Antarctic Journal (Im Pil-seong, 2004) screened at the KCC on 24 April as part of the Year of the Film Professionals. The second professional to be so featured was cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who gives Park Chan-wook movies their distinctive look. Antarctic Journal is one of Chung’s rare films with another director.
Given the poor reviews the film has received, I went with low expectations, but for the first hour of the film I wondered why it had done so badly at the box office. It’s a great-looking movie, and is exciting with an element of ghostly / psychological mystery thrown in, a sort of R-Point in the Antarctic. I was enjoying myself and looking forward to the remainder of the movie. It made sense that Im Pil-seong went on to direct Hansel and Gretel (2007), an enjoyable supernatural horror movie along the lines of Tale of Two Sisters.
But for the last half hour I was wondering whether to walk out. I really couldn’t figure out what the film was doing. Maybe I wasn’t meant to. There are some films which are deliberately obtuse, and you don’t mind their open-endedness, or you are prepared to put in the effort to come to an interpretation that works for you. But with Antarctic Journal I got the feeling that it really wasn’t worth the effort. Was what you were seeing real, or was it just the fevered imagination of the explorer as he becomes more and more unhinged? Could you even figure out why he was going bonkers in the first place? Did you even care any more?
The most obvious thing about the last half hour that stands out in the memory amid the confusing mess was the annoying fact that some idiot left the door of the shack open when there was a gale blowing outside.
How does one turn a film which starts so promisingly into a project which a viewer really can’t be bothered about? Whatever the secret to this, Director Im Pil-seong achieves it spectacularly.
The last half hour still looked good, but was beginning to look gimmicky. It was as if the cinematographer had got himself a new graduated filter and was determined to use it (the sky is nicely lowering towards the end, as we reach the thunderous climax).
As an aside, it would have been nice if the lettering in the journal itself was a bit clearer. As one of the crucial plot points is that the Korean explorers seem to be suffering similar accidents to the English authors of the original journal almost a century earlier, the fact that we are unable to see what is written in it is a slight issue. The Korean audience had the benefit of subtitles to interpret the smudges, while English speaking audience had to try to make sense of a muddy blur on a darkened page.
All in all, a film which lost its way, and which deserved to tank at the box office.
Im Pil-seong (임필성): Antarctic Journal (남극일기, 2004).