Images for a bittersweet symphony

The Jeonju Film Festival made us discover a major feature documentary, An escalator in world order, which tells on the relationships between USA and Korea since the Korean War. What makes it stand out, especially in the Asian documentary scene, is there is no commentary. Kim Kyung-nam 김경만 based his storytelling on clash of footages, whether archival, whether shot by him, without any other external material except two classical music pieces in introduction and conclusion. I’ve been told Kim Kyung-nam improved this method in ten years of short film making, all well known in the documentary community. His feature film leaves a strong impression of confidence and achievement, opening viewer’s mind. Starting from its odd title, totally different in Korean : 미국의 바람과 불, « Fire and wind of the States », but « wind » takes also the meaning of cheating his wife/husband  in Korean.

Kim Kyung-man plunges us in a couple story of a poor country, Korea, saved by an American hero who’ll be worshiped like a god

Kim Kyung-man indeed plunges us in a couple story of a poor country, Korea, saved by an American hero who’ll be worshiped like a god, until the current situation. By mixing footage of today with ones of yesterday, Kim Kyung-man shows how much the relationships between the two countries didn’t basically change since 60 years. The story gets deeply bitter while reminding us that the “saviour” of the sixties and “best friend” of today, was the country which bombed methodically Korea or sent Korean troops to death in Vietnam (yesterday) and Irak (today). It’s a never-ending sad love story.

It could have been the best material for a fiction. Let’s say the American is the guy and Korea the girl, of course. The guy is strong, kind, and, hum hum, he’s got a big dick : a long nuclear canon which can send far away his semen and ensure heaven for the lady. That’s roughly the core of amazing reportages from the sixties, era fascinated by nuclear power, when each new nuclear weapon was exhibited like a super toy and advertised in propaganda flicks shown in every movie theatres, in a time without television. The American ones were screened in Korea with Korean voice over, and a bit of local poetry such as a kind of “the nuclear power will fly high in the sky and over the dear mountains”. Kim Kyung-man lets these stupefying footages speak for themselves and produce an overdose of nuclear weapons and explosions, vomiting and heartbreaking at the time of Fukushima’s events.

Hopefully Kim Kyung-man has a huge sense of humour as well. Take this propaganda film of the eighties, where Korean and American “penpal” girls greet at Seoul airport after having met on a dating site (“oh, you look so much prettier than in the pictures”), then end in trying a traditional hanbok together. It’s absolutely hilarious. Another memorable moment is a crafty edit of images from political Gwangju massacre in 1980 and election of miss Universe, which took place in Korea at the same time, as an apparent diversion for the medias.

The ending of the film is more weak because Kim Kyung-man uncompromising way pushes the limits of length, in some shots whose inner sense are not clear, taken from a distance, hence preventing us from any empathy. But still, frame is graphically outstanding and choice of events very peculiar. There’s a long surrealist part in the “English village” of Gwanak-gu (south of Gangnam), shown as delirious fake scenery, ridiculous worship for European architecture, among which few Korean children are scattered… and speak Korean.


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