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Korean director O Muel tackles a dark period in his country’s history with “Jiseul”, which focuses on an incident during the Jeju Uprising in which the inhabitants of a small village on the island were massacred. A Jeju native himself, O Muel crowd-funded the indie film’s US$190,000 budget, which went on to win great critical acclaim, being the first Korean production to win the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. As well as picking up awards at several other festivals, the film also proved popular at the domestic box office, emerging as the biggest indie hit in years.
The film takes place in March 1947, when the US government in Korea issued an order stating that all civilians living within five kilometres of the coastline on Jeju Island were to be considered communists and shot on sight. Seen as a part of the US strategy to separate North and South Korea, the order resulted in the Jeju Uprising, which saw some 3000 soldiers and paramilitaries sent to the area to quell any resistance. Rather than following the uprising itself, the film tells the true story of the inhabitants of a village who decide to try and hide out in a nearby cave to avoid the killing. At the same time, the film also charts the experiences of the nearby soldiers, many of whom were young and inexperienced or locals themselves, who gradually succumb to inhuman behaviour.
“Jiseul” is a very worthy film indeed, and O Muel deserves real credit for dealing with such difficult subject matter in a manner which is both even handed and moving, without ever being melodramatic. With the truth about the incident having been suppressed by the government for more than 50 years, it’s an important story, and crucially, O Muel sticks to the facts, while at the same time underlining the terrible human cost through the tragic fates of the villagers. Although it might have benefitted from a little more scene setting or background information for viewers unfamiliar with this period of Korean history, the film arguably benefits from sticking to its characters rather than getting caught up in the underlying politics. It’s unsurprisingly hard going at times, pulling no punches in its scenes of suffering and horror, and is frequently shocking and bleak, in a matter of fact and grounded fashion. It’s impossible not to be moved and shaken by the events it depicts, all the more so due to O Muel’s low-key and efficient approach.
Shot in black and white, the film is visually stunning despite its low budget and looks amazing throughout, O Muel showing real artistry and a fantastic eye for details and finding a stark, grim beauty in the wintry rural scenery. Being a local himself, he certainly knows the area, and with the characters all being played by local actors speaking in dialect, the film feels authentic and horribly believable. With a few touches of humour here and there, and with the script spending time with both the doomed villagers and the soldiers, the film does recall at times Jiang Wen’s 2000 classic “Devils on the Doorstep”, high praise indeed.
“Jiseul” is a powerful and deeply affecting film, and one which really deserves to be seen, partly due to the importance of its subject matter, and partly due to the fact that it’s one of the better Korean indies of the last year. While tough to watch, it’s poignant and rewarding, and hopefully its festival success and awards will result in it finding a wider audience.
Meul O. (director) / Meul O. (screenplay)
CAST: Min-chul Sung