“The Old Garden” is the latest offering from controversial Korean director Lim Sang Soo, whose last film “The President’s Last Bang” ran into trouble with the censors for its satirical mix of fact and fiction in depicting events surrounding the 1979 assassination of former South Korean President Park Chung Hee. Based upon the bestselling novel by author Hwang Suk Yeong, Lim’s new work is similarly politically charged, dealing with revolution and its aftermath in the early 1980s, though this time from a more human perspective.
The film begins in the late 1990s, with former political activist Hyun Woo (played by actor Ji Jin Hee, recently in “Bewitching Attraction”) being released from jail after a 17-year stretch. He finds the world a very different place, with his fellow revolutionaries now middle-aged members of the middle class who are content to sit around and bicker with each other, and the struggles of the past all but forgotten. Upon learning that his love Yoon Hee (actress Yeon Jung Ah, best known as the stepmother in the classic “A Tale of Two Sisters”) died some years ago, he decides to make a journey to their old countryside home where they first met while he was on the run from the authorities. In doing so, his memories of the past come flooding back and provide him with both sorrow and hope as he tries to find his place in the new Korea.
Director Lim again proves himself to be an expert storyteller, and the film features a seamless blending of the past and the present, with skilfully handled chronological switches which serve fittingly as contemplative reflections of the different narrative strands rather than to distract through any kind of pretentious trickery. Although the film is obviously infused with politics and social commentary, it is very much driven by its characters. And despite its controversial subject matter in dealing with events such as the notorious Kwangju Uprising of 1980, “The Old Garden” is far more a personal journey than a call to arms or an attempt to reopen old wounds.
Surprisingly intimate and insular, “The Old Garden” deals tenderly with the struggle not so much between revolutionaries and the ruling regime, as between the responsibilities and frustrations of political and personal life. It also focuses not on the extremes to which people can be driven by their beliefs, but on how their actions affect those around them. The themes dealt with, of anger, loneliness and the scars of the past are universal, and as such the film does not require any prior knowledge of modern Korean history. Indeed, this to an extent is partly the point of the film, as Lim plays frequently upon the way in which the past efforts of the activists have been forgotten, giving a sad impression of wasted lives and effort rather than misty-eyed nostalgia.
Such lofty intellectual aims aside, “The Old Garden” arguably succeeds mainly through a well-written set of characters which provide the film with a strong and genuinely affecting emotional core. Both Hyun Woo and Yoon Hee are complex figures who the viewer takes some time to get to know, with neither being obviously sympathetic or indeed easy to like when first introduced. As a result, the intense and unconventional relationship which builds between the two is wholly believable, and works well as an anchor for the turbulent narrative which unfolds. The supporting cast are equally effective, and the film benefits from the fact that Lim never whitewashes the activists or treats them as saintly martyrs.
The visuals are gorgeous throughout, with Lim paying great attention to small personal details to bring the story to convincing life and to evoke a strong sense of time and place. The countryside is depicted with a picturesque stillness which contrasts sharply with the confusion and violence of the bloody riot scenes, making them all the more brutal and shocking. This again works to underline the deep rooted conflict at the heart of the film and to highlight the physical as well as emotional suffering undergone by so many in the name of revolution.
“The Old Garden” certainly makes for powerful, thoughtful viewing, being the kind of social conscience cinema which Korea used to excel at in the 80s and early 90s. It is a film that engages themes of politics and social criticism without losing sight of the deeply personal stories of the people involved. Melancholy rather than melodramatic, the film is moving in a painfully honest fashion, and confirms Lim Sang Soo as one of the most talented and interesting directors working in the country today.
Sang-soo Im (director) / Sang-soo Im (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-Seong, Jin-hee Ji, Yu-ri Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Hee-seok Yun, Yeo-Jong Yun