The divers of Jeju-do

by Philip Gowman on 9 April, 2009 updated 29 August, 2009

in Documentaries | Film reviews and comment | Jeju-do

LKL digests Barbara Hammer’s documentary “Diving Women of Jeju-do”, which screened in a recent film festival in London.

Haenyo off Jeju-do

Barbara Hammer’s brief documentary Diving Women of Jeju-do (2007) provides an intimate portrait of Cheju-do’s famous diving women, the haenyo. Barbara Hammer goes diving with the women, and took trouble to get to know their ways. She earned their trust, and was able to share in some unguarded moments. We have a fun scene where she films the divers in their communal changing room, dancing to some Ppongtchak music before the day in the ocean commences. “You weren’t filming that, were you?” asks one of the women.

Haenyo souvenirshim-as-haenyoGone are the days when the haenyo could be portrayed as an alluring attraction for a roving male eye. The haenyo played by Shim Eun-ha in Park Kwang-su’s rather dull film Uprising (right) set in 1901, and the depiction on tourist souvenirs (left) – are far from the present-day reality.

We learn from the film that there are only ten haenyo under the age of 40. Most of the divers are over 60. Life is hard, and getting harder. The shoreline gets piled high with those ubiquitous concrete tetrapods, reducing access and limiting the fishing grounds; and the sea near the coast is polluted with chemicals, meaning the women have to go further afield into deeper water or to outlying islands.

DivingWe hear how the women used to learn to dive instead of going to school. They would pick bits of seaweed from their mothers’ baskets, and sell them to buy rice cakes and other treats. But now, with economic development and near-universal education, the young generation are at school rather than learning how to dive with their mothers and grandmothers.

A heavy loadThe work is hard – so hard that many of the women take drugs to get through the day, and nutritional injections to keep them going. Hardly surprising when they dive to a depth of as much as 70 feet without any breathing equipment, holding their breath for up to 2 minutes.

On a good day, a haenyo earns 15,000 Won, and harvest 200-250 pounds of conch. On a poor day the catch is worth 3-5,000 Won. Not much for such a lot of effort, and you can see why younger women are not attracted to the lifestyle.

Why is it only women who undertake this arduous lifestyle? The theory propounded by one of the talking heads in the film is that before the Joseon dynasty both sexes did the work. But during the Joseon dynasty Jeju-do was used as a place of exile for (male) courtiers who fell out with the ruling faction. And they thought that diving was beneath them – a job that should be left to the local women. Even today, the commentator suggested, the menfolk of Jeju-do have aspirations to a yangban lifestyle. Such a theory isn’t necessarily in harmony with Jeju-do’s more recent history as a haven for popular resistance against the Japanese and the Syngman Rhee government, but there doesn’t seem to be any convincing alternative explanation.

The film’s soundtrack is a homely collection of Chejudo folk songs, providing an atmospheric backdrop to a fascinating if all too brief film, which is well worth searching out.

Divers
All photos of real-life haenyo are courtesy of Kyung-sook Schoenman, who herself has spent many years with the haenyo of Chejudo, documenting their arduous lifestyle.

Diving Women of Jeju-do screened as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, 28 March 2009

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