Long ago, during the Japanese Occupation, a watchtower was erected in Chuncheon for the sake of watching over things. In the present day, South Korea's usual modernization regiment is working to tear down the tower and build something more useful in its place- even if modern Chuncheon needed a watchtower, this one is hopelessly out of date. In the future, time travelers look upon these proceedings with bemused approval. Such is the true path to enlightenment, they think- the effacing of all minor blemishes from the past not meant to be.
...OK, not really. "Watchtower" really is just a normal documentary considering an apparently irrelevant local Chuncheon monument. The whole framing device of time travelers is just director Moon Seung-wook making a statement on modernity. The world we live in is not, in reality, perfectly planned. Most of the influence of our environment and daily lives in fact comes from artifacts left behind by dead people who didn't actually intend to build monuments.
So it is with the titular Chuncheon watchtower. The camera takes us on an extended tour of the neighborhood, and it quickly becomes clear that the entire geography of this area was specifically built to work around the watchtower. Windy roads abound, not out of any kind of clear plan, but because people set up ramshackle houses wherever they could with whatever random scrap they could find. The watchtower ended up becoming the central unifying element of the community mostly because it was the only structure that couldn't be easily destroyed.
The question ends up becoming, now that the watchtower can be destroyed, should it be destroyed? Obviously the people who live in the area and have used it as a landmark for their whole lives are against this act. But the government, in accordance with the wishes of the people from the future, has decided otherwise. Everybody knows, after all, that historical monuments only have significance if they can be associated with some famous person.
"Watchtower" is an ode to those who are not particularly famous or well-connected- the kind of people and neighborhoods that abound in Korea's tenement districts. Places that no tourist ever sees because they're just so inelegant. No rustic beauty, no geometric shapes, no callbacks to a long-gone era. This tall Chuncheon hill is just that- a tall Chuncheon hill. That's what the Japanese thought then, that's what we think now, that's what our children will think in the future, so end of discussion
Ah, if only life were so simple...in this way, "Watchtower" is an excellent demonstration of how the way we choose to construct history depends to a great extent on what we abstractly believe real history to be. Are the Koreans who live near the tower any less genuine Koreans because they care more about their local identity than the national one? I suppose that depends on your definition of genuine. In any case, the simple existence of this community is a fascinating look at the simple lives modernity doesn't know how to romanticize. For that reason, "Watchtower" is absolutely 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] "Watchtower""
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