South Korean documentary film “Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni” is a plain but intimate portrayal of one ordinary old lady who has some interesting life stories to tell. While she is the mother of a young activist who tragically died during the South Korean democratization movement in the early 1990s, that is just one aspect of her long life, and it is often touching to see this her still going on as she always did before.
During its first half, the documentary simply looks into the current daily life of its human subject. On a street near the Exit 11 of Wangshimni subway station in Seoul, there is an 82-year-old woman named Kim Jong-boon, and we observe how she earns her meager living every day. At a small stall belonging to her, she sells vegetables and several other stuffs including boiled corn and grilled rice cake, and she is surely proud of still being alive and active despite her old age.
When she is not that busy, Kim sometimes spends time with her fellow stall owners. They are as old as Kim, but they are also as lively and plucky as their old friend, and they surely have many things to tell just like Kim. Like Kim, they have worked in Wangshimni for many years, and they are certainly not going to give up as long as they are able to work and earn their living as usual. Although things become a bit more difficult for them due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they all continue to work nonetheless, and I must confess that I was a bit amused as observing how they often wear their mask rather incorrectly.
In the meantime, the documentary begins to delve into Kim’s past. She started to work on the streets of Wangshimni mainly for supporting her dear children instead of her mostly useless husband (He died more than 30 years ago, by the way), and her surviving children remember well how much their mother dedicated herself to their welfare. Although they were still poor, their mother always tried her best for providing a nice environment for all of them to grow up well and then get good education, and she was certainly delighted when one of her daughters, Gui-jeong, began to study at one of the most prestigious universities in Seoul in 1988.
Like many other college students during that period, Gui-jeong soon came to participate in the ongoing democratization movement, and some of her friends/colleagues reminisce about how active and spirited she was. The political mood of the South Korean society became relatively less perilous as the country seemed to leave behind that dark period of dictatorship during the 1960-80s, but many citizens and students still demanded more democratization on streets, and Gui-jeong was quite willing to do more for that noble cause along with many of her colleagues.
However, the South Korean government was led by President Roh Tae-woo during that time, who was the right-hand guy of his predecessor Chun Doo-hwan and incidentally died a few weeks ago without any apology on his many wrongdoings. Just like his predecessor’s government, Roh’s government was ready to suppress the public demand for more democratization by any means necessary, and that resulted in lots of public demonstrations throughout the country in 1991. During one big demonstration which was held in Seoul on one day of May 1991, many students and citizens were brutally suppressed by the police and right-wing goons , and that was when Gui-jeong’s unfortunate death happened.
When she heard about her daughter’s death, Kim was certainly devastated, but she did not stand back at all when the South Korean government tried to cover up the situation surrounding her daughter’s death. Along with many other people who also lost their loved ones due to the brutal suppression of their government, she openly demanded truth and justice in public, and it was eventually revealed later that the South Korean government was indeed responsible for Gui-jeong’s death. Gui-jeong was subsequently buried along with many other young dead activists who were killed during that time, and we see Kim and others having a small memorial meeting in front of the graves of Gui-jeong and other young dead activists.
It is still hurtful for her to be reminded of her daughter’s death, but Kim has kept living during next 30 years nonetheless. She continues to be active about remembering what Gui-jeong tried to fight for, and we see her attending a small symposium on the South Korean democratization movement during the 1980-90s. She also remains close to not only her children but also her siblings, and there is a warm scene where she spends a little nice private moment with her siblings at an apple orchard.
Above all, she has steadily worked at her stall, and we observe some friendly interactions between Kim and her usual customers. One of them is an old guy who has not been that reliable due to his constant credit problem, but Kim is still nice to this old dude despite that, and we come to sense a sort of friendship between them as they talk a bit with each other at one point.
Overall, “Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni” is an engaging documentary thanks to the unadorned human quality of its human subject, and director Kim Jin-yeul did a good job of presenting Kim with sincere respect and admiration. To be frank with you, I did not know much about Kim’s daughter before watching the documentary, so I am glad to know more about her now, and I will certainly not forget her as well as her mother.