Thursday, April 19, 2007

SFIFF: THE OLD GARDEN


If you appreciate the films of South Korean master director Im Kwon-Taek (CHIHWASEON, 2002; CHUNHYANG, 2000; TAEBAK MOUNTAINS, 1994; SOPYONJE, 1993; THE SURROGATE MOTHER, 1987), be sure to catch Im Sang-Soo's THE OLD GARDEN. Sang-Soo served as Kwon-Taek's assistant director before taking on his own projects (GIRL’S NIGHT OUT, 1998; A GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE, 2003; THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG, 2005), and it shows. THE OLD GARDEN spans a turbulent 17-year period of South Korea’s recent history, which begins in 1980 with the actual Gwangju Massacre in Seoul on May 27. To set the context: A 1979 coup led to a military dictatorship. In a more devastating outcome than our own Kent State Shootings on May 4, 1970, Gwangju occurred during the rule of dictator Chun Doo-Hwan, whose military and police force crushed the leftist student-led protests with a lethal force that slaughtered several hundred students. (The public reaction against the Gwangju incident eventually fostered a democratic government in the late 1980s.) Knowing this fundamental piece of history before viewing the film will aid the American viewer, who, like myself, may be unfamiliar with this Korean saga.

Based on an internationally prize-winning novel by Hwang Seok-young (LE MONDE selected it as one of the "Books of the World" in 2005), who spent the 1980s in exile, and then served five years in prison in the 1990s for an unauthorized visit to North Korea, director Im Sang-soo mixes politics and melodrama in a story about a country in crisis and the “personal is political” stance of its protagonists: predestined doomed lovers––on-the-run socialist student activist Hyun-Woo (Jin-hee Ji) and the beautiful art teacher Yoon Hee (Jung-ah Yum), who provides food and shelter in a distant mountain village and, eventually, her love. When the film’s hero Hyun-woo is released from prison in the late 1990s, he returns to visit his mother, who has benefited from the economic boom, and his former political friends, who struggle with their old idealism.

The heart of THE OLD GARDEN is a series of seamless flashbacks that reveal the love story and heartbreak between the activist and the artist. The film’s visuals––a series of gorgeous tableaux, reminiscent of Im Kwon-Taek’s incomparable imagery––provide an emotional underpinning to the love story. Hyun-woo revisits the mountain hut he shared with Yoon Hee to discover that she died from cancer ten years into his prison term. Through a series of her voice-overs, we hear her letters to him, which he never received. Yoon Hee’s paintings (photo-realist drawings, really, on large stretched canvases), which he finds, narrate another part of her story; a final self-portrait reveals a female Buddha: compassionate, forgiving, eternal. THE OLD GARDEN communicates a truth about memory: those few indelible moments, experiences both ecstatic and tragic, are what, in the end, give our lives meaning.


THE OLD GARDEN
Dir/Scr: Im Sang-Soo
South Korea, 2006, 112 min.

Thu, May 3 12:30 Kabuki
Sat, May 5 9:00 Kabuki
Wed, May 9 6:00 Kabuki

2 Comments:

Blogger Maya said...

Great to see you blogging on SFIFF50, Cathleen!!

Thanks also for the historical context. When I came out of the screening with my friend Brian, we discussed about whether or not the film suffered for our not knowing Korean history. I felt that when a national cinema presents its history in such an engaging way, it generates an international audience, purposely by piquing historical interest. You've saved me all the gumshoe work and when I finally do my capsule, I'll reference folks here.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Cathleen Rountree said...

Thanks for stopping by, Michael. Well, it only took me a year to find my bearings in the blog world (remember when we talked re it at just this time last year?), but i'm excited to finally be doing this work. you're an incredible and generous role model! And, thanks in advance for referencing Women in World Cinema on your esteemed site! Let's do lunch or dinner next week.

11:29 PM  

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