The Korean Cultural Center UK
‘The Year of the 12 Directors’ series: Park Kwang-su
(April 2012)

There is not much doubt that Park Kwang-su, the former deputy director of the Busan International Film Festival — now fifty-seven years old, and a Dean in the National University of Arts’ Department of Filmmaking — is one of the most important filmmakers to ever be invited to the Korean movie scene in London. His earliest films were instrumental in charging mainstream cinema with a sense of political purpose and ideological critique at a time when the creative industries were still under heavy scrutiny from the state. Chilsu and Mansu (Chil-su hwa Man-su, 1988), Park’s debut feature raised basic questions concerning political reform under two of Korea’s major dictatorships; A Single Spark (Aleumda-un cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, 1995), released three years after the election of the South’s first civilian president, brought Park wider attention in the mainstream for dramatising the self-immolation of Jeon Tae-il, a workers’ rights activist who fought for social transformation and better working conditions in the seventies, and who is probably still a household name given that national boycotts concerning labour matters still persist. His other films — Black Republic (Guedeuldo ulicheoleom, 1990), Berlin Report (Beleulin lipoteu, 1991), To the Starry Island (Geu seom-e gago sipda, 1993) and The Uprising (I Jaesu-ui nan, 1998) — continued in a similar vein, underscoring the impact of state-sanctioned violence on student protestors and isolating aspects of the nation’s history to critique its forward momentum. Park regards the socio-political scene with the same analytical eye today, but he is taking on other assignments, other films: Meet Mr. Daddy (Shiny Day, Nunbushin Nal-ae, 2007), which played here this evening, in the third event of ‘The Year Of The 12 Directors’ series, was full of kiddies and footballs and terminal illness, and left not one dry face in the room.

At the post-film Q & A, Park was a paragon of decency, answering in a soft-spoken manner that settled everyone; from time to time he joked with the interpreter about adding something more in her notebook after saying his piece and their friendly interaction lightened the tone. At the meet-and-greet session later, he regarded the whole act of autographing and posing with fans for photographs as both an amusement and mystery, as if not quite believing that for each and every person here at least one film of his had left its mark. Our host, Dr. Mark Morris, a heavyweight in East Asian film studies and lecturer at Cambridge, explained that Park’s films matched political criticism with artistic integrity, and that no other Korean filmmaker, besides perhaps Im Kwon-taek, had been more influential in steering the course and development of the Korean New Wave.

The first comments from the director were cool and short. “In contrast to my previous films, which I always prepared and had the ideas for, Meet Mr. Daddy was the investor’s idea . . .” “I don’t know exactly where my ideas come from, but I would choose the story I most wanted to tell people and then tell it.”

Things got rolling when the subject of censorship under the two major regimes — President Park Chung-hee in the seventies and Chun Doo-hwan in the eighties — was raised. “Indeed, censorship was a very serious issue in the beginning, and I was careful with my films. If we had rubbish on the street in one scene then it would be edited out, or I would otherwise have to substitute scenes in order to get a film distributed.” These cuts would have been imposed by the Public Performance Ethics Committee (PPEC), a government board which screened each and every film produced by a company expecting a licensed commercial release and reviewing it carefully in its pre- and post-production phases to make sure everything was acceptable for the state; when Park submitted his second feature film, Black Republic, in 1990 the PPEC deleted a flashback sequence on the grounds that it depicted, and in all likelihood would have “encouraged,” antigovernment activity. “Nowadays in Korea,” he continued, “it’s hardly an issue anymore, but back then I had to release Chilsu and Mansu on the opening day of the Olympics ceremony, when no one was really paying attention, just to get it shown.”

This was a critical period in South Korean history and Chilsu and Mansu a vital product of that time. The Summer Olympics of 1988 was a massive propaganda show intended exclusively for party political purposes. With President Chun Doo-hwan at the helm throughout most of the eighties, any form of legitimate opposition or political protest against the military regime was forbidden and violently repressed. Television, film, radio and print were tightly controlled and used to plug the red scare message with news of impending doom coming from the North. But when Chun went down in 1987, the disputed 17 December election went to his hand-picked successor Roh Tae-woo. The Olympics went ahead as Chun had planned but according to David Black and Shona Bezanson “the combination of widespread internal dissent” and massive international scrutiny at this time “had a signal effect on the pace and peacefulness” of the transition towards democracy. A paper for the John Hopkins University which considered the legacy of the Seoul Olympics said that, on the subject of activism, the Chun government had successfully “constrained radical action” by giving the public (“students and the middle class”) a stake in the Olympic preparations. A more comprehensive study by James Larson and Park Heung-soo found that although the Summer Olympics could not be separated from the Chun government in the mass consciousness, the ideological message nevertheless filtered through, via President Roh, that the eyes of the world were watching and a concerted effort should be made to “work for the Olympics out of national pride.”

