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Legendary Korean director Im Kwon Taek returns with his 101st feature in “Hanji”, which also happens to be his first filmed in HD. As he did previously with the folk music tradition of Pansori, the film again sees him exploring one of Korea’s cultural arts in Hanji paper art, attempting to combine a historical perspective with a humanistic narrative about its place in modern Korea and in defining the country’s national identity. As usual, Im assembles an impressive cast, headlined by top actor Park Joong Hoon (“Nowhere to Hide”) in the lead, and with the director working again with actress Kang Su Yeon, some twenty years after she starred in his acclaimed “Come, Come, Come Upwards”.
The film follows Park as civil servant Pil Yong who becomes involved in a project promoting Hanji, the traditional Korean art of making paper, attempting to raise the profile of the practice and win funding to support its preservation. Although he initially knows very little of the art, he believes that it will help to heal the growing rift between him and his stroke-victim wife (Ye Ji Won, recently in Hong Sang Soo’s excellent “HaHaHa”), who herself comes from a long line of paper makers. As Pil Yong travels around the country meeting Hanji masters and trying to get them involved in the project, he is also given the job of taking along with him a female documentary film maker called Ji Won (Kang Su Yeon), who is making a piece on Hanji. As he learns more about paper making and its place in Korean culture, his eyes are opened, and it slowly but surely begins to take a hold of his life.
Although to the casual viewer, a film about paper may sound a little dry, Im Kwon Taek really brings the subject to fascinating life, and “Hanji” is thoroughly entertaining throughout. Unsurprisingly, as well as covering the painstaking process of making the Hanji paper and comparing it with other types of paper from home and abroad, explaining in great detail why it is so highly valued, Im also uses the subject as a means of charting Korean culture and identity. What is perhaps most interesting about the film in this respect is that this is not viewed merely from a historical perspective, but also from a modern and contemporary angle. Given the involvement of Kang Su Yeon’s documentary film maker, it’s certainly tempting to read the film as a metaphorical dance between the older and newer art forms, with Im exploring his own role and that of cinema in the greater cultural scheme of things. This is worked into the film in a subtle manner, and though there is an obvious tension between the Hanji and the digitally filmed documentary, with some intriguingly semi-intrusive shots of Kang and her camera getting close to the paper and with her being aggressive during interviews with quiet Hanji masters, it never feels forced.
At the same time, Im manages to combine the film’s intellectual and philosophical concerns with some solid human drama, and shows himself for the umpteenth time to be a master storyteller. Thanks in part to some great acting from Park Joong Hoon, who does an excellent job as the well-meaning, though flawed Pil Yong, and Kang Su Yeon as the ambiguous film maker, the narrative keeps moving along at a quiet, though engaging pace. The shifting relationships between Pil Yong and the two women, perhaps representing the traditional and modern art forms, are at the heart of the film, and as well as symbolism also provide a fair amount of dramatic tension. Im also makes good use of a lively supporting cast that includes a series of interesting and eccentric characters with different perspectives on and uses of Hanji, from papermakers concerned with funding, politicians, academics and calligraphers, all of whom combine to provide a comprehensive picture that underlines the far-reaching societal and cultural links of the art.
As should be expected, the film is an exquisitely shot and artistic affair, with plenty of loving, ornate close-ups of Hanji paper, as well as a surprising array of items and decorations made from it. The film as a whole is quietly beautiful, with some gorgeous shots of the night sky and moon, and some tranquil rural landscapes that help evoke the journey into tradition and the past. The film also occasionally takes on an almost documentary type feel, combining the two art forms in a skilfully informative and contemplative fashion.
It’s exactly this kind of craftsmanship and depth which ensures that “Hanji” is a film which succeeds on many different levels. Certainly, it represents Im going from strength to strength, and proving himself yet again as not only one of the greatest Korean film makers, but arguably one of the best modern Korean artists as well.
Im Kwon-taek (director) / Im Kwon-taek (screenplay)
CAST: Park Joong-hoon