Review: Embeddedness — The past, present and future of Korean experimental film

Embeddedness Collage

The series of three screenings of short experimental films at the Tate in September 2015 was a fascinating insight into an artform that is hardly mainstream. To someone not used to sitting in darkened rooms watching 16mm creations the experience was sometimes confusing, sometimes rewarding, but never less than interesting. And what brought the whole event to life was having two artists present who represent the origin and the current state of Korean alternative film.

Experimental Film is not an art form that reaches a mainstream audience very often. Even short film is something that is largely restricted to the festival circuit. And as we get further from narrative film to the more expressive and artistic, the forum for presentation is either in the art gallery or the occasional alternative space. It is simply not a form that many of us are familiar with. In this context, for the KCC and Tate to present three separate two-hour programmes of Korean experimental film was a courageous and highly worthwhile project. The initiative was thorough, encompassing experimental films from the very earliest to the most recent.

And in an additional investment in the event, each screening was followed by a Q&A with a key figure: Kim Kulim, the creator of what is now known as Korea’s first experimental film (The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969)); Lee Hangjun of the International Experimental Film Festival in Seoul; and Im Heung-soon, winner of the 2015 Silver Lion in Venice for his film Factory Complex.

Given the nature of the art form it was to be expected that, of the seventeen works screened, some would resonate with members of the audience, others alienate them, and yet more leave absolutely no impression at all. And not all audience members were likely to respond to each film in the same way.

The difficult ones

Inevitably, not all the prints were in brilliant condition. This was particularly the case with some of the older films. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether the marks you could see on the screen were simply blemishes caused by deterioration in the celluloid or whether they were in fact intended by the artist.

Jang Wook Lee Surface of Memory, Memory of Surface (1999)
Lee Jang-wook Surface of Memory, Memory of Surface (1999). Film still. Courtesy the artist

A particular example of this was Lee Jang-wook’s Surface of Memory, Memory on Surface (Korea / USA 1999, 16mm, colour and B&W, 23 min) where both factors seemed to be at play. It was like a jerky 8mm cine film of a family holiday in the 1960s which had been dunked in chemicals leaving all sorts of superficial patterns on the surface of the film which all but obscured the original footage. Interesting for a while, but at 23 minutes it was 22 minutes too long.

And to get out of the way the other film that left me cold, let’s turn next to Teresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Secret Spill (1974, USA, video, B&W, sound). I’ve always struggled to understand this artist, and this 27 minute film continued the trend. It brought to mind the tale of the blind men and the elephant in which each observer only experiences a tiny part of a subject and is unable to form a coherent view as to what the thing is. Cha’s film consists of very long takes in which the camera is panned in ultra close-up, often out-of-focus shots, over grass, a big hole in the ground, and a large amorphous white shape sitting in the hole. We just do not know what we were looking at. The camera pulls back to reveal that the amorphous white shape is, well, an amorphous white shape. Into the shot comes Cha herself in the character of a vengeful ghost and looking like the girl that crawls out of the TV at the end of Ring. It emerges that the white shape is a giant sack filled with the soil dug out of the hole in the ground. Cha unzips the sack and claws at the soil. There is the sound of a chainsaw in the background. You wonder what carnage is about to ensue, but instead Cha reads a poem, presumably one of her own. The End. I was really unsure how to react to this work but I’m afraid I couldn’t escape the feeling, both at the time and in retrospect, that I could have spent 27 minutes of my life more rewardingly.

Fortunately, other films in the programme were more approachable and less alienating.

Pioneers: from AG to Kaidu

Kim In-tae: Korean Alphabet, 1967, film still. Courtesy the artist
Kim In-tae: Korean Alphabet, 1967, film still. Courtesy the artist

Cha’s film appeared in the first screening session, entitled Pioneers: from AG to Kaidu. This session was bookended by two highly accessible films. The Korean Alphabet (Kim In-tae, Canada 1967, 16 mm, colour, sound, 7 min) was a gentle introduction to the collection. Simple, slightly jerky animation of individual Korean letters in a style which recalled to a UK audience the children’s TV show Vision On, set to a soundtrack which would not have been out of place in early computer games such as Pong. Once the alphabet had been shown, a few words were given the animation treatment: somehow a drawing of the moon morphed into the word 달; a candle into 초. It was all quite entertaining and therapeutic, and finished too quickly.

To end the session we had Color of Korea (Han Ok-hi, Korea 1976, 16mm, colour, sound, 7 min 29 sec), made by a leading member of the Kaidu group. We are used to seeing such films now, produced by the Korean Tourism Organisation to promote the diversity of vacation opportunities in Korea. But this was produced in 1976 when the Hallyu tourism and the temple stay programme were some thirty years in the future, and the Yongin folk village was less than two years old. Kaidu was a group of alumnae from Ewha Womans University who sought to challenge the depiction of women as “passive and negative objects in Korean cinema.” This film by Han is on a completely different topic, however, challenging the standard image of Koreans as “the white clad folk” with colourful scenes of folk dancing and palace architecture.

In between these two short films was Kim Kulim’s ground-breaking The meaning of 1/24 second (discussed in a separate post), Cha’s Secret Spill and two further intriguing short films.

Lee Ik-tae’s narrative film From Morning to Evening (Korea, 1980, 16mm, B&W, sound, 20 min) was considered shocking in its time for its sexual subject matter, though it seems quite charming to a modern audience for whom it recalls 1960s permissiveness and decadence.