Screaming at the bastards of Seoul: billboard painters Man-su (Ahn Sung-ki) and Chil-su (Park Joon-hoon) in Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (1988)

It was in this context that Park’s screen version of Chil-su hwa Man-su, which was deeply aligned with the play directed by Kim Sok-man for the Yonu Theatre Company in 1986, became so valuable. The film and play were almost seen as failures by radicals deeply committed to the removal of military influence from all aspects of Korean public life — they pushed, instead, for hard art, plays and films that could beat the crackdown and disseminate their message more widely. But above ground, both Kim’s play and Park’s screen version expressed criticism of the major regimes in unprecedented ways, thus earning a definite place in the history of the cultural movement. Eugène Van Erven, in his 1988 discussion of resistance theatre, explains the political significance of the play, but above all he points to the value of improving the aesthetics of the theatre movement and migrating “underground” ideas to nervous popular audiences. For his part, Park Kwang-su successfully brought some of these ideas to the cinematic mainstream and to this day he is remembered for it.

Looking back he says that he was simply writing and filming honestly about the basic issues of the day; he had no desire to whip the people into an agitated frenzy, as some might suppose he did, and whatever progressive ideas or questions he teased and prodded in his film were not necessarily isolated from the everyday realities and artistic considerations of filmmaking.

“Every night I would go home, work on the script, then come back and devise the next scene. The first half of the film was very haphazard and I just told the actors to say whatever so we could get it done. But in the second half we had to make do . . . [In retrospect] I think that part of the film is quite weak.”

Kim Gi-young (Moon Sung-keun) and Young-sook (Shim Hye-jin) in Black Republic (1990)

Ha Sun-young (Ye Ji-won) with daughter Joon (Seo Sin-ae) in Meet Mr. Daddy (2007)

On this matter, Park includes the film’s most iconic scene: two downtrodden sign-painters, having completed a giant billboard in the city featuring a tanned blonde in a bikini, suffer a meltdown and release their pent-up frustrations on the general public below. “In the 1980s, it was illegal for foreign men and women to be models in Korea. Of course, for the last scene in Chilsu and Mansu we had to use an advertisement with a foreign female model on it. Well, the police came and ordered us to pull it down immediately. So I rushed to shoot coverage of all the scenes with the billboard in shot, and then later filmed everything in the other direction.”

With his most on-the-edge work now behind him, a few in the audience wondered if the director was on extended sabbatical from filmmaking to prioritise study . . . or would he change his mind some day soon and take on the domestic political arena again: go strong with a batch of films about the conservatives, the American problem, anything. To this, Park said that his hands were tied until the summer break, and though he would be putting together some action later this year he was keen to avoid the political merry-go-round and go straight with a different demographic.

“In the past I focussed a lot on the pure arts and theatre, which spoke to a minority audience of educated people. I moved into film in order to communicate with a larger, more-everyday audience, but it transpired that the intellectual viewers picked up on my films again, partially due to my methodology. So the driving question for me remains: how best to communicate with the audience? Back then there was hardly anyone making serious or political films, but today many directors are tackling these issues, anyone can do it . . . It’s time for me to think about what kind of film I should make, and my desire is to communicate with a more popular audience. That’s not to say that I will avoid making films with social and political issues in the future — but hopefully I can produce something that will satisfy that driving question.”

What interested me about his quote there was the emphasis on personal expression. Park has spoken before about needing to steer away from certain audiences, and since he is no longer pushed by the ideological issues of the day, or by a sense of duty to lift the restrictions on cinematic expression, he sounds more relaxed and optimistic about the market for film. It was the closest we would come that evening to a personal reflection on whatever it was that he had in mind next. On that score, there is no shortage of popcorn movies in South Korea today; a good lot of them are destined for the waste-bin and serve no real purpose other than to sustain the domestic market share and hold it in its current shape. What keeps our interest and hope alive, at least those of us in the West who still see in Korean exports a spirit and conviction that may not necessarily be present or firing satisfactorily enough for our tastes in other national cinemas, are the growing number of socially-conscious filmmakers who occasionally take the harder line and produce something of sublime quality, something political, sensual, a thing that moves us, a thing at best intimate, imaginative and delightful.

This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
9 April, 2012


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