A Changing City
Life of a Tourist Postcard (Hyewon Kwon)
One of the feelings we shared during the pandemic was a sense of powerlessness caused by the uncertainty of the times ahead. Thinking about those affected by dispossession, poverty, loneliness, and loss of bearings in the shutdown city reminded us of documentary and artist’s films we have screened in the past in the non-fiction strand of the London Korean Film Festival. For example, the lives and struggles of the poorest in society are key themes documentarian Kim Dong-won, whose films we heartily recommend. His short video Sanggye-dong Olympic from 1988 stands with the urban poor’s struggle against the threat of eviction on the eve of the 1988 Olympic games. A more recent documentary, Two Doors by Kim Il-ran and Hong Ji-you (2012), proposes a thorough investigation of the Yongsan tragedy in 2009, a horrific incident caused by police brutality committed against a group of evictees occupying a building in a district affected by the redevelopment boom in Seoul and the forced relocation of people. We also thought of another film we screened in 2015, The City in the Water, by director Kim Eungsu, whose work deserves to be better known in the UK, and which documents the disappearance of farming communities and villages submerged by the water during the construction of a new dam in the 1970s and 80s. Some of these films and other relevant social documentaries can be found in two recently released DVD-boxes, Movements on the Screen 1 and 2 (Korean Film Archive).
The construction of the new modern city reflected the economic development of the country, many times at the expense and neglect of the people’s best interests, affecting lives and culture beyond recognition, something that offered filmmakers an opportunity to look critically at the problems of society at large. When we were invited to make suggestions, we wanted to find works that would be able to convey something about the lives of people impacted by the changes around them, by the imposed forces of development and history.
Korean artist Hyewon Kwon uses the city space as a recurring source of inspiration throughout her work. The exploration of a city has, through the practice of psychogeography, brought playfulness into direct correlation with critical readings seeking to unearth hidden histories and re-imagine the city space. Hyewon’s own engagement with the city uses similar approaches to navigate questions of history and memory. In The Life Of A Tourist Postcard (2014), the artist draws attention to the outsider perspective the figure of the tourist has, the process of creating and designing the postcard and the potential for the object to cross borders. The tourist postcard becomes a potential new model for the exploration of space in its capacity to function as a mode of communication and a map of sorts, directly linking and signalling distance travelled and bringing disparate times in direct interaction.
Life of a Tourist Postcard (Hyewon Kwon)
Thinking about how we navigate space and communicate is something which has brought into greater reflection within a British context not only through the current pandemic but also due to the shifting meaning of borders in relation to Brexit. Hyewon, having studied in London’s Slade School of Art and Reading University, is an artist who brings the perspective of distance to her interactions with place and space, recalling the way in which one learns to navigate and engage with a site from a non-native perspective. Similarly, her engagement with Seoul is defined by distance, not only in relation to geography but also the barriers provided by history and the onward march of time. In Walking with a Dead Friend in a Dream (2013), the artist explores Ikseon-dong, an area in Seoul which has been renovated in the traditional style of a Hanok village. Her film uses stop motion photography to explore the area, disrupting the experience of the space. Her camera moves seemingly at random, but always returning to the same streets, wandering and navigating the space, but with a purpose. Across these two films Hyewon re-imagines the city, avoiding narrative in order to draw attention to how the city changes through time, prompting reflections based on nostalgia and melancholy alongside her critical analysis of how traditions shift over time and linger within the fabric of the city space. Her interactions with space through experimental traditions, contract nicely with the images of Seoul which recur across Korean cinema.
When asked to suggest a classical Korean film available online, we thought about director Lee Man-hee’s A Day Off, from 1968. The film tells the story of a young couple, Huh Wook and Ji-yeon who meet in secret every Sunday. It portrays them professing their love for each other, but also the hopelessness they feel regarding their future together and their life in a society that stifles their dreams. The destiny of the lovers seems to be already traced when the film starts. They are isolated from a world in which they feel out of place, unable to accomplish what is expected from them. Their lives mirror that of many other young people feeling disaffected in South Korea’s society of the late 1960s. The film plays out the lives of this young couple as a dead end, with their drama unfolding in a single day with only a few flashbacks. The film starts on yet another Sunday, a winter and hazy day, when the lovers met in secret somewhere in the margins of the city, in the park, in lifeless places in the suburbs, where they are allowed to live a marginal life. Most of the film’s sense of loss is orchestrated, especially in the first sequences, through a play of distances between the camera and the two actors. The beautiful and romantic orchestral score by Jeon Jong-kun irrupts from the silences with a powerful dramatic function, in contrast to the angular construction of the shots. The two characters are carefully framed against the vastness of the cinemascope image, their figures isolated and compressed against the barren architectural spaces, their silhouettes curved next to the twisted branches of a tree. As the film progresses and the night falls, announcing that the end is nigh, the city, which was present in the background, seems to disintegrate around the male character, with scenes of violence occurring in a gutted building still in construction. The new emerging city of progress materialises all around the characters in small details. But at the same time, it is as this if this new and prosperous city is denied to them, as if they would never be able to belong to it.
A Day Off (Lee Man-hee). Image courtesy of The Korean Film Archive
A Day Off was never released, and it remained a lost film until its rediscovery and restoration in 2005. At the time of its making, censors considered that its treatment of the subject matter was bleak, and the tone reflected negatively on the changes South Korean society was going through. The film emerges as one of the most beautiful and powerful statements by Lee Man-hee on the situation of the young people in South Korea in the late 1960s and their sense of hopelessness. The film ends with an extraordinary sequence: Huh Wook, with nowhere else to go, alone, desperate and regretful, takes the last night tram without a destination in mind. He is The last passenger at the last stop of the line, he steps out of the tram and looks down at the terminated track line on the floor, offering no continuation to his life, and then wanders off into the dark night.
A Day Off by Lee Man-hee can be watched free on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel here.
Ricardo Matos Cabo is an independent film programmer and researcher. Since 1999, he has programmed and organised screenings at various international festivals and venues.
Matthew Barrington is a film lecturer, programmer for the Essay Film Festival and cinema manager of the Birkbeck Cinema.