Kwangmo Lee’s exquisite first feature is one of those slowly paced, minimalist Asian pics which play well at festivals but which rarely make it into Western arthouse cinemas. Buffs will revel in the film’s placid beauty, but patience is needed for full appreciation of the film and the director’s penchant for staging key scenes in extreme long shot will make even TV exposure problematic.
Dedicated to the filmmaker’s father and grandfather, “who never lost hope” (per closing title), the film spans two years, 1952-1953, in a tiny backwater far from the battleground of the Korean War. However, the conflict impinges itself on the traditional lives of these villagers via the unwanted presence of American troops and their fraternization with local women.
The film is seen from the perspective of a little boy, Sung Min, who spends all his spare time with best friend Chang Hee. Endlessly inquisitive, the sprigs delight to spy on Yank soldiers who dally with women in an old abandoned barn.
But one afternoon they’re in for a rude shock, as the woman having sex with a Yank is Chang Hee’s mother. The distraught lad reacts badly to the shocking revelation, and some time later the barn burns down and Chang Hee disappears. Later still, the unidentifiable body of a boy Chang Hee’s age is found in the river.
This little tragedy unfolds in the most leisurely style, with glorious, photography by Hyungkoo Kim — whose camera remains stationery throughout — making a major contribution.
A key element of the film is the political undercurrent in which neighbor is pitted against neighbor even in this isolated place, with right-wingers in the village opposed to the armistice and indeed any compromise with the hated communists.
The actors inhabit their roles with complete conviction, and music is used sparsely but effectively to enhance the delicate mood.
Interestingly, the title is something of a misnomer, since the events unfold either in summer or fall, and the landscape is bathed in a permanently autumnal glow.
Narrative is punctuated with regular titles which elaborate on the personal story as well as setting the events alongside the wider political context. But one of these titles, as translated, mistakenly states that Richard Nixon visited Korea as president in 1953.
Technical credits for this poetic, gentle, but probing film are pristine.