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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Jung Il Woo, My Friend"

2018/01/20 | Permalink

Originally Jung Il Woo went by the name of John Vincent Daly, for the entirely sensible reason that he was born and raised in rural Ohio. Most Americans of Jung Il Woo's generation only remembered Korea as a snapshot of the Korean War. Jung Il Woo was called there by religious vocation. A trained Jesuit, Jung Il Woo was just a young teacher at the then very small Sogang University. But driven to learn more about Korean culture, Jung Il woo kept embedding himself with the country's poor population, fighting alongside them against political repression.

Ironically "Jung Il Woo, My Friend" makes almost no mention of dictatorship or popularly defined democratic freedoms. The main injustices Jung Il Woo fought against were related to eminent domain abuse. That is, people would have homes, typically ramshackle ones, and the South Korean government would force them off their land with meager or nonexistent compensation in the name of some ambitious construction project.

The issue is not popularly discussed because it still plagues poor South Korean people today. Contextualizing the Miracle on the Han River in terms of the people whose lives and communities destroyed in the name of progress is inevitably a very anti-capitalist message. That's why the Pyeongchang Olympics are taking place in the absolute middle of nowhere- plenty of South Korean people still remember the 1988 Olympics mainly in terms of eviction notices and the protests they provoked.

Of course none of this really has much to do with Jung Il Woo directly. Jung Il Woo was a man who, as the title implies, was mainly interested in being everybody's buddy. The documentary makes it seem like Jung Il Woo's favorite thing to do in the world was get drunk on rice wine and swap stories with whoever happened to be nearby. And that's probably exactly what happened, considering the sheer consistency with which the many, many witnesses reminisce about Jung Il Woo's life, and the memories an elderly feebled Jung Il Woo occasionally conjures up on minimal context.

Such actions would seem undignified for a priest. But then, Jung Il Woo's religious philosophy was refreshingly straightforward. Jung Il Woo saw the essentual function of his job as providing comfort for the poor and aid when necessary. As an eccentric foreigner priest, Jung Il Woo had a unique power to baffle the dictatorial elements of South Korea's government who didn't know what to do with him.

Jung Il Woo's sincere sense of empathy with Korean people did a lot to enhance the standing both of foreigners in general and the Catholic Church. There was shared solidarity- a clear sign that justice is universal. Even those from faraway lands would gladly fight for the Korean people. It's little wonder that Cardinal Kim Soo Hwan, the man so lovingly profiled in "The Cardinal", was also one of Jung Il Woo's friends, or that Jung Il Woo left such a strong impression on his community that "My Friend, Jung Il Woo" was able to get made in the first place.

Review by William Schwartz

"Jung Il Woo, My Friend" is directed by Kim Dong-won.


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