In 1998, Lee Geun-hyuk left the city, along with his wife and infant daughter, for Korea's South Chungcheong Province to begin a new life in farming. Lee harbored no romantic illusions about becoming a farmer, since he had been born and raised in a farming family, but he believed strongly in the importance of traditional agriculture and in the urgent need to organize a farmers' movement to protest new government policies.
The movie is available from Icarus Films
Documentary filmmaker Kwon Woo-jeong spent a year living with and filming the Lee family, chronicling their numerous difficulties-such as harvesting on a trial-and-error basis, Lee's role in leading militant rallies against the expansion of the Free Trade Agreement, and the emotional impact of their young daughter's heart operation and the illness and death of Lee's father. At the same time, and in very intimate fashion (through personal interview, but also with her talking to them while they work and recording private sessions in the house and other locations), Kwon explores two factors. The first one is the relationships of the protagonists with their families, particularly of Lee's, whose decision to deal with farming in another area instead of his parents' one, is the cause of some friction. The second is the personal life of the couple, with a scene where the two of them fight being one of the strongest in the documentary.
The documentary deals with both life and work in the fields and the political/activist actions of Lee. In that fashion, the biggest portion of the last part of the film is being dedicated to the efforts of amassing a crowd to demonstrate in Seoul against an agreement between S. Korea and Chile that will flood the Korean market with cheap products from the latter. This is a matter of life death for all farmers and their agony in their struggle is quite evidently recorded in the documentary, again in very intimate fashion. Furthermore, Kwon also recorder the events of a strike, where the farmers close the road in order to demonstrate and had to face the police, in yet another very strong sequence.
Kwon makes a point of showing how difficult the life of farmers is, as they have to deal with the changes in the weather, the market and the plethora of factors that determine the price of their products, all the while having to do a really hard job that leaves them very little time for anything else, including their families. A recurring point in the film is how they do not have time to deal with the government's decisions, as they are being forced to leave almost all of their responsibilities to their wives when they do. Furthermore, the reality of Lee's family, with the Lee's sick father and sick daughter makes this point even more intense, in true dramatic, but at the same time realistic fashion.
Kwon used a digital camera and shot a documentary filled with close ups, again stressing its intimate and realistic nature. The editing is quite nice, as the succession of the various footage keeps the film flowing in a nice pace, which does not become tiring at any point.
"Back to the Soil" is a very interesting documentary that shows the lives of Korean farmers in an artful combination of sensitivity and realism.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Guest Film Review] "Back to the Soil""
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