The men and women portrayed in "Splendid but Sad Days" live in complete harmony with the natural world. They're not new age environmentalist hippies, though, far from it. They're old folks who live lifestyles that are too new to be traditional and too antiquated to be modern. The main focus is on a woman who goes fishing everyday in a fairly unremarkable looking boat and then comes home to her cranky husband and their heavily worn outdoors couch.
They've never really changed over the last several decades- even their dialect needs Korean subtitles. The impression is very clear throughout the documentary that these are people who have never put that much thought into the kinds of lives that they lead, because why would they. The ocean's there, the fish are there, there's people who want to buy the fish, so let's dedicate our lives to the ocean.
There's a sheer simplicity to the concept here that makes these characters incredibly easy to relate to. Oftentimes I would just watch the stories of the lives at play here, and then compare it to my own life and you know, all of a sudden everything I do just feels so complicated. Frankly, I'm a little jealous of them. Every day they get to see all this wonderful beautiful nature in the best possible context- the living one. I could go to Suncheon, enjoy all the sites, and see all this natural beauty firsthand. But I could never actually understand it, because my life doesn't flow along with its patterns.
Director Lee Hong-ki aptly makes this comparison all the more profound by adding animals to the cast of sea folk. We never go after the life of any specific creature, because seriously, you have any idea how hard it is to keep track of the same animal without specialized equipment? It doesn't matter anyway. Life and nature constantly goes on in Suncheon. What few obstacles the people here run into are predictable ones, and even if there's sadness, well, that's life. And the other end of life is rebirth.
What's particularly appropriate about the tone here is that it's never condescending. "Splendid but Sad Days" doesn't that the people it profiles are dumb, but more importantly, it also doesn't pretend like they have access to any kind of special secret wisdom. There's no sense of pretentiousness here. This is, quite literally, a documentary about how this community actually lives on a day by day basis. It's the flow of life that matters here, not what anyone's actually doing.
The overall tone here is honestly difficult to accurately describe. "Splendid but Sad Days" does not neatly fit into any narrative or documentary filmwork I've ever personally seen before, because it just has so little interest in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake. It's more, look at this imagery. This perfectly naturally recurring flowing imagery that is always in motion, even when the camera's not there. Look at how it adapts weak elements of modernity while still maintaining its own personal aura of calm energy. Note just how practical this life is, how lacking it is in the abstract. This is beauty in its most natural form, and that's what makes "Splendid but Sad Days" worth watching.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Splendid But Sad Days""
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