Chung Sung-il: Im Kwon-taek

Chung Sung-il: Im Kwon-taek(Seoul Selection, 2007)

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Together with its sister publication, the work on Kim Ki-young, this book is the fourth and fifth in KOFIC’s series of monographs on individual Korean directors. It’s also the first time that KOFIC has charged for them. The first three were available for free download from the KOFIC website: these are only available in hard copy from publishers Seoul Selection and elsewhere. Probably having them in hard copy makes it more likely that they’re going to be read: a book is far more user-friendly than the pdf downloads.

The somewhat poetic opening to the book, which, within six lines is talking about a “history of bloody tears” initially places the opening essay more in the category of the Dis Voir book on Kim Ki-duk than, say, the David James / Kyung-hun Kim book on Im Kwon-taek. Together with a not terribly idiomatic translation the less factual parts of the essay are not terribly digestible to start with.

But the text soon settles down to discuss Im’s work over his long career, loosely breaking it down into chunks of a decade at a time, and identifying interesting themes at every juncture.

Thus the 60s are seen as the time of historic dramas and action films: in the former “Im took more interest in the sacrifices of the female characters even when dealing with males, while focusing on restoring the authority of the family”. The 70s saw a change. Im’s only self-produced film, Weeds (1973), marked him out as a director who was now prepared to try something outside the boundaries of the 1960s genres, and he began making national policy Saemaul and anti-communist movies. The 70s saw the production of some of Im’s great films: Genealogy (1978), Hidden Hero (1979) and Jjakko (1980). The 80s Chung sees as being devoted to the exploration of four themes: Buddhism (Mandala and Come, Come, Come upward), Shamanism (Daughter of Fire), Realism (Gilsotteum and Ticket) and Confucianism (You can’t stop a flowing river, Surrogate Mother and Prince Yeonsan’s life). Finally, while the 90s was the decade which brought Im some serious box office success (Son of the General and Sopyonje) it also saw some more personal statements: Taebaek Mountain, in which the bloody conflicts with the partisans is explored – very much the world of Im’s father – and Festival, which Chung sees as a tribute to Im’s mother.

The book has a slight feeling of being rushed into print in order to be available for the release of Im’s 100th film. A diligent independent read would have ironed out some of the book’s minor imperfections. Thus:

In a nation with a population of 470 million, blockbusters with almost 100 million viewers were made. (p121)

I’m sure Korean movie-makers would love to have a potential audience that size. It’s also difficult to see who the target readership is for this book. The author uses technical film-studies terminology such as fabula and syuzhet, and presupposes specialist knowledge of oriental performance genres (“tachimawari” action films are never defined or explained), while basic words such as han and gisaeng are deemed worthy of putting in the glossary. Also strange is the use of some of the English titles for Im’s films. Thus it takes a while to realise that when they are talking about a film called Family Pedigree they’re really talking about the film everyone else calls Genealogy, while Mismatched Nose is probably better know by its Korean name, Jjakko, or Pursuit of Death.

But the book is truly valuable for its authoritative and very personal interview with Im which forms almost half of the work. We hear of Im’s early childhood and his feelings when Korea was liberated from the Japanese (when he was 10):

I was confused that Japan lost the war and didn’t know the meaning of liberation. I didn’t know that there was such a word before, because we would be expelled for using that word. I learned the word “liberation” after we were liberated. People were happy and rejoicing so I thought it really must be a good thing.

And we hear of how Im’s childhood was marked by the fact that his father was a left-leaning partisan: ever after, Im had to be very careful when dealing with political issues in his films, and even in the 90s Im got threatened by right-wing goons when making Taebaek Mountain.

The book is rounded off with a brief biography, a filmography and some synopses of some of Im’s key films. By no means a perfect book, but a very valuable study.

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