I stepped onto Korean soil for the first time almost 13 years after the end of the 1990s but there's no arguing the otherworldliness of that time, which can still be picked up on today by sampling the available media from that era. These days, some Koreans even reminisce about that special, indefinable feeling if a certain 90s song pops on in a basement bar.
Though a fan of documentaries, I've remained somewhat on the periphery concerning those from Korea despite my keen interest for the rest of the industry's output. A number of the subjects that they embark on are captivating, even essential at times, but they haven't always been made in the most gripping fashion. Mind you, I'm loath to admit that I still haven't seen some of the major recent successes, such as Talking Architect (2011) and Planet of Snail.
Recently, however, a pair of new documentaries have not only encompassed fascinating topics but they've elucidated upon them with dynamic new styles. One is Park Chan-kyong's feverish shamanism docudrama Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits, while the other is Non-Fiction Diary, the Jung Yoon-suk debut that takes on a panoply of calamities from Korea's troubled modern history.
Jung's film begins by rehashing a brutal crime case, whereby a group of men in the countryside, known as the Chijon Family, prayed upon innocent people by luring them into their secluded home and doing unspeakable things to them. Dark and upsetting, this sets the mood for the film but isn't actually the focus of the narrative. Before too long, we move to subsequent horrible events that have befallen modern Korea, such as the collapses on the Seongsu Bridge and Sampoong Department Store, and the IMF crisis that ravaged the country's economy.
From an outsider's perspective, I can only speculate that after coming out from under colonial rule, a cataclysmic civil war that tore apart the peninsula and successive, oppressive military regimes, the collective and now free (in a manner of speaking) conscious of the nation must have felt in a utter daze. After such a long, pervasive and evolving period of instability, the notion of democracy might have been a foreign concept to many. Though student protests had bitterly advocated for change and reform, now that it had arrived, some may not have been sure what to do with it.
The economy rose quickly and people's standards of living rose in tandem but a sense of unease seems to have hung over the decade and what Non-Fiction Diary does is tap into that odd atmosphere by latching on to some of the darker national news moments of those years. Events which marked the public consciousness and which highlighted both how the influence of certain ways of thinking employed during previous decades were still damaging the nation and the fact that democratization is merely the first step on the long road towards a better society.
Non-Fiction Diary is a powerful document of the hard transition Korea underwent as it moved into its democratized era following President Chung Doo-hwan's fall from power in 1988. Following such a long period of hardship, one of the initial aftermaths of the political change was a nationwide embrace of economic advance. In fact, each of the happenings highlighted in Non-Fiction Diary appear linked to Korea's aggressive economization: the Chijon Family were known for their hatred of and targeting of the rich; alacritous growth prompted some hasty and shoddy construction leading to the collapse of two major structures, including a department store, the bastion of Korean consumerism; lastly, the IMF crisis had a severe effect on Korea's spending power and plunged many into debt.
What makes Non-Fiction Diary work so well is its fresh approach to what is essentially a collection of old news clips and cultural/political talking heads. A palpable sense of dread mounts through strong pacing and the inclusion of shots of grass, roads or tombs, accompanied by text or sound clips and superimposed with a downbeat and foreboding soundtrack.
Jung's film hints at a dark underbelly that was uncovered by the contemporaneous liberalization of Korea with a film that works as an intriguing mood piece of the times. Intense, engaging and just a little menacing, Non-Fiction Diary is a fascinating snapshot of Korea's evolving national psyche in the 1990s.