O Muel's stark cinematic event "Jiseul" won the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic at Sundance last year, prestigious praise that help set the stage as it became Korea's best selling independent film (143,222 admissions) a couples months later. The film, O Muel's fourth feature, takes places in 1948 during the country's second worst massacre-the Jeju Uprising-and zooms in on a small village community that was overrun by the South Korean army that sought to eradicate all communists supporters on the island. The film's dramatic political backdrop is given an eerie aesthetic edging through high contrast black and white that was rendered in postproduction, a disturbing creative decision that washes away all hope and warmth as these citizens' freedoms where tragically ripped from them. Complex and containing some stunning photography, "Jiseul" is a very intimate and personalised account of inter-Korean violence at its worst; a true tragedy that O Muel, a Jeju local himself, has sealed in celluloid here for all to witness.
Rather than attempt to paint the bigger political picture, O frames up a small group of unassuming villagers to get his political message from the forgotten across. After the Korean military move in, a small band of brothers gather up those who are willing and seek shelter in nearby cave. They are civilians, untrained and peaceful by default, and together, with a few woman and children, the small group make their way through the snowed-over forest to a cramped cave to ride out the mass murder and occupation. Their village has been overrun by the military and they have smoked out and snubbed all those who remain. The army itself is led by an unforgiving commander, a cruel man who doggedly seeks out any remaining 'commies' with the intent of silencing them. The film oscillates between the army's occupation of the village and those taking refuged in the cave, it's an uncomfortable switching that is as cold and cruel as the film's stark monochrome finish.
"Jiseul" is a slow and bubble caldron of political tragedy that is constantly steaming and never quite brought to a boil. Its dramatic thrust comes through a number of poignant interactions within both sides, and is particularly intense when the two groups find themselves squeezed into the frame together. O's award-winning feature is flecked with empathic beats for both sides, achieved by humanising individuals as victims to a higher flame that is acting upon them all. It is as if the colour from their lives was sapped and boiled off, leaving only a constant and cruel reminder that these souls are cut from the same clothe; their life forces charred by a unwavering political element that glows somewhere far far away. Adding to O's curious colourism is the winter snows that blanket the struggle. The images are icy, and the whiteness of fresh and fluffy flakes are beautifully contrasted against the dark wood of the forest as well as the cold stone of the villager's stolen homes. This is a forgotten place, one that time and humanity has forsaken and left to freeze over, scar tissue that O picks at here to remind us all of these horrific acts against humanity.
The contrast is harsh, perhaps too much so, and it often leaves the viewer with little more than dim faces that poke through the frame's default abyssal black. It's generally very effective, but viewers may find themselves question the degree to which O has utilised the contrast. At various points in the film O has inserted poetic titles that serve as chapters, but they fail to serve the film's narrative in any substantial manner. The film is also bookmarked with factual text that helps to give the struggle a tangible political perspective, but again such inclusions felt numbingly didactic and politicised events beyond the characters and events O has so beautifully presented. Such subtle drawbacks mark O's personal relationship to the historical material at hand, and highlighted this director's passionate vision and the message that he wished to see received above all else.
"Jiseul" is a powerful and compelling piece of cinema, one that portrays a difficult time in Korea's history with a stern and poetic light. The film is comprised of gruelling long takes, crisp and detailed extreme close-ups, stunning scenery shots, and dreamy camera work that floats thoughtfully and elegantly around its characters and events. The film contains delicate compositions that O often holds, encouraging contemplation as our eyes wander around the frame searching for signs of life and importance. Perhaps my favourite moment came when a soldier in the village gets into a steamy cauldron to escape the frigid cold; earlier one of the villager's beloved pigs was placed in that same cauldron, and this return to the cauldron asks viewers to consider the relationship between the stolen and slaughtered hog, and the men who are carrying out their duty.
With "Jiseul" O Muel has produced a deeply introspective piece that takes its time, focuses its aims, and delivers a cold shot to the heart of Korea's tragic past. It's empathetic cinema at its best, but also one with an ominous political edge that continually cuts and bleeds the film of hope. There are moments of good humour, sadness, frustration and cruelty; a real array of emotions that O has skilfully weaved throughout to enrich the film beyond the devastation on display. Overall, O Muel's "Jiseul" is a powerful political poem that's definitely worth a watch.
Available on DVD from YESASIA
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