"Intangible Asset No. 82" documents an Australian jazz musician's journey to fathom the depths of "gugak" (Korean traditional music). / Courtesy of JIMFF
By Lee Hyo-won
Jazz and "gugak" (Korean traditional music) may seem poles apart, but the documentary "Intangible Asset No. 82" arduously embraces the concept that art transcends the boundaries of time and space ― and in the end it's about musicians jamming together.
Australian jazz singer-turned-director Emma Franz wanted to capture the universality of music on film, and found her voice through the story of fellow countryman and artist Simon Barker: the drummer heard a rare recording of South Korean shaman-cum-musician Kim Seok-chul, and the lightning bolt experience sent him on a seven-year search for Korea's designated Intangible Asset No. 82.
Franz, who had performed with Barker onstage, traded in her stage microphone for a camera to join the musician on his 17th visit to the country and document the search.
"It was a leap into the unknown", she said about her first film project during an interview over lunch in Insa-dong, Seoul. Franz had extended her stay to meet with local distributers after her documentary was well received at the recently held Jecheon International Music Film Festival (JIMFF). Details for the theatrical release have yet to be determined.
"I felt I had enough skills to translate the story onto film, but coming to Korea was something very exotic and new for me", she said. But she seems to have adjusted now, as she devoured rustic temple-style dishes at the restaurant she had suggested.
"When I heard the story about this young jazz player connecting with this elderly Korean shaman, it was a perfect example of how music is a universal language", she said.
"It's wonderful how there is this concept of honoring cultural assets here. It's also quite paradoxical that the government numbers something 'intangible'. We need to value culture as much as material things, and I wish Australia had such a system too".
Tangible information on gugak and gugak artists, however, has yet to be properly documented, making it difficult for even Koreans to learn about the subject. Fortunately, Barker finds help in professor Kim Dong-won
to complete the pilgrimage for his own "Holy Grail", the elusive Kim Seok-chul.
"I was really skeptical at first when Simon approached me; there have been people who were simply curious and just poked around without commitment. But I soon realized he was serious and I saw this as a great opportunity to introduce gugak", Kim Dong-won
told The Korea Times.
The professor would provide Barker ― and Franz ― with a guided tour through the traditional musical culture and meaningful encounters with the people that define it.
The first-time director followed "pansori" (opera) artist Bae Il-dong into the deep woods where he would share secrets of crafting his art ― spending years next to a waterfall to understand the essence of sound. "Working alone gave me access; with a crew it wouldn't have worked", she said.
"It was the most incredible sound coming from a human being ― the most moving musical experience and connection to nature", she said about hearing Bae. "As a singer myself I thought, `When will I be able to commit to that level of artistry?'"
Barker's ― and in a way Franz's ― "rite of passage" culminates in a dramatic, genuinely affecting meeting with the legendary Kim. "The timing was really inconceivable and I felt a sense of destiny", she said about meeting the film's namesake.
"The weight of the moment was so huge, for both Simon and me. It had been such a buildup and I was quite nervous", she said. "But when Kim Seok-chul appeared, looking so fragile and waving his hand, it was a really human moment that broke down all the fear".
The same can be said of Kim's shamanistic ritual. "I realized it was a pure, intimate family ritual, rather than about channeling spirits. Everything was so natural, which extended to the performance itself. It was dazzling but never showy", she said.
"After shooting, whenever I closed my eyes all I could hear was the ghost of the shaman's calling. It was very dreamlike, especially amid the lush Korean landscape. I wanted the music to propel the film, and recreate the sense of constant movement I felt".
Indeed, the camera keeps a steady, respective distance and proceeds with a natural Rhyme
and rhythm. Her unfamiliarity with gugak and Korean culture provides for a frank observation, which works well because the film is about more than just a certain tradition ― it is ultimately about the creative process.
"Even if we didn't meet the shaman it would have been a great story about the search and what Simon learned, the creative process", she said. "Simon had already been searching for seven years, he had already been transformed. Kim Seok-chul's music profoundly affected the (jazz) music he was doing. I just stepped in and wanted to tell the story", said Franz.
Franz is preparing her next film, which will be another documentary about music, this time about a guitarist. To learn more about "Intangible Asset No. 82" visit Open the link