Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.
Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea, has been called “Korea’s Hawaii.” A favorite destination for honeymooners and other vacationers, the island is famous for its natural wonders, luxury resorts, and “black pork,” a delicacy so sought after that Seoul-ites have been known to make the trip just to gorge on it. (Having tasted it myself, I can attest that it’s worth the trip.)
In 1948, however, Jeju was the site of a horrific crackdown by the Korean military on its own citizens. Following an uprising during which protesters were fired upon by soldiers, Jeju residents were ordered to report to the authorities or be executed as communists. It has been estimated that some 30,000 people died in the strife, which lasted until 1954—with the full knowledge of the American military forces stationed there.
Director O Muel dramatizes this little-known tragedy in his elegiac film Jiseul, which will screen at the Freer on Sunday as part of both the Korean Film Festival DC and the Environmental Film Festival. A Jeju resident himself, the reclusive O Muel crafted his film from starkly beautiful black-and-white images of the island’s snowy winter landscape, and even had his actors speak in Jeju’s dialect instead of standard Korean.
When Jiseul premiered at Korea’s Busan International Film Festival last year, experts opined that, despite its undeniable power, the film would never appeal to audiences outside of Korea because its subject matter was too local. (Screen Daily‘s assessment that “international viewers are bound to find it perplexing” was a typical response.)
But the experts were proven wrong when Jiseul won three awards in Busan and was invited to the Sundance Film Festival, where the jury took less than a minute of deliberation to unanimously make it the first Korean film to ever win the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Harvard Film Archive curator Haden Guest named it one of the best films of 2012 in Film Comment, and the director of a major American film festival told me over dinner that it was one of the best films he saw in Busan.
I agree with him. The only thing perplexing about Jiseul is how a nation could slaughter its own citizens, but you certainly don’t have to be Korean to wonder about that.