By John A. Riley
Watching an East Asian film, the Anglophone, Euro-Americo-centric viewer comes face to face with an at-first pressing dilemma: whether to incorporate everything one sees into familiar, Western paradigms or whether to defer to the infinite mysteries of the Orient. As Without Father unfolds, this dilemma quickly becomes redundant. References to non-chronological time in cinema seem as much to come from a schooling in Deleuzian film-philosophy as from the Buddhist wheel of time (Deleuze himself was of course influenced by the “origami fold” during the period in which he wrote his cinema books), while a reference to the science fiction trappings of Tarkovsky’s Solaris seems apposite (actually a film which, amongst other things, contrasts ascetic Eastern mysticism with the Urban sprawl of modern Tokyo).
Without Father, then, is a hybrid between distinctively Eastern form and subject matter, and the Western category of the art house film, which is self-consciously (but never playfully) referred to throughout. The film, in an essayistic, mostly depopulated, documentary style, deals with two journeys from Korea to Japan, thereby affording commentary on the frayed relationship between the two nations throughout the twentieth century and beyond. One journey is based on Yoko Watkins’s memoir of the Pacific war, a text which portrays Koreans as bloodthirsty antagonists. Another, seemingly created for the film, is that of a modern Japanese woman with a Korean husband.
Many of the intercultural specifics of this geopolitical relationship are doubtless lost on a non-Asian commentator. However, this is patently a film of clarity, sincerity and breadth of reference. Beautiful landscape shots alternate with glacial images of industrial landscapes. Lateral tracks from vehicles are favoured, such as leaving a harbour by boat or a long take from a train, allowing us to simultaneously observe our protagonist at rest and to see the ever-changing landscape through a smudged window pane. A beautiful-looking and personally felt film, from a confident and assured film-essayist.
Without Father (Abeoji Eobsneun Salm)
Director: Kim Eung-Su
Screenwriter: Kim Eung-Su
Cinematography: Bak Ki-ung