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[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Song of the Diaspora: Arirang Road"


Early on in "The Song of the Diaspora: Arirang Road" director Lee Gyoo-chul asks a Korean immigrant to Central Asia about their miserable life in a generally exasperated tone. Were you ever upset? Did you ever wonder why this fate had to befall you? To which the elderly woman replies, it was fate. If I had been born today, I wouldn't be me. We all suffered together. This resigned sentiment proves critical to understanding just what the song of Arirang means.


Part of what makes the framing for this scene so intriguing is that while we can see that director Lee Gyoo-chul is clearly very frustrated, it's not clear why. Later on we find out that he conducted over five hundred interviews with Korean immigrants in diaspora for this documentary, and that the pattern shown by these interviews was a bleak one. These men and women were forced to the other side of Asia, ripped away from their homeland to do hard labor. And yet they persisted.

Their stories are haunting in their brutality. The most vivid is the octopus room. In context this is actually a punchline. An old man explains how Koreans would work in the mines, getting three hours of sleep a day, by comparing their state of mind to that of an octopus that slowly eats all of its tentacles in a desperate effort to stay alive. The story not only communicates deep horror but also a strong sense of low self-esteem. The implication is that Korean people, like octopi, are not very smart.

Yet hope remains in the form of the traditional Arirang song. One common point that director Lee Gyoo-chul knows is that, while not all of the interviewees can fully remember the Arirang song, they all have memories that can be triggered. They all can recall some version of it. The immigrants all acknowledge collective singing as a means to get through hardship. And in that way, they have surprising commonality with their elderly Korean counterparts who still live in Korea.

While we see older people with their own curious mixture of Korean, Russian, and East Asian musical stylings, so too do we get concert set pieces where young people have come up with their own versions of Arirang in modern genre stylings. Director Lee Gyoo-chul doesn't show us as many interviews with them. But in a way he doesn't really need to. Stress, heartbreak, and longing are timeless human emotions. We in the current generation don't need our own stresses explained to us.

For the past, though, "The Song of the Diaspora: Arirang Road" is a beautiful chronicle of the historical record. It's a reminder of how Koreans were forced all over the world and had to survive even as their influence lives on in descendants only in fragments. Whether it be music or otherwise, though, these small subtle references to shared historical journeys are edifying. There's a story behind an anecdote as bizarre as finding Korean style food in a central Asian traditional market- and now I know it.

Review by William Schwartz


"The Song of the Diaspora: Arirang Road" is directed by Lee Gyoo-chul, and features Yang Bang-ean. Release date in Korea: 2019/12/12.


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