LKFF 2022: Documentary – Programmer’s Note

2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Pannori Arirang (1982). Though there’s room for dispute, the film is widely understood to be Korea’s very first ‘independent’ documentary, and was also an original work of the Seoul Film Collective, formed by key members of the Seoul National University ‘Yalashang’ film club. Though there had been documentaries before this, they were at best government-sponsored newsreels, educational propaganda termed ‘culture films’, or TV broadcaster video journalism. At the time, it was also in principle illegal to make documentaries outside of the formal system and screen them publicly. The Sanyggyedong Olympics (1988) – the first film directed by Kim Dong-won, known as the ‘godfather’ of Korean independent documentary – acted like a foaming agent that stimulated the video activism of young filmmakers armed with a political and social consciousness. Last year, with the pandemic ongoing and restrictions continuing within society, Kim Dong-won celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the documentary collective PURN Productions, established 1991. PURN Productions’ work continues on even now, with the group’s newest member, Lee Hyo-jin, premiering her first feature length documentary, Unprovoked Home, in August this year at the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival.


This year, the London Korean Film Festival presents three documentaries. Kim Dong-won’s newest work, The 2nd Repatriation (2022), premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival this year, and is the follow-up to Repatriation (2003, shown at the LKFF in 2018), which examined the lives of ‘un-converted’ long term political prisoners repatriated to North Korea in 2000 following an agreement between the North and the South. In the sequel, Kim Dong-won focuses instead on those who ‘converted’ under torture, oppression, and appeasement, and thus whose names did not make the list for repatriation, but who have insisted their conversions were invalid. Kim Dong-won first met the long-term prisoners and began capturing their lives on camera in 1992, the year after PURN Productions was established. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Repatriation and The 2nd Repatriation (of whose filming several of PURN Productions documentarists participated in) are the 21st-century’s most important and monumental works of Korean film. Queer identity and culture is no longer an unfamiliar topic within Korean documentary. Lee Il-ha’s I Am More (2021), which covers the life of drag artist Mo Jimin, premiered at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival, and was released this year to positive responses from both critics and audiences. The documentary makes abundant use of the style of advertisements and music videos as well as online video content, a style which suits the somewhat fantastic nature of the time-and-space ‘performance stage’ that carries so much weight in the protagonist’s life. Photographer Jinhwon Hong’s first film, Melting Icecream (2021), is assumed to be a record of Korea’s democratisation movement, but the work in fact began with the discovery of film severely damaged by flooding. Hong, who carries the unique methodology of his experimentation in photography across into film, approaches activism from a critical standpoint, and reimagines it by joining the flow of alternative Korean documentary.


These works predict the outlook of contemporary Korean documentary, in which participatory activism, mainstream style, and experimentation within the contemporary art world intersect in the absence of hierarchy. Though it is true that due to the ongoing pandemic, the situation surrounding documentary production and distribution has worsened, numbers of films have still drawn in considerable audiences upon release regardless. We must focus on the fact that the works of women documentary makers, such as Byun Gyu-ri’s Coming to You (screening this year in a different section of the LKFF), are noticeably reconfiguring the terrain of Korean documentary.


Yoo Un-Seong