It is not so easy to categorize South Korean documentary film “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin”, which was finally released in South Korean theaters in last week despite having its local premiere in 2019. At first, it simply seems to be a plain conventional documentary on the surface, but then it freely goes back and forth between documentary and fiction especially during its second half, and its haunting poetic moments will linger on your mind for a while in addition to making you more interested and enlightened on its rather obscure social/historical issues.
In the beginning, we are introduced to an old lady named Park In-soon, who has a long and tragic life story hidden behind her shabby mundane daily life in Uijeongbu, one of those satellite cities surrounding Seoul. She did not remember much where she exactly was born and grew up before abandoned by her biological father in Seoul around the early 1960s, and what subsequently happened to her during next several decades has been rather vague memories to her at present, but these memories also quite painful ones to her for understandable reasons. Not long after being abandoned by her biological father, she was taken by a woman who turned out to be working as a pimp near the US military base in Uijeongbu, and In-soon soon found herself thrown into the harsh world of prostitution and exploitation just like thousands of unfortunate young women who had fallen into the same gloomy fate around that time.
Most of these ill-fated women were dead and then have been forgotten for many years, but In-soon has managed to survive and persist nonetheless. Her real identity was completely erased as she was forced to be someone else, and she even went to US after marrying an American soldier who later turned out to be quite abusive. It actually took several years before she eventually returned to Uijeongbu, but she kept working as a sex worker until she was too old for that later, and we come to gather that she witnessed lots of terrible things including how her fellow sex workers’ bodies were casually buried at a nearby gravesite after their tragic deaths.
Nevertheless, In-soon is not ashamed of her past at all while keeping going as before, and the documentary phlegmatically observes how she goes through one day after another. After waking up at her small and modest residence in the morning, she goes outside for collecting junks to be sold for her living, and she is determined to stay in her old slum neighborhood as long as she lives, even though many parts of the neighborhood are soon going to be redeveloped and then gentrified.
After giving us a slice of In-soon’s daily life, the documentary slowly slips into the areas of fiction as changing its viewpoint. We are introduced to a young female college student preparing for some art exhibition of hers which is associated with the hidden social history of In-soon’s neighborhood, and we subsequently see her approaching to In-soon and her neighborhood via a movie school professor and a documentary filmmaker who has been trying to make a documentary about In-soon and her neighborhood. When the young student interviews In-soon on her life story, In-soon tries to remember as much as she can, but In-soon’s past still feels vague and distant with the considerable inconsistency in her storytelling, and we come to sense more of how much In-soon’s life narrative has been blurred and tarnished as having been disregarded and forgotten for years.
The documentary goes further into its realm of fiction as the young student walks around here and there for capturing the local ambience of In-soon’s neighborhood. We often see abandoned bars and nightclubs which were once populated with American soldiers and local sex workers, and the mood becomes a bit spooky as the young student later goes inside one of these abandoned places, which is still full of bits of old seedy memories from the past.
Around that narrative point, a certain mysterious female figure appears on the screen without being noticed by the young student, and that is where the mood of the documentary becomes considerably surreal. This figure gradually turns out to be a ghost who can be regarded as the sad emblem of those numerous local sex workers in the past, and her presence hovering around the neighborhood happens to draw the attention of a trio of death messengers in black, who are initially ready to eliminate the ghost away from the world of the living but then come across one big problem. This ghost does not have its own life narrative from the beginning as embodying so many unknown tragic life stories hidden inside the neighborhood, and that accordingly leads to a long conversation among these three death messengers in black at one of those abandoned places.
As they try to concoct a whole and complete narrative from a number of hearsays in the neighborhood, In-soon comes forward to the center of the documentary as defying against their condescending attempt, and we are served with a series of symbolic moments which show her empowered by being in the full charge of her life narrative. I will not go into details here, but I assure you that you will come to respect her more as a human figure with her own story to tell, and directors/producers Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyong-tae, who also handled the editing and cinematography of their documentary, did an admirable job for that while never resorting to cheap pity or sentimentality.
Overall, “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” will require some patience from you due to its unorthodox narrative approach, but its initially baffling but undeniably powerful mix of fiction and documentary is certainly something to behold for giving us what great German filmmaker Werner Herzog once called as “ecstatic truth”. In short, this is another impressive South Korean documentary of this year after “Sewing Sisters” (2020), and I sincerely urge you to check it out as soon as possible.