Review: ‘Jiseul’ challenges the grammar of film at Sundance, takes top honors

by Lara Candland

Director: O Muel
Starring: Oh Young-soon, Moon Suk-bum, Yang Jung-won, Sung Min-chul, Choi Eun-mi, Jang Kyung-sub, Uh Sung-wook, Park Soon-dong, Kang Hee

The Korean film Jiseul was awarded the highest award in its category, the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema at Sundance 2013.  At its final screening on Sunday, January 27, at a nearly full Eccles auditorium, the largest and most coveted screening space at the festival, the film’s introducer said of the award, “The jury was unanimous, and felt it was an easy decision.”  For audiences, the film is both difficult and stunning, standing out for its dramatically different look and feel.

Jiseul, set on the island of Jeju, in South Korea, in 1948, tells the story of the horrific massacre of a reportedly 30,000 civilians. The scale of the massacre isn’t apparent from the film itself, which focuses on a small band of villagers hiding in surrounding caves in order to escape “shoot-to-kill orders” from the United States military for any civilians within 5km of the mainland who don’t appear to register with the government. This tight focus on a tiny pocket of victims keeps the audience from seeing the film as one about just a singular historical event and points our attention to the dynamics of human joy and suffering in tragic and unjust circumstances.

Throughout the film, O Muel plays with our desire to universalize themes from the movie by moving back and forth from the very specific quirkiness of his characters and their dialogue to the broader and more sweeping visual landscape of earth and sky.  This interplay keeps the audience brilliantly destabilized, and therefore engaged at trying to maintain our mental balance, throughout the entire film.

Point of view shifts from the soldiers’ perspectives, some of whom are reluctant to kill “another human,”  (as opposed to what their commanding officer refers to again and again as “f***in’ commies”) to the villagers, who at first believe they will be able to return to their village within a few days, just in time for a pregnant mother nearing delivery to have her baby.  As the film progresses, the gallows humor with which the villagers maintain their spirits and sanity, begins to taper off, and bickering, suspicions and disloyalties begin to emerge. Hunger, cold, and illness set in and hope wanes.  Simultaneously, a couple of the soldiers in the parallel story begin to lose their resolve to shoot the “f***in’ commie bastards,” that their commanding officer hates with the vehemence of a sociopathic murderer.

Jiseul still

If this all sounds impossibly bleak and unredemptive, it is.  And it isn’t.  Director O Muel’s attention to both the smaller and larger pieces of life–the spilled basket of potatoes as beautifully composed as Cezanne’s apples, “Uncle’s” affection and loyalty to his pig, Grandma’s insistence that her family leave her behind so as to save themselves, offer, not exactly hope, but a kind of affectionate portrait of the lighter side of our dark natures.

One compelling opening scene shows two villagers hiding in a declivity in the hills.  One by one, more villagers pile into the declivity and jostle for a spot, and joke with one another in a kind of Beckettian cutting session.  The film’s tone and absurdist humor in the face of this existential situation the villagers find themselves is a little reminiscent of the dialogue between Valdimir and Estragon in  the opening of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The villagers discuss, in a similar vein as Beckett’s characters, the various merits of leaving or waiting, “hanging themselves,” or trying to remain alive another day.  The dialogue is, in turns, funny, absurd, meaningless, and deeply consequential.  On the first night in the cave, one villager asks, “Did you all come empty handed?”

Another replies, “Isn’t that what life is about?”

“I brought some boiled potatoes,” the first villager offers, “would you like some?”  As the hiders relish their “perfectly boiled” potatoes, and make sure that every one has had some, one might feel, for the moment, that a perfectly boiled potato is enough to make the endurance of the miseries of human life worthwhile.  In a parallel scene, a soldier is being punished by being forced to stand on his head for an extended period of time for purposely letting a “commie” girl escape.  He has a discussion about the value of human life with his fellow soldier, who is also being punished by being forced to stand on his head.  An extended dialogue takes place while the camera holds a close-up on the soldiers, upside down, on their helmeted heads.  The soldiers are back to back, and cannot see each other’s faces.

“Even a shitty life is better than no life,”  says the soldier who wouldn’t pull the trigger, even while undergoing a a torture-like discipline.  The other soldier disagrees, but O Muel seems to come down on the side of the solider who couldn’t pull the trigger, showing with the attentive visual compositions of the most basic materials of life that there is at least a small amount of redemption in a roasted potato or the silhouette of a branch against the sky.

Jiseul still

Exposition is carefully minimized, and we often feel disoriented as we move from dark cave to dark interior, to nighttime shots, or scenes obscured by smoke or fire.

The film is shot in a textured black and white, enhanced by the contrast of snow against stone in a bleak winter landscape, again emphasizing the film’s thematic interest in the play of light against dark.  And, surprisingly, the film is beautifully playful even in its hideous darkness.  Repeated images of branches and birds against the sky, looking like meticulously cut scherenschnitte, offer visual relief for the audience, who spends a lot of time in the underworld of the refugees’ cave.  The sky feels like a moment of hope, too, before we are squeezed back into smoky darkness. And sometimes the little nest of refugees snuggled into one of the cave’s tight chambers appears in a tableau reminiscent of Leonardo’s last supper, framed by an arcing starry sky (which is, in reality, the glimmering minerals of the caves rock).  The camera holds on this single shot, static and painterly, as the dialogue continues.  Our eyes shift as we try to find the focal point of the scene.  O Muel makes the audience do a lot of visual work as we struggle to see who is in the frame, as we hear voices coming from characters whose bodies are obscured by smoke or shadow.

O Muel mines the earth of his island for the substance with which to make his film.  The film sometimes feels like a gallery displaying the very materials that make up his beloved island—the four elements are his pigments, the materials of his sculpture—fire, water, air and earth are composed into breathtakingly beautiful compositions, sometimes painterly and sometimes sculptural, and his use of sound is as attentive and imagistic as his visual imagery.  Some of the most stunning moments in the film are simply black, juxtaposed with inconsequential bits of dialogue from the hiding villagers.

Jiseul is a difficult film.  The narrative twists and shifts, characters come in and out of focus, and the line between hero and villain is often obscured.  But the Sundance Jury was right—this film stands out in a stark way, is clearly working in a grammar that transcends and challenges some of the  most deeply held syntactical  notions and conventions of even the most skillfully made films at the festival.

And O Muel manages to convince us of the great beauty and transcendence of a potato that “tastes so sweet,” precisely because we are so hungry, without dismissing or erasing the horrible darkness and hunger that accompanies and enhances this sweetness.

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