Festival film review: Bitter, Sweet, Seoul

Bitter, Sweet, Seoul

Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is an ambitious crowd-sourced project in which people from around the world were invited by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to submit videos which would be made into feature length film. Directors (and brothers) Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong (collectively PARKing CHANce) were commissioned to organise the submissions, attracted to the project by its interesting experimental format.

Park Chan-kyong
Park Chan-kyong answers questions about Bitter, Sweet, Seoul at the Odeon Covent Garden on 11 November 2014 (Image courtesy KCCUK)

11,852 clips were submitted during the three-month application period in the Autumn of 2013, of which over 5,000 were from overseas. 141 clips were finally chosen. The three themes proposed by the organisers were: “What is your job in Seoul? What is deeply stemmed in your heart that’s made in Seoul? What do your eyes perceive of Seoul?”, or, more broadly interpreted, the categories were: Seoul landmarks and landscapes; working in Seoul; and videos made in Seoul by visitors. According to Park Chan-wook:

I literally checked all the 11,852 precious clips that were submitted. And of course, it indeed was a challenge to make one single movie by compiling all sorts of clips with different styles, themes, quality and tone etc. But at the same time, it was a pleasant challenge as I was able to come up with various ideas by looking at all those clips.

(Source: Seoul Our Movie press release, 11 February 2014)

Those 12,000 clips lasted a total of 159 hours, 35 minutes and 4 seconds, so maybe when Park says he “checked” them he doesn’t necessarily mean that he watched each one in its entirety. Park Chan-kyong admitted (in the Q+A which followed the recent London screening) that assistants had pre-filtered the clips, and then the primary tool in assembling the clips into a semi-coherent whole was a large Excel spreadsheet, which allowed them to be divided into further categories and themes – for example, seasons, weather or places.

Be Being
Be Being perform ShimCheongga on the Han River

The initiative was part of Seoul’s global brand marketing effort, but the result is not a glossy promotional video. Instead, it focuses on everyday life, everyday humanity, on people’s everyday struggles. PARKing CHANce only did one minor “cheat”. To supplement the crowd-sourced content they themselves shot the scenes on a boat on the Han River which bookend the movie. On the boat, musicians from the fusion ensemble Be Being perform an extract of a version of the ShimCheongga pansori tale arranged by Jang Yeong-gyu. The tale, about a girl who drowns herself in order to restore her father’s sight, gives tragic poignancy to one scene which seems to depict a young woman throwing herself off one of the bridges over the Han river.

The music recurs throughout the film, providing a feeling of unity, while skillful editing interweaves the clips together in such a way that the film has a gentle progression rather than moving with abrupt shifts. Another unifying theme is the interspersion of archive footage from the war years, thus showing how the diverse tapestry of modern Seoul has emerged from the ruins of the 1950s.

During the editing process, it “seemed like the two of us were dancing together,” said Park Chan-kyong. One half of the partnership would think he had finished editing a passage, only do discover that it had been re-edited next time he looked. But what could have ended up an amorphous and dull collection of clips has in fact resulted in a remarkably diverting and satisfying experience which surprisingly does not outstay its welcome.

The video is available in its entirety on YouTube, under the SeoulOurMovie channel:

Bitter, Sweet, Seoul screened at the London Korean Film Festival on 11 November 2014 as part of a focus on the work of director Park Chan-kyong.

PARKing CHANce: Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (고진감래, 63 mins, 2014) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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