The War Before the War: Jiseul 지슬

by Mark Morris

News category: General

South Korea is one of those countries which seems heavily, even unreasonably capital-centric. A bit like the UK. While early in the twentieth century films were made in cities such as Busan, far from Seoul, it is the centripetal force of Seoul over politics, economics and culture throughout that century and into our own which makes it the home of South Korea’s extraordinary film industry. Years ago film-making, or at least film wheeling and dealing, was centred in the old neighbourhood of Chungmuro, then updated in new offices and facilities over in Gangnam. Now the corporate success and bling of Korean high-tech, cinema and television have their own mini-capital in the northwest district of Sangam-dong. Built on a former garbage dump, Digital Media City rises up and up, a futuristic embodiment of Korean technological and cultural power.

Director O Muel (Oh Kyung-Heon, to give his ‘civilian’ name) seems to have lived and worked not so much in another part of the country as in another world. The name of that world is Jejudo, Jeju Island. O Muel managed to make his first feature film Nostalgia there in 2009, then Ppong Ddol in 2010. Both were about a Jejudo very different from the one marketed to honeymooners, international conferences or Chinese investors. The four characters in Nostalgia are just about scraping by: would-be musicians still on a road going nowhere. In O’s next film, a Jejudo would-be director nicknamed Ppong Ddol (‘clever little bloke’), to his surprise attracts a real, professional actor to his ramshackle set-up on the island. Seung-pil’s career is a shambles; he has come to Jejudo escaping that glitzy digital-media world of Seoul. Then he spots an tattered notice: ‘actor wanted.’ With what one reviewer called ‘insane determination’ our hapless director sallies forth to patch together a film about a legendary world-saving sea bass, city-slicker actor in tow. A few years later in 2014, O would bring similar characters and the same sense of gentle, quirky humour together in Golden Chariot in the Sky (2014, one of O’s films available like Jiseul in subtitled DVD).

In the context of O Muel's film-making over these years, the appearance of the fully-fledged masterpiece Jiseul seems a miracle. He did have a larger budget and an excellent cinematographer in Yang Jeong-hun. He also had a group of fellow Jejudo actors and artists with faith in him and this particular project. No one, however, could have expected that a real-life Ppong Ddol would go on to win the Grand Jury prize at the 2013 Sundance festival, along with many, many other awards. 

Jiseul is a common Jejudo word for ‘gamja’ potato. Characters in the film, hidden away in caves trying to escape the onslaught waiting outside, do get through a fair few potatoes, and one of them notes how much they themselves have come to resemble their food, tucked away as they are down in the dark of the earth. What O Muel has managed to do is to dig down into the subterranean volcanic darkness of Jejudo’s history and pull up an intimate recreation of the most violent episode of the island’s past.

It’s generally referred to by the shorthand abbreviation 4.3/sasam. On 3 April 1948 groups of islanders rose up against the police and lawless vigilante bands who had been plaguing their villages.  The uprising* would soon be linked to a military mutiny on the mainland which in turn began a chain reaction of guerrilla warfare that would continue through the awful years of the Korean War. The conclusion of even former US Marine and military historian Allan R Millett is that sasam was the actual beginning of that war.

O Meul’s film is structured as a Jejudo summoning of the spirits of the dead. The four titled sections comprise an evocation of the spirits (Shinwi), a welcoming to the community (Sinmyo), the sharing of food (Eumbok), and finally burning of envelopes bearing names of the individual victims (Soji). The small group of characters we meet in the film represent many thousands of islanders who died some seventy years ago. It is within this ritual framework that O Muel and cinematographer Yang Jeong-hun tell their tale and register their haunting images.

Mark Morris is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. For the past 40 years he has been teaching and researching East Asian culture, with a special interest in Korean Cinema. He is an advisor to the London Korean Film Festival and participates regularly in a wide variety of film events in the UK, Europe and South Korea.

  * A concise treatment of the uprising is John Merrill, ‘The Chejudo Rebellion’, The Journal of Korean Studies Vol. 2 (1980).