Im Kwon-taek – The making of a Korean National Cinema

Im Kwon-taek bookDavid James & Kyung-hun Kim: (Wayne State UP, 2001)

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A wide-ranging collection of essays which usefully documents Im’s importance as a filmmaker, from his first attempt in the early 60s to his latest (at the time this book was published, Chunhyang was the most recent).

Kim Kyung-hyun’s lucid account of Im’s career put in the context of the political environment — the different stages of censorship and promotion — shows Im’s ability to reinvent himself when circumstances permitted or required. In the judgement of Yi Hyo-in (the author of chapter 7),

Im is like a weather vane — turning with the political wind whichever way it is blowing.

By Im’s own admission, his earlier output contained some “lousy” films. Kim’s introductory chapter describes how Im’s emergence as a director of quality films was possibly the only positive outcome of Park Chung-hee’s drive for “Quality” films in the 70s. Im used this initiative to start exploring through his films elements of Korean culture and history, and these are the themes for which he is best known in the West. Consistent with the book’s title the films discussed in this book reflect these themes: Genealogy (describing the dilemma faced by a patriarch when pressured to renounce his Korean name under the Japanese occupation); Sopyonje (describing the difficulty in maintaining Korean traditional culture in the face of modernity); Mandala and Come, Come, Come Upwards (depicting Buddhist themes). It is to be hoped that one day a study is done of some of his other films: the Son of a General series is one in particular that academics have in general ignored.

With some of the essays, you wonder whether the academics are taking things a bit too seriously. To his credit, Julian Stringer wonders whether he is guilty of over-interpretation. One of the central questions he asks in his interesting paper on Sopyonje and National Culture is why, in the climactic reunion scene where Song-hwa and Tong-ho recognise each other via an all-night performance of the Shimchong-ga, there’s a moment when Im switches from the pansori soundtrack to a dreamy flute / synthesizer soundtrack.

With this brilliant manipulation of sound mixing at a crucial stage of the narrative, Im Kwon-taek appears to open up a space where the affective capabilities of melodrama can be experienced and felt by the national subject.

To me, Im is simply ramming home the point (just in case you hadn’t already noticed) that brother and sister have recognised each other and through the pansori performance and have entered into some sort of mystical union together.

To me, one of the more interesting articles was Kwak Han-ju’s discussion of Festival, arguing that the film

presents tradition as a necessary connection to those of us who are living here and now (p230),

and discusses the almost documentary-style portrayal of the funeral rites. It then comes as a slight disappointment to read the interview with Im at the end of the book:

In Festival I attempted to display how comical our funeral process is. (p 257)

I’ll still return to Kwak’s article though because it has many other valid insights.

Inevitably, the language of some of the articles either shows the influence of Marxist, gender and postcolonial studies which seem to be inextricably linked to western study of Asian film, or is just so over-complex that you wish they’d re-write the passage in words of one syllable.

Adada writes a violent, phallocentric pedagogy

proclaims Cho Eun-sun (p95), while Choi Chung-moo (p115) refers to the work of another academic who

argues that nostalgia seeks the absence that generates the mechanism of desire that lies in the ontological homelessness.

And once or twice the politics of the authors shows through, with distracting and even wayward observations: Choi for example regards (p112-113) Park Chung-hee’s early 60s efforts to promote national culture as a skillful exercise designed to deprive the minjung of their means of self-expression, claiming without adequate argument or external reference that pansori is a way for the masses to release their han. And David James in his essay refers (eg, p 52) to “American capitalist cinema”, not making it clear whether he intends this as a term of abuse or as a meaningful term identifying a school of cinema distinct from, hypothetically, American anarchist cinema.

It’s therefore refreshing to read an article written by scholars from a Korean University. Cho Hae-joang (Yonsei, ex-UCLA), for example, presents essays written by her film studies class written just after the release of Sopyonje. Direct, fresh views and reactions which are not conditioned by the curricula followed in the west.

Yi Ho-in (Kyung Hee university) meanwhile discusses a film little known or little studied in the west: Fly High, Run Far. Can it be that it’s less well known because it fits less well into the gender studies framework? Because there’s no quaint Buddhist thought underlying it? For Fly High, Run Far is about the Tonghak movement in the late 19th century, maybe something less accessible to analysis by conventional film studies tools. Yi argues that the film comes closest to portraying Im’s own views on life, and it is therefore worth investigating further.

It would be a mistake, however, to be put off by the language of Choi Chung-moo and Cho Eun-sun. Choi, for example, has an interesting discussion of aesthetics and the ideas of the Japanese folk art leader Yanagi Soetsu, and also propounds a controversial theory that in Sopyonje Yu-bong rapes his adopted daughter Song-hwa; while Cho introduces us to films not too often discussed — Surrogate Mother and in particular Adada — the story of a woman destroyed by the men who should love her.

Kim Kyung-hyun devotes his second chapter to an analysis of the sexual violence and intra-family conflict portrayed in Taebaek Mountains, which he points out was one of the films from the 90s to re-engage seriously with the Korean War, a subject where serious film-makers had to tread carefully since Seven Female Prisoners got Lee Man-hee arrested in 1965.

James, meanwhile, in his discussion of Im’s Buddhist films argues convincingly that Im advocates an active engagement in society as opposed to an ascetic prayerful existence in a monastery.

With any collection of essays, some will appeal more than others, but all of them will stimulate you to think and explore further. We are now ready for a second volume exploring some of Im’s more recent films, and filling in the gaps for earlier years.

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