Last Saturday, the Centre for the Study of Korea at the University of Toronto presented Jiseul (지슬) in conjunction with the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian) as a part of their The Afterlives of the Korean War Symposium. While I wasn’t able to attend the symposium itself, I did catch the screening of Jiseul which was preceded by a short introduction from the symposium organizers and concluded with a short speech by Toronto filmmaker Min Sook Lee and a short Q&A session.
Jiseul is a film set on Jeju Island during the Jeju uprising which happened after World War II. Based on real events, the film focuses on a group of villagers who have been evicted due to a U.S. military declaration that stated that anyone living five kilometers outside the coast line of Jeju island were communist rebels and could be executed on sight.
Unfortunately, the villagers don’t fully understand the eviction order that accompanied the declaration and flee rather than comply, believing that whatever was happening would be over soon.
The soldiers who are chasing the villagers were mostly young recruits along with a few veterans, most of whom are aware that the people they are executing are not communists. Jiseul is mostly about the villagers, as they suffer – and starve – while hiding in a cave from the soldiers, worrying about what, and who, they left behind.
Jiseul was an interesting, artsy film about a massacre. Okay, I’m simplifying things quite a bit but how the film was presented has lingered in my mind – and therefore my review – as much, if not more than the subject matter behind the film.
It was beautifully shot in black & white, with lots of interesting fades in and out and other stylistic elements that alternately had me thinking documentary (it’s a feature film) and in one scene especially, of Fantasia. While I’m aware it’s an award-winning film – and to be honest, I thought it was good – I did find some of the stylist elements detracted a bit from the seriousness of the film.
The prime example of that was when I was left wondering, what was up with the weird floating scene, where the screen is blank except for a small photo of the villagers sitting around a fire in the cave chatting that is floating around the screen. I’d love to know what it was supposed to convey or represent because I was simply left wondering/confused.
One the other hand, other elements like the slow pace and documentary feel of the film seemed to give it a more brutal and authentic quality, not that it really needed help considering it was telling a story set in an actual massacre. The vast majority of the violence was shown after the fact, in slo-mo or in the cruelty of a few of the soldiers which also enhanced the brutality and created an element of surrealism to the film.
Speaking of the soldiers, I found it interesting that they were portrayed as sadistic, brutal and/or crazy OR extremely young and inexperienced. Which made me think if that was truly the case and if it was planned as young, inexperienced soldiers might be more likely to follow orders and crazy ones would do what was needed?
What affected me the most?
The end of the crazy leader of the soldiers was horrific. Even with all the atrocities that happened in the film and all the violence, it was what bothered me the most. If you want to stop the violence, why not just shoot him… why cook him? I’m still shuddering. But I think the part that bothered me the most was that it should have been the violence against the innocent villagers that outraged me and stayed with me – and of course, it did as I did some research into the history after the film – but I still can’t get that one scene, along with the stabbed grandmother talking so kindly with her killer, out of my mind.
While the artsy stylist elements often gave the film a surreal feel for me, there were still emotional moments. One of the ones that stood out the most was when the one villager found his mother dead and his house burnt (although I could have done without seeing the villagers eat the potatoes that were cooked in the house fire that the mother died in).
But I think the ending was both fitting and the scene with the most emotion. When the papers (sorry, I don’t actually know what they are called) were burned next to the various deceased in the film, it was stark, beautiful and moving. It tied everything together and was a subtle, yet effective way to end Jiseul.
Thoughts from the Q&A
There were two points that stood out for me from the commentary before and Q&A afterwards. Oh, there were a lot of interesting points and things said that made me think and want to study the subject more, but two points stood with me the most.
First, a comment from the commentary before the film, that Jiseul was subtitled in Korean when it was screened in Korea because it’s entirely in the Jeju dialect. While this happens occasionally with people speaking English in documentaries that are for an English audience, it always seemed to emphasize that whomever was subtitled was different to me (which I’m not sure is/was the point) and made me think more about language.
Finally, the other interesting comment from a Korean-Canadian guy (he self-identified himself as such) – he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he thinks it’s very important to show films like this to the Korea diaspora so that they know their history – good and bad – especially with all the hype nowadays about K-pop. I agree, I think knowing one’s history is important to all people and films are great for encouraging discussion and reaching out to audiences that may not have otherwise been interested in the topic. But there’s always the worry that people will take film as fact.
Jiseul, which as was pointed out to the audience means “potato” in the Jeju dialect, was a powerful, if a little surreal, film about a massacre that happened during a political uprising and turbulent times in Korea. While there is a lot happening in the film, some of which I talked about above, one thing I didn’t mention was that I was a little disappointed in the lack of context or explanation of the events of the time but perhaps that is just me as I’m insatiably curious and a bit of a history buff. Films that deal with subject matter like which appears in Jiseul are extremely important and Jiseul was an interesting take on the subject. Definitely worth watching.