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Posted : 2013-03-18 18:13
Updated : 2013-03-18 18:13

Requiem for Jeju's forgotten masscre

Film director O Muel
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Yun Suh-young


Making movies about real events and real people can become an addiction for directors, who then frequently find themselves in critical and commercial purgatory because of their habit.

It's easy to understand why these films are accepted as low-hanging fruit in the movie industry — public interest is pretty much built-in and filmmakers get the freedom to fictionalize a "true'' story and play fast with the facts.

The downside is that there is no way to make everyone happy and it is often difficult to make anyone happy. Such movies are often inspired by transcendent events a nation experienced collectively but that are now remembered individually.

Sure you'll sell some tickets, but moviegoers will be offering differing opinions that agree only on the point that you didn't get it right. Just ask Kathryn Bigelow of "Zero Dark Thirty.''

So for Korean director O Muel, his decision to make a movie based on a horrific but largely forgotten event following the liberation of Korea could prove either a stroke of genius or commercial suicide. Not that he filmed "Jiseul,'' based on the Jeju massacre of 1948, for the money but, as a native of Jeju, O desperately wanted the story to be seen.
A scene from ‘Jiseul' / Courtesy of Japari Film

On April 3, 1948, an armed guerilla uprising was suppressed by the police and military, months before the country's first democratic republic was established in August of that year.


Up to 30,000 people were killed in fighting between various factions on the island or due to executions, many of them innocent civilians accused of being Communist sympathizers.

In the movie, O portrays tragic misunderstandings between local residents and troops, mixing facts and local lore. One story line has a child participating in a March 1 Independence Movement Day parade who is accidently trampled by a police officer, prompting angry pedestrians to throw stones at the uniformed men. Soon, the word "Commies" is directed at the angry mob.

Some documents linked to then-Korean leader Syngman Rhee and the U.S. military indicate that they considered Jeju a "red'' island overflowing with Communist sympathizers.

Jiseul has been receiving critical acclaim, winning the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at January's Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it was lauded, particularly for its cinematography.

O's hope is that the movie will hit harder for Koreans. The movie premiered in Jeju on March 1 and will open in Seoul theaters Thursday.

"I thought it was only natural for the film to be first released on Jeju because it was a story about the people there and I wanted them to see it first,'' said O in an interview with The Korea Times.

"Everything is so Seoul-based culturally in this country. I wanted to provide a cultural experience tailored to people living outside of the metropolitan area. To them (Jeju people), of course, this is more than a movie: This is revisiting a deep wound.''

O only films movies about Jeju his previous three works focused on the island's lifestyle, nature and people.

"Jeju is the basis of my ideas. I was born and grew up there. I know much about Jeju. So naturally it was easier for me to portray the island,'' said O, who says that Seoul doesn't interest him.

What's interesting about O's Jeju-centric view is that it doubles as a subjective refusal to engage viewers who don't share his passion for the island or knowledge about its culture and environment.

People who aren't familiar with the historical background surrounding the Jeju massacre — this includes many Koreans as well as foreigners — could find Jiseul difficult to endure.

O doesn't spend much effort laying out the historical information. Clashes between civilians and soldiers aren't seen either because O's story is entirely told by villagers fleeing the military forces.

Admitting that his movie is ''unkind'' to foreigners, O stressed that he wasn't trying to educate people.

"I didn't make the movie to teach history. Some can ask why I didn't provide more explanation, but that could have been more difficult to portray emotions. What I intended was just for people to know that something like that happened and how people lived through it," he said.

O's movie could be loosely described as a tribute to the dead. It is shot beautifully in black-and-white, juxtaposing the island's natural beauty with the painful moments of modern history. He also divided the film into four parts, each starting with a subtitle related to traditional rites to commemorate the dead, such as "shinwi,'' or ancestral tablets, and ''eumbok,'' or ritual food and drink.

"I shot the film in black-and-white because I felt colors could hinder the emotions I wanted to portray. I wanted to stress the sadness beneath the beautiful scenery,'' O said.

He also didn't use professional actors.

"They're all my friends or acquaintances. I got to know them naturally when I was in Jeju. They all willingly agreed to film the movie without pay. I've worked with some of them in my previous movies. It's because it's comfortable to work with people I know,'' he said.

Jiseul, the title of the movie, is Jeju dialect for "potato" and is the main theme that connects the incidents throughout the movie. It is later depicted as food that connects the living with the dead because evacuees live on vegetables the dead left behind.

O didn't seem content with receiving a prize despite the wide recognition the film received due to it.

"I think the only reason my film became popular was because I received a prize from Sundance. That's the sad part. It's a matter of luck. Just because the film doesn't receive a prize doesn't mean it's not good. I wish movies could connect more with the audience and society rather than being viewed commercially," said O.

"We work in very hard conditions as independent film makers. I wish people would pay attention to us more when we're making the film rather than after being awarded," he said.

Nevertheless, the indie film is a success, already attracting more than 10,000 viewers on Jeju alone.


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