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South Korean Documentaries Finally Get Their Due at Ji.hlava

Marta Balaga
·3-min read

Following its successful retrospective dedicated to Taiwanese documentary cinema in 2017, Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival decided to focus on South Korea this time, securing “99.9% of the original program” after the event was forced to move online due to the pandemic.

“Our colleagues in South Korea told us that this is the most comprehensive retrospective of these films and the first one that’s really trying to show its development,” programmer of experimental documentaries Andrea Slováková tells Variety. “We talk a lot about South Korean cinema, but not about its documentaries.”

“Transparent Landscape: South Korea” includes 22 short and feature-length films, from the works of artist Nam June Paik to “Over Me” by Chang-jae Lim, Yun-tae Kim’s “Wet Dream” and 1924’s “Livestock Industry of Korea,” clocking in at just seven minutes. But while the country’s fictional output has been getting international recognition thanks to the likes of Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sangsoo and Bong Joon-ho, whose “Parasite” made history as the first foreign-language film to win best picture Oscar earlier this year, its documentaries remain a mystery even to industry experts.

“The history of Taiwanese documentary film was not comprehensively presented anywhere either, but our decision was also political – we wanted to support Taiwan and its own autonomous culture,” Slováková says.

“With South Korea, we were just fascinated by its fiction films, wondering if documentaries are just as exceptional. We wanted to show how this cinema was developing from its early days [in the 1920s] until today. When we prepare these retrospectives, we see that the history of documentary cinema is very closely connected to the history of the society.”

Trying to trace the films, especially earlier examples, proved to be hard – with many of them lost for good, sent abroad during the Korean War for example. But Ji.hlava’s team managed to identify three titles made in that period. Two of them, “Livestock Industry of Korea” and “Important Towns in Korea” from 1923 will celebrate the world premiere of their restored versions at the festival.

“After that there is a gap, and suddenly we are in the year 1953,” says Slováková, referring to the time when the two Koreas finally separated. “We found out there were almost no documentaries made in that period too, because very soon after the war, the South Korean regime implemented strong censorship. No independent documentaries were able to properly analyze social issues.”

According to Slováková, only three films from that period could be considered as non-propagandistic, including “I Am a Truck” by Kim Ki-young, shown at the fest. Later on, the 1960s saw the surge of experimental work, followed by video art.

“These films, surprisingly, were the ones that really captured everyday reality. They looked a bit like home movies, with shaky camera and blurred images, but you could see the reflection of people’s lives,” she says, also underlining the importance of 1988, when Kim Dong-won made “Sanggye-Dong Olympic” about government’s decision to evict over one hundred families in preparation for the 1988 Summer Olympics, and then demolished their houses.

“With this film, a movement of socially critical films that aesthetically would stick to the journalistic tradition has started,” she says. “Thematically, these films were very important for society.”

Some of them dealt with historical issues, like the position and abuse of South Korean women, while many films produced in the 1990s focused on labor movement instead, showing workers fighting for their rights and dignity.

“This is connected to the history of dictatorship – there was such a strong longing for free expression,” says Slováková, arguing that newer films exhibit a more individual “auteur handwriting,” represented in Ji.hlava by “Planet of Snail” and “Shadow Flowers.” “After 2000, we can see films that are more poetic and have some lyrical parts. They aren’t so focused on a spoken word.”

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