Actresses Ye Ji-won, left, and Kang Soo-yeon appear in a scene from “Hanji.” Im Kwon-taek’s 101st film is about Korean traditional paper-making.
/ Courtesy of JIFF
By Lee Hyo-won
No one would dare criticize Im Kwon-taek.
But this unspoken rule is not a groundless one. The veteran cineaste’s latest film “Hanji” marks his 101st — it’s an impressive feat by any standard but not just because of the number.
The 75-year-old filmmaker has created a unique audiovisual language that continues to evolve, yet, at the same time, remains constant in that it voices universal concerns about the human condition.
And so the country’s top three production companies Lotte, CGV and Showbox/Mediaplex joined forces for the first time.
In “Hanji,” Im explores the namesake Korean paper craft, carrying on a devotion to portraying local traditions that hitherto ranged from “pansori” (opera) to oriental painting.
But if his previous works had been like variations on a single theme, then “Hanji” is more of a rhapsody — episodic yet integrated, and free-flowing in structure and vision, as it combines comedy with melodrama and fiction with documentary.
Im said he began with a simple question about what hanji actually means today and opted for a present-day setting, for the first time since the riveting 1996 funeral story “Chukje.”
The director also pulls off a sort of David Lynch (without the disturbing surrealism) and plunges headfirst into his first digital project —even parting with longtime buddy and cinematographer Jung Il-sung to keep a promise he made three years ago to venture into the new medium one day.
While the digital medium gives the film a sense of immediacy, he does not compromise the cinematic quality of his work and crafts some of the most breathtaking visuals — particularly of the moon and how its calm serenity can also set the stage for the most madly impassioned pursuits (the film's Korean title is "Scooping Up the Moonlight").
In a moonlit alleyway the weight upon Pil-yong’s (Park Joong-hoon) shoulders is palpable, as he heads home to tend to his sick wife (Ye Ji-won). Only the full moon mirrored in the water of a wash basin seems to light up his weary day. At work he must flatter his boss, a classmate that used to copy his homework back in school, while at home he is gripped by guilt every time he sees his wife Hyo-gyeong, who is half-paralyzed from a stroke induced by his affair with another woman.
But he finds newfound purpose in life when he is assigned to revamp Jeonju’s hanji industry. He gets nose bleeds while toiling on the project late into the night, inviting even his wife’s suspicions.
To worsen his migraine, Ji-won (Kang Soo-yeon), a filmmaker documenting hanji, tries to investigate the cons, rather than pros, of the local craft. The bickering duo, however, begin to grow fond of each other as they become increasingly drawn into the complex allure of hanji.
The Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) was behind the making of the film, which easily could have turned into a dry promotional video for hanji. But Im ingeniously presents such aspects through Ji-won’s documentary — it’s certainly comprehensive and informational as a National Geographic story, but inviting viewers into a film-within-a-film also signifies how Pil-yong himself has become truly mad about the art.
Just as Im said, his movie is about ordinary people discovering the wonders of hanji while leading ordinary lives. It seethes with deep sighs, frowns and precious moments of joy and humor — through Pil-yong’s desperate hopes for a promotion or hanji craftsmen scrambling to receive more state funding to create paper that can last a thousand years.
Moreover, Pil-yong’s wife, a hanji artist, is the human incarnation of the tradition itself — long neglected and downtrodden yet retaining a timeless, unfading beauty and fortitude. As he pines after the history of hanji, he also sets out to help his orphaned wife find her roots.
The journey meanders through the heart, as our protagonist tries his best to salvage his stale marriage while also yielding to human vices. But it enters a more transcendental realm, as it poses existential questions about time and treasures slipping away before our very eyes.
In theaters March 17.