Re-creating a 1948 massacre of civilians by the South Korean army on that nation’s Jeju Island, “Jiseul” uses disconnected images in pristine monochrome to tell a story that’s as hazy and haunting as a half-forgotten nightmare. As if struggling to come to terms with the inhumanity he depicts, helmer-scribe O Muel employs film vocabulary of considerable formal beauty and emotional restraint, but doesn’t add enough narrative clarity to turn his chronicle of a little-known event into the powerful historical indictment it should be. Bela Tarr apostles may see a kindred spirit in this fest-bound item, which garnered four awards at Busan before its Sundance bow.
What happens in “Jiseul” was triggered by the Jeju Uprising in April 1948, which began in response to police firing on a demonstration commemorating the Korean struggle against Japanese rule, morphed into an armed rebellion against the U.S.-backed military government in South Korea, and devolved into the republic’s second biggest massacre. Until the late ’90s, mention of the incident, which reportedly destroyed more than two-thirds of the island’s villages and killed 30,000 people, the vast number of them innocent civilians, was a criminal offense. Yet O, a Jeju native who made four films highlighting his hometown’s culture, hasn’t woven much of this background into the narrative, leaving non-Korean auds fumbling to put fragmented action and images into a historical context.
The film is divided into four chapters by Chinese characters that denote Confucian ancestral rites. While presenting the locals’ traditional way of life, the rituals themselves have no specific bearing on dramatic events. The only narrative information provided onscreen arrives via opening titles stating that in November 1948, the U.S. military stationed in South Korea issued an order labeling those living five kilometers outside the peninsula as “Communist rebels” to be executed on sight. (Jeju Island is located five kilometers outside the Korean Peninsula, but the film only offers the shorthand.) When a village on Jeju Island receives the eviction order, its barely literate inhabitants simply can’t gauge its import. With nowhere to go in such haste, a small band heads to a cave for cover, but some become stranded. Sang-pyo (Hong Sang-pyo), who initially runs off to divert soldiers’ attention, becomes an informer when caught.
The pic serves as a companion piece to Lee Sang-woo’s “A Little Pond” (2008), which dramatizes the Nogeun-ri Massacre, another censored military atrocity against civilians, which happened a few years later, during the Korean War. But unlike “Pond,” which follows a similar odyssey to its tragic end with forceful simplicity and documentary realism, “Jiseul”‘ lacks narrative structure or momentum, shuttling randomly between the idle waiting of the cave-dwellers and those fleeing in fear to the countryside. The final assault on the cave ends anti-climactically without sealing the villagers’ fate, which is only divulged in end titles. Despite featuring only a few protags, their roles and even faces remain indistinct.
More vividly depicted are the soldiers’ uneasy states of mind, as they cower under communist-loathing leader Sergeant Kim (Jang Kyung-sub), who directs them to kill even as they know that their targets are just innocent countryfolk. However, it remains unclear whether the troops are troubled by their conscience or simply confused and inexperienced, as demonstrated by the juxtaposition of two scenes, one in which a soldier balks at orders to shoot a woman, another in which a captive woman is made to prostitute herself to the troops.
Visually, the film is breathtaking — replete with meticulous, broodingly lit compositions of weatherbeaten landscapes that form an elemental backdrop to human portraits of iconic impact. The heavy sense of grief evoked by lenser Yang Jung-hoon’s long takes and slow pans is intensified by Jeon Song-e’s mystical, requiem-like score. O instills local color through the use of Jeju dialect for most of the dialogue (accompanied by Korean subtitles). The title, also in Jeju dialect, means “potato.”