The Past is a Strange Country (2008)

Kim Kyu-Hyun
(University of California, Davis)

“And then in a flash he just . . . burned.”

In the documentary The Past is a Strange Country (Kwagŏ nŭn nassŏn narada), an interviewee has been calmly recounting the circumstances leading up to his college friend Lee Jae-ho’s (Yi Chaeho’s) horrid self-immolation—an event he witnessed more than twenty years ago. Upon uttering the above words, however, he bursts into tears in a manner that shocks both in its suddenness and plaintiveness. This and many other powerful, challenging scenes make the film (whose title references David Lowenthal’s study on the myriad modes and sites of historical remembrance) one of the best documentaries on Korea’s turbulent post-colonial history. That is no small feat considering that since the late 1980s South Korea has produced an impressive body of politically charged documentaries that explore the country’s modern experience, especially from the perspectives of the oppressed or marginalized. Filmmakers have reflected upon, for example, the dark side of the country’s impressive economic growth in Kim Dong-won’s (Kim Tongwŏn) Sanggyedong Olympics (1988); the long forgotten plight of former comfort women in Byun Young-joo’s (Pyŏn Yŏngju) series: The Murmuring (Najŭn moksori, 1995), Habitual Sadness (Najŭn moksori 2, 1997), and My Own Breathing (Samgyŏl, 1999); and the pernicious effects of lingering social prejudices including still-pervasive male chauvinism and homophobia in Choi Hyun-jung’s (Ch’oe Hyŏnjŏng) Being Normal (P’yŏngbŏm-hagi, 2002). In the last decade, a handful of “star” documentarians have emerged, whose works, despite low budgets and occasional rough edges, have managed to command critical respect as well as box office clout among South Korean viewers. A case in point is Kim Dong-won and his film Repatriation (Songhwan, 2004), a liberalminded—some might say pro-North Korean—look at Communist prisoners of conscience who were incarcerated for more than fifty years in Southern prisons for refusing to recant their beliefs, only to be “repatriated” in 2000 to the North. Despite the richness and range characterizing this growing corpus of cinematic takes on history, The Past is a Strange Country nonetheless manages to stand out in terms of content, form, and effect.

To begin with, its content is intimately intertwined with the life story of its director, Kim Eung-soo. Born in 1966, he was a student leader at Seoul National University, an important site of the 1980s student movement that many credit with helping lay the foundations of Korea’s democracy today. His debut film, The Time Lasts Long (Sigan ŭn orae chisok toenda, 1996), is a somber, Tarkovskian black-and-white film—partly based on his own experience—that explores the lives of the Korean student activists who moved to Russia in the 1980s. Kim seems to be intensely aware of the political complacency in postauthoritarian Korean society, but his films avoid the familiar types of social critique seen in the works of more commercially successful directors with leftist inclinations. That is, his works evince little of the pedantic and elitist tone often found in politically conscious cinema of Korea—notably, in the films of Im Sang-soo and to an extent even in Kim Dong-won’s supremely humanistic documentaries.

The Past is a Strange Country consists entirely of interview footage of former activists recalling the self-immolation suicides of two Seoul National University students—the aforementioned Lee and Kim Se-jin—in April 1986. Interviewees appear on screen, except in one instance when only a voice is heard, and the final witness turns out to be director Kim himself (interviewed by an assistant). The film eschews virtually all the usual dramatic elements found in the historical documentary genre: voice-over narration, incidental music, reenactments, and editing techniques that manipulate the pace and rhythm of the stories told onscreen. The viewer is not shown as much as a yellowing newspaper article on the suicides. Other than a dreamy, slow motion trucking of the camera through a promenade-like street, there are no fancy visuals. All interviewers directly face the barely moving camera in long takes.

Yet the film is arresting and provocative. Director Kim skillfully couples aesthetic austerity with a few subtle cinematic devices to generate palpable tension. For example, Kim’s own voice as interviewer is electronically modulated so that he sounds often cold, almost mechanical. This strategy, in the absence of most other tricks of the documentarian’s trade, brings into sharp relief the complex topography of emotions woven by the faces and voices of the interviewees. In this sense, the film is reminiscent of Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s seminal Holocaust documentary, which also rigorously avoids dramatization. Both films derive their power—at times, almost unbearable power—from the interplay of distressing testimony and cinematic mastery. Kim, like Lanzmann, knows how to conceal his hands so that the voices of others may be heard more clearly. The same approach is extended to the interpretation of its politically charged content. There is so little editorializing in the film that a viewer may begin to wonder whether the suicides were less acts of heroic self-sacrifice than reckless gestures of adventurism or immaturity, if not outright nihilism.

The gap between attempts at sober, objective reconstruction of the past by the interviewees and the uncontrollable surge of emotions—shock, sorrow, guilt, anger, regret—from the depths of their hearts is striking; and this gap, or indeed “wound,” is revealed by Kim’s respectful yet probing questioning. Ultimately, it is this success in capturing the volatile nature of “remembering” and conveying a sense of how our experience often elude fixed meanings and storylines that makes The Past is a Strange Country so moving and also historically astute. Rather than lecturing to viewers how this or that particular moment should be interpreted, the film challenges us to discern possible meanings on our own.

(* This review was first published on The Journal of Korean Studies (16, no.1, spring 2011).

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