Alaboji Im Kwon-taek is back

Korea seems to be a country where film directors are advised to retire at 60, like civil servants. Truth is among Korean helmers actually directing nowadays, few of them are over 50 compared to other major countries. part of the reason is that the Korean film industry is quite young and that some directors were symbolizing the dark days of dictatorship. But some were also the symbol of the renewal since the eighties, such as Jang Sun-woo or Park Kwan-su, and they are totally out of the game. The famous ones still hanging on, such as Lee Chang-dong 이창동 (56 years old) and Im Kwon-taek 임권택 (74), are considered like nice grandfathers. They got prized, but most of the audience doesn’t know their names and some of the people in film industry hardly notice what they’ve done to build the korean cinema as it is now.

The new film from Im Kwon-taek, 달빛 길어올리기 (which is also called simply Hanji), released this end of March, is his 101th work. But the figure doesn’t mean much, Im Kwon-taek said himself that his early flicks were totally crap, between 1962 (first film) and roughly 1981 (first film he acknowledges has a real piece of art, Mandala 만다라), commercial films made under censorship pressure, just for a living. But as soon as Im Kwon-taek had more freedom, he started to direct masterpieces. On the top of them, Sibaji (or Surrogate Womb), 씨받이 (1986), Best Actress Award in Venice Film Festival. It’s one of my favorite movie of all time (if you want and can read in French, see old reviews I made here and here).

Local acclaim for Im Kwon-taek came in 1993, with Seopyonje 서편제, first Korean film to have reached 1 million moviegoers, a major date in the Korean history. If Im Kwon-taek is well known for period dramas, he also made movies about social issues of its time, in the 80’s. But in the nineties, Im Kwon-taek’s films tend to look so old-fashioned compared to the Hallyu hits. Im Kwon-taek is not, and has never been on the same level as other respective grandfathers of world cinema (among the ones alive), such as a Nagisa Oshima in Japan, Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, not speaking about guys like Scorsese or Godart. He’s quite symbolic of Korea, please don’t take any offense : good to a certain level. Meaning we have to take into account the means he has, whether technically or financially (for exemple he’s never been co-produced by France like many arthouse world masters).

Kang Soo-yeon 강수연 in Surrogate Womb (Sibaji) 씨받이

Still, Im Kwon-taek deserves the recognition he had. Any of his film will always have reasons to be above so many others. And his last effort, Hanji, is much more enjoyable, more promising, risky, than his previous one, which was clearly an artistic failure. Hanji was especially long-time awaited by korean film industry for three reasons : first, for the first time since eighties, Im Kwon-taek is back to modern issues. It’s also the great return of Kang Soo-yeon 강수연, with who Im Kwon-taek made two films in the eighties.She’s one of the best Korean actresses, but most of the young local audience cannot put a name on her face. Some may know her for roles in dramas. But seeing her in a movie, for a modern role, is a treat. The third reason why Hanji has been expected is how it has been made : the subject had to be the Korean Traditional Paper, Hanji (hence the title) because it has been partly commissioned by the city of Jeonju, the film had no script and suffered because the shooting has been interrupted a few times and lasted half a year.

Hanji is not the blast return some would have expected. But it’s a very peculiar, unique movie, showing old grandpa has guts and a will to go ahead.

Hanji looks like a mix of fiction, documentary, period film (because, even set in modern Seoul, focus on rural workers making traditional Hanji makes us go backwards in time), and, that’s from far the most odd part in the project, a corporate film for the ministry of tourism. Im Kwon-taek films some masterpieces of Hanji like pieces from a museum and sometimes with CGI. Let’s say it’s a nice try. Hard to consider, also, that the film portrays modern Seoul, when the main character works in an government office which remains us of American political films of the 70’s (like “3 days of the Condor”, you see ?), lives in a Hanok house and spends half of his time in the as-well traditional Jeonju. We saw the film without English subtitles, so it’s hard to tell in details about the dialogues, but it seems the film is sometimes heavily nationalist, aiming to convince us the Hanji is better then Japanese or French paper.

Ye Ji-won 예지원

Much more convincing is the last sequence, sumptuous poetry which is worth waiting. And feminine roles are to be remembered. Kang Soo-yeon, as a female documentarist in jeans, fits with the average of this kind you may meet nowadays in Hongdae. Ye Ji-won 예지원 portrays with outstanding effort an heartbreaking crippled woman who slowly recovers from her accident. She embodies, quite clearly, the renaissance of buried Korean traditions, if ever we didn’t get the above-mentioned message about the national « Hanji ».

The film has been released almost like a charity event, and seems to be a commercial failure. Some flaws of the film doesn’t help to convince young Korean cinema that their grandpa should not retire. But still, I remember Im Kwon-taek, a few years ago, when I met him for an interview, as a guy in jeans, laid-back and funny, mentioning his youth as a time when he was fucking way too badly, on the booze, to forget he was, such as almost all his fellows, directing crap propaganda flicks. At that time, I was thinking : it’s a pity this guy is not given means to be a local Scorsese. Too bad, also, the guy himself doesn’t consider enough the actual Korean society. He could give the look of the wise but yet cool grandpa, which lacks so much in Korean cinema.

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