A cast of nonprofessionals reenacts a tragic incident from the Korean postwar period in O Muel’s film, winner of Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.
PARK CITY — Detailing a notorious 1948 incident in Korean post-WWII history that took place on Jeju Island, writer-director and Jeju native O Muel’snarrative explores the reaction of residents and the motivations of occupying soldiers in moody, luminous black-and-white photography. Oblique, austere and remote, Jiseul will be welcomed at festivals like Sundance, where the film was awarded the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, and by programmers rounding out international sidebars, but has little potential beyond dedicated enthusiasts otherwise.
When Jeju villagers learn that the American military regime and nationalist Korean government have declared everyone living in an exclusion zone five miles beyond the mainland to be Communists subject to arrest and execution, they know that trouble can’t be far behind. When soldiers arrive during a cold and snowy April, residents flee coastal areas, heading to a system of caves in the hills. Stuck underground, they worry, bicker and commiserate, hoping the occupation will end soon.
Several are too restless to remain cooped up, however, and attempt to return to their villages to check on loved ones and abandoned livestock, risking discovery by military patrols that could give away the location of the refugees. The soldiers, meanwhile, attempt to survive the bitter cold while hunting and apprehending islanders.
Although reported estimates claim that as many as 30,000 residents may have been massacred by their fellow Koreans, the film lacks both urgency and relevance. O’s starkly formalist approach, which is both beautiful and solemn in shimmering hi-def black-and-white tones, is a major contributor to the film’s impenetrability. Carefully composed shots, lingering takes, minimal camera movement and deliberate mise-en-scene all heighten this inapproachability. The understated, chronology-shifting narrative technique and awkward, nonprofessional actors don’t improve accessibility either, leaving the impression of a film that’s lovely to look at but enervating to watch.