Chris Berry Recommends

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In The Absence (Yi Seung-Jun)

Watching Korean film during the lockdown has challenged me – but in a good way. At first, I was searching for escapism. But I ended up seeing everything through the filter of the virus anyway. So instead, I have ended up with two very sobering films that are all about emergencies and their consequences – Yu Hyon-mok’s dramatic feature Obaltan (Aimless Bullet, 1960), about the aftermath of the Korean War, and Yi Seung-Jun’s short documentary, In the Absence (2018), about the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. As I write this in early May 2020, I am beginning to accept that the virus is not just going to go away. Things are not just going to go back to the way they were. These dawning realizations are conditioning how I am processing the films. But the films are also helping me to come to terms with those realizations.

Besides, Korean cinema is very much a culture of emergency. In a manuscript I have been helping her to translate into English, my friend the Korean film scholar Kim Soyoung points out that a formal state of emergency was declared nineteen times in the Republic of Korea’s relatively short history. Sometimes, she likes to joke that Korea is a state of emergency. Facing crisis has been a Korean way of life, like it or not.

There are many films about the Sewol disaster, in which over 300 passengers, crew, and rescue workers died needlessly, due to factors ranging from overloading to poor seamanship and rescue delays. In the Absence is distinguished by its use of footage from the day of the disaster itself. It is heart-breaking to watch obedient high school students waiting in their cabins, while they remember an earlier subway accident in which only those who ignored such instructions survived. Watching the rescuers fuss about getting a video feed to Seoul rather than getting passengers off the ship is infuriating, as is President Park Geun-hye’s clueless too-little too-late response to everything.

Watching In the Absence in London today resonates with all the efforts to cover up the initial Wuhan outbreak of the coronavirus, and the failure of governments and ordinary people elsewhere to wake up quickly enough to what was happening. Did Boris Johnson/Donald Trump/Vladimir Putin/Jair Bolsonaro/[insert name here] really think the virus would stop at their country’s borders? Or was their reaction a hardwired human one? In his 23 April New York Times opinion piece, “What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us,” Turkish Nobel prizewinning novelist Orhan Pamuk shows how denial – along with rumour and blaming foreigners – has been a consistent response to plagues.

However, In the Absence is also about accountability. The film traces the struggle for justice that followed, and the way it fed into the eventual exposure and impeachment of President Park. As the initial health crisis passes, we will be looking back and asking why nothing was done to make sure there was enough personal protective equipment not only in hospitals, but also in care homes and for bus drivers and other exposed workers. After all, not every country tried to shrug it off. And I hope we will demand measures to make sure it does not happen again.

Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok). Image courtesy of The Korean Film Archive.

But we will also be facing the long-term consequences. President Park might have been deposed, but the victims of the Sewol are never coming back. Their families will be dealing with their loss for the rest of their lives. The Korean War ended in 1953, but Obaltan was made in 1960 and released in 1961. All the characters in the film are still suffering from the consequences. The title refers not only to Cheolho’s state of mind, as he tries hopelessly to support his family from crisis to crisis, but also to a larger sense of despair that infuses the whole film. A dark atmosphere envelopes everyone, almost literally, because of all the night scenes. Cheolho’s family are not just struggling materially, but also psychologically. Without giving anything away, many major dramatic turning points are twisted responses to the past. And motifs of long-term post-traumatic stress include the main character’s persistent toothache and his mother’s repeated cry of “kaja!” – “Let’s go!” Where she wants to go to has been a matter of some debate, with some arguing she wants to go to back home to what is now North Korea. But she is bedridden, and that is the whole point – there is no getting away, no going back.

For a long time, I could not understand the appeal of Obaltan. I know it is a very well-crafted realist film, and often voted best Korean film of all time by critics. But why sit through all that misery? However, it speaks to me now. It is not just that all the victims of the corona virus are gone forever, and that many of them did not need to die, as demonstrated by more successful handling of the crisis in countries including South Korea. Also, the long-term consequences are only now beginning to dawn on us. At least one New York doctor, Lorna Breen, has been overwhelmed by the struggle and committed suicide. No one knows when or even if everyone who has lost a job will get a new one. Obaltan’s great virtue, I now understand, is precisely its ability to acknowledge the reality of the aftermath of disaster, without looking away. We cannot begin to cope until we acknowledge what we have to cope with. 

In The Absence is avaliable to watch free as part of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam here

Aimless Bullet is also avaliable for free through the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel here

Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King's College London and writes regularly on East Asian cinema.