This year's edition of New Directors/New Films is typically eclectic, with as many stylistic approaches as filmmakers employing them. But there are probably no films this year as visually stunning as Jiseul, O Muel's artful and truly original dramatization of a horrific historical episode that occurred on Jeju Island, South Korea, where the director himself hails from. O, whose background is in performance and visual art, has devoted his film career to depicting the life and culture of Jeju, with his actors speaking in the local dialect. In Jiseul, O's fourth feature, he turns his attention to the aftermath of what is known as the "4.3 Incident," when a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation on April 3, 1948 was fired on by police. This set off an armed rebellion by citizens of Jeju against the U.S.-backed Korean government. In response, the U.S. army in Korea issued an order that anyone in a 5-kilometer zone outside the Korean peninsula were to be considered Communists and shot on sight. The resulting massacre, carried out by Korean government military forces, is estimated to have killed upwards of 30,000 people.
Jiseul takes place in November 1948, when a group of villagers leave their homes and hide out in the hills, and eventually in a cave to escape the soldiers hunting them. Even though these villagers are in an extremely perilous situation, there is a measure of humor here in how they are portrayed; an initial scene of a group of men crowding themselves into a small hole in the hills exhibits some absurdist gallows humor. Despite the danger they are in, a few of the villagers venture out of their hiding place to search for lost loved ones and to bring back food to the cave. The film's title is Jeju dialect for "potato," their sole source of nourishment during this time; images of this food are dwelled upon during the film, giving it a very strong symbolic import.
The action alternates between the villagers' struggles to survive and evade capture with scenes of the soldiers who are charged with committing atrocities against them. The soldiers are led by a rabidly anti-communist commander, who fulfills his mission with a monomaniacal zeal, harshly punishing those soldiers who are insufficiently murderous towards the villagers. Some of the rank-and-file soldiers question the morality of what they are doing, and a couple even contemplate deserting. However, this does not prevent such horrific treatment against civilians as brutally killing and torturing them, as well as raping women and forcing them to prostitute themselves for the soldiers.
O Muel presents all of this with exquisite monochrome photography that contrasts the wintry serenity of the sky and landscape with the horrific fates that befall the humans who dwell within this environment. Jiseul's images, mesmerizingly rendered by cinematographer Yang Jung-hoon, are incredibly beautiful; every frame could be placed on a museum or gallery wall to create a wonderful exhibit. If anything, the images are too beautiful; it creates a distancing effect that somewhat dampens the emotional impact of the depiction of the horrible events that O shows. Also, very little historical context is given for what we see here, which will frustrate viewers looking for a fuller understanding of this history. However, O Muel's intention is not to give history lessons; he seeks to make impressionistic art out of the tragedy that befell his people, immersing the viewer in the rich culture and humanity of those whose lives were so cruelly snuffed out. At that, he overwhelmingly succeeds; Jiseul has won numerous prizes at festivals, including multiple prizes at last year's Busan International Film Festival and the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. O Muel in Jiseul has created quite a compelling and memorable requiem for the victims of historical atrocity.