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Haunting portrait of modern Korea

2010/09/16 | 313 views | Permalink | Source

By Lee Hyo-won

Now this is what you call a fine film: An absorbing script, gripping characters and impeccable production values ― all in spite of being low-budget ― and crowned with an atmospheric poeticism only possible in indie projects.

"Enlightenment Film" is a family movie to watch out for in theaters over Chuseok, though it's far from being one of those warm, fuzzy dramas that later make their way into the batch of holiday reruns. Its bona fide resume includes an orbit through international film festivals including Pusan, Moscow and most recently Cinema Digital Seoul, but it need not resort to disturbingly noir elements or art house inscrutability to paint a haunting portrait of Korea's tumultuous past century.

The medium of choice for this peculiar portrait is through the microcosm of society, the family, and the skeletons in its closet amassed over three generations. It meets a timely release for a season that invites many reflections upon days gone by, for the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War and the centennial of Japan's forced annexation of the country.

But this is no stuffy historical drama; it remains rooted in the present, but unlike many contemporary sketches of domestic affairs it is devoid of self-serving cynicism or confused indifference. Instead, director Park Dong-hoon opts for a distanced yet incisive observation to show how family history can deeply affect an individual.

In 1931, Korea is under colonial rule (1910-45) and Gil-man works for a state-run agency that symbolizes Japan's exploitation of local agricultural resources. Gil-man in a way is an average guy and feels terrible having to make demands of poor farmers, and is particularly torn when he crosses paths with an old friend working as an independence fighter. But while trying to make ends meet for his wife and two young sons, he would be branded a disgraceful Japanese sympathizer.

We meet Gil-man's son Hak-song in one of the trendy "dabang (coffee shop)" in 1965 post-Korean War (1950-53) Seoul, where the romantic young man whips up the perfect cup of coffee himself for the lovely Yu-jeong. He makes a romantic marriage proposal to her, and their future seems rosy: he has a stable job at a nylon company, a promising position during the rapid economic growth of the Park Chung-hee administration, and an ultra-modern, two-storey house to inherit from his parents.

Twenty odd years later, during the grim military regime, Hak-song has hardened into a militant patriarch who has amassed wealth and honor through rather corrupt measures. His only Solace is alcohol, and his love for classical music is all that remains of his youthful ebullience. In the center of grim family life is his daughter Tae-seon, who is burdened with the task of recording classical performances for her father and victim of his outbursts of violence.

In the present, Tae-seon is living in the United States so that her son can learn English, while her husband has remained in Korea to work and provide for them as a typical "gireogi (goose)" father. Tae-seon returns home to attend her father's deathbed, and is forced to face her childhood traumas. She stumbles about the family house ― the Western-style place that once symbolized newlywed hope is now abandoned and simply awaiting a prime real estate bid ― and the memories start pouring in.

The images are rendered through fragments of memory, including all its cracks and blind spots, as well as touches of fantasy. The movie reads like an audiovisual novel, and engages the viewer to become part of solving the puzzle as only inferences can be made through the attitude of the characters and rich literary elements.

The family portrait the movie paints remains tastefully incomplete. Like Kierkegaard once said, "Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward", and the story of Tae-sun ― or Korea ― remains part of history perennially in the making.

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