Write down on a piece of paper a list of techniques you expect to be used in a documentary about a controversial episode in recent history. Maybe it will include archive footage; expert talking heads giving their views of the historical problem; interviews with people who lived through it, witnessed it or even contributed to it; a voiceover that lays out some of the key facts.
Now tear up that piece of paper, because Kim Eungsu uses none of them in his quiet, undemonstrative documentary The City in the Water. The documentary is “about” the building of the Chungju dam in the 1970s and 80s and the consequent creation of Chungjuho Lake which provides drinking water and electricity for the area. In the creation of that artificial lake, several villages had to be sacrificed and communities destroyed.
The closest we get to a narration is the commentary provided to groups of tourists cruising on the lake as the tour leader points out various landmarks. We also hear the final valedictory broadcast from the local radio station that also closed when the lake was created.
The closest we get to interviews are shots of some of the inhabitants, now mostly in their 70s and 80s, who still live in the area but whose houses were lost. They stare silently at the camera, voiceless – perhaps reflecting how their protests were not heard at the time the dam was constructed.
The closest we get to archive footage is a few historical photographs of the inhabitants in their villages before they were flooded. Subtitles list out the names of the villages and the number of inhabitants who had to be relocated. We see the reconstructions of various houses that were submerged, preserved as a kind of museum along with various chattels and implements from those houses; but we also see, nestling in the rubble on the shore, the remains of broken pots – relics of the life that used to exist there.
We often hear the statement that you can only understand the present by understanding the past. Director Kim turns that statement on its head: he aims to understand the past by looking at the present. The camera lingers on the surface of the lake, sometimes simply looking at the reflected light, at other times peering below the surface at some ruined buildings beneath, now inhabited by fish rather than people. The resulting documentary, when the camera is not in the boat with the tourists, is more like a visual poem, a series of almost abstract landscape scenes or close-ups of ruins: piles of rubble, stunted trees or structural ironwork speckled with vivid red rust. As you sit immersed in the images you almost feel you are in a photography exhibition.
This oblique, indirect treatment of the subject matter in an interesting approach. It avoids the campaigning tone that can often be found in environmental documentaries, and what we are left with is something plain and unadorned, something that looks at the landscape and its inhabitants today and asks us to consider the cost and benefits of that landscape’s creation. If the result feels slightly over-long it nevertheless offers some rewarding viewing.
Kim Eungsu (김응수) The City in the Water (물속의 도시, 2014)