By Tristan Teshigahara Pollack
The Korean American Film Festival of New York (KAFFNY) is the kind of film festival made up of cinephilic dreams. Thriving on an all-volunteer-staff, the festival has consistently aimed to represent the diaspora of Korean filmmakers and artists. In its 7th annual run, the 2013 festival paid tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, presenting a wide array of shorts, features and animated films. In conjunction with the film festival, KAFFNY hosted two visual art exhibitions at The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery.
While it’s certainly no easy task to pick out highlights from the festival, the standout films would be the Opening Night films: Memory of Forgotten War (2012) and Seeking Haven (2012); the Shorts Competition program; and the Forgotten War Shorts program. Beginning on a somber note, Hein Seok’s Seeking Haven further perpetuates the looming importance of post-trauma cinema. Indeed, what was once purported to be a “moral issue” is no longer a question: cinema can never extricate us from our inner turmoil – it can only help us take note of the inevitable gap between the trauma and its subsequent aftermath.
Seeking Haven is one of those rare films in which the director seems to respect the space between the afflicted and the burdens they must face. The film is centered on Youngsoon Kim, a North Korean defector who lives in hiding with her family in the border between China and North Korea. Hein Seok’s camera probes Youngsoon as she makes her hazardous expedition from China, through the Laos and Thai border, to her final destination in South Korea with hopes of finding a better life for her family. Youngsoon is forced to cope with the fact that she can only afford to smuggle herself out of the country, leaving the rest of her family behind.
Hein Seok’s Seeking Haven is a film that is a testament to the heartbreaking power of reunion – a cathartic symbol of human separation caused by an otherwise merciless regime. However, Seok’s brief documentary falls short on several accounts. The filmmaker unfortunately can only connect with her subject on a political, intellectual level: it is through an emotional distance that she is able to capture and convey Youngsoon’s tale. Seok seems aware of the moral and technical limitations of her documentary subject, and through guerilla style filmmaking embraces the uncertainty of documenting tragedy. Conscious of the political dangers that revolve around her subject, Seok is forced to look through her lens more intimately. But what if the filmmaker further bridged the gap between herself and her subject by allowing the camera to be seen through her eyes? Perhaps then we wouldn’t only see what the director sees: a defector’s endless attempt to rescue her family, but also what Youngsoon sees.
The second day of the festival turned away from the subject of the Korean War, instead spotlighting a variety of short films as well as a New York premiere of Shin Su-won’s commercial feature Pluto (2012). One can’t help but notice a certain trajectory that drives the curatorial process of festival competitions. However, KAFFNY’s shorts competition is a unique program that surprises and awakens viewers on all fronts. Each film varies thematically and stylistically, but as a whole they arouse curiosity in the brevity of cinema, complemented by the common drive to extricate the director from the confines of commercial filmmaking. What makes this year’s shorts competition noteworthy is only two of the six short films were made and shot in Korea, while the rest of the competing films were made by Korean Americans.
Eva (2012) by Stephanie Ahn is a paean to a young woman in her thirties who accepts her deferred dreams, thereby accepting her uncertain and plain future. Arm Reach (2012) by Hyung-Gon Lee is a short film that proves to cinemagoers that technical and visual prowess can be shown in the short film format. The End of the World (2013) by Willem Lee (winner of the KAFFNY shorts competition) is a macabre take on the coming-of-age tale. Sokmok, a precocious child, develops a crush on his classmate, Eunyi, a devout Christian who tells him that the end times are near. Tied together with black humor, an earthy color scheme and compelling performances from the two lead child actors, the film is not to be missed. The real treasure trove in the competition, however, is Duri Bae’s Last Night (2012). Bae’s short favors unassuming mise-en-scene, coupled with sparse sound, and a general adulation for the poignant effects of night. This unrestrained film almost reads as a tone poem: on a textual level it is a quotidian depiction of a middle-aged mother who runs a storefront and faces nocturnal loneliness as she closes up her shop. The subtext of the film, alternatively, is her right of passage. The nameless woman is cajoled by a group of older women who insist on her company and she unwittingly accepts their invitation. They continue to gossip as the woman drifts away from conversation. When leaving the restaurant she finds her estranged son waiting for her in front of her store. The remainder of the short explores the language of silence and its impactful aftereffects. In fact, the whole exchange between the mother and the son consists of very few words. The plaintive middle-aged woman is plagued with the humdrum of her family and her routine life. Consequently, she finds recourse in precariously accepting change in her life – for once she decides that she can break the silence between herself and those who are around her.
Division in our world is manifold: regions break apart, water distills, races segregate, families separate and children run away from home. In the particular case of Korea, the power of separation is omnipotent, in other words division goes beyond the segregated regions. Inevitably, the divide is not just national, as these programs demonstrate, but it is also metaphysical. Consequently, many communities both inside and outside Korea have found ways in which reunion can be made possible. Indeed, it is the collection of memories that help us: memories that we create, repress, embellish, subdue, define and embrace.