korea, tells us how they struggle to survive and live everyday, a number of unpleasant news reports are quoted. One news reports tells about someone trying to poison stray cats, and we hear that the residents of one apartment building attempted to get rid of a bunch of stray cats in a very cruel way. I must tell you that I and other South Koreans frequently hear about such incidents like them; I remember the case of one poor stray cat who was burned alive by some vicious prick, and it broke my heart to see the harrowing photo of that cat, who was luckily rescued and then survived.
After making its points on how much cats are disregarded and mistreated in South Korea, the documentary moves its focus to Japan, where cats are adored more by people in comparison to South Korea. We see large cat dolls, and we hear about how cats have been regarded as a sign of good luck in Japan for a long time. As the movie looks around Tokyo and several other cities and places in Japan, we meet several people who take care of stray cats with lots of affection and attention, and we see how they do many other things besides merely feeing cats. For example, neutering stray cats is essential for decreasing their number, and there is a little intriguing moment showing how stray cats are carefully captured through cage traps prepared with little yummy baits.
The highlight of the Japanese part in the documentary is two islands which are virtually a heaven for cats. The cats in these island live freely and casually along with the residents of the islands, and these cats certainly attract many visitors who would like to stroke them or photograph them. As some of you know, cats can be terrific photo models, and I must confess that I envied a South Korean photographer in the documentary as I watched him photographing those adorable island cats.
Cats are treated well also in Taiwan, and we meet an middle-aged lady who has diligently taken care of stray cats of her neighborhood in Taipei for many years. Her dedication to them is palpable especially when she shows us a big map showing where they respectively live around the area, and she tells us that she has seldom taken a break as taking care of them everyday.
In case of a rural mining town named Houtong, it is virtually saved by cats. After its coal mining business declined and its many residents accordingly left, the Taiwanese government tried to promote the town as a historic site at first, but it was many stray cats in the town who actually attracted visitors. Houtong soon became one of the best places for cats in the world as the focus of its local business was shifted to cats, and one middle-aged guy tells us a little interesting story on how he left the town but then came back later.
These comfortable living places for stray cats in Japan and Taiwan are naturally contrasted with the continuing harsh reality for stray cats in South Korea. Fortunately, there are some people who care about cats as much as their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan. In case of a young amateur photographer, he feeds or photographs stray cats in his neighborhood while delivering newspapers at early dawn, and we later see him holding a small private exhibition of cat photographs in front of his fellow cat lovers.
We also meet an association dedicated to protecting or rescuing stray cats. Association people often get calls about stray cats in the need of help, and there is one urgent case involved with a cat which happens to be trapped in the narrow space inside a concrete wall. It is apparent that the cat went into the hole in the wall before the hole was sealed, and it was really lucky for the cat that somebody heard its faint meowing from inside the wall before it was too late. Eventually, the cat is rescued thanks to association people and others, and it recovers well as reflected by a photograph shown at the end of the documentary.
Through its earnest approach accompanied with occasional animation scenes, “I Am a Cat” works as a sweet, sincere documentary which will appeal to any cat lover. I wish it showed more cats, but that is just a mild grumble from your average incorrigible ailurophile, and I am satisfied with the overall result. After all, how can I possibly say any bad word to all those precious cats on the screen?
Sidenote: The title of the documentary comes from Natsume Sōseki’s novel of the same name.