Apart from Kim Kulim’s film, the most interesting work in this first session was Event Logical, (Lee Kun-yong, Korea 1975, Super 8mm transferred to video, colour, silent, 12 min 10 sec). This documented some experimental performance art some of which was, intentionally or otherwise, extremely funny. In one performance the artist sits on a chair and eats a mouthful of food. Next, he immobilises his wrist by strapping a splint to his hand and forearm, and takes another mouthful. He then immobilises his elbow with another splint. Of course, the eating gets progressively more difficult with each further self-imposed handicap. This extreme meokbang performance was in front of an amused live audience, presumably at some gallery venue.

A couple of other performances were documented in a similar way, intercut with shots of works on the gallery wall itself. Overall a fascinating piece which captured the spirit of experimental art in the late 60s and early 70s.

Ecstatic Visions

The second collection of films, entitled Ecstatic Visions, was for me the weakest. I generally jotted down a few notes about what I was seeing, to jog my memory later. But with some of the films these notes bring nothing back. None of those words, which must have been meaningful when I jotted them down in the dark movie theatre, mean anything to me now. For example:

Work My notes
Over Me (Lim Chang-Jae, Korea 1996, 16mm, black and white, sound, 18 min) Bewildering. Luscious lips, black flag, fan, wind quintet, fan, subway
1998 (Suk Sung-suk, Germany / Korea 2002, 16mm, black and white / colour, silent, 6 min) Splicing catastrophe

And the generous programme notes don’t manage to jog my memory either.

Also included in this screening session was the briefly interesting but overlong Surface of Memory, Memory on Surface, mentioned near the beginning of this post.

Park Donghyun: Circulation (1998)
Park Donghyun: Circulation (1998). Film still. Courtesy the artist

The session ended with Park Donghyun’s Circulation (Canada / USA, 1998 / 2015, 16mm loop, colour, sound, 4 min), a Mobius strip in an everlasting loop. This work was particularly affected by the problem where it was impossible to tell whether the muffled sound quality and the jerkiness and lack of definition in the image was intended or not. On balance, probably it was: “Sporadic booms on the soundtrack reveal the relationship between the human pendulum movement, the rhythm of the soundtrack and its perforations and the object split into individual frames,” says Park himself in the 2015 EXiS catalogue.

The session was made worthwhile by two visually interesting films that seemed obliquely to be telling a fragmented story.

Wet Dream (Kim Yoon-tae, Korea 1992, 16mm, colour, sound, 15 min ) was a spooky, unearthly, voyeuristic piece. Its bias toward green tones seemed to anticipate some of Park Chan-wook’s work. A corpse is washed with something that looks like a globe of light. The clothes of the deceased are burned. Faces emerge from water…

Swing Diary (Nan Lee, Korea 1996, 16mm, black and white & colour, sound, 13 min) could have been a short film by Lee Myung-se, though in a slightly grungier colour palette. This was earthy, visceral, as well as musical. Together with Wet Dream It was one of the films presented which I wanted to re-watch immediately to experience again.

Artists’ films since 2000

The final collection brought us up to date. It opened with Forward, Back, Side, Forward Again (Cho Seoungho, USA 1995, video, colour, sound, 11 min), which I must have found elusive, given that I made no notes on it, meaningful or otherwise. Even as I read the synopsis in the informative catalogue of the event I wonder whether I actually saw it, though I know I did. Definitely one to re-watch and try harder next time.

From that point onwards we were into the 21st century and the fayre was more approachable. Park Chan-kyong’s contribution was Power Passage (Korea 2004/2014, 2 channel HD video, colour, sound, 15 min) which speculated whether, if it was possible for Cold War enemies the USA and the Soviet Union to join their two satellites and meet in orbit around the earth using a tunnel which joined their two spacecraft, it would also be possible for North and South Korea to meet through the tunnels which the North has dug under the DMZ. The film used scenes from John Sturges’s Marooned and Robert Altman’s Countdown along with footage of the joining of the Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft to create a thought-provoking piece.

Koo Donghee: Overloaded Echo (2006).
Koo Donghee: Overloaded Echo (2006). Video still, courtesy the artist

Continuing the theme of more accessible work, Koo Donghee’s Overloaded Echo (2006, video, colour, sound, 8mins) presented a rather sinister scenario in which a secret society witnesses an “absurd and disturbing” (Koo Donghee in the 2014 EXiS festival catalogue) performance.

Next, Yeondoo Jung’s humorous The Hanging Garden (Jung Yeondoo, Korea 2009, HD Video, Colour, Sound, 15 min) was a quasi-historical news item about a fictitious piece of horticultural construction built in Seoul by Turkish engineers at the start of the Joseon dynasty. The dead-pan delivery of the presenter contrasted sharply with the absurdity of what he was saying, as we saw how the cameras were being deceived by some energetic work by some orange-clad stage hands.

We concluded with Im Heung-soon’s Sung Si (Korea 2011, HD video, colour, sound 24 min 33 sec), which I discuss briefly elsewhere.

Conclusions

The three screening sessions were a welcome introduction and overview of Korean experimental film over the past half century. It is difficult to suggest how an audience unfamiliar with the genre can be prepared for their first encounter with such work. This particular audience member certainly felt unprepared, but nevertheless grateful for the experience. I hope there will be further opportunities to revisit the work of some of the artists, and see more in the future.

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